Architects as Problem Solvers
A professor of mine who was also the onetime head of the CMU architecture department used to say that architects are, primarily, problem-solvers. She had a well-worn talk on the topic, titled "The Twelve Professions of Architecture," outlining all of the different jobs for which architects are well-suited (only a couple of which look like what we think of as "being an architect"). But the thesis was that (and I apologize for my 15 years later paraphrase) the skillset of the architect is only incidentally building materials and the like; it's primarily and fundamentally problem-solving.
I'm currently involved with a couple of projects (one only potential right now), both sprucing up existing, pretty crummy commercial/industrial buildings. The Equipment Co. is in a really nondescript cinderblock building, constructed in 3 campaigns on 3 lots with 3 different wall heights and no consistency in window sizes or symmetry or any of the other things we rely on for making buildings look "good." My job is to figure out — within a tiny budget — some way to make it look good anyway.
The Appliance Co. is in a crumbling old building, once kind of Tudor-ish, with a 1950s storefront that is also crumbling, plus aging and outdated GE and Frigidaire signs. How to make it look good?
There are various other constraints, but those are the nuts of the problems (note that I've already done a lot of sifting through issues to identify the key components that need to be solved). The Appliance Co. is actually pretty easy — take out the clutter, pull the whole thing together with a cornice above the storefront height, and use all new materials above (stucco) and below (??) the cornice. Easy peasy. The Equipment Co. is really really hard. Even if we reskinned the whole thing, it's still a mess compositionally. So what I need to do is to think about ways of tying things together or, alternately, acknowledging differences. One way to do this is through almost-literal "narrative" — part of the building is offices, the remainder is shop space. Use materials and colors to explicate that. Another way would be to impose a "narrative" — define a line, even if it doesn't correspond to any function, and use that to establish what gets metal panels and what gets paint.
But my point is that building-knowledge is only incidental to the problems I need to solve here. My first task is to identify the moving pieces that make up the problem — where does the sign go, how do we direct visitors to the office door? — and the next task is to identify the narrative that will tell me how to place the pieces. And while the architect's problem-solving skills are honed for dealing with buildings (both as objects and as containers of space), they are readily applicable to broader sorts of problems. I've actually long though that it would be good to have more architects in politics: the job already includes some of the prerequisites (public speaking, flattery of the rich), but, more importantly, the problem-solving approach is radically different from that of lawyers, who of course dominate American political life.