Neil Stephen talks about the importance of image in the architecture profession.


You live and learn. Tragically, just when you’re ready for the exam, you die.

Despite the bleak outlook, I’m focussing on my CPD – Continued Personal Development. It’s not just about knowledge; it’s about people believing you are worth listening to.

An elderly Highland gentleman taught me this in my local Skye pub several years ago. He was resplendent in tweed and magnificent sideburns, and had his upright sisters either side of him, handbags clutched to laps. His voice had the precision of the educated Gael; he was someone who commanded his audience.

“Now”, he said. “Are you one of the Dualchas boys?” I told him I was. “I’ve been meaning to speak to you for some time. I just wanted to tell you: I think your buildings are absolutely disgusting.”

With that he indicated that the conversation was over; the sisters beamed in admiration.

I want that demeanour. I have the tweed suit – fitted, not off the shelf. And I’m growing a beard: the style will suggest authority, the thickness maturity, and the lustre youthfulness.

Unfortunately, the upper lip suggests my great, great granny had intimate relations with a Sumatran ape. But I accept the gingerness; you can’t help your genetics – you just do the best with what you’ve got. A trim haircut and sharp clothes doesn’t maketh the man, or secure the job, but ensuring that your fly is up can prevent your gravitas from puddling on the floor.

After all, architects are “creatives” so the look has to be right. When Dualchas was part of the Rotterdam Biennale a few years ago, we searched round Glasgow airport for the other architects we’d be travelling with. They were easy to spot. Black Norman Foster turtle-necks, dark thick-rimmed glasses, every one of them. The public could tell that this was a group of confident professionals; they oozed style, imagination and individuality.

I discovered recently that the collective noun for architects is “an arrogance of architects”. I was told this, with a certain amount of vehemence, by a professor of architectural technology who was an engineer by profession. He confirmed my guess that he must work in Edinburgh, and while this perhaps made his assertion understandable, I still think it’s dangerous for engineers to start such games.

I didn’t find out if the group of Rotterdam-bound architects was arrogant or not, as I never got to go on the trip. As the girl at check-in took great pleasure in repeatedly pointing out, my passport was two months out of date. I had to make the miserable, sick-to- the-pit-of-the-stomach bus journey back to Skye as my brother, who had contributed nothing to the exhibition, flew off on expenses with his trendy new friends. The West Highland Free Press published a photograph of him grinning in front of the Dualchas display. I try not to dwell on it.

But if the architect has to look the part, so does the office. Our previous Skye base was an old stone school – it had no insulation, no central heating, and windows that didn’t open. Just after Mary joined Dualchas we found her one morning on her hands and knees in a distressed state, furiously scrubbing the carpet. She had forgotten to close the door and a flock of sheep had taken shelter overnight, to a prodigious defecating effect. In her defence, this problem had never arisen at Patel Taylor Architects, but the new clients were due in one hour.

Fortunately they turned out to be Yorkshire sheep farmers, and they took in the aroma as if it were Italian coffee.

This reminds me of when another potential client came to interview us for a job – his lady wife owned a huge Perthshire estate, a castle, and they had big plans for the future. We had to make a good impression; this was a man to take care of. When I offered coffee he asked what we had. It was Nescafe or Gold Blend.

“Ah”, he said. “Your first mistake.”

We almost never went on to make any more. The first winter in the building was miserably cold – we were given some old gas heaters by the landlord, and we had to blast them out so our fingers could hold a pencil. One day the four of us were discovered in deep slumber. We were revived and the heaters removed, and after a Nurofen and quick breath of air, we got on with our work (some clients will not accept any excuse).

We’ve now got a shiny new office in the Templeton Carpet Factory in Glasgow as well as a Skye office we built for ourselves a few years ago. The German kitchen and the percolated coffee may not win a job, but it helps give the impression to the client that you want to look after them. We even have a dress code after one of our previous employees (you’ll remain nameless, Alex) turned up to a meeting sporting that youth-wear where the gusset of the jeans is round the knees and the waist round the scrotum. He had Spiderman pants on.

Of course, in reality, judging people by their underwear or the quality of their HobNobs is facile. The shambolic John MacLean of Glenelg has probably never worn matching socks in his life, but is known as “the Guru”, because of his huge intellect and ability to turn his hand to anything. Locals talk of the time a visitor to his house complained when, before pouring the tea, he rinsed the cups in a sink of ink-black water. John showed him that he wasn’t to worry about dirt by plunging his hand in to the sink and lifting out an octopus.

People still let him install heat recovery systems, fix their engines and teach their children science. Which shows that skills can overcome personal hygiene issues.

This may not be a profound observation, but it’s one of the things I’ve learnt over the last 14 years since I graduated. The adage that you learn far more from your mistakes than your successes is also true – if you fail to make a good impression, you learn how to improve for next time; if you screw up, you won’t do it again.

I’ve been through the problems of dealing with a building being structurally defective, of having badly worded contracts that allowed a client to escape paying. I’ve dealt badly with bullying contractors who tried to pull the wool over a young architect’s eyes, and angry clients with ludicrous expectations. I now have that empirical knowledge.

It’s also been recorded at a council planning meeting that the local representative thought my design was “the ugliest thing he’d ever seen.” And looking round the chamber, he must have seen a lot of ugly things.

But I’ve also had the experience of working with great colleagues, clients and tradesmen, of seeing designs come to fruition, and feeling some sense of achievement from helping to make something which is solid and tangible.

The trouble for youngsters is that they’re not getting the chance to do this – not even to make the mistakes. As the professor from Edinburgh told me, he has nothing but admiration for the skill, endeavour and enthusiasm of his graduates, but nothing but despair when he sees the opportunities that are open to them. As the recession hits hard, and the bankers and politicians continue to line their pockets without a semblance of shame, young hopefuls face a hopeless situation.

At the moment, as probably many practices are finding, we’re being inundated with applications from people with great portfolios and CVs. Sometimes the cover letters are almost plaintive, with the student offering to work for nothing for experience. What sort of state are we in when people offer to work for nothing?

One of the hardest things for people to deal with is loss of confidence – once you’re on the dole, or out of the profession for a while, this can open a psychological wound which takes years to repair. With talk that things are going to get worse when public spending is cut and interest rates rise, prospects are not looking good.

My only advice to young graduates is to do something which keeps your hand in. Take on small work if you can get it, travel if necessary, build or draw when you can. Keep being creative – you never know what might happen.

When a young man in a Skye hotel was complaining that he couldn’t afford to buy a house, the barman showed him a model of a student-project house design he was working on. A holidaying builder from Edinburgh, who’d had more than a couple of whiskies, promised to build it for £35,000.

Dualchas was born, or spawned some would suggest, and my brother Ali no longer has to work behind a bar. I can honestly say that I don’t know what I’d be doing if it wasn’t for him bringing together our friend Domhnall-Angaidh and the builder Jim Cook back in 1995. I certainly wouldn’t be writing this. It gave me the confidence I required to start a business and career.

The whisker-free youth that was photographed in a Big Issue article about the house is now a bearded man in tweed. So with the acquired demeanour of authority, maturity, yet youthfulness, I can now try and impart some sort of encouragement to young people who undoubtedly have huge potential to achieve great things.

And I do this grimacing from the painful truth that I still have a lot to learn.

Last week a potential new client was showing me his house as he explained his project. His big black lab was chewing something. He said, “Excuse my dog…he has a hobby of running round the house with a pair of pants in his mouth.”

“Oh”, I said. “I have the same hobby myself”.

He didn’t even smirk. My young colleague stared at the carpet with head bowed. In the tumbleweed silence I felt I had learnt something important. Get the contract signed, then attempt the jokes.

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