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10 things you dont get taught in Architecture School

In my early assignments at Architecture School I struggled to obtain a passing mark – and in fact, I was lucky to make it through my 1st year! Initially, Architecture School was overwhelming, in particular I struggled learning the new design ‘language’, managing the intense studio hours (goodbye to mum and dad for a while) and dealing with the tough criticism. Then there were the ‘super-students’, those who appeared to achieve the unattainable; ‘Supers’ could draw in plan, section AND perspective, not to mention they maintained a superior ability to verbally communicate and sell their ideas.

Six years on from this tough beginning I graduated with high distinction, achieving the highest overall aggregated marks of all students, in the subject areas of History, Theory, Construction, Practice and Design.  I was the University of Technology (UTS) winner of the most Outstanding Design Student in 2010, awarded a scholarship to study in L.A. and was also nominated by UTS for the NSW Architects Medallion in 2011.

Today I reflect on my time at university (or college for my US readers) to recognize that the most important lessons didn’t come from what was in the curriculum, but from what I discovered along the way, including things relating to architecture, life and individually. Through my own experience, and in no particular order here is what I uncovered about surviving and achieving high in architecture school. The following was instrumental to my experience and growth – allowing me to literally go from the bottom of the class to the top!

10 things you don’t get taught in Architecture School:

1: Forget about Winning or Losing

Architecture is undoubtedly subjective and therefore your tutors will tend to find value (or lack of) in things that you don’t (or others don’t) and vice versa. When you stop focusing on what other people do (or think) then you will become more capable of focusing on your individual design value and agenda. Ultimately, by ruling out the process of comparison you begin to define your own standards and measures of success which, in my case, is greater than the perceived expectations that someone else will place upon me. You therefore create your own benchmark for success. Document your work well and find a good forum such as pushpullbar.com for presenting your ideas and being open for criticism and growth. Always be satisfied with your achievement, irrespective of your mark and of those around you, part of what makes architecture so exciting is the fact that everyone contributes uniquely to its perception, discourse and practice.

2: Your tutor is your client

Similar to a client, your tutor needs to see, understand and be convinced by your design process and resolution. You need to be able to convince your tutor that your design is well-considered; at minimum, addressing the requirements of the brief (see 4: Break the rules). In a design competition the firm that best communicates their idea through various mediums will often win the job, and in the same way, the student who best communicates their idea in architecture school will likely get the highest mark. It is also important to be professional, your tutors are likely to have many responsibilities outside being a teacher and mentor so show them that you respect their time by considering their advice seriously and by working hard. If you need extra help, ask for advice, visit their office or catch up in a cafe, just be present and invested.

Taking the time to know your tutor (like you would a client) will give you a greater understanding of their knowledge, values and motivations. By understanding what their methodology and interest in architecture is you can best gauge how they can help you, what you can learn from them and how to approach and pitch your design strategies.

3: Play the Momentum

Many great leaders in business (including Donald Trump) talk about the importance of establishing and maintaining momentum. With momentum it is difficult to stop, while without momentum, it is difficult to start. Tutors hope to see progress every single week and if you start developing your design from day one without stopping, it is unlikely you will feel the need to pull an all-nighter before submission time (this being the quintessential anti-momentum). The most successful projects are unlikely to be developed in just 1 night and design tutors are well aware of the students who haven’t slept based on the thoroughness of their project. Without momentum, students are not able to achieve the same kind of thought processes with consideration and continuous design iterations that the students with momentum have. Maintaining this will also eliminate the need for major last-minute design changes that often do more harm than good. Last-minute changes are usually less resolved and less likely to be communicated successfully.

4: Break the Rules

It is important to think of the design brief as your minimum expectation; tutors establish the brief to ensure students address particular challenges and important considerations relating to the design subject. There will be a number of rules which are outlined in the brief; ‘the house must be 2 stories high’ or ‘you must have 6m setback from the road.’ However, if you have a better solution, break and/or negotiate the rules – but always understand why. Curiosity will lead to discovery, which in turn will lead to questioning: so why does the house need to be 2 stories? There is never only one answer rather university is about speculating many and asking the right questions.

There is far more value in a student who strives to find solutions that challenge the status quo than in one who simply meets the rules without considering why they’ve been established (and what they do) in the first place. By doing this you think about how architecture works as opposed to how it looks. When it comes to the design brief, rules are made to be broken; and when done so successfully you will stand out from your peers, as well as generate a more valuable discussion for learning.

Many architects who have won major competitions (look no further; Bernard Tschumi) have done so by breaking and/or negotiating the rules, to communicate a design solution, or perhaps a problem (even better!) to the jury or client (in your case tutor) which stood out from the competition. By bringing unexpected agendas and obstacles into view, architectural proposals can re-order the traditional logic (see Arakawa and Gins) and allow the jury or client (or tutor, or the public) to find unexpected value.

5: Have broad influences and mentors

When studying Architecture it is quite easy to isolate all of your influences and mentors to people who directly work in the industry. While it is important to have these people available to guide you, it is important to have many influences and mentors from outside the industry. This allowed me learn from people with vastly different perspectives and considerations and to then apply this thinking back into architecture, creating a broader and more interesting forum for discussion and negotiation.

I often did self-guided subjects where I could write my own design brief to explore such topics of anarchy and architecture and social and political agendas in architecture because this is what most interested me. It is also possible to do subjects outside architecture by taking units in anthropology, biology or ceramics, for example, allowing you to naturally broaden your skill-set, personal resources, and way of thinking about architecture (think of Shigeru Ban’s unique weaving aesthetic), and even better is Architecture inspired by Science Fiction or Fantasy.

One of my favourite architects Andrew Maynard often talks about the “storm trooper detail” in his work, which is a white surface with black detailing revealed beneath. Limiting your influences can quite simply lead to producing designs that look generic because one can only imagine the reproduction of what they know or have seen. Having broad motivations and influences will allow you to constantly inform your peers and tutors and to keep them engaged in your projects and processes by showing them a perspective which is unique and outside their own.

6: Have cause and conviction

Be passionate about something to motivate you through university and into your career. Game changing Architects advocate a strong cause and with precise conviction. In their protest for what they believe they don’t stand in-front of the car, they are behind the wheel driving. Admittedly, at one point or another, every architecture student finds him or herself dragging their heels. As soon as you feel that you do not love what you’re doing, it’s time to stop, question why and re-evaluate. Redirect your process or motivation and don’t let anything get in the way of your love affair (see Louis Sullivan’s essay,“May Not Architecture Again Become a Living Art?”). Don’t feel like you are doing the work because you have to, rather you should do it because you want to and allow your energetic attitude to inspire and lift your peers. Why bother trying to drudge through any part of the process?

7: Up-skill

Your tools, techniques and methods of communication will significantly affect your ability to communicate architecture. You need to develop strong visual, verbal and written communication skills. Through concise yet relaxed storytelling – communicating, his idea, process and resolution Bjarke Ingels is a master when it comes to winning competitions, in an interview with the New Yorker he describes himself “as a true extrovert. Your capacity to communicate ideas is your hammer and chisel.” Something as simple as mastering Google search, CAD programs, or getting models laser cut can save hours!

8: Build meaningful relationships

The relationships you build, both in and out of school, represent the beginning of defining your views and finding your own path in architecture. Many successful architecture partnerships are formed between people who met in school. (see Asymptote Architecture or Hurzog & de Meuron) But beyond keeping a reliable group of go-tos, think of everyone you encounter during school as a potential connection for the future. Seek out events and happenings that will expose you to other people in the field. Having conversations with as many people in the industry as possible will open up the most opportunities for you to grow and form new professional friendships and partnerships, taking you places not possible without.

9: Learn project management

As an architecture student, one of the first things you find out (and last things you learn to figure in) is that everything will likely take three to five times longer than you expected. This is also unfortunately common in practice and generally Architects need to be better managers. I believe this is because architecture is both a qualitative and quantitative process which helps to negate the ‘finish’ line. Not ever did I feel a design project was ‘perfect’ and likewise Architects on every project wish they had done something (or many things) differently. “Parkinson’s Law dictates that a task will swell in (perceived) importance and complexity in relation to the time allotted for its completion.”- Tim Ferriss, The Four Hour Work week.

Understanding the perceived importance of a given task will effectively allow you to direct your focus on the right things, at the right time, allowing you to make smart decisions on where to spend your effort, time, money, resources and so on for maximum gain. For more guidance on study hacks and optimising the use of your time check out Cal Newport’s blog and 99U.

10: Don’t expect the outcome

Students often limit their projects by anticipating certain aspects or the design outcome far too early on in the process. If you are too focused on a fixed result, then you are denying yourself the opportunity to discover what you could not have expected. When you anticipate a given outcome, your research, equipment, processes and focus will naturally be managed in a way to best meet the anticipated solution. By contrast, if you try to set yourself up for the act of discovery, embracing what serendipitous events come up along the way, you will begin to tap into the tacit and often highly subjective insights, intuitions and hunches of individual thought and expression. I can tell you now that to be surprised by your own, idiosyncratic work is far more satisfying than any mark.

You will need to find your own way, be engaged and proactive, no one can teach you the answer, you need to discover and create. ‘A lot of people never use their initiative because no one told them to’ Banksy. Like I said back at number 1, there are no winners or losers – architecture is interesting because it is after all capable of surprise!

I hope everyone studying architecture, or planning to study architecture finds my advice helpful. For anyone who would like to learn more about any of my points above please feel free to email linda@archi-ninja.com. For anyone who has finished architecture school or currently learning things along the way Id love to hear your own experiences and advice in the comment section below.

Discussion

34 comments for “10 things you dont get taught in Architecture School”

  • http://terraceagenda.com Mentioner

    Great post. Good to see you back!

  • http://www.twitter.com/smcheileh Sam M

    Linda great post and agree with all the items listed. Although having been in practice now for about 5 years post graduation, I’d have to say that number 9 – learn project management is the one that sticks most for me.
    I’d even go as far to say that I think business management should be a compulsory subject for architecture students. I did an elective while at uni because I’ve always been interested in business but surprisingly very few others were..and unfortunately it’s the reason why so many architecture firms are run so poorly and fail to attract consistent work.

    Architects need to learn how to better sell themselves and how the skills we have add value for our clients.

    • Linda

      Thank you for your comment Sam,

      I agree that this is a large issue in the industry. I think poor management is also partly behind the expectation for long hours with poor pay in the industry. Architects need to know how to manage a business and have a good concept of money (and self worth) so they can ultimately take it out of equation and focus on what they do best.

      Linda

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  • http://www.linkedin.com/pub/ayman-safi/28/357/745 Ayman Zaid

    Wonderful points i had just read. Actually I had felt all the 10 points you have just mentioned. As you see studying Architecture is not only about having a major or developing a hobby; I think -if you go IN architecture, how to study and how o obtain and produce- many aspects in your character will be developed. The way you manage your daily life, the way you do understand, the value of time, you will also create an internal understanding of management rules!
    After the BA, you will be thinking loudly of being able to do anything, to learn any type of industry.. It open your mind to simplify things, accept challenge and focus on how to do things carefully then directly, how to do it creatively.

    As I see, such an approach of listening to Architecture, surely will develop the way of thinking.

    Keep going!

    Ayman

  • Linda

    Some great discourse on the article can also be found over at ArchDaily http://www.archdaily.com/280028/10-things-they-dont-teach-you-in-architecture-school/

  • http://www.licensednyhomeinspector.com Igor Smetaniuk

    Linda,

    I came across your well written piece in Arch Daily. This is such a great eye opener to give direction for those flying into a thick cloud and not knowing which way is up or down. I recently dropped off my aspiring Architecture student (Daughter) to persue a 5 year BArch program. At the moment she is experiencing much of what you so well described in your introductory paragraphs. I believe your 10 points will be the ‘KEY’ to open many doors of achievement throughout her academic years. Just last weekend my Wife and I were able to visit her University for Family Weekend and see ‘hands on’ the projects that she has already been tasked with. She explained the various critiques, which followed, from her Professor. It was exciting for both of us to see a young bud beginning it’s bloom. I had planted the seed when she was 9 years old to become an Architect after she presented me with a detailed color drawing of a home having some unique ideas. Having a past in Construction and now Consulting, I have always taken time throughout the years to show and explain to her many Architecture related facets. She maintained her future Career interest without one bit of coercion on my part. I could see the whole time that this was meant to be for her. NOW – Linda, YOU have provided the fertilizer for our young bloom. When she visits back home in 2 weeks, I will spend an hour with her in a nice and focused setting to disect your 10 points, then, repeat it a 2nd time so she can go back to use this nourishment to her greatest advantage over her peers. Thanks so much! I have you bookmarked and we may be confiding in you in the future as a voice of reason. I believe that we would be practicing point #8 in doing so. :- )

    • Linda

      Igor,

      Thank you for your comment. I truly appreciate that the post is also helpful to the parents of students who study architecture! I feel it is sometimes very difficult to explain the experiences of an architecture degree to anyone outside university. My parents were so incredibly supportive and it sounds like you and your wife are doing everything right in helping her transition into architecture. You are more than welcome to email any time should you like some more insight.

      I wish your daughter the best of luck in her studies, for me the 1st year (or few) was about finding my feet. Architecture is incredibly broad and so finding where your interest truly lies is important for the final few years. Please let your daughter know that she is also welcome to email any time should she like some advice.

      Again thank you and good luck!

      Linda

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  • wendy

    These points are appropriate for many practitioners! My husband and I were both art majors in college, and are now a builder (although that word doesn’t come close to encompassing his actual work) and web developer, respectively. Many of these points about building networks, treating mentors as clients, developing communication and project-management skills etc. would apply to our industries as well. Thank you for articulating these important ideas.

    • Linda

      I’m so glad that my advice can translate in other Industries also. What I hope is that this relates more to someone’s attitude and perspective within the profession (or any profession) as opposed to taught skills or processes.

  • linda

    Underdog arch student replies to the advice over at his blog. Great read.

    http://underdog-arch-student.com/2012/10/the-underdog-architecture-students-10.html

  • linda

    Jeff Pastva at The Designated Sketcher replies to the advice and focuses on how to apply similar thinking to your career going forward. Very interesting.

    http://thedesignatedsketcher.com/yaf-side-work/10-things-response

  • Jing-yen

    I’m a first-year architecture student struggling to figure out whats going on. I love the article. The title is a play on 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School, right?
    I’m new to blog-reading but yours seems very informative.

  • http://www.archininja.thecomicseries.com Talha Muftee

    Another great read! I’m always looking around for advice from people who can better compare between the lives and perspectives of a student with that of an experienced architect. And one thing that I feel gets neglected the most and the most frequent suggestion I get is to work on project management. Unfortunately, I still have to find a good source of learning in this matter but it’s definitely on my list.

  • Ivana

    This is such a lovely article! I’ve been through the same thing during my first year in Uni, it seems to me I’m going through some crisis again.
    I guess I found this in right time to put myself back on track again. Thank you a lot!

  • http://www.facebook.com/ahmad.e.sayegh Ahmad El Sayegh

    this is a great article, i guess every architecture student can relate to, as for me, i have faced it all, and now im graduating after one month , but i always had problems with some of the tutors, tomorrow goin to meet some of my tutors , hope they wil like my work process.

  • archininja

    My follow-up to this article can be found here: http://www.archi-ninja.com/lessons-searching-for-an-architecture-job/ Having now graduated the article is reflective of my first 2 years working full time in architecture.

  • Gaia

    I implicitly thought about some of the points, thank you to share these ideas. Defenitely motivating!

  • bipasha

    hey linda , i am in my final year … was really moved by your article and the first thing that came into my mind was “why didn’t i get hold of this article before?” truly inspiring…. and m surely gonna put this time management and play the momentum technique for my upcoming thesis project … i would be glad if you would guide me for my thesis project as an i would like to hear from you before i begin my thesis project …

    regards,

    bipasha

    • archininja

      Hi bipasha,

      Thank you for your really nice feedback. Email me regarding your thesis project. Id love to help. linda@archi-ninja.com

  • delilah

    hi linda im also in my final year, infact, submitting my sem1 final project in a week’s time….was actually looking for inspiration to help me reach the finish line with self satisfaction… had a crit last week by an external panel, and they totally loved my work (it was eye opening cause i was thinkng to myself ” are they looking at the same boards im looking at?” and i gained lotts of confidence towards my design, then a few hours later my tutor( who missed the crit) saw room for improvement which is a disaster that im having to deal with at the moment (TOTALLY agreeing with u on number 3) i agree and relate to the entire article thanks for sharing, i just wish i saw this earlier..would’ve motivated me to go all out with my designs..

    any advise about graduation? im kinda freaked out by it

    • archininja

      Hi Delilah,

      Firstly, congrats on getting wonderful feedback on your final crit! I can relate to being the last person to appreciate your own design capabilities. I often pushed myself really hard quite simply because I felt I was never good enough. The most important thing I took away from this was that only by putting your design or opinion out there can you truly get valuable (sometimes positive, sometimes harsh) criticism. Just use this to foster your growth, personally and professionally.

      Advise for graduation? take the time to appreciate and reflect upon everything you have learnt and what you truly want to accomplish in architecture: http://www.archi-ninja.com/lessons-searching-for-an-architecture-job/

      Again Congrats! You have exciting times ahead :)

      Linda

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  • Tiff

    This is a great post. Though I am finding part 2 masters rather difficult right now, its the trauma of the workload within time constraints that can become too overwhelming. Do you have any advice on how to time manage? Sometimes figuring out a good concept can take much longer than wanted, or something takes so much more longer to draw than expected. I find myself in complete panic year after year before every portfolio submission, feeling like I am going to fail. As often some part of the design changes very late down the project, leaving very few days to adjust construction and all sorts. Do you set yourself a timeline?

  • Marley Howards

    I think these things were never taught because they were somewhat rites of passage in order for an architectural student to discover their potential. Then again, my vengeful side tells me that those were not taught because those before you don’t want the younger ones to get a free pass. Marl of Admission-service.com

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  • Paul Joseph

    Hey Linda,

    I’m finishing up my fourth year and looking forward to my thesis. All i can think about after reading this post is that why didn’t I read something like this before.Its a great read.Each year since the very first year i have been trying to understand how to go about the whole process of designing.This post has be very inspiring and i hope to use the points mentioned above for my thesis and explore it in a very wide range.I have never had a mentor before and people who i look up to in our field always seems to change because as i grow i try find new avenues to explore.I would be glad if you could guide me for my thesis and help me explore more of myself to break free from the restrains of designing rigidly to suit the framework suggested by the brief.Hoping for you reply,

    Paul Joseph

    • archininja

      Hi Paul,

      Yes, of course id love to offer my advice and mentorship where possible on your thesis. Id love to hear more about it! Please get in touch linda@archi-ninja.com

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  • Erzeth Soon

    It’s a good read. For those who are like me as a second year architecture students get lots of things from this post. Thanks lot. Hope to see more good posts from you in the future. =)

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