I recently came across a blog (schneiderism) where a post discussed the idea of architecture being a service industry. Technically architecture is a service industry, at least in that it does not primarily provide a tangible product. But it seems that within the definition of service industry you have what I’ll term the “math” service professions and the “art” service professions.
The “math” service professions can be judged with a prescribed method for determining if the service was done correctly. What I mean by this is that a checklist can be made of what needs to be accomplished, and when the checklist is complete the work is done. When an electrician does the wiring for a new light fixture the success of that service can be deemed complete when the light fixture operates correctly and when the building hasn’t burned down to the ground. The same goes for an accountant, a painter, or even a car mechanic.
I don’t want to come across like the work done by these professionals doesn’t mean anything. The service they provide can be invaluable, but at the same time their scope of work can be defined in narrow terms and their success can easily be measured in terms of function.
For the electrician their scope of work can be defined by which light fixture needs to be installed, and if the house burns down because of their wiring then their work is considered an absolute failure. Likewise with the accountant – balance the books and make sure the numbers add up. If the numbers do add up then it’s a success; if they don’t it’s a failure. The car mechanic is also limited to fixing what is broken and having his or her success based on the car running properly or not. There isn’t a gray area.
The “art” service professions are defined by providing a solution to a problem that can be solved a million different ways. The problems faced by the “art” service professionals lack the narrow definition of what is right and what is wrong, and instead composes of a vast gray area where solutions that are at opposite ends of the spectrum can be considered the correct solution.
Determining how the solution is defined can be just as complicated. The solution for the “art” service professions invoke feeling and emotion. Solutions provided by architects, graphic designers, and car designers include both function and form. Each of these professions can be judged right or wrong by measuring the solution against its function (does the building meet building codes?), but when the function is met it’s the form that invokes feeling and passion that then determines what the client deems the correct solution.
Another difference between the “math” and the “art” is the concept of being viewed as a commodity, meaning that a determining factor for selecting the right choice is based on price. Because the “math” service professions are judged by function (the tangible) a customer can select two professionals who have the ability to complete the task based on price. Reputation and experience can be deciding factors as well, but price in more cases than not can decide who is awarded the project.
Price becomes a difficult decider when it comes to selecting someone who deals with the function and the form (the intangible), but of course it has been used as a decider. Selecting an architect based on price will get you a strip mall – a pseudo permanent building (their typically torn down within twenty years) that meets the clients program and is designed purely on the function of the space, and the form is an exact copy of the prevailing architectural fashion.
The proper method for deciding on an “art” service professional includes personal interviews for the purpose of determining if the personalities can work together, and to build confidence for a selection process that takes a great leap of faith. It involves the client’s brain and heart. It takes trust and a belief that the client’s needs and expectations will not only be met but will be exceeded. The “art” service professions have the insight to fuse the tangible with the intangible for the purpose of creating something that works and inspires.
So to go back to the original question – is architecture a service industry? Yes. But is architecture a commodity? It shouldn’t be.