Mississippi Rebuilding

By Ruth Walker

How can architects and other professionals stick to their principles, New Urbanist and otherwise, in a world that, as Stefanos Polyzoides put it, "is not based on principle"?

It's a big question, but Polyzoides, principal of Moule & Polyzoides, stepped up to it, along with John Torti, president of Torti Gallas, at a Saturday afternoon session called "Jobs We Shouldn't Have Taken."

"One gets out of this dilemma by taking risks," Polyzoides said; "how does one decide when to extend oneself and when and where, and when to recoil?"

Know thy partner was his implicit advice. One of his horror stories was a project that had been nurtured over several years " but then a new partner came on, the ownership structure of the developer changed, and the partner who had been his interlocutor was no longer in a position of authority on the project.

In another case, there had been several changes in ownership among the developers. Their ideology changed; it was no longer the project it had been. Ultimately it was taken over by Fannie Mae, and handed off to a production-line builder.

"When Fannie Mae betrayed the project, we walked away. That was the biggest mistake. We should have taken over the project and done it ourselves." It was "too precious," and too much time and energy had been invested in it, he said, to let it go. But that's what happened.

"Often these calamities provide the insight that becomes the engine for more mature and consequential practice," he observed philosophically.

John Torti offered this advice to young practitioners just starting out and perhaps not financially secure enough to say no to a project: "Don't get into a car if someone offers you candy."

More seriously, he recommended that those just starting out befriend older friends and older architects with stable practices. They'll be helpful in mentoring younger professionals starting out, helping them think through difficult business decisions, and may also be able to pass along work they aren't interested in or able to do themselves.

He added, "Understand as much as you possibly can when you're saying yes to a project." And it's important to understand yourself, he went on. "The sooner you get to the point of having an ideology you can articulate, the better. When you're considering a project, you'll have something to measure against."

Polyzoides made a strong pitch for the idea of architect as developer, in some situations, at least. If architects don't get significantly involved as developers in the post-Katrina reconstruction " doing 20 or 30 percent of the development work themselves" he predicted the result will be "absolutely catastrophic."