Frank Gehry sticking up his middle finger

"Charisma allows the architect to speak with authority, even when he has no clue"

Opinion: charisma can't be learned, but it is often the architect's last line of defence against demanding clients and unsavoury economic realties, says Reinier de Graaf.

A former employer (shortly before firing me) once told me: "The most important thing for an architect is to have charisma!" It seemed a strangely fatalist statement. You either had it or you didn't, and if you didn't there was no way to get it.

Up until that moment I had progressed by copying the skills of others before me, but this particular trait did not seem to lend itself to imitation. If it was acquirable at all, it would happen only over a very long period of time. Charisma remained a distant prospect for a time when my career would most likely be over and I would have no further use for it. The whole notion seemed highly unfair.

Van Eyck had charisma, so did Rossi, as does Eisenman. Given the differences between these men (I'm sorry they are all men) it seems safe to conclude that charisma is unrelated to any particular approach towards architecture. The only real thing these three architects had in common was that they appeared to know something we didn't, even if they never quite revealed what.

As professors they inspired us, but it certainly wasn't through reason. Most of what they said hardly made sense. Van Eyck habitually lost himself in rage, nobody understood Rossi's English, and Eisenman's openly professed dilemmas were (and are) as impenetrable as his buildings. Still, that hardly interfered with the contagious effect they had on their audiences. Truth is everything seen to be strongly believed in, and whenever they spoke we certainly believed – regardless of what they said.

I guess we admired these men because we felt they somehow defied the realities of practice – we all knew such realities existed, but as students we preferred to remain unaware as long as we could – that a heroic role for architects was possible, provided one was persistent enough to hold one's own against the ever increasing army of specialist experts that claimed "our" profession. They were our heroes, primarily because they didn't give a damn about everything else we were being taught.

It was their manifest sense of irresponsibility, their blatant indifference about the consequences of their statements that was so appealing. They were the living proof that defiance – when prolonged long enough – eventually paid off and could conquer all the odds architecture was up against.

I graduated in 1988. My first job came as a complete shock. I had to redesign suspended ceiling plans so they could hold chandeliers. The investor had calculated that retail uses (instead of offices) would generate substantially larger financial returns, and so a partial conversion was launched even before the building was finished.

It wasn't so much the mundane nature of the task, or even the gratuitous nature of the decision to change the function of a building that shocked me, but rather the fact that the work of an architect had nothing, and I mean absolutely nothing, to do with the heroic postures of the role models I had been keen to emulate. I recall that feeling of utter uselessness. My technical knowledge fell way short of what it needed to be, and nobody was interested in the elevated philosophical considerations I had developed during my studies. I was both over- and under-qualified for my job. My education had instilled near megalomaniacal ambitions, but it had left me unprepared for the world in which to exercise them.

I was confident things would change with time. As soon as I would no longer have to execute the questionable design decisions made by others – in architecture they are that by definition – things would get better. Ultimately there would be room to put into practice some modest notion of idealism. However, once I began working for myself, everything that had bothered me as an employee only presented itself in an exacerbated manner. This time there were mouths to feed. I quickly found that, in the face of economic needs, the architect is a largely powerless figure. Saying no, or questioning a client's directives, is at best a matter of gentle persuasion, but never a battle of equals.

As a profession, architecture embodies a strange paradox. In economic terms it is a largely reactive discipline, a response to pre-formulated needs. In intellectual terms it is the opposite: a visionary domain that claims the future. In this capacity architecture aspires to set the agenda and precede needs. The unfortunate thing for architects is that both conditions are equally true, making architecture a curious form of omniscience practiced in a context of utter dependency.

It is here where the explanation for the importance of charisma lies: in the incongruence between architecture's intellectual claims and its economic reality. Like a state of hypnosis, charisma has the capacity to obscure established relations of power. It allows the architect to temporarily suspend the disbelief of his patrons and get the upper hand in the absence of a real mandate. Charisma is pure psychology – that which mediates between the scale of one's ambitions and the limits of one's power. (This also explains the Rasputin-like nature of architect-client relationships.)

Architecture is a pinball in a maze of considerations and interests of which architects are often the ones least aware. More and more buildings emerge as the result of congregations between investors, quantity surveyors, real estate consultants and other "experts". In that context, charisma becomes a last line of defence: an effort to preserve architecture as an autonomous domain in the absence of conclusive arguments why.

Charisma is independent of logic – in fact the more it abandons the notion of logic, the stronger its effect. It is invariably on the side of the counterintuitive. It is a final plea for a leap of faith over the power of numbers. As such, charisma is not so much an act of heroism as it is of desperation – a last resort that allows the architect to speak with authority, even when he has no clue what he is talking about.

Reinier de Graaf is a partner in the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) where he directs the work of AMO, the research and design studio established as a counterpart to OMA's architectural practice.