#ArchiTalks / 15 Ways to Make the Most of Your Architectural Education

This post is part of the ArchiTalks monthly blog series, hosted by Architect Bob Borson. This month’s topic is: “Back to School." At the bottom of this post, you’ll find links to some of the other ArchiTalk Bloggers. Make sure you visit them.

Evolving Architect / 15 Ways to Make the Most of Your Architectural Education
 

BACK TO SCHOOL

Every August, architecture students make their way to studio to begin a new academic year. For the newbies and the student veterans alike, the path to graduating with a degree in architecture can be extremely challenging, rewarding, and (dare I say it) fun.

College is the time in our lives when we go through some of the most dramatic and exciting changes in our personal lives. We learn more than we’ve ever imagined about a specialized topic and ourselves.

And for those of us who have left that behind for the ‘real world,’ many still remember the late nights in studio, the life-long friendships that were catalyzed, and the time when we were completely free to shape our education as we saw fit. Here are 15 ways you can make the most of your experience as well.


1 / (ACTUALLY) PAY ATTENTION IN CLASS

This may seem like a no-brainer, but a lot of college students forget from time to time that they’re actually supposed to be in college for college and their future. In many ways, it’s not about whether you passed the class or not, it’s about what you got out of it.

Did you understand the content? Did you learn something that can be applied to another course or project? Say, for example, that you decided to do the absolute minimum in your classes just so you could get by. That’s fine. It’s completely up to you.

When you get out of college though, would you rather have a set of actual skills that can be applied to a job? College doesn’t teach you everything you need to know to practice architecture, but you’ll sell yourself short if you don’t take advantage of the knowledge that is being offered.

Use that knowledge to become a better student and a better architect.


2 / EMBRACE STUDIO CULTURE

If you’re just starting architecture school, you’ve probably only heard whispers of what studio life is like. Those of us who’ve slept, eaten, and created at studio know that it’s both a magical and tiring world to experience.

Architecture studio is the foundation of your education. You will live, breathe, sleep studio. Your friends outside of architecture land will start to wonder if you’re still alive. It will become a central part of your entire college experience. You will make models until you can’t see straight. You will draw until your fingers are numb. You’ll take 2 hour naps in studio just so that you can get up and keep working until your pin-up critique the next day.

But that’s just one side of the experience.

You’ll also have fun with other crazy people just like you. You’ll get to know these people better than some of your closest friends. You’ll learn what you’re made of.

Let these experiences happen.


3 / MAKE YOUR STUDIO SPACE YOUR OWN

In many architectural programs, you’ll be assigned a designated area (likely a large drafting table or desk). This is your world – make it so.

It’s your opportunity to transform it into your architectural control center. If you see something that inspires you, tack it to the wall so that you can see it and remember.

Over time, you’ll get bigger and more complicated projects. Don’t let your setup prevent you from striving for better design solutions. The desk is your own and it needs to work with you rather than simply act as another piece of furniture.


4 / USE CAMPUS BENEFITS & FACILITIES

Unless your architecture program is online, you’re school is likely to have a wide variety of amenities, services, and facilities that you can use to your advantage. These can range from dining halls to full-service gyms, and supply stores.

Something that you’re probably not considering – you’re likely paying for all of it. Your tuition, in part, goes toward upkeep of existing facilities, the construction of new ones, and so on. They’re right there just waiting for you to use them.

My favorite amenity from college: an ice-skating rink. Not something I anticipated using much before school, but definitely one of the places I visited most often once I was there.


5 / FIND A MENTOR

When you’re in school, finding a mentor can be one of the best connections you’ll make. You won’t necessarily find a mentor right away because you’ll have to take some classes, get to know the faculty, and become familiar with your own interests. You can also get a sense of the kinds of faculty that will stick around versus the ones that may move away. A lot of faculty move between positions to those at other colleges.

Faculty can be great for networking, especially for after your time at college. If you make a good impression in studio or their respective classes, you’ll likely find that they are receptive to helping you professionally. If you find someone who has similar interests, even better! That faculty member will be easier to relate to and has the potential to exponentially increase your education value. They are often experts in their respective fields and may provide you with additional insight beyond what you would learn in a typical classroom setting.

If your program has a thesis requirement, think long and hard about who you request for your advisor. Creating a dynamic and appropriate match in a faculty mentor can yield some of your best design work and lasting, career relationships.


Even though you’re trying to balance studio, other classes, and your personal life – adding a part-time job to the mix can also be very beneficial during college. Having a part-time job, especially if it’s somewhat related to the profession, can teach you additional skills and give you some additional money to help fund other things.

If you’re frustrated with how the printers never print quite the way you want them to, get trained as a plot monitor. If you like dealing with books, work at your school’s architectural library. Trying to understand new model-making methods, become a monitor for the 3D-printing, laser-cutting, and/or CNC equipment.

The key here is you need to have a job that only exists for the time you’ve allotted and one that hopefully teaches you a new skill.


7 / LISTEN TO CRITICISM

Even though you could probably think of several more enjoyable past-times, listening to criticism is one of the most important tactics you must implement at all times. If you only heard positive feedback every time you stepped up to present your project, you would never get better. You would never excel. You would never improve your process. Your designs would be average at best and you would ultimately be doing yourself a huge disservice.

There is never one right solution to any given design problem. There are infinite good solutions. It’s not about that though. It’s about accepting the experience of others and what those experiences can teach you about design, craft, and the profession of architecture.

Unless you have a critic that is particularly nasty for their own ego or bravado, most faculty are trying to help you. It may sting. It may hurt a lot in the moment. They’re not trying to belittle you or your design. Use the feedback they give you and filter it through your own sensibilities in order to grow.


8 / QUESTION YOUR CRITICS

This may sound like a complete 180 from what I just told you, but stay with me for a second. There will be instances when you know in your heart of hearts that the strategies you’ve implemented are the ones you should be using. It’s okay if there are differences of opinion.

I will always remember what one of my professors told me during a review – “It’s better to have learned through the pursuit of design than to have received an ‘A’ for the studio.” At the end of the day, the project will be the project. Instead, you should focus on what you got out of it for yourself. That will be the thread that you carry with you beyond the project itself and into your career.

Now, let’s be real. Don’t go around telling your professors, “I don’t have to listen to you. I do what I want.” That’s not cool. Rather, take the criticism and decide for yourself whether you will implement it, shape it, or discard it. You don’t have to be an ass about it though.


9 / LEAVE YOURSELF OPEN TO SERENDIPITY

There are things that we can’t control. Moments of inspiration will happen – sometimes when we least expect them to. Give your mind a chance to relax by doing things outside of studio once and a while. Get out and into the world.

I’ve always been a fan of movies. Once a week while I was in school, I’d go and see a film at the mall just to remove myself from the studio. I found that taking myself out to the context allowed me to rest. When my mind was at peace, it could reset and waves of inspiration often poured over me.

As well as stepping away from architecture, you must also leave behind some of the good ideas you come up with for your projects along the way. It’s been said that ‘A good designer isn’t afraid to throw away a good idea.’

It’s true. One idea may be a wonderful solution to a single problem, but it may not be the best solution for your overall project. You need to leave room for other possibilities. Latching on to only what you think is good, will prevent you from creating something great.


10 / TAKE CLASSES OUTSIDE OF YOUR MAJOR

Something interesting happens when you try to see the world from other vantage points. Your perception changes too.

Your college will likely require you to take at least some of your classes outside the walls of the architecture school. Maybe all you want to do is eat, sleep, and breathe architecture (I know, I’ve been there). But don’t worry – architecture will be there for you when you return.

Embrace the opportunity to take classes from other schools, other disciplines. Bring that knowledge back to your creative process.

Something that changed forever the way I design is a class I took on a whim – ‘Anthropology 101.’ Anthropology is the study of people and their culture. It’s a fundamental context that informs how we do everything. I took it because it looked interesting and I’m really glad I gave it a chance. An architect’s designs are informed by the people they serve and that course provided a different context for me to work within.


11 / DON'T WASTE THE TIME YOU HAVE

So four or five years may seem like a lot of time right? Well, it is, but it will be over before you know it. Spend time in college to hone your craft and learn as much as you can. Take everything in. When the experience is done, it’s likely done for good.

You may go back for more as a Graduate or PhD student, but that experience won’t be the same.


12 / WASTE THE TIME YOU HAVE

Now, I’m starting to sound a bit contradictory here. While it’s absolutely essential to make sure you’re spending your time in college wisely, you also need to give yourself a break from time to time.

Architecture is really difficult and stressful. Allowing yourself some relief from the marathon that is studio can help you focus.


13 / EXPERIMENT OFTEN

You’ll have no idea how much freedom you really had in school once it’s all over. After you’ve moved into the workforce or just the next part of your career, you’ll look back and realize that the projects you did in school had by far the least restrictions of any project you’ll ever work on.

Within reason, you can do almost anything in school. Take advantage of that. Use the resources that are at your program. If there are special tools or equipment – use them. School is the time to test all of the fantastic ideas you have locked in your head without many of the restrictions that come with real-world projects such as cost, people, and laws.

And don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying disregard reality so you can create Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory (RIP Gene Wilder). Instead, use the advantages you have at your school to play in the world of design and test your understanding of everything.


14 / DO ONE THING THAT CHALLENGES YOU

Take each semester or even each project as an opportunity to grow. You’re in the program for years. Don’t just meander through your education. Create clear goals for each project that are yours and yours alone. A single goal that you give yourself beyond the parameters of the design brief will challenge you on your terms.

Studio will challenge you in ways that you probably can’t even imagine. Each semester is full of new ideas, new precedents, and new critics that will shape your understanding of the profession. These are challenges meant to provide you with a basic architectural education.

Rather than simply exist in the program, make the program work even harder for you. If you give yourself a challenge to learn a new computer program, technology, or building system each semester in addition to the base program, you will exponentially increase your ability to succeed in the program and long after.


15 / BE TRUE TO YOURSELF

Now, all of this is basically all pointless advice if you don’t do one thing. You have to stay true to yourself. Always.

The points I’ve laid out here for you are either things that helped me succeed in my own education or advice I’d give anyone in architecture school right now based on what I’ve seen outside of college.

The fact that you’re even in architecture school is something of a miracle. Not many people are up for the challenge. You’ve worked extremely hard to get here. Why not make the most of it? This is only the beginning in what I hope will be a memorably fantastic career for you.


THANKS FOR READING! IF YOU ENJOYED IT, PLEASE PASS IT ON TO SOMEONE YOU KNOW. IT WOULD MEAN A LOT TO ME.


 

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