Thursday, April 7, 2016

Dear Future Architects...

ArchiTalks #19:  Dear Future Architects…

This is the latest edition of the series where this group of architect bloggers post on the same theme at the same time.  All the posts are linked below, please check them out.

My perspective on this month’s theme is to speak to those who are thinking about architecture as a career.  Dispensing with the obligatory “Don’t do it – run away!” comments many architects seem to make, I hope to provide some lessons I learned over time.  My very first experience as an architectural student at Penn State lingers in my memory like a ubiquitous odor.  In fact, the odor was part of it.  The old buildings that were to be my home for the next five years had an odor that really can't be described.  It was something like a mix between paper recycling plant and elementary school bathroom (I just described it, didn’t I?).  What does this introductory paragraph have to do with anything remotely related to the subject?  Here is Lesson Number One:  be patient.

Penn State taught architecture in the ugliest, worst maintained buildings on campus.  And we kind of liked it.
Penn State has a slightly newer building for building now.  It does not smell like elementary school bathroom.

Two years ago I volunteered a day’s time to an architectural camp that Penn State runs for students interested in architecture.  What an idea:  give someone a taste of their major before it consumes their life.  It was great to see kids who may really excel in design.  But it was also great to see the kids who now knew this wasn't to them at all!  They now knew to refocus.  When I was 18 I had no idea what it meant to be an architect. Prior to setting foot on campus, the only architect I knew was the dad on the Brady Bunch.  And that is Lesson Two:  being an architect is nothing like you see in TV or the movies.  The Fountainhead, Sleepless in Seattle, Indecent Proposal even (and especially) How I Met Your Mother – don’t believe anything about how any of these portray architects.

The Penn State Architecture Camp, figuring it all out before they declare their majors.

Architects can get a bad rap for being egotistical and, well, jerks.  The Fountainhead doesn’t help – the fiercely egocentric Howard Roark, uncompromising and self-absorbed.  George Costanza may have said, “Nothing is higher than architect” when he pretended to be an architect on Seinfeld, but it isn’t true.  Lesson Three: get over yourself.  We have a plaque in our office.  It reads, “Work Hard and Be Nice.”  You will need to interact with all sorts of people in the profession.  Code Officials, General Contractors, Engineers, Landscape Architect and Site Superintendents.  These people can either be your advocate or your antagonist, depending on how you treat them.  And unless you’re independently wealthy, you will be working for a client who is paying for the buildings you will design.  You will need to work diligently for them to provide them with the best service you can.  Your college experience will be difficult.  Yes, your major might be harder than almost any other undergraduate you will hang out with in school.  Don’t let it go to your head.  Because when you get out of school you will feel like you know nothing.  Mostly because you don’t yet, and that is Lesson Number Four:  Architects practice for a reason; it takes a long time to acquire the skill sets necessary to be competent.

Admittedly, the book would have fallen a little flat had Howard Roark just been a really nice guy.

Zaha Hadid passed away recently at the rather young age of 65.  However all of the news articles reporting on her life say she was just getting started.  And it is true.  Twenty years ago she was just emerging on the world scene – at the age of 45.  Architects come into their own at about this age.  You learn by doing.  You screw up.  You fix your screw ups.  You have to tell your client that you screwed up and how that costs money.  This is all part of the curriculum of an architectural practice.  Frank Lloyd Wright had some success as a younger man, but he designed Fallingwater in his late 60’s and the Guggenheim Museum in his late 70’s up until his death at 91.  Learning about architecture is about experience, and it takes a lot of different skills to manage a good practice.

Fallingwater - the world's most famous private residence, designed by a senior citizen.

Lesson Five:  Architecture is not all about sitting at “tilty desk (with) a big ruler.”  Drawing, whether it be on paper or on the computer, is certainly part of it but it really accounts for a small percentage of what goes into producing the documents required to build a building.  There are a lot of other technical tasks involved, like product research, codes and engineering coordination.  But what surprised me most about the profession is the amount of communication that goes into it.  The success of a building project really boils down to how well you ask questions and answer questions.  When first meeting a client, you need to ask the right questions in order to come up with a successful space program.  You need to ask questions of and answer questions from your engineers, product suppliers and consultants to come up with a fully coordinated set of drawings.  When permitting comes around, hopefully you asked the Code Official the right questions before submitting and you can answer all the questions you get back after permit submittal.  And when issues arise on site, you will invariably need to answer questions of intent to a contractor.  When I started, email was not all that widespread, especially in job trailers so we communicated on the phone much more than today.  Writing clearly and succinctly (which seems to be the antithesis of a Common Core education) is key to answering and asking questions today.  I am regularly surprised how bad some people are at this essential skill.  Where did I attain this skill?

Back at the beginning:  in studio, during design critiques.   This is where architecture school can really apply to the real world.  Those who can explain their ideas and designs clearly, ask the right questions of their professors ahead of time and implement any actions necessary are more likely to be successful in the architecture student’s final exam:  the jury.  Knowing when to take criticism and when to argue your point of view in the face of disagreement is a fine line.  Normally the better communicators will come out looking better.  People we deal with in the profession are often resistant to change.  And change is what architects do, essentially.  We must convince clients that the old way isn’t necessarily the right way; Code Officials that our interpretation of the code is valid; contractors that what we have drawn can be done.  It’s like defending your thesis all the time!  We need more good architects, those who can think on their feet after being sleep deprived, under-nourished and slightly nauseated from that lingering odor in the studio. 

Former student and current co-worker Dustin presenting his thesis in a jury.  Photo Credit - Stephanie Swindle.

Architecture is a rewarding profession.  It is a life long journey of many different learning experiences, and school is only the beginning.

This post is part of the ArchiTalks series in which Bob Borson of Life of an Architect selects a theme and a group of us (architects who also blog) all post on the same day and promote each other’s blogs. This month’s theme is "Dear Future Architects…"  A lot of other talented writers who also are architects are listed below and are worth checking out:

Enoch Sears - Business of Architecture (@businessofarch)
Dear Future Architects: A Confession

Bob Borson - Life of An Architect (@bobborson)

Marica McKeel - Studio MM (@ArchitectMM)
Dear Future Architects: 4 Perspectives

Lee Calisti, AIA - Think Architect (@LeeCalisti)
dear future architects

Evan Troxel - Archispeak Podcast / TRXL (@etroxel)
Dear Future Architects

Lora Teagarden - L² Design, LLC (@L2DesignLLC)
Dear Future Architects: 3 letters

Jeremiah Russell, AIA - ROGUE Architecture (@rogue_architect)
future architects: #architalks

Jes Stafford - MODwelling (@modarchitect)
Dear Future Architect, Listen Here

Eric T. Faulkner - Rock Talk (@wishingrockhome)
Dear Future Architect -- Remember Then

Michele Grace Hottel - Michele Grace Hottel, Architect (@mghottel)
"Dear Future Architects,"

Meghana Joshi - IRA Consultants, LLC (@MeghanaIRA)
Dear Future Architects..

Michael Riscica - Young Architect (@YoungArchitxPDX)
Dear Future Young Architects... Please Quit Screwing Around!?!!

Stephen Ramos - BUILDINGS ARE COOL (@sramos_BAC)
Dear Future Architects: Don't makes these 4 Mistakes

brady ernst - Soapbox Architect (@bradyernstAIA)
Dear Boy in the Plastic Bubble,

Michael LaValley - Evolving Architect (@archivalley)
Dear Future Architects, Be Authentic

Greg Croft - Sage Leaf Group (@croft_gregory)
Dear Future Architect,

Jared W. Smith - Architect OWL (@ArchitectOWL)
Dear Future Architects...

Keith Palma - Architect's Trace (@cogitatedesign)
Dear future architects, are you credible?

Adam Denais - Defragging Architecture (@DefragArch)
Dear Future Architect, a Letter to My Younger Self

Ken Saginario - Twelfth Street Studio ()
Dear Future Architects...

Brian Paletz - The Emerging Architect (@bpaletz)
Dear Future Architects

Emily Grandstaff-Rice - Emily Grandstaff-Rice FAIA (@egrfaia)
Dear Future Architects...

Anthony Richardson - That Architecture Student (@anth_rich)
Dear Future Anthony

Drew Paul Bell - Drew Paul Bell (@DrewPaulBell)
Dear Future Architects, Do Your Thing

Jeffrey A Pelletier - Board & Vellum (@boardandvellum)
Dear Future Architects, Don't Forget to Treat Your Clients with Respect

Kyu Young Kim - Palo Alto Design Studio (@sokokyu)
Dear Future Architects...

Rusty Long - Rusty Long, Architect (@rustylong)
Dear future architects, never lose your optimism

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