You’re a kid thinking about being an architect, you go to school, you take an unreasonable number of classes for years and years, you graduate, start your first job and instead of thinking “I’ve made it!” you think “How do I do this?” We are going to be talking about this exact experience today on Episode 84 “Building an Architect”
Since this was a topic that I came up with, and there might be some question marks over your head as to what this topic even means, the idea was simply what skills you like to see if you could Weird Science your way to “building an architect”. The idea of this particular topic had to do with the journey that we went through – one that was probably fairly similar to most people who do what we do for a living. Realizing that architects exist and thinking this is what you want to do, preparing for that specific educational path while in high school, going to college and studying architecture, how did your first job go and did the things you learned in college prepare you for that first day.
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Begin at the Beginning jump to 2:05
This basically begins with the moment when you figure out that you wanted to be an architect. For me, I was 5-years old and it was due to a gift I received from my father. I have told this story many times before but I am going to tell it again because people keep asking me this question and I can’t really blame them for not searching through the millions and millions of articles I have written. I knew I was going to be an architect when I was 5 years old – before I even knew that architects existed or that this was really a job people could perform. My Dad bought me a drafting board, a T-square, and a few orange triangles, and gave it to me for Christmas in 1973. I don’t know what characteristics I demonstrated that led him to this particular gift, I don’t think he knows either. Once I opened my gift, I didn’t know its purpose. I distinctly remember holding the wood drafting board … it was so smooth and beautiful. No knots, it wasn’t warped – it was perfectly clean and uniform. I told my Dad – announced really – that I was going to take this beautiful piece of wood, cut it up and make a boat with it.
I didn’t actually make that boat, but I don’t remember ever using that equipment to draft anything either. I will admit that it did plant a seed and the idea formed in my head that I was going to be an architect. The entire, fully articulated story can be found here (Why I am an Architect and not an Astronaut)
The High School Years jump to 7:58
Most people who learn what I do for a living are shocked to hear that I didn’t take an art class of any sort past 6th grade. It was part of the required curriculum but … if you were in band, you didn’t have to take art. Participating in band was very important to my parents, and everyone in my family was heavily involved as soon as it was possible. While I do not want to turn this into a post on band and the role it played in my life, it did shape my formative experience in just about every conceivable manner. I played three different instruments when I was in high school and the extracurricular demands it had on my life were in the extreme and this left very little time for anything else, which includes art.
I did take a drafting class during my Junior and Senior years, but this was something that I felt like I had to do knowing that I was going to be going to college to be an architect. The idea that I needed to understand technical drawings was not an unreasonable one, but my drafting class was taught by the same person who was the strength and conditioning coach for my high school football team. I don’t actually remember doing anything except goofing off in that class and I distinctly remember being told that I had to unlearn what I learned in high school by the college professor whose job it was to teach me how to draw. I feel fairly safe in saying that my time in high school did not prepare me for what I would need to know when I got to college.
The College Years jump to 11:01
Andrew and I spent the bulk of our time in today’s episode talking about our time in college, which based on what I just shared about my time in high school, should not come as a surprise. The types of classes and the adventures that ensued … especially things like live-model life drawing exercises and what that can do to a sweet and innocent fresh-faced 18-year-old. The school I attended broke our studio classes into 5-hour classes that took place on M-W-F and 3-hour long graphic skills development studio classes that took place on Tuesday and Thursday. That was 6 hours of class time a week dedicated to teaching us how to draw and visualize, time that looking back I consider well spent.
One of the big topics we discussed was how we spent our elective coursework – and mostly how we wasted these opportunities with classes that, albeit enjoyable (at least for Andrew), did not develop any business skills. This particular observation has been shared with me on hundreds of occasions – seasoned architects who wish that they had come out of college with some understanding of how to run a business. What I am curious about – because I think that this is a situation that I most likely created for myself – was that nobody in a position to know better ever told me that rather than taking classes like karate, self-paced astronomy, and in the case of Andrew, billiards, yoga, and bowling, we should head on over to the business school and look into a real estate, accounting, or any generic business strategy course.
There will be several of you who recognize the sketch of Igor Stravinsky by Pablo Picasso from your time in school, but for those who don’t recognize that sketch, this image is frequently used in an exercise introduced by Betty Edwards in her 1979 classic “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain” when learning how to draw what we actually see instead of a combination of what we see and what we know something to be.
That First Job jump to 30:55
The economy wasn’t great when I graduated and so it quickly became apparent that if there was a job to be had, I’d better take it … and so I did. This first job of mine was focused on designing and detailing retail spaces and it did not require me to understand how buildings were actually built. I didn’t have to wonder how water was kept out of a building for YEARS. I wrote a post about this first job and I titled it as “My Secret Life as a Hooker-Architect” … a fairly telling title.
Since I came out of school without any particular day-one skills, I spent those early days learning on the job by looking at the work that had been done previously, a process that was my education in the beginning. The nature of the work my office focused on meant that my boss, who was only ten years older than myself, sent him traveling almost every week and I found myself in the office by myself with nobody available to provide guidance or answer questions. My education did not prepare me for the practical nature of being an architect. It was very design-specific and theory-based and I know that the school had the opinion that everyone who was accepted into this particular college, would figure out the more practical items on their own and instead, chose to focus on education on matters the profession would not teach us.
The things I learned – or didn’t learn as it happens – impacted the trajectory of my career for years as I tried to put myself in a position to actually learn how to do real architecture while fighting against the skills that I had naturally developed. Design, talking, critical thinking were the items that I had developed, not where vapor barriers are placed, understanding how foundations work, or even something as simple as how construction drawings are assembled.
Andrew’s experience was similar to my own in that he was learning on the job by learning by watching and asking other people rather than walking in the door ready to go.
What Made You Who You Are? jump to 40:28
What’s the first thing that you remember doing that helped you become the architect you are today?
Pay attention to the world around you and understand why you do, or do not like something, and you need to articulate that.
I try and guide young people away from reading books on architects, you don’t need to be focusing on architectural theory when you are still a teenager. You are far better served by just understanding why something makes you feel a particular why. Other than describing something as cool, articulate why is something cool. You have to think critically about your own opinions and then convey that to another person is a lifelong skill that is particularly well suited to building an architect.
We talked about this at greater length in Episode 76: Critical Skills of an Architect when we came up with a list of traits that people who wanted to be an architect should demonstrate prior to deciding to be an architect. While it was a fairly simple thing to identify those traits, the interesting part of that episode was the discussion pertaining to the development of the building blocks needed to (hopefully) experience success later in your career.
Sometimes the questions we present during this segment are easy, or at least, obvious in how we will answer. I’d be curious if you felt you thought you knew how we would answer this one.
Would you rather? jump to 51:15
Travel the world all expenses paid (lodging and transportation costs) for 1-year or have $75,000 to spend on anything you want?
We intentionally try to find the exact point where these questions go from an easy and obvious answer to something that requires you to think about your options for just a minute. Like any question, we are always trying to find some sort of loophole that gives one side of the conversation an edge … and even our loopholes are informative and will tell you a bit about the person who is answering.
Ep 084: Building an Architect
The process of educating someone who wants to be an architect is a complicated one and there are more possibilities on how that journey could look than you can possibly imagine. Despite all the whinging I have levied in this post, I don’t think in retrospect that I would change much … other than that avoiding that self-paced astronomy class. It took me a while to get here, but I believe I am where my interests and talents have led me. Of course, there are times when the path would have been more direct and effective if I had made some better decisions, but in almost every condition, life has presented an opportunity to remedy those errors.
Special thanks to today’s sponsor Sherwin Williams – for more information on coil coatings, please visit coil.sherwin.com