There are countless little unique charms one encounters when walking through Paris, the city I've been lucky to live in for the last 15 months. One that always catches my attention is the architectural custom of placing a plaque — which lists the name of the architect and the date of construction — in close proximity to the building's entrance.
Our relatively non-descript seven story apartment building in the 12th arrondissement was built in 1930 by an architect named P. Robuchon, who, judging by a quick Google search was the architect responsible for two other similar buildings in Paris around the same time.
Each time I glance up from the street at one of these plaques, I am struck by feelings of trust and stability imbued by knowing that the building I am looking at has weathered decades upon decades of life — people moving in and out, economic cycles, political upheaval, war — and that a singular individual trusted their own work enough to underwrite the lifetime of that building with their reputation.
In addition to those feelings, seeing these plaques call to mind two key values and remind me to keep them front and center in my work and personal life.
The fluid nature of contemporary “knowledge” work — both in substance and in average tenure — makes it easy to pass the buck, favoring the optimization of what's next over a longer term ownership mindset.
This is, of course, a mistake...but it is one that is easy to make as we strain to keep up with what we perceive to be the more rapid (and lucrative) progress of those around us.
I suppose it is easy to make the same mistakes as an architect. Building solely for the purpose of impressing other architects. Cutting corners on process or material quality to improve margins. But having to reckon with putting your name above the door for all who pass to see — taking true ownership of your work — brings the right decision into clarity in quick order.
T. Boone Pickens, sharing advice from his grandmother, put in well in the letter he penned just before passing away:
“Sonny, I don’t care who you are. Some day you’re going to have to sit on your own bottom.”
To paraphrase Nicholas Kristof during an interview in the excellent Bill Gates Netflix series Inside Bill's Mind , we tend to process the world through headlines.
We latch onto and burn into our memories the sensational highs and lows of life over time and neglect to properly value the day to day drum beat (and the drum beaters) that drive much of the progress that gets made.
Seeing a plaque dated 1920 or 1947 initially calls to mind the traumatic events that the city, country, and world were recovering from at the time. But seeing the name alongside brings a human element to those headlines. Before, during, and after these blocks of time through which we organize history, there are people on the ground moving life forward — constructing buildings, starting businesses, teaching the next generation.
We can, at times, feel captive to the history unfolding around us — subjects incapable of being anything more than bit players in a plot we have no influence over.
Seeing each of these buildings attached to a long ago date and a person's name provides a daily reminder that history is not inevitable and that the decisions we make — like the buildings we build — have the potential to make an impact that persists over time.