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Friday
Sep112009

Day 117-9: How I Built the Hole in My Career

I banged up the bottom of my car cruising a bumpy back road in too good a mood, so I’ve been inactive and incommunicado for a few days. I’m back at my friends’ house in the Catskill Mountains, rediscovering garlic and ginger. I’ll need a hydroponic spice farm to get through a long quarantine.

An architect wants to know why I quit the profession. Evelyn does, too, so here goes: I got fed up with the tech race. Designers have elevated software above craft. Me, I like a blank sheet of paper. It glows and frightens. It provokes.

OCTOBER IN THE CATSKILLS (Sanford Robinson Gifford, 1880But there’s more to it. My breakthrough career crisis came after the first real estate crash, while swine flu was menacing America. I was working as a young drone at a boutique firm that was excited to have landed a plush gig planning a McMansion in Westchester.

That was when I met my partner Fitch, a more-seasoned architect with a sense of humor that’s so dry it feels like sandpaper. We couldn’t be more different: He writes architectural software for kicks, dreams of hitting it big with a killer modular design. Fitch’s droopy eyes never fail to spot trouble on a project—something he probably picked up when one of his early designs installed an elevator backward. “Treat every assignment as your last,” he counseled me in what seemed the infancy of my promising career. “One of them will be.”

The project that did me in required the removal of several structures—a gorgeous 19th Century Robber Baron manor, a rocky hill, some ancient maple trees, and a timeless, towering oak. The dream residence was to be a showpiece of gadgets, colors, and shapes ripped by the client’s wife from fashion magazines (and revised monthly with much fussing).

Fitch explained that the spouse’s inability to marry any design for longer than eight weeks made this project a slow-motion rush job. “We could be in a hurry for years,” he exulted over free tequila one night at a dive bar he’d designed on the side five years earlier. In a wretched economy, he said, the client he called ‘McMissus’ would fund our lives indefinitely.

Transcendently Trashed

I worked hard, staying at the office later and later at night, drinking more and more to recover from it. One Sunday, I made the mistake of smoking a joint when no one was at the job site and I had to check a detail. The place’s beauty smote me. What Fitch called the Trash Mahal wasn’t funny.

Suddenly the owner drove up in a blue Porsche, alone. The guy turned out to be more of a techie than a hedge funder. He was a rather nice, slightly abstract quant with spiky hair that was prematurely frosting as he designed his firm’s trading programs—its essential identity, I guess. I wasn’t supposed to communicate directly with clients, but he wanted to show me the old mansion. As we toured it like kids in a haunted house (complete with a secret passageway), he volunteered that he hated to tear it down.

My mind exploded with ideas. What if we repurposed the mansion as a classic annex to the modern palace his wife wanted? History could survive by bowing to her gleaming, glass manse. Our client yearned to keep contemplating that oak from the gray stone tower, which turned out to be an ideal spot for contemplative smoking.

At work the next day, I told Fitch I intended to pitch an alternative—a contemporary structure that could coexist dynamically with the old one. He lurched out to smoke a cigarette on the corner—never a good sign—and returned to show me a URL for want ads: Architects were clearly not in demand. Cowed, I decided to wait, possibly forever.

The client was less discreet. He told his wife about my idea. Her excitement was lethal.

I was fired a week later, when I showed up 35 minutes late after having toiled till midnight the previous evening. My boss, a dreamy eyed hypocrite who had regarded me “like a son,” accused me of betraying him by trying to exploit our client for side work. He surely knew that was never my intention.

I wish I had pulled a Howard Roark and marched out, denouncing my profession for its immoral mediocrity. (Watch the Roark speech that Ayn Rand forced Hollywood to film in full when they shot The Fountainhead.) I can’t stand being falsely accused—it makes me crazy. My brother framed me for lots of his transgressions when we were kids, and my parents too often believed him.

I left my office quietly, in shock, and then had to fight my way through lies for months just to collect unemployment. I’ve been a lowly contractor ever since. When there’s work.

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