The unretirement of artists and architects

Slate has a brief and interesting spot on why architects don’t retire. The article’s timing is appropriate in light of the whole Brett Favre (pronounced fah-VRUH) fiasco and Lance Armstrong’s reentry into professional cycling this week. Don’t athletes realize their time is limited and they better have something else to fall back on when the joints just don’t agree with certain punishment any longer?

Moving on though. I’m not sure — nor is my generation from what I understand of it — about the whole idea of retirement anyway; it wasn’t even a possibility for most people until the 20th century. Sure, as we age we’ll have to adjust and slow down some depending on our health and trade, but the idea of retirement as posited and practiced by my parent’s and grandparent’s generations just isn’t something that interests me. This probably relates back to my active personality and my relative youth (which is quickly fading, as it’s wont to do).

And of course, the fact that I’m an aspiring artist. The Slate article makes a distinction between the unretirement of artists and architects, but since the spot is about architects I’ll start there.

Architecture is a wonderfully complex profession. I’ve stated a number of times on this blog that this multi-faceted nature is a significant part of why I’m so enamored with the practice of designing buildings. To do it well, one must learn and utilize a wide range of skills including psychology, sociology, drawing, planning, color theory, engineering, building design and so on. Thus the thrust of the article points out how long it takes a person to master all of these skills and put them into a work. It talks about how Gehry, the Corb, Kahn and Mies van der Rohe were all in their 60’s before they hit their stride. Why retire when you’re just getting good at what you love?

Gehry’s Guggenheim in Bilao, Spain, which he designed in his sixties.

The piece doesn’t fail to point out that creating a building is a team effort, and these big names are surrounded by deft assistance in their studios, which makes working into your more fragile years more realistic than in some other careers.

But what about artists? The following is from the article, the distinction I mentioned earlier:

    In old age, painters have the choice of retreating to their studios and picking the subject that interests them. Architects don’t have that luxury; they depend on clients for their work. All architects have experienced periods when the clients stopped coming, for one reason or another — when there was no work in the office and staff had to be let go, oblivion beckoning. So when clients continue to knock at the door with large, interesting commissions, it’s very hard to say no.

That makes some sense, but what I’ve always thought kept painters and sculptors going into their seventies and eighties and nineties — while their paper-pushing counterparts were hitting the links or traveling Europe — was simply a real passion and love of their job. For me, it’s easy to see why someone working in an office or factory would want to retire; that’s not the kind of work most people will love (there are, as in most cases, exceptions). But I’ve been creative since I was in grade school. I’ve drawn, written, sculpted of my own volition and on my own time since I was in junior high. It’s second nature to me. I’ll always do it and enjoy it (so far as I can tell).

I’m curious to hear other opinions on this particular issue. Are you looking forward to retirement? Are you an artist? What will you do if you retire? Are the points in the Slate article and my own personal sentiments something that you can grab hold of or am I way off base?

Photo from Wikipedia.


About pcNielsen
Paul Nielsen founded The Aesthetic Elevator late in 2005. He owns a piece of paper, located somewhere in his house (not on the wall), stating that he earned a B.F.A. from the University of Nebraska around about 2001. While there, he studied studied architecture, graphic design and ceramics, graduating with a degree in studio art. Paul presently serves as communications manager for a small non-profit doing their print design and marketing. He spends as much time sculpting in his studio as possible — which is not nearly enough. Visit his website at

4 Responses to The unretirement of artists and architects

  1. Julie says:

    Just a couple of thoughts:

    It’s true, there’s so much to learn that mastery takes years… and years… 40 is young for architects. What I want to know is, who did the good guys work for when they were in their 20s and 30s?

    Often it seems that the primary roles of the architect are to be the visionary and to be the facilitator. Knowing enough to get the right people together and help them communicate. Check out this article on teamwork, too:

  2. pNielsen says:

    Good question. The only answer I have is that FLW was with Louis & Sullivan in his early years, IIRC.

    And facilitate is a good word for it. Interesting, in community planning classes facilitation seems to be a focus, but not in architecture so much (in my experience). Should architecture programs focus more on the reality of architect as facilitator?

  3. anonimiss says:

    i’m myself too young to ‘retire’, but i definitely do not intend to, even when i do reach the ‘age’. the way i look at it, retiring is actually ‘re-tyreing’, meaning we’re just going in for a change of wheels, not shutting ourselves up to rot in the garage! while this holds good for most professions, its even more so for anything associated with design/creativity, including architecture.

  4. Tim J. says:

    One way of making certain that you will continue to work well into your “retirement years” is to (like me) have a totally inadequate financial plan for retirement.

    I hope to paint as long as I can see and hold a brush. If they came in and found me on the floor of my studio, clasping a brush with one hand and my chest with the other, that wouldn’t be a bad way to go.

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