Many know Derek Parker, FAIA, RIBA, FACHA as co-founder of the Center for Health Design, or by his Pebbles Project research initiative. Or perhaps you were one of those lucky enough to be in the audience when he gave the somewhat impromptu presentation on the Fable Hospital. Parker, an architect whose career spans over six decades, former Anshen + Allen Principal, has accomplished a lot in the field of health care facility design. But the illustrious career didn’t simply materialize out of magical fabled air. This architect can, at least partly, attribute his success to a curious spirit and a humble outlook. His finesse and confidence (something he has been quoted as saying didn’t really start until his 60’s) took molding, and mentoring, and, in his opinion, he was mentored by the best. But he was hungry to learn as well. It’s a good combination in the mentor/mentee relationship.
When budding architect, Parker, walked a draft of a letter composed to a client for review into the office of his mentor, Steve Allen, (1912 – 1992), he didn’t think too much of it—just looking for some sound yay or nay instruction. Steve looked up after reading it pensively and said something to the effect of, “It’s a pretty good letter, but I would change one word.”
Recognize everyone makes mistakes
This memory resonates in Parker’s mind specifically when it comes to the subject of mentoring. Parker has been a mentor himself to many. “Whenever I feel there may be confusion or potential misunderstanding, I pick up the phone. And I learned this from Steve.” But it’s not only words people should be careful of. It’s humanity in general. A basic human approach will get an architect very far in the world. It’s about being thoughtful and careful about what one does. “Recognize everyone makes mistakes,” Parker advises. “The only real crime is covering it up.”
Anshen + Allen attempted to implement a formal mentoring program in the 80’s but it wasn’t successful. Parker remembers it seemed to be absent a natural element that one can only get from creating a sincere, organic relationship. Unlike the less formal mentoring Parker received from Allen. What Parker took away from Allen was because Parker wanted to. “There was no formal program at the time I came on. You could take as much out of Steve as you wanted to take. Or nothing at all,” said Parker. Today, with the official signing off on the Intern Development Program (IDP) paperwork, the natural progression of a relationship can be hindered, but only if one allows that to happen and doesn’t take advantage of the knowledge the mentor has. Parker advises hanging on to the relationship, and learning everything you can from that person. Maybe even tune into their silence, as Parker did with Allen. “You thought he hadn’t heard you, but then he’d come back 5 minutes later with an answer.” Allen was the epitome of thoughtfulness. “You must care about what you do,” said Parker, “and, in some ways, it’s tough to prescribe that in the formal mentorship program.”
So the firm abandoned the program but strongly encouraged people to latch on and glean what they could. It’s those who latch on that tend to attract Parker as mentees as he sees they are striving for something bigger. “I’m always looking for people smarter than I am, so those I’ve mentored tend to fit in this category—they want to be challenged and they learn by doing.” Which is exactly how Parker came to design his first healthcare facility.
Parker worked as an orderly for six months when the firm took on a hospital design. At 5:30 every morning, he donned scrubs and went to work. “Everyone there at Mt. Zion knew I knew nothing,” he recalls. “I thought pediatrics might be care of the feet.”
But this period was integral in his career and it taught him how hospitals work from several vantage points—the nurse, doctor, orderly, patient, family member. It allowed him the opportunity to be part of a team that built a hospital who took everyone into consideration. And it changed the directive. Gradually, there was a move, project by project, to health care design. Hospitals provided Parker an intellectual challenge on which he thrived. “It seems to have a more direct societal impact than building a house in Hillsborough,” he said.
Good architects are necessary for good programs
And those he’s mentored are largely in the health care design business as well, because while he is inspired and motivated by those who are curious and smart, he also recognizes the humanitarian contribution. “Good architects are necessary for good programs,” he said. And perhaps the medical industry is no better place for an architect to reside.
In medical school, follows a model that reads more as a haiku:
See one. Do one. Teach one. This, in Parker’s thinking, applies to architecture students as well. “The act of designing is a messy process. It’s not a clean, academic process, and it’s tough to be specific about that.” But in the end, if the young architect wants to have a thriving career, be it in health care design or otherwise, this model works, especially if tied to Parker’s haiku:
Have Integrity. Be Honest. Make Mistakes.
These days, the Tiburon architect enjoys cooking tutorials from his wife of 50 years, sailing, and advising for the group Aditazz. When asked if he was currently mentoring people, Parker said, “Probably, but it’s not formal.” And that is the struggle perhaps burgeoning architects feel—constrained by the formality of signing forms. It’s an issue with which to contend, but an issue that can easily be hurdled if one is eager to learn and to build strong working, successful relationships.
Contend—the edited word in young Parker’s letter. Allen’s advice was to replace it with “suggest.” The former implies conflict. Why imply if there isn’t any? It’s an edit for all—not just the architect.