Should You Work For A “Starchitect”?

Sara Mandeed
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What is a "starchitect"?

The term "starchitect" is a play on a famous architect's name. The term "starchitect" is thrown around a lot these days because it's associated with big, exciting projects that make mega-bucks and have a lot of interesting exposure for all involved. All of these projects are usually found in one place – “starchitecture” centers like New York City, London, or San Francisco, to name a few.

Sometimes, a "starchitect" will be a world-famous architect who has a big name and a lot of clout and is well-known for bringing a cutting-edge design sensibility to new designs. Many of the most famous starchitects are based in the big cities listed above, but that's not an absolute rule. For example, an architect working on a smaller, specialized project might not work with as many materials or be building in a particularly dense area, but still be a "starchitect" because of the project's potential to be unique and memorable.

You may also see a "starchitect" term associated with product design. For example, if you're looking to buy a new electronic device that's supposed to be the cutting edge of today's high-tech world, you might hear it referred to as a "starchitect" product.


There are some pros of working for a "Starchitect" or "Star Architect".

First, the exposure. The chance to work on a house, especially in the start of you career is a great experience. It not only builds up your portfolio, but also adds some notable names to your resume!

Second, the salary. You will be working for a "Star Architect" and you will be expected to produce results. If you do, you have the opportunity to make a lot of money! Expect the pay to be significantly higher than your salary at your other previous jobs. This is not an average job with average pay, but, rather, a prize position. A "Star Architect" is a kind of an entrepreneur who takes a significant risk on your behalf. When you succeed, you will be rewarded generously.

Great Projects

While working on a project can be a lot of fun, it can also be tedious, especially if it drags for a long time. You can mitigate some of the monotony by taking on a variety of smaller, related projects.

For example, your current project might be design the UX for a crowdsourcing application. While you’re working on the design, you can also develop the new website, create illustrations and mockups for the marketing materials, and, if time permits, you can work on additional features for the crowdsourcing app. It can be good for your resume, too, if you previously worked on something like this.

Granted, this might be tricky if you’re working on a freelancer or contract basis, but you’re certainly not alone if you have a day job. Now you can work in your spare time to build your portfolio.

You can also take on projects that involve your current firm’s competitors. For example, if you’re working with a digital agency, you could start designing for a competitors’ site part-time. Again, you can use this to improve your skill set and your portfolio.

Great Experience

Or Money? Which Do You Value More?

In the architectural world, there is a lot of talk about working for “the Starchitect” of the moment. These are the big name, big projects, big fees individuals that everyone in architecture circles is dying to work for. Is this the smart move to propel your career to the next level? Or is it a giant step backwards that instills the wrong values in your work?

Michael Graves, Norman Foster, Richard Rogers, Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry… these are all names that architects the world over dream about working for. They are leaders in their field and the projects they take on are always headline grabbing. Working on a Starchitect-designed project is a great CV boost. Getting your name on the credits of a project designed by one of these people might be the key difference in landing that job you really want.

Talented Co-workers

Before you accept that coveted job offer working for a so-called “starchitect”, you do actually need to think about whether you are the right person for the job. Some people might jump at the chance to work for an innovative figure like Frank Gehry, but others may find their work threatened by such an environment and find themselves limited by their own inexperience.

If you’re sure about yourself, don’t listen to the naysayers, and are ready for a challenging endeavor, working for a starchitect may be the best way to promote your design career.

Office Culture

Office culture is a big deal, and it’s what can make or break a job. A few weeks into a new position, you may start to get frustrated because your coworkers are slacking off, priority is constantly being given to a small handful of individuals, and the company’s goals don’t align with yours. It’s hard to tell how long this situation will last, and you may even wonder whether it’s worth staying longer. Should you stick it out, or should you look for another job? This question can be easily answered by a few general rules about office culture.

While it’s true that there are some offices that are nothing but a bunch of robots stuck in one space, there are a number of possibilities that can be better or worse. Here are some questions you can ask yourself to determine whether or not you should stay in a job or move on.


Ulting vs. Establishing

There are two ways to get involved in architectural design. The first is by being the owner and the creator of a firm, and the second is by being a consultant for someone else. Consultants, also called experts, are people who have a particular set of skills, be it interior design, architecture, engineering, or interior construction. Some specialize in the type of materials used, such as glass, marble, and wood, while others specialize in the building’s cost, logistics, size, and so on. Some are self-employed, while others offer their services through a company. They may contract independently or as part of a larger company.

High Stress

Low Impact.

In the mid-1990’s, Zaha Hadid was among the trailblazing architects who changed the course of buildings. She introduced an entirely new philosophy to the world of architecture. Her designs, evocative of a feminine curviness, are sensual and monumental, the kind that will make any ordinary building appear dull. At the same time, her style is also considered cold and inhuman by comparison.

Her architectural path is littered with the failures of her projects, including the Vitra Fire Station. She spent her first 10 years of practice in London, a city whose design values were changing. Specifically, its taste for simple, modern buildings was making her star fade.

"London has a very long memory of architecture. There is an establishment and you have to be tolerated or to be part of it," she explained in a 1995 interview with The New York Times. Hadid's goal was not just recognition, but also profit, which she was unable to achieve in London. "The problem was that I had a product that the market wasn't ready for," she noted.

Long Hours

"star" architect is the long hours. To be successful in such as environment you have to be willing to put in the time.

Often, a firm is only as good as the last project. So if you get stuck with a boss that has a very poor reputation, you better be able to put up with all the crap that comes with a star architect.

So if you're good at your job, the hours will just part of your job. If you're bad at your job, then you will suffer!

No Client Interaction

While working for a starchitect can be a once in a lifetime opportunity, it also means that you might have to sacrifice other things. Many firms have projects scattered throughout the world, so you could be working on a project in Azerbaijan while others are in Zurich and Sydney, and you’re often alone.

With some solo firms, you may not even be working for the company directly but for the designer personally.

There may also be months where you are idle. Citing project schedules that are impacted by the overall economy.

So that six-month job could easily turn into a year.

So should you work for a starchitect?

The big architects may be better known than the big designers but it is an equal myth that their practices are anything like Alvy Singer's cultural desert.

John Pawson's fabled silence, the calm composure of Zaha Hadid in studio, Bjarke Ingels' love of togetherness and all-night brainstorming, Rem Koolhaas' punters-club populist ways, Nouvel's idiosyncratic charisma, Herzog & de Meuron's impulsive, informal working methods, each is a different, improvisatory way of making architecture, and they are often very exciting to be around. They work differently, employ people differently and urgently need different types of staff.

The very question is to misstate the issue. Who wouldn't want to take on the responsibility of making architecture like Herzog & de Meuron? But the architects may be the least of your problems. To work for someone you admire is a pleasure, but to make a job out of it looks like a diversion from your design ambitions.

One young designer in my office recently quit an architectural practice to set up on his own. His new partner was the former PA of a very successful architect. It took a while to figure out why the PA, now equal partner in the new firm, was prepared to work for a young designer who herself had never been a well-known name in the profession (and has not become one since).