Outliers: An Architect’s Interpretation


Image: Baby Steps by Moments & Milestones Photography

Outliers: An Architect’s Interpretation
By Nabeela Shaikh

In his popular book Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell challenges the conventional notion of what contributes to an individual’s success. While not discounting the value of innate talent, he puts forth the theory that factors like your ethnicity, your upbringing, your socio-economic background and even the year of your birth could often be the deciding factor of whether or not you are successful. The book goes on to ingeniously demonstrate how this has been true for the forerunners of a number of different fields – be it Professional Sports, Law Practice, the Computer Software Industry or even Commercial Aviation. Naturally, this made me wonder if this rule held fast in our realm of architecture.

I decided to test it!

For the sample, I selected the modern era, arguably the “Golden Age” of architecture. We all know the stories of the Masters and their rise to success. But is that the complete picture? Is it solely their genius that propelled them to greatness? Or were there more inconspicuous factors at play? Did “where they come from” play as important a role in shaping their destinies?

Intrigued, I dusted off my old History of Architecture notebooks from college and scoured the pages. The hand-drawn sketches and accompanying notes were all too familiar. I must have gone through them a hundred times before, but this time I paid attention to the little details – where these famous architects were born… who their parents were… what influenced their childhood… who their mentors were. Slowly, but surely, some patterns emerged…

1. Artistic Pedigree
Gladwell stresses the immense influence of one’s lineage on the individual, on his opportunities and performance through life, so parentage was the obvious first stop for my investigation.

Even from a cursory look at the ancestry of the famous architects, what stood out was a commonality in artistic family backgrounds. Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier enjoyed an early exposure to the arts through their parents. Wright’s father was a locally renowned musician and orator. Le Corbusier was doubly blessed – with an artist from the watch industry for a father and a musician/ piano teacher for a mother. Others had antecedents from within the industry itself, like Walter Gropius, whose great uncle Martin Gropius, was a well-known architect, and Mies Van Der Rohe, whose family was in the stone carving business. In fact, Mies, who had no formal architectural education, identified the roots of his career with the time he worked in the family business.

2. Defining influences
Gladwell consistently traced back the origins of success to an individual’s formative years, and it certainly seems to be no different for us Architects. History shows that the destinies of the masters were in significant ways, shaped by people and incidents from their childhood and early adulthood, sometimes even by factors outside their control.

Frank Lloyd Wright for example, may not have even been an architect, if not for his mother deciding it for him when he was but a baby. It is well known that his mother, Anna Lloyd Jones, was a major inspiration and support for Wright, and as is evident from the fact that he changed his name to Lloyd after his father abandoned their family. Wright felt an overwhelming loyalty towards her. It makes one wonder if Wright’s choice of career would have been different, given different circumstances.

The environment of the architects’ upbringing also seemed to play an important influence in their future work. Wright, on several accounts, recalled his childhood visits to his mother’s family farm. This first intimate experience with nature was the beginning of Wright’s love affair with the landscape of middle America; it laid the foundation for his ground-breaking design philosophy of harmonising the built environment with nature and led to the development of Wright’s famous “prairie style” architecture.

For Le Corbusier, his learning from his travels through Europe and the Mediterranean in his early 20s markedly dictated the direction of his future work – from the balance of open spaces (collective and individual) to the understanding of geometric forms and the use of landscape as an architectural tool.

3. Froebel’s Gifts
Another common thread I noticed in the stories of the masters was the incidence of Froebel’s Gifts in their early education and its subsequent influence on their work.

Froebel’s gifts was a new system of learning at the time, introduced by Friedrich Froebel in the 1800s. They were a series of twenty devices and activities that engaged the creative minds of children and in a very hand-on way, developed their understanding of physical forms and their relationships in nature.

Several of the masters – Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier and Buckminster Fuller – had the benefit of playing with the Froebel’s gifts in their early years, and credit the development of their aesthetic sensibilities to the toys. The direct influence of it is also very apparent in their works, whether in the patterns of Wright’s stained windows or in the structure of Fuller’s geodesic dome.

4. Blessings in Disguise
Gladwell, in his book, gave several examples of how, many a time, opportunities present themselves in the most unlikely places, often disguised as limitations. The biographies of our famous architects revealed similarly charming anecdotes.

As mentioned before, Frank Lloyd Wright was always meant to be trained as an architect. However, he could not attend architecture school because the local University of Wisconsin did not offer the course. Wright had to study civil engineering instead, but given the major structural strides taking place in the modern era, this turned out to be an advantage during the course of his career.

Another such random chance led to Buckminster Fuller’s discovery of the triangle and hence the beginning of the geodesic dome. Fuller had bad eyesight as a child, and hence was not familiar with the conventional physical forms in his environment. When given Froebel’s “peas work” to play with on his first day at kindergarten, the remaining kids replicated the houses and barns they saw around them. Fuller had to rely on his other senses, and pushing and pulling on the sticks, discovered the structural strength of the triangular structure.

5. Birthdays
I was particularly struck by one section of Outliers which demonstrated, quite remarkably, how all the self-made business tycoons in the United States, from John D Rockefeller to J P Morgan, were born around the year of 1835. Similarly the magic number for your year of birth, if you wished to be a pioneer of the Silicon Valley, was 1955 (with the likes of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Eric Schmidt).

Checking for an analogous situation in architecture was easy enough; it took but a quick check on Wikipedia to gather the following list of birthdays.

Le Corbusier                    October 16, 1887
Mies Van Der Rohe         March 27, 1886
Frank Lloyd Wright          June 8, 1867
Gerrit Rietveld                  June 24, 1888
Walter Gropius                 May 18, 1883
Louis Sulllivan                  September 3, 1856

Well, what do you know? Looks like modern architecture had its own lucky number – barring the two Americans, the Masters were all born around 1885!

The rise of these individuals to the apex of the profession seems almost fated – the result of some very fortunately timed events and experiences.  Some might even go so far as to brush aside their achievement, attributing it simply to some “lucky breaks.” But perhaps there is a more meaningful lesson to be learnt here.

As a society, we supremely value talent and believe it to be the sole path to success. What Outliers teaches us is that we need to broaden this view. We need to realize the importance of recognizing and taking advantage of singular opportunities presented to us.  The success stories of these architects are rife with chance and circumstance, and the translation of these into opportunities may have been more apparent in some cases than others. But the true Outlier is usually one who identifies opportunities, regardless of how well it is hidden, and plays his strengths to its tune.

Gladwell sums it up best in his book when he says, “It is not the brightest who succeed, nor is success simply the sum of the decisions and efforts we make on our own behalf. It is, rather, a gift. Outliers are those who have been given opportunities — and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them.”♦

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