How to be a better architect than me

How to Be a Better Architect Than Me

Hello, and thank you for inviting me to Career Day. I understand from your homeroom teacher, Mrs. Stark, that many of you are considering applying to architecture school. Sweet. As an architect for over 40 years, I’m here to tell you why it’s a great career choice, despite the limited impact you’ll have on anyone or anything.

Lights down. PowerPoint on. First slide, please, and—um, yessir, in the first row, with your hand up. You want to know my adjusted yearly gross income? Ah, I believe you’re in the wrong classroom. You’re looking for the physician presenting in Room 104 or the attorney in 108.

Any more questions before I begin? OK, the young lady in the second row. You say you’ve heard stories about how hard architecture school is and wonder if those reports are accurate.

Yeah, sorta. Numerous What I Didn’t Know About Architecture School videos circulate online. YouTubers talk about years of heavy debt, little sleep, overwhelming workloads, and the sometimes debilitating, unsympathetic criticism of their work by professors. Well, don’t let the turkeys get you down. Watch the videos with the sound up and your eyes closed. Hear the passion in that grumbling. Like those folks, you’ll slog through architecture school and be justifiably proud when you graduate. You’ll get your state seal of approval a few years later and still be solvent. Staring in the rearview mirror when you’re my age, you’ll consider those wild college days and crazy all-nighters the best of times.

A more salient rap on architecture school is that it does not fully prepare you for workplace success. Keep Googling and you’ll find podcasts complaining that only programs with integrated externships or preceptorships—where students alternate between classes and working in an architect’s office—provide the practical know-how employers seek in new hires. Indeed, a post-diploma School of Hard Knocks awaits those unwilling to stretch the time it takes to earn a design degree. It’s an inconvenient truth, yet no more show-stopping than the YouTubers’ lament. 

So, go on, apply, have fun, sleep when you can, grow a thick skin, get licensed, and enjoy a great career. Your taxing education and oeuvre of toilsome projects will add up to a fulfilling life—albeit one that won’t matter much to humanity. Next slide, please.

Gosh, that’s a lot of hands popping up. Let’s hold your questions till the end, OK?

Two basic professional architecture degrees are offered in the U.S.: a five-year Bachelor of Architecture and a two- or three-year Master of Architecture. The M.Arch is preferred if you want to teach; otherwise, as far as getting licensed to practice, the B.Arch and M.Arch are equal. 

Core curricula in both programs are composed of history, building science, and theory classes, but the design studio is the centerpiece of the academic year. Architect students spend most of their time in school in what some call an atelier. That’s French for a workshop where people make things. Studio classes are sacred spaces, in my opinion, and that of others. Mariana Ibañez, chair of UCLA’s Department of Architecture and Urban Design, says students learn “synthetic thinking and expertise that allow architects to reorganize complex sets of conditions and ideas and give them new form.” Studio class is where that transcendence occurs.

Here’s a photo of one of my projects, a modest building on a Midwest college campus. None of my projects ever won awards, but hey, what can you do? My buildings work. I’m happy with that, and so are my clients. Anyway, here’s how I view architecture school’s main takeaways: you’ll learn that problem-solving is equal parts invention, discovery, and iteration; you will learn how to work in, and lead, a team; you’ll become an expert in creating compelling visuals.

And none of this will make a damn bit of difference in the grand scheme of things.

Hoo boy, now everyone’s hands are up, even Mrs. Stark’s. I was about to show you more pictures of buildings I’ve designed—office towers, churches, restaurants—and prattle on about my typical day at the office. But maybe you’re interested in a different discussion. How many would like to know how to tell an architect from a memorable architect?

Mrs. Stark, I will deviate from my planned presentation if that’s alright. Give me a moment to rearrange some slides on my laptop. 

Let’s go back to education, this time illustrated with all that is holy. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, American architectural pedagogy—the way classes are taught and the kind of information delivered—was based on how classical architecture was then taught in French écoles des beaux-arts (“schools for fine arts”). Today, only a few curricula preach the gospel of Vitruvius, a Roman architect who wrote one of the first known treatises on architecture, a book that became a bible for the profession. Most architecture schools today are instead disciples of more-contemporary gods. Here are photos of Frank Gehry, Bjark Ingles, Thom Mayne, and Zaha Hadid buildings, a short list of the immortals students and faculty worship now. 

There have also been monotheist programs. For example, Frank Lloyd Wright founded an architecture school in his image in 1932. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was Illinois Institute of Technology’s Almighty in the 1940s. Paul Rudolph was the idol-in-residence at the Yale School of Architecture in the ’60s. 

I could add other deities to the list: Le Corbusier, Antoni Gaudí, Charles Rene Mackintosh, Julia Morgan, Alvar Aalto, Eero Saarinen, Louis Kahn, Oscar Niemeyer, Philip Johnson, Charles Moore, Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, Robert A.M. Stern, Peter Eisenman, Moshe Safdie, Richard Rogers, Norman Foster, Renzo Piano. There may be more, but not many more. There’s only so much room on architecture’s la-de-da Mount Olympus.

Architect-gods are worshiped because their innovative philosophies move the profession in new directions. They pioneer architectural styles, challenge conventional thinking, and create buildings that other architects study in school and make pilgrimages to absorb. They are visionaries, which makes them memorable.

Unfortunately, vision won’t be your thing, as it hasn’t been mine. You and I are not destined to become gods. At best, you will be an acolyte. People like us sit in pews and blindly sing the gospel of whatever divinity-du-jour strikes our fancy (I’ve always been partial to Kahn). That doesn’t necessarily mean our buildings are bad, only forgettable.

Yes, Mrs. Stark? Aren’t I being just a teensy bit cynical? No, ma’am. I’m being observant. One only needs eyes to see my point. Who in this room has been to downtown Atlanta? Keep your hand up if you’ve also visited Dallas. What about Frankfurt, Germany? Hong Kong or Singapore, anyone? How much difference did you see in new buildings, big or small, from city to city and country to country? Here are pictures I’ve found of recent structures from North and South America, Europe, and the Far East. Do you see anything unique here? Me, either, and don’t tempt me to show you the rest of my lackluster portfolio; it looks exactly like this stuff. Ninety-nine percent of what’s newly built is the work of followers. God isn’t in us, even in the details.

My words sound harsh, Mrs. Stark, because the path of a god-to-be is more than uphill. It’s a damn near impossible climb—that is, unless you’re willing to go off-trail. I never had it in me to go rogue. Unless I’m mistaken, I doubt anyone in this room has that gumption. Am I wrong?

Huh, guess I’m wrong. In that case, listen up, guys. Conventional architectural pedagogy teaches building design, history, and theory. It won’t teach you about yourself. Architects acquiring cult status know who they are and what they stand for. Their self-knowledge doesn’t come from an atelier.

To get in touch with one’s psyche, one should study a topic outside most architecture programs’ core curriculum: philosophy. To stand next to Wright, Kahn, and Venturi requires leaning on Plato, Kant, and Bertrand Russell. Philosophers seek answers to questions like Can computers think? Is there such a thing as free will? Why be good? Figure that out, and you’re in a position to discover the answers to other questions: What do I believe? What makes a good building? How should people live their lives? If your reflections include the role of aesthetics, ethics, and politics in architecture, you may formulate a unique viewpoint informing what and how you design. Learn how to thread and defend your argument, and you’ll be invited to lecture at architecture schools. Produce a building or two around your theory, and you’re halfway to immortality. Keep going, and you’ve become your own Savior.

Phew. My head hurts. Coming up with a theory you can articulate and demonstrate? Painful. Not for the gods, though. They wear their philosophies on their sleeves and façades. Wright’s mission to harmonize with nature permeated his architecture. Le Corbusier’s “machines for living in” manifested in the functionality=efficiency=beauty aesthetic exhibited by the Le Modulor Men adorning his structures. Mies’ thesis on rational simplicity and Kahn’s views on expressive forms are fully displayed. Studying philosophy encourages self-questioning and critical thinking, precisely what’s needed to avoid following in the same well-tread footsteps that I did. 

On the other hand, there is safety in not taking the road less traveled. Mies once famously declared, “Less is more,” a radical idea that some denounced. My motto is, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” Not once has my work been criticized, much less noticed.

Mrs. Stark, you’re still frowning. You say you’re wondering if there isn’t more to architecture than what you term “bitterness.” There is, but that would mean changing my slides again, and I doubt many here are interested in knowing the difference between a memorable architect and a meaningful architect. Show of hands?

Indulge me while I reconfigure my slides.

Let me talk now about those rarest of architectural skills. Mariana Ibañez says architecture students not only learn how to take facts and figures and create spaces, they gain “the skills to analyze and organize the systems and communities that inhabit those spaces.” I respectfully disagree. Like discovering who you are, the ability to know who lives inside what you design isn’t learned in an atelier. It doesn’t come from diving into philosophy, either. True understanding comes from empathy, a skill that requires another field outside the margins: creative writing.

I mean, how many hats can a person wear?

Humans have a Darwinian imperative to absorb vicarious knowledge through stories. That’s a mighty tool in the proper hands. Victor Hugo, who wrote The Hunchback of Notre Dame, once said, “A writer is a world trapped in a person.” Creative-writing architects could use stories to conjure and explore the worlds their project users inhabit. Imagine tapping into the hearts and minds of others and walking around in their shoes. That is what fiction writers do. That’s also a pre-design powerhouse.

Before architects solve design problems, they define the problem they’re trying to solve. Research into building users’ requirements is called programming, although it has little to do with software. In its highest form, architectural programming “establishes goals, collects and analyzes facts, uncovers and tests concepts, determines needs, and states the problem.” The data are too often lifeless. Accompanied by exploratory storied vignettes, though—narratives where representative building users reveal their personalities, feelings, points of view, and values—the data come alive. 

Architect-writers go beyond form, function, economy, and time when Problem Seeking. They become advocates for their constituents. Enhanced emotional intelligence provides an appreciation of needs and wants that surveys, interviews, statistics, and concept diagrams lack.

So there you have it, how to be a memorable and meaningful architect: know thyself and thy community. Reach that summit and rejoice! You’ve become a better architect than me, a guy who plateaued early and enjoyed the ride downhill.

At last, I see smiles in the room, even on Mrs. Stark. Reckon my job here is done. Why, thank you, ma’am. It was my pleasure to be here today. I hope I’m leaving behind an encouraged and enthusiastic homeroom class.

A last point before Q&A. Even if your buildings are more memorable and meaningful than mine, they won’t amount to a hill of beans in the landscape of human development.


Yes, in the third row near the window. Uh-huh. I see. You’re asking what it would take for an architect or building to solve societal problems at scale.  My, you’re thinking big. Hmm. I have no slides for that, so I’ll just talk.

Architects who change societies create buildings that go beyond memorable and meaningful. Their structures are motivational. There was a time when architects had their fingers on the pulse and pace of humanity through the sublime use of embedded meta-narratives. Modern architects have lost that touch. Without the narrative tools to drive social agendas, architects must employ another instrument to make buildings behaviorally impactful and emotionally inspiring: psychology, something again outside the normal scope of architectural education.

How the built environment affects people is a hot research topic. Neuroscientists are examining environmental triggers that shape moods, perceptions, cognition, and memory. However, psychologists have studied the environmental influences on human behaviors far longer. Well-established psychosocial theories explain how noise, crowding, and pollution cause stress. Other accepted models describe the emotional and cognitive bonds people create with places and how that affects personal identity and sense of belonging. Architects applying this research can create buildings that encourage positive behaviors and discourage negative ones. The results would be built environments that exceed users’ desires, preferences, and expectations. That’s the kind of work that goes viral. That’s what makes a dent in the universe. Design memorable, meaningful, and motivational buildings, and you change the world. 

Me, I wouldn’t bother.

Back to questions. Ah, the girl who initially asked if architecture school is too hard. Now you want to know if taking all these electives will make things even harder.

Yes, my dear, harder … although, now that I think about it, probably also more satisfying. Had I known then what I’m telling you now, I may have found a way outside the confines of strict architectural pedagogy. I might have crammed these electives into my five-year B.Arch degree. Failing that, I could have taken those courses during the summer. 

Heck, maybe even better would have been my not applying to architecture school after high school. Yeah, I think that’s my best advice to you seniors on Career Day. Don’t go to architecture school next year.

Yowza—it’s been a while since a teacher’s thrown an eraser at my head. Hell of an arm, Mrs. Stark. Superb aim! Am I bleeding?

Look, I merely suggest your kids attend a liberal arts college before going to architecture school. That will give them time for the philosophy, writing, and psychology classes needed to escape a life of insignificance. Earn a B.A. in soft skills before getting a graduate architecture degree with a hard edge. That’s what I would do if I could start over. Wish I’d had that clarity of vision when I was 17 or 18.

Speaking of vision … does anyone know where my glasses landed?

Featured image generated by AI and the author.


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