What It Means to Be an Architect

It’s a little bit more complicated than just designing buildings.

Illustration by Abstract Memento

When you start architecture at any college they will be quick to talk to you about Vitruvius. Vitruvius was an eloquent man with many talents, circa 1st century BC . He wrote “The Ten Books of Architecture”, which as far as we know, is the first series of architecture books in history. To be honest, I don’t think anyone really reads them in its entirety, just the first chapters, but in that first part, he states the key words to being the best architect you can be: As an architect it is your duty to know a little bit about everything, never pretending to know more than the actual masters in their craft, but enough to be competent, engaging and capable to intelligently contribute to a conversation if the subject matter were to arise.

This is indeed an ambitious creed, but one that has endured the test of time not only in the field of architecture, but as a constant personal goal. As an architecture student, you are trained to be a Master Designer. Not only must you learn and understand the concepts of the built environment but a way of problem solving that allows you to design from an entire building, to the smallest detail on a corner beneath a crawlspace. An architect is trained to be a designer of experiences, of moments, of a home, of place of worship, a place to play, a place to heal, of furniture, graphic design — all in all, you are trained to define, think, and solve design problems of all shapes and sizes. You aren’t taught a specific style, program or scale — you are taught to design everything and anything, and as your career progresses and you make your choices in life based on who you are — you find your niche and adjust your efforts accordingly. But out of school, you have to have the capability to do it all — in terms of design.

As architects in the modern age we learn how things are built by getting thrown into the deep end. Your first job will teach more about how to build things than any school you could ever pay for. The main reason for this is the act of building and the implications it may bring are 1000% directly correlated to your context. How you build in Miami is nowhere near how you build in California or in Denver or Savannah or San Juan, even if it’s the same country abiding by the same laws. I’ve been exposed to all the aforementioned markets, and while you can adapt your existing skills to the imperative of those places there is a definite and palpable learning curve due to many things like material price due to sourcing, climactic imperatives, client type, social imperatives, perception in luxury goods, market economy, and soil quality — to name a few.

Another reason to know a little bit about everything is because your role as an architect doesn’t stop at just designing. Architects are the coordinators, contact point and the ones that collate all the work and efforts of interior designer, engineers, client, contractor, manufacturers, consultants, and any other specialist relevant to the project. And then after all that we have to do construction administration to ensure the project is built as intended. How are we supposed to communicate the interests of all the stakeholders if we have zero grasps on what they do and how it affects everyone involved ?
The power we hold must be used responsibly to ensure the success of projects and keep happy customers. We have to know our history, the technology of the time, be tastemakers and connoisseurs of all things luxury and common goods alike, keep up with news and economy to understand the shifting values of prime material costs to be aware of how budgets may\ need to be adjusted, while also honing rhetoric and public speaking skills to deal with the backlash of when things go wrong. As the nucleus of the entire operation, you can imagine we definitely get “yelled at” a decent amount.

So in conclusion, architects need to know a bit of everything to be competent at all the different phases that our daily life incurs. Which if you’re passionate about what you do, every day will be exciting, fun, and full of unimaginable challenges.

The Tiers of City Exploration

I too have always been attracted to the idea of exploring cities, and have had the amazing opportunity to explore several – not to the same extent though. From these explorations I have concluded there are four tiers to exploring a city:

Tier 1 – “There for a Weekend”
This type of exploration is very detached, even if you spend every hour of your trip exploring. The reason for this is that cities have different cycles. There are the most obvious ones, day&night, rush hours & its opposite. There is also week days vs. weekends, different monthly events, change of seasons, and holiday idiosyncrasies. The weekend exploration will give you a taste of the city – but nowhere near the “full picture”.

Tier 2 – “Tourism a la Mode
This category falls under the “must do it all” touristic trips and the 10 day guided travels. These are prescriptive and state sponsored views to the city you are visiting. You are indulging in a crafted experience meant to leave you with a specific perspective and opinion about the place. It is far from its honest essence of it, and meant to induce and generate specific perceptions.

Tier 3 – “Monthly Escapade
Deciding to live in a new city for a month or so is probably the most enriching way to get to know a city without moving there. It will generate the “must see it all” imperative while also making you engage with local issues like food sourcing & neighborhood interactions. The experience will provide you with a nice overview & essence – probably a bit clouded with excitement and the allure of everything being new.

Tier 4 – “A Year in the Life
A year in a new city will definitely enable you to understand and grasp temporal essence of living in a place. It will have a healthy amount of excitement, allure of the new, local sourcing, and occasional “monotony” to give you a better understanding of what a day in the life (in a year) in this city is like. This tier will provide you with a more in depth understanding of the cycles the city goes through.

In the end though, nothing beats living there for 5 – 10 years, and much less your whole life. But if you have many places you wish to explore, consider researching & really tuning into your intentions with said place to classify it in the correct tier & invest your time (& money) productively.

And remember – cities are their own unique organism. They are constantly growing and evolving with all sorts of new people being born and moving in changing its overall cultural landscape. Embrace the moments you get to be part of it – & cherish your time there with respect and wisdom.