Let me start with a quote from the late, great, Dame Zaha Hadid:
“If you want an easy life, don’t be an architect.”
Truer words have never been spoken.
For as long as I can remember I wanted to be an architect. When people ask me what got me interested in this profession I often tell the same boring old story. For the sake of this article, I’m going to repeat that story now. When I was a young warthog… wait… wrong story. When I was but a young boy, I wanted to be an artist. I’m talking Pablo Picasso artist. I’m not sure how often this happens, but reality hit me from very early when I realized 1. I’m not gonna make any money until I die (the irony didn’t set in as quickly as reality), and 2. I wasn’t that good of an artist. However, I still wanted to do something that allowed me to express my creativity. Then, one summer vacation, when I was still in my single digit years, my mother took me to London and we went to the Buckingham Palace. When I got home, for the life of me I couldn’t remember what it looked like, but I could remember what I felt when I was there. What I felt was the power of architecture. Regardless of what a building looks like, what you experience is what’s important. It was at that moment that I decided I wanted to create that experience, create that feeling I felt, for others.
Five years of architecture undergrad, one year of architecture grad school, and a few years of working later, I wish I knew just what the hell I was getting into. Contrary to popular belief, when I first started working, making a lot of money as an entry level architect was unheard of (shocking! I know!). Also, there was the not-so-shocking revelation that most of the power is in the hands of developers or clients, not the architect. Added to the fact that those long hours we spent drawing and model building in school simply transferred over into long hours at work, one may be asking why anybody becomes an architect to begin with. Well, one has a really good question. A question that I only asked when it was too late.
Here are three things I learnt immediately after leaving architecture school.
You don’t know shit.
The first thing you learn, is that you didn’t learn anything. Ask any professional architect and I’m sure you’ll get the same response. Don’t get me wrong, architecture school is filled with learning. You learn about the history of styles, buildings and architects. Depending on which school you attend, you learn various computer programmes and technical skills. You may even learn how to work with actual building materials. But, sorry to say, none of that prepares you for being an architect in the real world. You see, architecture school is a bubble. A glorious, terrible, beautiful, disgusting bubble. In that bubble you are not only the Starchitect, but you’re your own client. You answer to no one. There is no building code to reference, no budget to consider and no contractor to tell you you’re out of your mind.
Yet, when you enter the work force, you realise how much you were unprepared, or rather, how naïve you were during school. Working in the real world is a whole different type of education and the learning curve is much steeper. You need to learn how to do details properly so the contractor knows what the hell you’re trying to imply; you need to learn project management, even if you don’t want to be a project manager; you need to learn how to collaborate, not just with your co-workers, but with people you may never meet face to face. All of those things may seem like common sense, because to some degree you’ve done those things in school. But as I said, this is a whole different ball game.
Designing is not what you think.
For those in architecture school, you’ve probably heard the horror stories of recent grads being hired but getting stuck doing bathroom details. Many students have fears of becoming the dreaded CAD-monkey, toiling away at tile finishes and faucet mounting heights, never getting the chance to do what they believe they were born to do: design. After all, they spent anywhere from 4-7 years in school training to become a capitol ‘D’ Designer, and yet ‘The Man’ is denying them the opportunity to showcase their talents. Well, sorry to tell you, but not everyone comes straight out of school and is given a project where they can release their inner Frank Gehry. At the same time, those CAD-monkey horror stories are not only exaggerated, they’re outdated, cause honestly, who uses AutoCAD anymore? And yes, I know that the term is broader than that, but to my point, technology has allowed us to work much more quickly and much more efficiently. But I digress.
When you first start working, especially without any real experience, you’re essentially at the bottom of the totem pole. You have to learn the ropes. Not only the ropes of the profession, but those of your office. However, you can use every single opportunity thrown your way to actually, well, design. When I started working in my office, I was thrown onto an interior renovation project during the Construction Administration phase, which is essentially the tail end of the project. The architect is now overseeing the project, making sure it’s being built according to the design documents. Translation: there was nothing left to design. Or so I thought. Though I was tasked with dimensioning plans and creating elevation views for a reception area, I took it upon myself to design the reception desk from scratch, pouring all the passion I would’ve given a building, into a table. They didn’t use my design – because, well, they already had one and my design was ridiculously audacious – but you know what? I was noticed for going the extra mile.
See, being a young architect, hard work and knowing the right people (or better yet, having them know you) is far more important than having raw talent. During that first project, I very quickly established who I needed to engage with and who held the keys to the design kingdom. Instead of waiting for something to fall in my lap, I made the effort to ask lots of questions to those in positions of ‘power’ in the firm. “What project is that?” “That looks interesting, who’s on the design team?” “Are there any upcoming projects that I can possibly be a part of from day one?” I’m not sure if people genuinely took an interest in me, or I was starting to annoy them, but either way, I placed myself in a position where I was fortunate enough to be a part of some really exciting projects where I had some level of control or input of the overall design, from exterior to interior. And that reception desk that they didn’t use on my first project? Well it made its way back and now it’s in a multi-million dollar project. Yay me!
In spite of it all, being an architect is amazing.
The simple truth is architecture is simply fascinating. The difficult truth is that it’s fascinatingly difficult. And though I’ve said that after leaving architecture school I realised I really didn’t know anything, I’m really doing school, and you, a disservice. I’m sure my friends and former classmates who are now in the work force would agree that an education in architecture is extremely unique. You tackle problems from a different perspective. You learn to be flexible. You learn to take critique, understanding that the criticism is about the work and not you as an individual, which is perhaps one of the most important lessons you can learn in life, period. And all of that culminates in how I’ve approached the profession since I’ve been in it. Yes, there are days when I want to pull my hair out and scream “bucket”, but those days are often overshadowed by the ones where I can’t wait to get in the office and be part of a creative process. And that’s an amazing thing.
Obviously this list isn’t to be taken as universal nor all encompassing, for as the title says, it’s merely some things I’ve learnt since leaving architecture school. Which is why I guess it may still sound slightly naïve. Perhaps I’ve not been doing this long enough to grow cynical and stuck in my ways. Perhaps I still see architecture as being a driving force that can change the world. Perhaps I still believe I can be immortal just by putting lead on mylar (shout out to the OGs who actually did that), but isn’t that what we all believed when we were still in architecture school? I would like to think so. Thus, it’s only fair to ask ourselves, do we really want to lose that feeling? For all our sakes, and the profession, I hope we don’t.
Cheers. – Peat