It's a funny thing being in a business partnership with someone who is also your partner.
When you mention it to people, the usual response is "I could never work with [insert name here], we'd kill each other" or some other platitude relating to toilet seats or being a control freak or another boring domestic habit that has no relevance to what we were talking about, or completely misses the point.
It’s the time at a party when you mutter into your drink about needing to go to the toilet and look over their shoulder hoping that there is someone interesting in the room to talk to. My response is usually something along the lines of “Why wouldn’t I want to spend more time with someone I actually love and respect, who I’m lucky enough to share a career with?” This seems completely natural to me.
In the architectural world, this is not so unusual. Alvar Aalto and his first wife Aino are probably the most famous example. Together they would design the entire building including the door handles, the fabrics, the furniture and the light fittings. Buildings were conceived as a complete composition, not just a shell for someone else to do the landscape and interior. It was an holistic design composition done by an holistic design partnership.
Debbie-Lyn Ryan and Rob McBride of McBride Charles Ryan are a contemporary Melbourne couple working together. They produce work that is formally interesting and pushing boundaries, with no distinction between interior and building. Formally at least, they are probably among the most cutting-edge in this country today. Ryan is an interior designer, McBride an architect.
Marion Mahoney Griffin and her husband and business partner Walter Burley Griffin are probably the most famous local design couple, although they are probably better described as belonging to the Prairie School from the Midwestern United States. Coming to Australia after winning the design competition to design the new federal capital, the Griffins worked prodigiously not just on Canberra, but in the design and development of Castlecrag in Sydney and parts of Eaglemont and East Ivanhoe in Melbourne. You can see two of their buildings in Swanston Street, the Capitol Theatre opposite the Melbourne Town Hall, and Newman College at the University of Melbourne.
What is interesting about the Griffins is that they worked tirelessly not just on architectural and urban design projects, but on a general philosophy and idealism that informed all aspects of their work, life and design output. They were prolific, designing hundreds of projects in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra over the 22 years they were in Australia. It’s difficult to imagine being able to maintain this kind of output and energy without a partner right there alongside you.
This is potentially a really punishing profession. On average we work longer hours for less money than most other professions. We often get paid less to design a project than a real estate agent gets to sell it, with all of the associated liability when something goes wrong. I’m not having a whinge here (believe me when I say that I love what I do), I’m just making a point. Show me an internationally recognised architect, and I’ll show you a string of broken marriages.
Louis Kahn is one of my favourite architects. His work has a timelessness that completely eludes many architects. One of his best pieces is the vast, sprawling National Assembly Building in Dhaka, Bangladesh. This building, built almost entirely by hand (labour was and is very cheap in Bangladesh) was constructed between 1961 and 1982, and avoided destruction in the 1971 war because, anecdotally, it was thought to be a ruin by incoming bombers.
The same can’t be said of Kahn’s relationships and the lives of his long-suffering partners. He would disappear for vast lengths of time when working, and had relationships and children with several women at once, creating scandal for those he loved during the socially conservative mid-century in the United States.
Frank Lloyd Wright is another well-known architect, whose professional life and prodigious creative output sat at odds (or perhaps in complement to) his tumultuous personal life. He slept with his client’s wives, abandoned his first wife with the children and even experienced the murder of his mistress, children and some of his employees.
Sometimes you need to be a bit self-centred and selfish to be good at your job. Sometimes work can be more important than play and dealing with family members. I’ll be the first to say that I’ve missed out on social time with family and friends to work. The difference here is that I’m lucky enough to have a partner who is not only doing the same thing, but doing it for the same reasons. It’s all or nothing.