I don’t ever wonder why I am became an architect, just like I don’t ever wonder why I didn’t become something else … like an astronaut, or a belly dancer. It’s because I don’t have the skills to be those other things (despite any stories you might have heard about the “belly dancing”). It’s easy to see the answer and look back on how I got here, but the road to becoming an architect wasn’t ever obvious or easy.
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 think my Dad actually gasped.
Was my fate sealed that Christmas Day? Was a seed planted that altered my destiny whereas I had no choice but to fulfill the requirements of this gift and become an architect? I can’t even remember if I ever used that drafting board – it might have been better used in the form of a boat. Regardless, I do have vivid memories of that moment and I believe that it did play some sort of role in my decision to become an architect.
So, now that I was 5 and my future was all mapped out thanks to a piece of wood, clearly I spent my formative years studying the architectural masters, sketching, building models, playing with concrete and 2×4’s. Right?
It’s almost as if I went out of my way to avoid doing those things because I didn’t do any of them … I didn’t even take art when I was in high school. I did take drafting for a few years but as nice of a guy as my drafting teacher was, his “real” job was as the Strength and Conditioning Coach for the football team. There are only two things I remember from my time in drafting class:
1. It’s a “scale” and not a “ruler”
2. If you tear a hole in your “eraser mouse” (because they look like a sock that has been stuffed with a dead mouse. We also called them “scumbags”) and you throw it at someone, they’ll get covered in powdered eraser and it’s hilarious.
That’s about it when it comes to my architectural preparation heading in to college … I had a drafting board that I wanted to turn into a boat and a few years of throwing eraser bags at people. The highest level of math I completed was Algebra II and I couldn’t have told you the name of 5 practicing architects if my life depended upon it. To make things even more amazing (and by “amazing“, I mean “ridiculous“) was that I was heading off the The University of Texas at Austin – one of the most competitive and highly rated architectural programs in the country. How was this even possible? Well, despite an overwhelming amount of evidence, I wasn’t a screw up in high school – I just wasn’t prepared and hadn’t spent any time developing a skill set in high school that would have helped me when I arrived at college (like drawing, developing 3-dimensional thinking skills, or talking to girls).
Would you be surprised to learn that I struggled a lot that first year?
Luckily, I think, I didn’t struggle because I couldn’t handle the work or that I was not mentally equipped to be successful, I struggled because I didn’t understand what was required of me to be successful in architecture school. I had been able to skate by in high school and still graduate at the very top of my class without really trying. l;jzdfskj;lasfd;jol;/ rfdsgvksdafkjhKJHLKDKLlkhkjhDKLJAKLJHDKjhl978
Sorry, my head just hit the keyboard because it suddenly became so big I couldn’t support it anymore.
It took a few years before I figured things out but those years were really, really rough. I looked around at everyone else’s work and they were all better than me. I had a bit of an identity crisis because here I was, 15 years after that Christmas in 1973 when I had decided to be an architect, and I started to think “Do I really suck at being an architect? What am I going to do??!” Maybe these are watershed moments and every college kid goes through them in one form or another. At the height of my identity crisis, my sister Barbara told me that “Mom and Dad are going to pull you out of school if you don’t get your act together.”
Just typing that last sentence made me break out in to a little bit of a sweat. When I asked my Dad about that comment years later, he doesn’t remember that being true. My sister Barbara doesn’t remember saying it to me either but make no mistake about it – this isn’t the sort of thing that you dream up. That moment will stick with me for the rest of my life. As much as you might think this was a bad thing, I’m glad it happened because it woke me up. There’s nothing like hearing that your parents are going to pull you out of school AND having an identity crisis to make you refocus your attention on the things that matter.
I look back on the time I spent in college with rose-colored glasses because I can recall just a handful of the painful moments but even those have resulted in me becoming the person that I am today.
So why am I an architect and not an astronaut?
Because I never wanted to be an astronaut. I wanted to be an architect and 42 years later after making that decision, I still think it’s the right one for me.
According to NASA, basic requirements for an Astronaut include the following:
- Bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution in engineering, biological science, physical science, or mathematics. An advanced degree is desirable. Quality of academic preparation is important.
At least 1,000 hours pilot-in-command time in jet aircraft. Flight test experience is highly desirable.
Ability to pass a NASA space physical which is similar to a military or civilian flight physical and includes the following specific standards:
Distant visual acuity: 20/100 or better uncorrected, correctable to 20/20 each eye.
Blood pressure: 140/90 measured in a sitting position.
Height between 62 and 75 inches.
In these categories, I can only check the box next to number 3. However, the skill set I do have lends itself quite nicely to a career in architecture.
I am a creative person and I have a strong need to actually create things.
I like to draw. I don’t think I am particularly skilled at it but I can do well enough to communicate my thoughts and ideas to others.
I notice the world around me – and I’m not just talking about my ability to avoid walking out in to traffic. I notice group behavior patterns,
I am okay at math but have a keen grasp of gravity and that water rolls downhill
I pay attention to details and the big picture – like a magician.
I like working in a personality driven industry – at least it is in the manner in which I practice.
But these traits could have landed me in a myriad of other professions. So is the field of architecture right for everyone?
Yes AND no.
I think it takes a certain type of brain to practice architecture but that doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone can’t find a place. While most people don’t go into architectural school thinking that they are going to be anything other than the world’s next great designer, the truth of the matter is that it takes a small army of roles and people to take on some of the projects being built these days. The design side of practicing architecture seems to benefit from someone who thinks radially, rather than linearly. Architectural design is about finding a balance between many things – some at complete odds with one another. The skill in being a terrific designer lies in your ability to effectively set priorities that push and pull on one another until there is some sort of equilibrium in the result. This means that all variables are in play at the same time, and for those people who solve one problem and then move on to the next one, they will experience some frustration. At the same time, thinking linearly works exceedingly well for people who will control the flow of information, oversee process, and organize and maintain procedure – things that the architectural process desperately need. I’m not saying that a person can’t be both radial and linear thinkers, but I think I could successfully argue that they will be better suited and experience greater success in one area over the other.
Lastly, there is a reason I might have become an architect that I have confessed to very few people – and never before on the site here. It has to do with a specific car … a Porsche 928.
As a young man, I was infatuated with the Porsche 928. I would not consider myself a car guy really but for some reason, this car did something for me. I actually wrote off to Porsche, telling them all about myself, and confessed my love for this particular car. You know what they did? They sent back a stack of brochures.
BUT I DIDN”T CARE!! The images were glossy, full spread … like miniature posters of awesomeness and one day, I would own one of these vehicles.
At the height of my car-love, I met someone who actually owned a Porsche 928. Guess what he did for a living ….?
That’s right. He was an architect.
Between the beautiful piece of wood (aka “drafting board”) and the architect who drove my dream car – my fate was sealed. Despite the fact that I don’t own a Porsche 928, I think my decision to become an architect has worked out pretty well.