Do you want to be an Architect? The college years

Bob Borson —  January 11, 2011 — 88 Comments

I have been an architect my whole life. When I tell people who I knew I wanted to be an architect by the time I was 5 years old, they think how lucky that must have been! How great it must be to have a singular drive and focus towards a career! Admittedly, I have spent time thinking about how people can go to college and not know what they want to do with themselves – it’s something that I never had to deal with. But am I really so lucky?

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This is one in a series of posts I am writing about the process of becoming an architect. I receive so many emails from people who seem rudderless that I thought I would address the majority of questions and comments in these posts. Today I am going to focus on the architecture school experience. - which was both great and not so great. I’m not going to focus on the particulars of being in studio – I already did that when I wrote Design Studio: The Top 10 Things You Should Know.

I graduated from the University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture – a program that is consistently in the top 10 and even top 5 of all architecture programs in the country – it is very competitive and extremely difficult to get accepted. I didn’t even apply anywhere else when it was time to send out my college application. It might sound cocky but it’s really an indication of how ignorant I can be at times.

When the day came and I showed up at college, I was surrounded by a bunch of hard-working, type A personalities. My pattern of “working the system” wasn’t working for me and I had a horrible go at things. I looked around at what I was doing compared to everyone else and I was terrible …. talk about an identity crisis. Can you imagine always knowing what you were supposed to do and then learning that you couldn’t actually do it?

Early on in my first studio class we had a drawing assignment; once they were all turned in, I found my drawing (along with 3 or 4 others) pinned up on the wall. The professor wanted to talk about how terrible these particular drawings were and how disappointed he was in the effort shown. Things were not going well for me and starting off my grades were not very good. One of my sisters pulled me aside and told me that if I didn’t get my act together, my mom and dad were going to pull me out of school. So here I was, enrolled in architecture school, always wanted to be an architect ….. and I sucked …. bad. Now what was I going to do? I started freaking out … which turned out to be just what I needed.

I still wanted to be an architect, but if I was going to be terrible at it there was no way my proud soul could have taken it. I had nothing left to consider except to change how I went about doing things and get serious -

  • Drop out of jazz band. Check
  • No more parties. Check
  • Stop going out with my friends. Check
  • No more “dating” the ladies. *sad face* Check
  • Spend ALL my time up at the studio. Check

Guess what happened? I stopped sucking. I found myself in a group of what I considered to be the best designers of my peers. I stopped paying attention to what other people were doing and only worried about what I was doing. The fear of losing something that was this important to me was a remarkable motivator and once I channeled my inner fear of sucking, I never had any more issues in school. A by-product of my new-found focus was that I uncorked some competitive side in me that I never knew existed. Once I let that particular genie out of the bottle, along with it came the constant fear of sucking – most people call it performance anxiety – competitive nature vs. fear of failure; the whip and the carrot, good and bad, yin and yang, call it what you will, all of the effort and hard work I put in was a result of not wanting to suck. Nothing worthwhile comes easy does it?

“We stopped asking because you can never come …”

I enjoyed all of my studio classes quite honestly and don’t remember being bitter about how often or how long I was up there. I had two distinct groups of friends and they rarely crossed over with one another. There were my architecture school friends, the closest of which I still have some communication with even though none of us live even remotely close to the other, and then there were my high school friends … these were the ones that I spent whatever free time I had – doing the things that college age kids do (like panty raids). I recently wrote of a conversation I had with one of these high school friends because they stopped calling me to go do stuff. His response was -

“We stopped asking because you never can come – you always tell us that you have to go to studio or something and we know that if you can do something, you will let us know and we’ll tell you what we’re doing”.

Hearing that kinda sucked but at least I understood him. I was willing to forgo that aspect of my social life in order to stay in architecture school. That’s not to say I enjoyed college any less than my heavy partying business major friends – it was just different. It turned out to be the right decision for me in the end but it wasn’t ever easy – but then nothing worthwhile ever is.

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  • Justin Lau

    Hi Bob, your blog is really inspiring and I really enjoy reading it! I am currently in my last year of high school and I’ve applied to a few architecture universities in the UK. Unfortunately I was rejected by one of the best architecture university (Cardiff University ranked 6th) in the UK and so I ended with receiving an offer from a less “good” architecture university (Oxford Brookes ranked 10th) and I’m most probably going to go there next year. Does it matter if you graduate from a less competent university for architecture and will it affect your prospects as an architect? Because right now I am feeling really worried because I didn’t get an offer from one of the best architecture universities. Will I get a good job as an architect in the future?

  • Canan

    Hello Bob! I really appreciate your blog and I love reading it. I live in the UK and I’ve still got quite a bit before I go into uni however I cannot stop thinking about what subjects I need to be doing at a level to get into an architectural uni. All of the universities I looked at want good grades and maths and science subjects – I’m not bad at either but I don’t enjoy it and I think I’ll struggle at a higher level. My art is good, but is that enough to get into a good university? And get a good job?

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Hi Canan, glad you like the blog, I appreciate the comment. As far as getting into a good university, for many, one of the major ways they determine your mental capabilities is by evaluating your grades in math and science subjects. For us in the US, most schools want to see some sort of portfolio, something that demonstrates your visual capabilities. I can’t speak as to whether or not you’ll struggle (or not) and if you’ll get a good job – you’re a long way off from knowing the answer to that question.