education

an architect's education - figure drawing

ADVICE to future architects

I have been asked on more than a few occasions what advice I would give to a teenager who may be interested in being an architect.  I try to avoid the cranky, cynical responses that most of us can toss out with aplomb.  More often than not I talk about the passion necessary to see you through the grind of thousands of hours work trying to just get the basics down right.  And the passion required to see you through years of working in offices, often 60+ hours per week, detailing mind-numbingly boring buildings before you get the chance to really be in charge of the design of a building. And then I am asked, most often by inquiring parents, what classes or skills their child should undertake in preparation for architecture school.  And to that question I always reply the same: drawing.

an architect's education - juries

I sat on an architecture jury the other day and was reminded of a post from a while ago that laid out the necessity of this fraught process for the education of an architect. So a bit of recycling here, with some more recent thoughts on the changing nature of architectural juries. The basic process for eons for educating architects has relied heavily on the jury system.  About once every six weeks or so, every student is asked to pin up their work in a semi-public place and a panel of jurors, usually other instructors and architects, are each given time to comment on the work after the student’s brief description of the project.  Sometimes this can be very public and as a student you might look up to see 6 or so very dour jurors staring at you along with dozens or more of your fellow students.  To say that it can be intimidating is a gross understatement.

jury at Yale, in 'the pit'

However, as someone who was very shy and frequently terrified by this kind of public speaking and criticism, I do believe that is one of the very best ways to educate an architect.  Through this often-fraught crucible, every student has to become sure of their ideas and committed to their projects.  It is a very real and early reminder that architecture is not a pursuit practiced only in isolation, but a public art, with all that that entails.

In undergraduate and graduate school I took part in and was a victim of an awful lot of juries.  (It is not really a ‘jury’ of your peers by the way – it is experienced instructors and architects that have been down the same path and know all the tricks to reveal you and your project’s shortcomings)

I have seen crying, screaming, panic and the occasional fist-fight break out.  I have seen instructors tell students that their work is so dreadful or incomplete that they should just pack it up right now and leave, and never, ever return.

jury in 'the pit' at Yale

I  mention all of this because I have heard of disturbing trend of the diminishing use of public juries to evaluate student work.  I hope I am not being an old curmudgeon, but I really do think this is a great loss.  Each year as a student the process became a little easier to the point that I looked forward to the criticism and advice in graduate school.  Now, as a working architect, I have to present my designs to my clients.  I could simply present the projects and tell them to take it or leave it.  However, the jury system has convinced me that to make really good buildings it is best to describe the projects simply and briefly and then listen.

some juror’s comments collected on the Politically Incorrect blog:

http://politicallyincorrect007.blogspot.com/2008/12/architecture-jury-critique.html

Update: on a recent jury many students presented their work as a powerpoint-like presentation on a large screen.  The usual images were there - plans, sections, elevations, model shots - but they were certainly a different kind of animal than the drawings we slaved over back in the ancient history of my architectural education.  Some more thoughts on that later.

photos from the Yale School of Architecture website

an architect's education - figure drawing

I have been asked on more than a few occasions what advice I would give to a teenager who may be interested in being an architect.  I try to avoid the cranky, cynical responses that most of us can toss out with such aplomb.  More often than not I talk about the passion necessary to see you through the grind of thousands of hours work trying to just get the basics down right.  And the passion required to see you through years of working in offices, often 60+ hours per week, detailing mind-numbingly boring buildings before you get the chance to really be in charge of the design of a building. And then I am asked, most often by inquiring parents, what classes or skills their child should undertake in preparation for architecture school.  And to that question I always reply the same: drawing.

angus sketch

angus sketch

I am admittedly pretty old school about this, but I feel strongly that there is no substitute for learning how to draw competently.  I don't mean art.  I mean the ability to depict in two dimensions a three dimensional object in a manner that is clear and unambiguous.  This is not so much a question of talent as it is the learning of a simple skill.  Everyone can do it and drawing was part of the basic educational package for the educated class back in the nineteenth century.  With the advent of worry-free photography, and especially all the digital visualization tools that we can currently access, there has been a marked loss of the basic skill of drawing in general and in architects in particular.

diagrams

diagrams

So why spend so much time learning to draw?  We certainly don't need drawing to depict something and have the ability to show someone else.  My Iphone does that quite well.  But in architecture and design, we are charged with imagining things that don't exist yet.  I can't take a photo of the house I haven't designed yet or the detail I haven't figure out.  But I can draw it, on the spot, and explain it through drawing to someone else.

I draw everyday.  Not beautiful architectural illustrations or artistic visions, but the most rudimentary of sketches and diagrams that help me work out a design that is plaguing me.  More often than not I have at least one sketchbook with me at all times and I use it often to simply describe something I'm talking about to a carpenter or a client.  Frequently I start drawing an explanation of a detail that someone else is trying to describe, unsuccessfully with words alone, to another person in a meeting.

rail

rail

So I have dozens of old sketchbooks piling up on shelves and they are filled with these kinds of diagrammatic drawings and explanatory sketches.

sketchbooks

sketchbooks

A few weeks ago I decided to take my own advice and take a figure drawing class, a kind of drawing that I haven't done in decades and one that frankly I wasn't too good at when I did.  In two-hour long sessions I work diligently to accurately describe the figure in front of me, sometimes with stark, beautiful success, more often with awkward marks cascading across messy pages.  And I love every minute of it, even if most of the time I think my drawings are a failure.  The discipline of working very hard just to see and mark that seeing with a few lines is satisfying work.  The time flies by and I am usually pretty frustrated at the end of the session but fulfilled in a way that only making something can truly satisfy.

heads 01

heads 01

So, to the prospective architect:  draw.  As much as you can.  And if you don't like it, if it doesn't in the end engender a love/hate relationship with it, don't bother with architecture school.  You don't have to be good at, but if don't like this part, the rest may not go so well.