Cut and Paste. A Primer on Architecture School (Part 2)

Posted on January 16, 2012


You voted for it, so here is part 2 of my giant post about architecture school. I’ve broken into two separate posts. Last week focused on what comprises architecture school. This week will focus on the experiential side of what to expect. Let me know about your architecture school experience or any other tips for students in the comments section.

Architecture School ≠ Being an Architect

This will be hard for a lot of you to hear, but there is a very big difference between what your experience in architecture school is like and what you do, on a daily basis, as an architect. There are a whole host of activities architects do which are not really taught in architecture school. In my head it’s divided into “the fun stuff” and “the boring stuff”. The fun stuff is a lot of the activities you do in school. This includes problem solving, sketching, collaborating, renderings, models, researching, etc. The boring stuff is all those things that they gloss over in school that you’re expected to pick up during your internship. This includes endless code research, estimating, board meetings, dealing with engineers, and a whole gob of business related activities (marketing, budgeting, business planning, etc.). This is all a part of the life of an architect. You’ll learn to be efficient at the boring stuff so you can get back to doing the fun stuff.

As most schools are currently taught, you shouldn’t go out of your way to focus on “real-world” considerations. By this I mean fire codes, accessibility, structural stability, etc. These are all things that are very important to the profession of architecture and should have a greater role in your education, but right now, they don’t. So if you do get caught up worrying about those details, chances are you’ll spend less time working through the design problem, which is the reason why you’re taking those classes in the first place. You should, of course, be applying all the information you have learned up until that point (codes, structure, etc), but your professors are grading you for effectively solving a design problem and not whether or not your egress doors swing the right way.

Why not both?

One of the great tragedies within architecture is the separation of academics and practice. For too long there has been a dividing line and you have to stand on one side or the other. There are schools who do a good job of integrating practice into their curriculum (Rural Studio comes to mind), and there are architecture firms who do a lot of research and are involved in academia. The two are very important and should be completely intertwined, not separated. Without research (or evidence based design as it’s come to be known), architecture becomes a slow linear progression. Architects know how to do one thing and continue to do it over and over. That doesn’t mean that one thing is bad, but it means that architecture from 50 years ago is the same as it is today. We as a society are vastly different, so shouldn’t our buildings change with our needs? Likewise, without practice based education, architecture graduates go out into the working world without any idea how architecture actually works. When I graduated, I was very naive about how a building went from start to finish. I knew most of the steps, but had no clue how a lot of them were actually executed.

There are those out there working to solve this problem, but until better integration happens, I would encourage you to get an internship working in the AEC industry while in school. It could just be over school breaks (Christmas, spring, summer), or if you can get a job that doesn’t put too much stress on your education, great.

Put in Work

Being good at anything comes from hard work. You’re not born being an expert at anything. To be a good designer/architect, you have to practice…a lot. The harder you work at it the better you will get. If you don’t believe me, read Outliers. Well, you should read Outliers anyway. It’s a great book. So don’t take anything for granted and go out of your way to seek out opportunities that will improve your skills. It may just seem like a waste of time, but someday you will be glad you pushed yourself to improve.

All Night Long…

Late nights and sometimes all-nighters will probably become a regular part of your life. They don’t have to, but I think when you’re 18-21, you just haven’t quite figured out good time management. It’s not a conspiracy that the older people in architecture school, mid-twenties on up, seem to be able to get their projects done on time without pulling all-nighters. With age comes wisdom, and having worked a regular job forces you to become good at managing your time. In the real world you have to get projects done by a certain date, so you learn how to schedule your time to effectively complete the task. Young college students are still developing this skill and thus, end up pulling all-nighters.

Work hard and work early and you can avoid the pitfalls of the all-nighter. Completing projects last minute is never good. If you do all the hard work early on, you’ll have the last few days before a project is due to organize everything and double check your work for mistakes. Set smaller deadlines for yourself along the way, so you can finish pieces of the project incrementally. It will get easier as you go, you just have to be rigorous in setting goals and getting them done on time.

When deadlines come around, the busiest places in the architecture program are the “plotting labs”. Sometimes there will only be one or two printers for the entire architecture program to use, so if you don’t get your plots done early, you may not get them done before the deadline. This ties in with the “work hard and early” stuff before.

During a particularly grueling stretch my sophomore year, I had been awake for 72 hours straight. Disclaimer, this is REALLY BAD for your body and mind. Don’t believe me? Read this. After 2 days, I started hallucinating. It was pretty mild, but whenever I was outside I would see a black dog running at the edges of my vision. People with me thought I was crazy. I was awake so long because of a studio project that was due, but I also had a sketch project due later that same day. After my crit, I went to sketch a hallway. I sat on the floor to do my sketch and when I stood up, I blacked out for a moment. I fell sideways and hit my head on the lockers that were lining the hallway and luckily managed to kind of slump sideways without hitting the floor too hard. That was when I went home to sleep. After that, I never stayed up for more than 24 hours at a time.

Document Everything

When you are getting ready to graduate, you will start to assemble your portfolio to help get a job. If you haven’t documented all your projects thoroughly up until that point, you will really regret it. For every model you make (including conceptual ones) and every napkin sketch you do, either take lots of high quality photos or get high-res scans. There’s nothing worse than having great work that you have no proof of, because you never took pictures of it. Also, BACK UP EVERYTHING. Buy an external hard drive and regularly back up all your work on it, then burn everything on CDs and bury them in your yard. You’ll probably become suicidal if you lose an entire years work to a computer virus.

Carry a sketchbook everywhere you go. In architecture school you will be required to practice hand sketching. One of the greatest skills an architect can have is to be able to quickly communicate ideas via the quick hand sketch. You don’t have to be an artist to do this, just good at communicating ideas. A stick person can convey as much meaning as a realistic painting. Practice drawing….a lot. Doodling counts. Try to make it a habit to sketch out your ideas regularly. You don’t get better without practice.

A sketchbook is also a great way to create a running journal of everything you do in school. You will get ideas in the least likely places and having a sketchbook will enable you to quickly jot down ideas to come back to them later. I can’t count how many times I’ve been somewhere unrelated to my design studio and suddenly gotten inspiration. As you can see above, pages from my sketchbook have not only sketches, but are full of jumbled thoughts and ideas. By keeping them all in one place, you’ll be able to go back and find new connections between things. I HIGHLY recommend you start using Evernote also. It’s a free web/phone/computer app that lets you create a digital notebook that you can access from anywhere. It’s pretty fantastic.

Get Used to It

I had a professor in my second semester freshman year. We had to design an ambulance entrance canopy for a hospital and then build a model of it. Keep in mind that we’re still learning the very basics of design. Naturally, my partner and I came up with a terrible design. Our professor looked at it, said a few choice words about how awful it was, and proceeded to dismantle it. I’m not saying that this is the norm, but you will come across professors like this. If you don’t grow a thick skin, you’ll cause yourself all sorts of problems. I’ve seen people sobbing after crits or get angry and flip out. You’ll need to learn to be able to step back from your feelings. You have to be able to accept your mistakes and try to learn from every experience, even when you’re being told how dumb you are.

Try to remember that the jury is there to ask questions and critique your project. Some jurors are better at this than others. In my experience, the more discussion the better your project is. You want the jury to ask you questions that don’t have one or two word answers. If they look at your project and don’t have anything to say, it’s a bad thing. No one is good enough to completely silence a jury of any discussion. You can be bad enough though. Keep in mind that a lot of professors will allow more sloppiness if you’ve tried bold design moves. If you have crappy renderings and a terrible model of a big boring box, they will punish you.

[Image Source: SIUC School of Architecture]

Make sure you have a good explanation for your design decisions. Saying “I thought it looked cool” will get you destroyed in your crits. Even if your reason is complete BS, it’s better than no reasoning. So if you design a wavy building, say it’s “in response to hilliness of the site” or “because the nearby lake invited a design that responds to it’s rippling effects.” I can come up with BS all day.

See the World

Most architecture programs offer some sort of study abroad program. My university had a summer travel program where you took a whirlwind tour of Europe in 2 months over the summer. I could never afford going on a prolonged travel trip, but missing out on it is my biggest regret from college. College loans suck, but you won’t have an opportunity to go on a trip like that for many years and what’s another $3,000 in loans when you already have $40,000 laughing at you every time you get a notice from the bank?

Travel as much as you can. It becomes much harder to find the time and money after you graduate. It will change your world view and educate how you design so much more than reading a book ever could. I was lucky enough to spend a week in Germany (while presenting the paper mentioned in Part 1) and it was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. Seeing how the rest of the world looks and operates opens up your mind to whole new possibilities of design.

Trixie the triceratops

For our last studio class before we graduated (with a Bachelors degree) our project was to design a dinosaur museum on the site of an existing dilapidated building. We had the entire semester to do the project so we had time to explore concepts and ideas that we normally wouldn’t have. Someone had the idea to build a full-scale replica of a dinosaur skeleton out of particle board. The logic being that dinosaur skeleton’s are much larger than most objects in a typical museum and it would help us understand the scale and be much better equipped to design a building for them. Someone had a small model that we scaled to life-size proportions. We then spent a week (correct me if I’m wrong Cedric) cutting out the pieces in the wood shop. Once everything was all cut out, we carried the pieces to the patio outside our studio and assembled it there. It turned out pretty cool. It may have seemed like a big waste of time and money, but I really do think it gave us a new perspective on the museum concept we had been designing for 3 years already. Anyway, moral of the story, sometimes approaching a problem from a totally different direction can be beneficial.

Use those sweatpants for good, not evil.

I’m convinced that architecture school is one of the hardest programs you can go into. You will be stressed a lot, eat junk food too often and sleep too little. Some students look like they’ve given up altogether, wearing sweatpants everyday and smelling like they haven’t showered in weeks. Don’t be a slob. It’s gross. You should take care of yourself whenever you can. The freshman 15 can turn into the senior 50 if you’re not careful. You probably have a free rec center, so go work out a couple times a week. You’ll feel much better when you’re abusing your body later. Plus, I shouldn’t have to tell you about the positives of going to a gym where everyone else is 18-30. You know what I’m talking about. Also, don’t let your personal hygiene slip. I mean, COME ON!

They will be your friends whether you like it or not.

Architecture school encourages camaraderie. You go through at least 4 years of classes with the same people, so you’re able to form a tight bond with each other. The more you hang out in the studio and working on projects, the closer you become. You’ll spend more time with architecture students than your other friends. As a result of this, you’ll have a lot of people to call on when you need help in class and for a few of them, you’ll keep in touch with for life.

One More Thing

Your university will probably have guest lectures throughout the year. You should attend them. They are a great opportunity to meet practicing architects and other people who are active in your field of study. These are also a great place for networking. If Renzo Piano gives a lecture at your school and you can make an impression on him, you could possibly leverage that into an internship. You never know. Usually local architects will also come out to these events, so if you’re looking for a job during school, these lectures are a good place to start.

That wraps it up for my special 2 part post on architecture school. I probably missed some good stuff, so feel free to leave comments about your own experiences or more tips for architecture students.