Fool’s ­Errand

How to be a better fool this April Fool’s Day

Internal Management
Internal Management

As a general rule, architects really, really hate looking foolish. We hate it so much we usually err on the side of sombre to prevent any confusion that the appearance of joyfulness may cause. After all: ‘any fool can be happy’1.

Why are we architects so loth to play the fool? Is it a lack of humour? Low self-esteem? Is it essential that the client be the fool in this relationship? Well, one great thing about architects is that if we decide to do something, we do it properly. So here is a seven-step plan to transform our foolishness from a weakness to a strength; to transform ourselves into great foolish architects.

The first step is to accept that we are fools. Anyone who can’t do this immediately should go and pull an all-nighter or two preparing a detailed design for a project they’re not being paid for, haven’t been commissioned to do, and that nobody will ever cast more than a cursory glance over. If they don’t return twirling the baton at the front of ­humanity’s parade of fools I’ll eat my hat2.

Step two is to accept that we need help to become better fools. Most of our current foolishness is a garden variety: ‘if at first you don’t succeed try, try again’3, where we toil endlessly polishing turds. Or we heed: ‘who’s the more foolish: the fool, or the fool who follows him?’4. Well, getting a part one to come in at the weekend to change the font on all our drawings might prove we’re not the biggest fool, but it’s no way to escape our own foolishness, however big our package.

Step three is to ask for help. We architects tend to think we can solve problems all by ourselves; teach ourselves anything. But ‘he that will be his own master... must often have a fool for his scholar’5. So let’s all delete those CAD files that contain our secret alternatives to the contractor’s fabrication drawings, and set aside our big and pig headed ways.

Step four is to make an inventory of our foolishnesses. We design bespoke components when perfectly acceptable proprietary ones are readily available. We go to public consultations for a scheme we’re not involved in to criticise and humiliate its designers. We have secret online identities for trawling blogs and hating everything ever designed. We forget that ‘the greatest fool may ask more than the wisest man can answer’6.

Step five is to confess our inventory, so long as our confession causes no further harm. Well to be honest, most confessions probably would. Chanting, ‘a fool and his money are soon parted’ whenever preparing fee proposals is probably best left in the past. Nevertheless, ‘it is remarkable how many fools have money to part from’7.

We must un-button, un-zip, pull over and down, step out; be naked and free. We must be comfortable with the risk of appearing foolish in order to properly collaborate

Step six is to fully shed that part of our ego that prevents us from being better fools. There is the ‘it’s easier to let [fools] have their way, then trick them when they’re not paying attention’8 school of thought. This suggests we let the project manager think it was their idea to change the phasing to what we proposed in the first place. It’s certainly true that sometimes, in order to let a good idea prevail, we have to give up taking credit for it, but that is not to fully strip ourselves of that ego. We must un-button, un-zip, pull over and down, step out; be naked and free. We must be comfortable with the risk of  appearing foolish in order to properly collaborate. This isn’t about letting the QS think we don’t understand negative numbers, or telling the structural engineer  that terms like slenderness ratio turn us on, this is about vomiting our raw, ridiculous, undigested ideas into the big design cauldron: this is about collaboration that’s productive like a chesty cough.

The seventh and final step is to be willing to help others find their inner fool. ­Remember, ‘children and fools speak true’9. Is there not equal value in both having a great idea and in recognising one? Or at the very least, are they not useless without each other? So let’s hire some interns, pay them a living wage, and encourage them to un-don their black graduation auras. Let’s tell them they won’t always be right, they don’t need to know everything, that there is nothing more dangerous that not knowing what you don’t know, and that plumbers often know more about plumbing than architects and that’s ok.

We live in a topsy-turvy world where health and safety has gone mad, students have become customers, and cheese has negative connotations. As architects our job is to design for this nonsense place we call home and we must do better at speaking its gobbledygook language. ‘A common mistake that people make when trying to design something completely foolproof is to underestimate the ingenuity of complete fools’10

1)Clive Barker  2)Dean Koontz  3)William E Hickson  4)Obi-Wan Kenobi  5)John Thornton  6)Charles Caleb Colton  7)Edgar Guest  8)Christopher Paolini 9)John Lyly  10)Douglas Adams


Maria Smith is a director at Studio Weave