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. I was questioning all the hard work and time I spent finding architecture schools, studying, and getting good grades to even get to that point. 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.


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