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Opinion, Personal

My Architectural Education; Shiny Happy Version

Several weeks ago I served on a panel discussion in regards to my architectural education. The audience was composed of high-schoolers who had competed in the Indiana High School Architectural Design Competition. The state-wide design competition is put on by the AIA Indiana with the goal of spreading architectural appreciation and encouraging the next generation of talented potential architects to enter the profession. I was glad to participate as I thought it’d be a great chance to share some knowledge and insight to students interested in signing up for the scary world of architecture school.

The discussion went relatively well and I was extremely impressed with the submissions the students put together. I’m sure this happens all the time with technology the way it is, but I could sure see them putting me out of a job four years down the road. Mad skills. Here is a list of the winners.

In an effort to share my experiences with a larger number of prospective architecture students, I’ve included my Q&A from the discussion. Please be sure to contact me if you have any questions or comments, an entire blog post could be written for each of these questions.

1. Why study Architecture / become an Architect?

I know this is just the first question, but it was easily the toughest one for me to answer. I think it is difficult, because I can’t imagine wanting to be anything besides an architect. Every moment of our lives is influenced by the environment around us; whether indoors or out, a very large percentage of that time is spent in a man-made environment. How could you not care to be involved in the design of the spaces you, and everyone around you, inhabits every single day? Architecture has the ability to change lives, for better or for worse. I believe all of us wish to become architects because it give us the chance to have a positive impact on the world around us.

How could you not care to have a hand in making the built environment better?

Coming up with designs for your immediate surroundings is extremely fulfilling.

2. What was the deciding factor for choosing your college / university of choice?

I grew up in northern Indiana and every time I mentioned that I was planning on studying architecture, people would ask me if I had looked at Ball State. Even though it was only a regional opinion, I appreciated that people knew Ball State was a good architecture school. After visiting several schools, Ball State stood out as the right fit for me, I liked their campus and all of the extra-curricular opportunities.

But the main factor in me choosing Ball State was the College of Architecture and Planning’s World Tour. I didn’t know much about it at the time, but traveling abroad was important to me and World Tour stood out as the best study abroad program offered by the schools I had looked at.

Some buddies and I won second place in this egg drop competition, 1000 cans of Red Bull!

Make sure your school has a good study abroad program.

3. What skill sets do you need to possess or not possess prior to college curriculum?

I don’t think you really need to have any skills specific to architecture when you enter your college program. As long as you’re dedicated, hardworking, and sociable you should do well. They will teach you everything you need to know, it’s just important that you apply yourself, and make sure you do everything that’s asked of you, and more. Whatever skills you have coming in will definitely be a benefit, but there will be plenty of skills to work on, so just be ready to learn.

120 uniquely different pieces hand-cut from 1/8″ chipboard. Never again.

I had no real model building experience, but it ended up being one of my strengths.

4. What was the most difficult transition from high school classes to architecture curriculum?

I think what was most difficult for me was that suddenly natural talent was the main delineator of someone’s ability to succeed in the program. In high school, a lot of it comes down to how much you pay attention, and whether you do your homework or not. In architecture school, those same things still apply, but there is an added layer of everyone’s natural talent. Eventually, the playing field begins to level out, but the ones with raw talent always have a bit of an edge.

The other thing that is a total shift is the amount of time and effort you will put into things. Granted it doesn’t have to be this way, plenty of people are capable of living a life and going to architecture school at the same time. But for me, I remember near the end of the first week thinking, “Wow, studio started at 1 and it’s 9 o’clock and I’m still here working.” By about the third week you are trying to remember when the last time you slept in a bed was. I eventually got better at managing my time but in the beginning it was a tough adjustment.

Some of us had a hard time adjusting to the new sleep schedule, some of us, AHEM, never did.

This base model was so huge that we couldn’t assemble it in studio, it was larger than the structural bays. It took forever to build.

5. Describe your favorite project /course / professor from first year? And from your combined collegiate experience?

In the beginning of my first year, we had a number of projects that were simply meant to get us used to thinking creatively. One of the very first projects we had was to design a container that could hold a light bulb and be hit with a baseball bat a distance of fifteen feet. You could only use three materials and after you hit it, the light bulb had to still work. We only had one day to work on it and it was really competitive, a very fun project all around.

In architecture school you are always improving, more than likely you will look back on your own projects with some pretty harsh criticism, but there are always a few projects that stick out as actually being pretty good. One of my favorites was one I did the fall of my 4th year. It was a design competition for an elementary school. I chose an urban site in downtown Portland, Oregon and I wanted to defy some of the usual notions for what an elementary school should be like. I ended up with a seven story elementary school, and at mid-project reviews I got ripped apart. So with three weeks left to go I started over from scratch. I ended up working pretty much non-stop for 3 weeks and wound up being a finalist in the competition.

My creative take on keeping a light bulb safe from a baseball bat.

This was a rough floor plan I’d come up with, it apparently wasn’t good enough.

Half of my competition board, see my portfolio site for more pics.

6. Explain studio culture. What is the most interesting aspect?

The most interesting part is how well everyone gets to know one another; it is simply the result of being in studio almost all the time. And if you are at all worried about making friends, forget about it. If you chose to accept them, architecture school will give you as many friends as you can handle. Studio is pretty much one big place to hang out, you’re working most of the time, but it’s more fun than you can imagine.

We were almost always working, and it was almost always fun.

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I took this picture because it was so bizarre that I was the only one there. Studio was almost always packed.

I was the last one to make it up to studio on the first day of class, somehow this meant I ended up with the only window seat in the room. I allowed it.

7. Did you travel while in school or after? Describe your most memorable experience and the influence it had on your architectural education.

As I mentioned earlier the main reason I chose to go to Ball State was the World Tour program. World Tour was a semester long trip in which we traveled to 26 different countries spread throughout Europe, Africa, and Asia. We got to experience world culture all the while studying architecture, landscape architecture, and urban planning. The United States has a lot of great places to go and visit, but something about experiencing those other cultures really gives you a sense of what is important in architecture and design. There were countless memorable moments, all I can say is that it was the best part of my educational career and I highly recommend going on any sort of study abroad trip.

World Tour was easily the best part of my college experience.

Seeing the architecture of different cultures really opens your eyes to what is important.

8. What excites you about the future of architecture?

I think what I find most exciting about the future of architecture is that it will be ours. We are, for the most part, living in the architecture that was dreamed up and created by our parent’s generation for our parent’s generation. I believe our generation has different values and ideas about how we want to live our lives. The generations before us wanted to prove that they were just like everybody else, and so we have wound up with endless expanses of copycat “architecture.” I believe the future will be more about expressing the individual, and when this is applied to architecture I think it will have a good outcome.

I think the future of architecture will also see a return to valuing high quality products, architectural and otherwise. Homes that were built in the early 20’s are in better shape and of higher quality than homes that were built in the 80’s. As part of the move towards sustainable architecture I think we will end up with buildings that are both better performing and longer lasting.

The designs that our generation comes up with will be nothing like the ones of the previous generation.

9. How is architecture different from what you thought it would be?

Before I went off to architecture school, I knew I liked architecture, but I didn’t really realize how much. Architecture school opened my eyes to the world around me in a way that I never knew it would. I now think of my life as pre and post architectural education. Before I went to school I had the expectation that I would work as an architect, now I realize that I live as an architect. Architecture truly has become my life, and at least for now I’m loving it.

Architectural Education will give you a whole new perspective on the world around you.

You’ll see architecture everywhere in everything. It’s great.

In parting, I left them with this, “All architecture, all the time. It’s intense.”


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About bjmcghee

Architect in training.

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