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The beautiful art of learning to say no (responsibly of course)

Photography montage done by the author: “The Nobleman with the hand on his chest” by El Greco.

Perhaps one of the stories that most impacted the collective subconscious of my generation in the Madrid School of Architecture is the one by De la Sota about “bald beauty”. The story very effectively and even beautifully tells about the process of detachment that the artist has to follow until she reaches the essence of her work… Surprisingly, the metaphor of Nefertiti’s bust was paradoxically a bit the opposite of the educational process we are steeped in.   An education in excellence based on contrasting successful models that are rather more social than they are professional. The succession of lectureships that one could and should attend, competitions publicised, publications printed, … Remember the times of the Expo, the Olympics, the UIA Congress…But not only that. Also, the volume of housing units in Spain increased by 40% in only 15 years.

It was a process that involved all social strata: from the national administration that, given the need to justify itself every four years, was looking for new symbols of power or efficiency, or local administrations seeking revenue by speculating with urban land. Any ordinary person on the street could dupe themselves into feeling wealthy by taking out oversized mortgages.  So it wasn’t odd for people’s professional hopes to be high.

But, as we have been able to see, this outlook was no more than a house of cards. Now, when it seems we are waking from the hangover that has left us in a daze, would be a good time to ask whether have we learned anything from all of this?

Personally, I don’t believe in collective blame. Each professional, just as each developer or user, each individual, in short, has to assume their own responsibility. Anyone who accepted contracts that they should not, anyone who signed a mortgage for more than they could afford and anyone who did not abide by the law out be it out of indolence or greed. But I cannot help but wonder what we did not do that we could have. And I’m reaching the conclusion that things would have been much easier had I been up to the task of just saying NO.

We weren’t up to the task of saying NO to poorly paid piecemeal work.  Didn’t all of this begin that way? We were not up to the task of saying NO to any of those assignments, although the only remuneration was the vanity of having built work and although and our responsibilities were tremendous and ended up compromising us. We did not say NO to working pro bono for the star architect that came along and asked us to. It was a star on our CV, wasn’t it? We didn’t say NO to bogus competitions that the public administration used to generate revenue. Couldn’t we find anyone who would give us work in those same miserable conditions that we were accepting? We were either not up to the task or unwilling to say NO to urban development that in many instances was absurd. Wasn’t it a synonym of progress? It is unlikely for a development to be done properly in a couple of years when it is hard to develop properly even over decades?

I confess. I didn’t learn to say NO responsibly in time. True, nobody taught us or prepared us for it. But this might be a good time to learn.

Author’s note: the link to De la Sota is (not) commercial; the original text was written for a related book).

Text translated by Beth Gelb.
Arquitecto desde el año 2000. Miembro de la Asociación de Arquitectos (aA), ha sido vocal de la Junta de Gobierno del COAM y asambleísta en el CSCAE.

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