Lora Teagarden is a practicing architect at RATIO in Indianapolis and the founder of L2 Design. Her website offers a unique insight into professional practice together with inspiration and tips for young architects.
Dear future architects,
Here are three letters to help you at each stage of your journey. As a young architect myself, I remember what your path is like. I traveled it not long ago. Yours won’t be exactly like mine, but the goal of licensure is a similar benchmark. We’re waiting for you to join us, so dive into this awesome world of architecture.
So you want to be an architect. Maybe you’re in high school and already know what you want to do, or maybe you’re the parent of a high schooler doing your own research. Maybe you’re at some stage in college, perhaps preparing for your first internship and not sure what to expect. Or maybe you’re getting ready to graduate and head out into the practicing world, diving into your training toward licensure. Whatever spot you’re at in this path, this is for you.
Dear future architects (headed to or immersed in college),
Let’s talk what you can and should get out of school:
Studio is not an easy thing. There’s a reason most universities won’t let you do a varsity sport when you declare architecture as your major (I’m a case in point. The soccer coach stopped recruiting me when he found out I was planning to do architecture.). But here’s the thing: Don’t take “not easy” as impossible … and DON’T take “no” as a hard stop. Architecture is the world of designing around and within compromises. If you stay within your box of “no”s your entire life, you won’t learn much and you definitely won’t be well-rounded. That would be a very sad career because the discipline of architecture — especially your time in school — is the perfect place to round yourself out (and not by gorging on the unlimited ice cream at the dorm cafeteria).
“The best architects still learn. They still seek out experiences that teach themselves something.”
Architecture, one of many great design careers, is one of the last great generalists. You have to know a little about everything because your world touches it all. You may go into it thinking “I’m *just* designing a building,” but you can and should come out of college understanding and interested in MUCH more than that. Who’s in that building? What’s their background? What makes them tick? Why do they use one space more than another?
You get where I’m going with this. Over your time in college, you will slowly start to amass nuggets of knowledge that make you super boring at family parties if you don’t get your “know-it-all” attitude under control but will also make you one heck of a designer. Embrace those strange subjects and classes you don’t think are relevant. It’s not until five years into the real world when you have an interesting project assigned to you when you wish you’d paid more attention. And when you’re in that class, ask questions. The best architects still learn. They still seek out experiences that teach themselves something.
Speaking of experiences: Experience culture in as many ways as you can.
What this does not mean: Getting dumb-drunk every weekend. “Culture” is not to be found at a college bar. Yes, you are bound to have a review at least once in your college career that is so bad you can’t wait to hit the sauce and forget it. That’s OK, but do not mistake this as culture when you do so. As much as the bars in your college town seem like an otherworldly place, they are not a culture worth replicating.
“If you have the chance to go somewhere and experience a new culture, take it with both hands and run.”
What this does mean: If your university gives you the chance to travel somewhere, DO IT. Yes, there are those five percent of instances where you just can’t force the worlds to align to go on a trip, but in most instances, traveling during college is one of the cheapest and best ways to see the world. I was able to travel a decent amount during school but skipped a big trip because I couldn’t persuade my parents to help me pay for the difference and saw the added loan as an extra hindrance to life as an adult (and there was an excuse about a boy in there — never do that!).
I regret it now and wish I’d just taken it on: 23 countries in the span of a semester is not something one should pass up lightly. If you have the chance to go somewhere and experience a new culture, take it with both hands and run. You have the rest of your life to work at a desk, wishing away lunch breaks in hopes that you can get time off for that next trip.
Umeå School of Architecture; image via Henning Larsen Architects
Dear future architects (newly graduated),
Welcome to the working world. I hope you’re able to find work quickly but not easily. You need to understand the interview process and how malleable our profession is to the economic environment. You need a little grit, and I hope you find it along the way without too much hardship. Grit will teach you to advocate for yourself, and that’s one of the biggest things you need to learn in this time. Remember how you had to “sell” your project during each and every crit in college? Now you have to “sell” yourself, and that doesn’t stop when you get a job. No, I don’t mean anything untoward; it’s the exact opposite of that, actually.
“You need to realize the egocentric, starchitect-style projects you were given in school were to help you test design theories and ideas.”
You are your best and most intelligent advocate when it comes to what you need, want and deserve. There will be times, especially early on in internships, when you may not get to work on exactly what you want. It’s part of the learning process, so don’t get discouraged. You need to realize the egocentric, starchitect-style projects you were given in school were to help you test design theories and ideas. This is good because it lets you form opinions and ideas; you can start to figure out what interests you. Now that you’re in the practicing world, you need to understand how the building actually gets built and how systems really work — because no matter how many times you used them on your studio projects, skyhooks haven’t been invented yet.
Most instances of project work in the practicing world involve teams and collaboration. As you are young and learning, you will have people on your team that you can learn the “hows” and “whys” from. They will be the ones doing the “fun” stuff like client meetings and initial design work. If they’re a good mentor, they’ll bring you along from time to time when project budget allows. This means that during this learning phase, you will spend at least half of your time doing stuff you don’t think is “fun.” That’s OK: It’s called being a team player, and that’s a very important trait to have.
“You are the captain of your ship. Lead it properly and keep an eye on the horizon.”
This, however, does not mean that you don’t advocate for yourself. Watch your hours on your schedule; keep an eye on when a project might be wrapping up and be talking to your boss or supervisor about what’s next. Have monthly coffee breaks with them or someone you consider a mentor in the firm. Check in with others (and yourself) constantly to make sure you’re headed where you want to go. They will like that you’re showing initiative and are on top of your hours and path within a project and the firm. But more importantly, you are the captain of your ship. Lead it properly and keep an eye on the horizon.
Advocacy also means watching out for yourself — and unfortunately we still live in a world where that is a common need. From unpaid or underpaid internships to workplace discrimination or sexual harassment (I’ve sadly experienced these last two) — you have to advocate for yourself. It will seem really scary, and it’s not easy to consider the idea that you might lose your job for speaking out … but if you’re working in a place that makes you uncomfortable, you aren’t in the world of architecture with a capital “A.” Tell a superior, mentor or friends and let them help you find a better home. Change happens slowly, and it happens by standing up and advocating for better, humane environments.
Architecture Studio at the Royal College of Art, London; via RCA
Dear future architects (on the road to licensure),
Hopefully the next step of getting licensed was a no-brainer for you when you graduated. That doesn’t mean it’s an easy process, but that’s what makes your license so valuable. Well … that and the fact that you know enough to not let buildings “fall down, go boom.” So when you decide to start studying for your tests, head to the internet or contact your nearest AIA group and gather information from people who’ve taken the tests recently.
“If you start — finish. I’ve talked to too many people who let passed tests lapse because ‘life got in the way.’”
There is a wealth of knowledge here, helping to answer questions like “What to take to the testing center” to advice and opinions like “Use this study material but not that.” As I said, this isn’t an easy process, but you don’t have to make it harder than you need to. When you start studying, do what works best for you — even if it’s getting up at 5 a.m. or staying up until 2, or if it’s long Saturdays but rest on Sundays. Just do what you need to do to start (and finish) taking those tests. And please, if you start — finish. I’ve talked to too many people who let passed tests lapse because “life got in the way.” Don’t give yourself excuses. To borrow a Nike slogan, Just Do It.
When you’re on this journey (and learning about the practice in general), it will be important to see things built, both in process and finished. Walk around your town; look at buildings when you travel; check the details. You can learn so much just by looking at the buildup of an exterior wall in Southern California versus one in Maine. Go on construction tours if your firm or local AIA chapter offers them. Ask to help with Construction Administration on projects in the office (you need it for your experience hours anyway). See stuff. We’re visual people. If you can understand flashings and picture it when you get a question about it on your test, you’re that much better off. If you aren’t able to get out to a job site as regularly as you’d like, search for it on Instagram. There are plenty of architecture and photography accounts that give you an inside look into projects, finished and under construction.
“Your career health depends entirely on your ability to adapt and embrace the new technology.”
Following that technology vein — embrace it. Generation X and younger grew up with a world of technology growing at an exponential rate, and it shows no sign of stopping. You will more than likely see five or more iterations of software types that are the main forms of creating Construction Documents through the process of your career (I’ve already seen four). Your career health depends entirely on your ability to adapt and embrace the new technology coming out. If you aren’t growing, you’re dying — because no firm wants to pay to keep on a less-efficient employee. Better yet, if you can keep your finger on the pulse of upcoming technology and adeptly advocate for its use — or a more efficient way to use existing technology — the better your chances are at creating awesome architecture and having a worthwhile career.
Dear future architects, join us in the world of architecture.
We’re waiting for you,
This article first appeared on L² Design. All images courtesy of L²