Do Unbuilt Architects Get Paid?

How an architect who produces countless designs but few buildings can be a success.

For Hadid, drawing is where the money is

The Iraqi-born architect Zaha Hadid won the prestigious Pritzker Prize this week, despite the fact that only one building she designed was built during the first 25 years of her career. How do architects like Hadid—whose designs often go unrealized—stay in business?

First, architects get paid whether or not their blueprints become buildings. Second, for many architects, designing buildings is only one of the things they get paid for: They teach, design furniture, write books, or take on smaller-scale projects like designing Alessi teapots, the interiors of restaurants in Tokyo, or cheap household goods for Target. Hadid, hipper than most, has other sideline businesses: Her wild, inscrutable architectural drawings are regarded as works of art in their own right (Artists Space in New York exhibited them last year), and she has designed the sets for a Pet Shop Boys world tour and a snow-and-ice installation in Lapland, Finland.

But designing buildings is every architect’s core business, and they get contracts either by winning a competition or by snagging a commission directly from a client. In “open competitions,” any architect can submit a proposal; those whose designs are short-listed win some money, and the architect who wins outright takes home more. Other competitions are “by invitation,” open only to a select group; invited architects earn a fee just for competing, and a substantially larger sum goes to the winner. Once contracted to design a building, architects are generally paid for three separate phases of the project: completing preliminary work, submitting working drawings, and supervising construction. Of these, the working drawings are considered the most important because they represent the completed (or nearly completed) design. Often, once architects are supervising construction, 70 percent to 80 percent of the total project fee will already have been paid.

Any number of factors beyond the architect’s control—including changing economic conditions, zoning laws, or community group pressure—can prevent successful working drawings from being built. Zaha Hadid would add timid clients and conservative tastes to that list. For much of her career, she was known as the perpetually unbuilt winner of architecture competitions: She submitted winning designs for the Peak Tower in Hong Kong (1983); the Arts and Media Centre in Dusseldorf, Germany (1992-93); and the Cardiff Bay Opera House in Wales (1994) *; among others. Hadid’s renderings did nothing to make her more accessible to those unschooled in architecture, however, because they often looked like loose materials swept up in a tornado rather than buildings meant for habitation. It was only in 1993, with the construction of the Vitra Fire Station in Weil am Rhein, Germany, that the skeptics could see how her ideas would be realized. Her first building in the United States, the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, opened to much acclaim last year. Now that she’s won the Pritzker, it’s likely that commissions will start rolling in and she can start making money without the fuss of competing for it. The $100,000 Pritzker Prize won’t hurt either.

Next question?

Explainer thanks reader London Crockett for asking the question and architects John Stonehill, Ahmad Sardar-Afkhami and Keren Golan for help with the answer.

Correction: March 26, 2004:The original version of this piece mistakenly referred to “Wales, England.” The proud nation of Wales is, of course, not a part of England. It’s in the United Kingdom. Return to the corrected sentence.