Back in the real world, the married-partner model has proved powerful, not because it fosters a homey atmosphere of concord and compromise but because it allows two loyal but opinionated people, with compatible levels of obsessiveness and drive, to feed off each other’s energies. Couples who design together barely acknowledge any distinction between work and family. Children nap in the model shop. Dinner is spent discussing the minutiae of alloy cladding. Having a spouse as a colleague relieves workaholics from having to make apologetic calls about being late for dinner—or anything else. “Being in a marriage diminishes the need to explain,” says Marion Weiss, the female half of the firm Weiss/Manfredi. Husbands not only know what their wives are doing but exactly how long they’ve been working on those damn handrails. Married architects sometimes sound as if they inhabit a parody of a type-A romance. “The gift is that you get to work all the time, as much as you want, and it floats in and out of our relationship,” says Elizabeth Ranieri, who co-founded the San Francisco firm Kuth/Ranieri Architects with her husband in 1990.
It takes a sturdy relationship to withstand the pressures of working together, and architecture can be especially punishing, especially as deadlines approach. Some spouses make joint appearances at client meetings and public presentations, so that they travel in tandem and are together virtually all the time. Others, like Idenburg and Liu, divide up the labor and thus hardly see each other. “We’d love to travel together, but it’s not realistic,” Idenburg says. “Last fall it was a relay race: We’d have a cab bringing one of us from the airport and the other back out to the airport, with the kids waiting in the vestibule for the handoff.”
Architect spouses must figure out both how to collaborate seamlessly and how to fight creatively—without tearing at each other or harming the product. Working on their first joint project, Weiss and her husband, Michael Manfredi, discovered that they were both left-handed and that their drawing styles meshed so seamlessly that they could be sitting in different countries, working on different views, and the result would be totally unified. “We’ll literally draw all over each other’s stuff,” Manfredi says. “There are drawings where I don’t know which is my mark and which is Marion’s.”
The terms draw and mark may be unfamiliar to younger architects who work almost exclusively on computers, and in fact technology has helped erode the one-man-one-brainwave approach. Networked software makes it easy for many people to work on the same design simultaneously. Complex projects involve such a tangle of disciplines that they begin not with a sketch but with a meeting. Even Howard Roark would have to call in HVAC companies, acoustical consultants, I.T. specialists, and land-use lawyers. Couples, already accustomed to collaborating, can also pool their expertise, which may be why Weiss/Manfredi and WORKac both have the rare ability to merge architecture and landscape.
Synchronicity has its limits, though. In the depths of the design process, if one partner gets discouraged, the other has to cajole. Sometimes teamwork requires being able to toggle among independence, conflict, and consensus. “If we’ve got two options and neither of them works, sometimes we’ll go into different rooms and take a crack at solutions three or four,” says Weiss. “Then we’ll get back together to find that all of them have failed. But something new emerges.” Several couples say that finding common ground can mean not compromising between conflicting visions but jettisoning both to produce fresh alternatives.