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Edward Cullinan’s bravery, resilience and love of his job should inspire us all

Christine Murray on an admirable example of architecture’s cradle-to-grave mentality

It is the heroic story of a beloved figure in architecture. Edward Cullinan has been gravely ill for the last five months in critical care, and for several months, unable to speak. Nevertheless, since making a partial recovery, the architect – who will turn 80 this year – has been receiving regular updates on the progress of projects in his office, and will conduct design reviews from his hospital bed over the coming weeks.

Cullinan has begun the long and difficult process of rehabilitation, but it is expected he will make a full recovery from the illness that left him ‘10 minutes from death’, and return to work.

When his daughter told us the dramatic story of the pancreatitis that struck her father, who in his long career was apparently never ill, my first thought was how much Cullinan embodies the ideal for architects.

Not only because of his principled approach to practice, although this is also worth mentioning: based on the co-operative model, all employees are partners, and no employee earns more than three times the salary of the most junior staff. The assets of the company are also owned by a separate entity, so partners will not benefit financially by the sale of a building, for example, the proceeds of which will go to charity.

But what profoundly struck me was that Cullinan, like many architects, will never retire. There is a cradle-to-grave mentality in the profession which is unique to architecture, or at least to the arts. Architects don’t put down their pencils (or stop clicking) aged 65; they keep working, for the love and the challenge of the work itself.

A lifelong commitment to architecture is noble, but architects must also formulate a back-up plan. News that Apple founder Steve Jobs is stepping back due to his poor health caused the company’s stock to plummet this week, despite record sales, with investors fearful that Apple lacks a succession plan.

Practices with strong figureheads should ask whether their firms could survive without them, while individual architects should invest in a pension, life insurance, or at least a piece of architect-designed property, on the off chance life (or death) meddles with their career.

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