Letter to a Young Architect
Architects are about imagining the future and helping to bring it into existence. What could be a more optimistic, engaging, and thrilling kind of work?
Welcome to a truly wonderful profession! Of course, I hope that any professional would view his or her work with the same enthusiasm with which I view mine, but I have my reasons to favour architecture. Doctors treat illness; lawyers broker disputes; accountants detect fraud. But architects (except for a tiny group of forensic architects) are about imagining the future and helping to bring it into existence. What could be a more optimistic, engaging, and thrilling kind of work?
The existence of architecture assumes the existence of a future. It assumes that people will need more and different and better shelter than they have now. It assumes that our built environment can be improved—a statement so blandly obvious as to be hardly worth making. It assumes that both the funds and the will exist, somewhere, to bring some new or renovated space into existence, and that that space will need to be designed.
The existence of architecture assumes even more than this. It assumes that sheltering humans is a sacred work; that human shelter is more than the sum of its parts; and that, in what we call the civilized world, shelter has meaning that transcends its duty to shed water and conserve warmth. And for most architects, it is the search for meaning that energizes us, though we must never neglect the more mundane duties mentioned above.
I have had the good fortune to attend many large gatherings of North American architects, and, while I don't know them all deeply, I see embodied in them this optimism, this future-orientation, this desire for meaning, which makes us, as a group, a delightful bunch to be around. Not to mention the fact that many or most of us can knock out a pretty decent sketch on a cocktail napkin. Yes, we have our quirks (a predilection for black turtlenecks and ridiculously expensive pens), but I can think of no other group here below with which I'd rather fraternize than my architect peers.
So, as you embark on your professional journey, let me offer a few words of advice. Architecture is described as an old man's game, and there is some truth to it. You must develop patience early on. In school, you were given licence to imagine museums, schools, and urban interventions of dramatic scale. In your early work, you will be tasked with details, research, perhaps literally cutting and pasting reference images onto display boards, and you may at times wonder if it is worth the wait. Trust me: it is.
Further, in school you were led to believe that every architect is a designer. There is a sense in which this is true: every architect must have a design sense, and a feel for the essential rightness of a detail or a façade. But in reality, not every architect works as a designer. My guess is one in six, but it could as easily be three in ten. There are many career paths in our profession, all necessary and all important. Project managers and specification writers are no less valuable than the person with mad modeling skills. Just be open to the path that best suits your gifts, and you'll be fine.
I remember my first week as an intern architect as if it were yesterday. I was hired by the owner of a six-person firm. I got to run to the print shop for copies and loved every second of it. Even though I made every possible rookie mistake, my first week confirmed my calling as an architect as five years in professional school had never done. It was like that memorable line attributed to Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire: "And when I run, I feel His pleasure." That's how my first week working as an architect felt—and my 1,638th week.
Two things I learned from that experience may be valuable: first, you learn a lot by osmosis, by being in the same room as more experienced people and listening to their conversations even as you work on other tasks (by the way—lose the ear buds!). Second, you will learn much more at a small firm than at a large one. Large firms offer many and diverse opportunities to work on exciting (even exotic) projects. But you will probably have less opportunity for osmotic learning if you are in a supporting role on a large project than in a "whatever it takes" role in a smaller firm.
One other thing: get your licence as quickly as you can. I confess to a deep prejudice against people who incorrectly (and illegally) call themselves architects who don't hold a licence. And passing the exams won't get any easier the longer you wait. You should, however, learn more of value in passing the exams in your first two or three years in an architect's office than in however many years it took you to finish school. Just don't procrastinate: sit for your licensure exams at the earliest opportunity.
Like many lines of work, architecture is hurting a bit right now—worse, in fact than in the three previous recessions I've witnessed firsthand. But eventually, demand for our work will return to something resembling a normal level, even if there are more renovation projects than new buildings. Renovation is not a lesser mode of designing. It's more challenging, and it can be more rewarding when old and new are taught to play well together. It may also be the "new normal" for a while.
Am I discouraged? Not in the least! Wherever humans settle, shelter is needed, and wherever there is shelter, there is a thoughtful person stroking his or her chin saying, "Wouldn't that look better if . . . ?" That's our mission, my young architect, and our calling. Make it better.