What does the word "architect" bring to mind? Is it Gary Cooper playing the incorruptible Howard Ruark in Ayn Rand's "The Fountainhead?" Perhaps it's Mr. Brady of "The Brady Bunch" or Paul Newman interpreting electrical drawings in his office/boudoir atop "The Towering Inferno."

You might think of the architect as someone who is creative and sensitive, makes "blueprints," possesses some technical expertise, lives well, and hobnobs mostly with affluent clients and friends. If you're like a lot of people, an architect is really what you always wanted to be.

Paradoxically, architects design much of the physical environment that citizens see, use, or inhabit, yet most citizens don't know an architect, and very few ever have occasion to employ or work with an architect.

Until the 19th century, architecture was not recognized as a distinct, learned profession. For many centuries and in many cultures, buildings were erected by knowledgeable artists and craftsmen who had mastered building technology along with traditions and conventions of design and decoration.

The industrial revolution, increased specialization, new technologies and more rigorous scholarship made architecture a legitimate academic discipline and profession separated from construction contracting, real estate development and engineering. This has been reinforced by statutory recognition of the architectural profession; all 50 states require that architects be licensed to practice building design.

Civilization always has recognized its architects, some of whom are well remembered for their buildings, ideas, or both. Names like Michelangelo and Frank Lloyd Wright come to mind. But more monuments than architects remain in our collective memories. Who designed the buildings of ancient Greece, Rome, Byzantium, or Gothic Europe? Who conceived the temples of Angkor in Cambodia or the incredible mosques of the Islamic world?

To understand architects today, you must understand more than the services they provide. You must instead look at motivations and goals forged by history, tradition and circumstances on the one hand, and by attributes of personality on the other.

Developers and contractors are normally motivated by the promise of economic rewards linked to market opportunities. While this is true for some architects, most realize that, contrary to popular opinion, the economic rewards of practicing architecture are modest compared to other ways of making a living, and especially compared to equivalent success in law, medicine, real estate development, banking, or contracting.

Why, then, be an architect?

*Artistic and intellectual fulfillment is one reason. Most architects are turned on by visual, rather than literary or political, phenomena. They love to draw and express themselves in graphic terms. Like addicts, they are irresistibly stimulated by things visual: events, buildings, spaces, art. Thus, the chance to create art, to explore and experiment, is compelling.

*Memory and appreciation of great architects and architecture of the past induces some architects to nurture a subconscious (or sometimes conscious) desire for immortality. By shaping buildings and cities, they may influence the aesthetic direction that a culture pursues. Ultimately, their buildings and authorship might long survive their mortal tenure.

*Fame may be worth more than money to architects. Some are unabashed in their pursuit of notoriety and public recognition, because it's one way to attract clients for whom the label of a famed designer may be an affective marketing strategy. Unfortunately, fame is often fleeting as fashions and tastes change; very few find (or deserve) lasting fame and immortality.

*Related to the quest for fame is the desire for professional and peer recognition. Although it would be nice to appear on the cover of Time magazine, most architects would be content with a reasonable dose of admiration from their colleagues. Such admiration or recognition can take many forms. Having work published in professional journals and winning design awards are probably the most preferred and prestigious.

*Many architects are genuinely public-spirited. They seek to make tangible contributions to community welfare and comunity identity. Motivated sometimes by altruism, sometimes by enlightened self-interest, they apply their talents to projects that offer rewards of satisfaction for helping others in need.

*Architects crusade for the cause of good architecture and good architects. The American Institute of Architects, architectural educators, critics, journalists and patrons of architecture continually advocate increased public awareness and support of quality design. Sensitizing the architect's constituency -- developers, investors, lenders, institutional and individual clients, politicians, government officials and the general public -- to the profession's loftiest values is a significant goal for many designers.

*Serving clients -- satisfying their needs, solving their problems -- clearly motivates many architects. However, the architect's priorities may not match the client's. For some architects, rendering services is the paramount goal. But for others, it may be subordinate to goals already mentioned.

Projects can vary in functional type and be tiny or gargantuan in size. Accordingly, fees for a given project can range from a few dollars to millions, and firms can make or lose money in either cases.

Even after getting a commission, architects encounter substantial financial and legal risks. Clients may be slow in paying, or refuse to pay. Projects may be delayed or cancelled before the architect has billed fees sufficient to cover expenses.

Despite the risks, most talented architects practice architecture for love and glory, not for money or power. While architecture is just a job to some, many others are dedicated to designing environments that transcend the pragmatic. If they are successful enough, they, too, may become transcendent.

NEXT: How architects design.