young duo

The Accidental Making of an Architect

The image of architects is exquisitely skewed. The “Mother of the Arts” seems to have birthed the role model of “Renaissance People” in just anyone who knows nothing about the profession. Whether it was Mike Brady on The Brady Bunch or Howard Roark in The Fountainhead, whoever is the mythical firm controlling how people see architects should get a raise. (Wait, that’s the AIA…)

For some reason, most architectural origin stories seem to start with, “I always wanted to be an architect.” Well, I always wanted to play in the NFL, but due to my minimal natural ability I knew when I was 14 that it would not happen. When it came time for me to decide where to apply for college in 1973, I thought I would go to an arts and sciences school and work from there. Until I found out exactly what that would mean. 

This was before the 21st century college admissions industrial complex made for a score of visits and applications. I had to determine, at age 16, where I would go to college, as I firmly believed that college was to train you for the career that would be your identity and livelihood for the rest of your life, as it had been for my father.

I had taken history and English courses at the University of Buffalo after my junior year of high school for that simple reason: to determine which discipline I would dedicate the rest of my life to. Those declarations were not absurd in the context of our family. With great enthusiasm I met with my professors on the last day of class with a question: “If I dedicated my life to history or English, and did everything I could, what would be the result?”

I received identical answers from both professors: “You would do well! First you would get a Ph.D., then write and teach.”

Then I asked, “If I went as far as I could, who would I be teaching, and to what end?”

Again, both professors said more or less the same thing: “Well, you would end up teaching those who were going to get their own Ph.D.”

“So I would be teaching those who would teach others to teach others?”

“Yes,” they replied calmly, describing their own lives.

It hit me hard then that I simply had to have a product—an outcome—from my efforts. So I would not be an English or history major, and that decision defined the universities I would apply to. Case closed. No counsel, no perspective, no second opinions.  

That night I attempted to sleep, thoroughly engaged in determining my future. In the fog of confusion, I saw my bookshelves in the moonlight, thought of my drawings, thought about how most nights I would drift off to sleep thinking of how things were made—a chest, a door, a box—and then said to myself, “architecture,” before dropping off to sleep.

I had zero guidance. A couple of generations before the internet, I bought thick books and went to the library for other research aids to look for colleges. I had found three five-year architecture programs that could get me licensed as soon as possible, rather than a lightly focused undergrad degree and a master’s that leverages getting licensed as an architect. I also thought it could be cool to go to the same school as my best friend and thought nothing of that school being Harvard, except that it did not have a five-year BArch program. I had no “safety school,” no idea what a “reach” was. My “guidance counselor” asked where I wanted to go, I told him, he said, “Great,” and that ended our session. I had no one to ask if any of these thoughts had merit.

No thoughts of nonprofessional architecture majors and then grad school (like Yale). It was All-Pro or No-Go. Or go to Harvard with my best friend. Pretty dumb. 

After my summer of discernment, I leaped head-on into what architecture schools cared about. I took physics and was able to do papers in lieu of the trigonometry that I was learning that year. I took art history courses at the University of Buffalo to enhance architecture school desirability, as did a great teacher who created an “architectural drawing” course with a class of one: me. That course was my executing drawings for our school’s girl’s gymnasium, and a school interior (both were eventually built). I was good at testing, had a few B’s but no C’s, and some AP courses, so the recruiters encouraged me to visit them, personally, at each school.

My parents were not there and knew nothing; my “adviser” was equally clueless. I mailed and phoned my way to set up a week of visits. I scoped out a Greyhound bus trip: Ithaca-Philadelphia-Princeton-Boston and then back to Buffalo, with one night in each place, at the cheapest places the college admittance guide books recommended. Those costs were presented to my parents over the phone: “Done.” Confirming calls and letters ensued. All was set up in a five-day assault after my football team’s season was over, before Thanksgiving.

The first two visits were to the architecture schools of Cornell and the University of Pennsylvania. Cornell was considered the best architecture school in the country at the time, and Penn had the legendary Louis Kahn teaching there. My parents had gone to Cornell, but that didn’t seem to matter, as both schools treated me like I was an all-star athlete. I had a portfolio that included actual building projects, and that was not the norm. Both schools, in small faculty groups, gave me personal tours, and said that I was admitted before I had even applied.

I then went to Princeton, the land of Michael Graves. I toured the beautiful campus, my head still reeling from being treated as a star at Cornell and Penn. I was alone, as usual, without counsel of any kind. I was also not a preppie, as were all I saw at this Ivy-est of Ivy scenes (including a raccoon coat–clad Stan Smith, tennis star, escorting his undergrad girlfriend on campus). So when I went to see the person who interviewed me up at my high school, as I had the first two schools visited, which were theoretically better schools of architecture, I was fully ignorant.

“So, how do you like Princeton, Duo?” gushed Ted (I think), aggressively shaking my hand. I paused. “Well, Ted,” I said, looking him in the eye, “actually, Cornell and Penn were very nice to me—in fact, they both basically said that I was accepted into their programs.” Then came the comment that makes me wince in self-loathing every time I recall it: “So, why don’t you just give my place to someone else.” 

Idiot. I had no idea that I had no “place” to give anyone, or even an acceptance by anyone in hand. 

Harvard waitlisted me (I was number 3 and, according to those who would know, they took two). So Cornell was it. Upstate New York. Where my parents had gone. But “the best” school of architecture in the county. 

It was a different time. I had no sense of triumph upon admission. I have no idea if the Great Putsch for an architecture license ASAP was a good idea (obtained when I was 26), simply because everything I did was without perspective.

This saga feels like something from a different era, because it is. I was just one of the white, male, private school applicants that made up the vast majority of those I went to school with, and who became architects in the late mid-20th century.

I just never believed that I always wanted to be an architect. It took until I was 16.

Featured image of the author as a young man courtesy of the author.


Get smart and engaging news and commentary from architecture and design’s leading minds.

Donate to, a Not-For-Profit website dedicated to reconnecting architecture and design to the public.