10 Things They Don’t Teach You in Architecture School

  • 09 Oct 2012
  • by
  • Editor's Choice Misc
Milstein Hall at Cornell University / OMA © Matthew Carbone
By Linda Bennett, for Archi-Ninja

Initially, Architecture School was overwhelming. In my early assignments I struggled to learn the new design ‘language,’ to manage the intense studio hours (goodbye to mum and dad for a while), and deal with the tough criticism – with barely a passing mark, I was lucky to make it through my 1st year! Then there were the ‘super-students,’ those who appeared to achieve the unattainable: draw in plan, section AND perspective, as well as eloquently 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 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 the curriculum, but from what I discovered along the way. In no particular order, here is what I uncovered about surviving and achieving in architecture school:

#1. Forget about Winning or Losing

The rest of the 10 Things You Don’t Get Taught in Architecture School, after the break…

Masonic Ampitheatre, a design/build project at Virginia Tech University. © Jeff Goldberg/ESTO

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 FerrissThe 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.

Story via Archi-Ninja

Cite: Linda Bennett. "10 Things They Don’t Teach You in Architecture School" 09 Oct 2012. ArchDaily. Accessed 23 May 2015. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=280028>
  • Vincent Vegas

    I got one more:
    11. Those students that graduated with high distinction, achieving the highest overall aggregated marks of all students- you’ll never hear of them again.

  • Tim L

    Instead of just “break the rules,” I would amend that to say “have a really strong reason for breaking the rules.” Breaking the rules whenever you want in studio won’t really help you gain real-world experience. Those rules are clients in the real world and you have to give them what they want or persuade them that you can give them something better. Architecture school critiques should be treated in the same manner.

  • Matt

    8 and 9 should be 1 and 2.

  • JP

    Spelling and Grammar are not enforced Architecture School (you want to appear to have an education base higher than middle school when communicating written descriptions and talking verbally to your client)PROOF READ AND PRACTICE….From the Article –

    “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.”

    Aside form the various mistakes in grammar this is a Good Article as I teach in a university and am always trying to find ways to push my students.

    • http://a2.net.nz matt anderson

      JP… You have grammatical errors in your criticism of the grammar. good one!

      • JP

        hence what I learned in Architecture school – and I am typing on a blog – these aren’t architecture presentation boards…..or, I could be like you and make sure what I write is absolutely perfect…sorry to disappoint you – pinche culeo

  • bill

    Nice, sensible article that doesn’t make pointless/excessive generalisations. Awesome.

  • Garfield Seaton

    Good advice. Will try and share with my classmates.

  • Arpad

    All good info, except I guess I was fortunate enough to learn all of these in Architecture School (at least at the graduate level). Perhaps all architecture schools, or rather, all people affiliated with architecture schools should take a look at what kind of education they are providing to future design professionals…

  • Lumiere

    It’s such a great article not only for reading but also for reflecting ourselves and finding a way out of the traps we’re in. I’m struggling to get out of the box right now. Thanks for your article. Being a student in architecture, I cannot deny that this one is so useful.

  • Giang

    You hit the nail on the head here…. I made these realisations after I finished. And sometimes I still fall into the trap of expecting outcomes early or becoming fixated on things that are not important at a given time. Well said!

  • linda bennett

    @Vincent Vegas – Initially I found your comment very hurtful. I of cause don’t agree. In fact, at university I was a student that went very much under the radar anyway. This I believe is because I am actually very shy (so was often quiet in classes) and also because what I focused on at university and what interested me most was quite left of centre and therefore wasn’t necessary popular with the agendas of the teaching staff. My marks therefore, as it should be were on the merit of my work. Where I hope to take my career is also probably quite left of centre but that doesn’t mean you won’t hear from me again 

    @JP – Indeed grammar (and spelling) is not one of my strong points! Despite this I have always felt that the message I am trying to convey is more important. I enjoy writing as a forum for discussion, even if I’m not naturally good it. Thank you for your comment and I am trying to be a technically better writer!

    @ Tim L – I agree with your comment relating to the rules, perhaps you explain this better than me 

    @Lumiere @Giang As a recent graduate the post for me was also very much about reflecting on my studies and understanding how I can use this to help as I try to navigate my way into the profession. It absolutely serves as a reminder for me not to become complacent or fall into the traps which are so easy either at uni or at work.

    Thanks to everyone for reading.

  • Seasoned

    This is excellent wisdom for aspiring architects. One more underappreciated component of the profession, often overlooked at many schools is “Don’t underestimate the importance of technical issues.” Even Mies recognized, “It is better to be good than to be original.” Knowledge of materials, building systems, and how to integrate them into design is no less important to the success of architecture than spacial development itself. Far more of your time will be spent resolving the technical issues of your design than in the development of theoretical concepts.

  • Jeremy

    amazing article!

    I’m a big fan of Parkinson’s law and Cal Newport’s blog. I 100% agree with the idea of “playing the momentum”. I really like to start my day with a couple of pre-defined small “wins” to get my mindset right for the remainder of the day.

    I would love to see more from Archi-Ninja on Arch Daily!

    • Shreya

      I’d like to know more about the pre-defined small ‘wins’ for one’s right mindset, if I may. Thank you :)

  • Luke

    Also forgot,
    You will be paid less than all your high school friends who graduated at age 16, got jobs that pay well and pay overtime.

  • Edward

    I learnt with hindsight that there is more to life than just architecture.

  • Winter

    10 things they teached us, that they dont teach us. Some kinda of nonconformist rules for conformist.

    8 is like from “How to be unhappy” handbook. I am friend to all mankind anytime and anywhere. Even to author .)

  • Winter

    So everything I want to say is that they teached me theese in first two weeks in school. Maybe sooner than they told me, what tekton means. You gotta catch quite a cynicism after something like that.

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  • Carole

    TRUE in every sense. I will reference this article often!


    The most important lesson to learn in architecture school that everyone fails to mention is that you will earn no $$. Quit while you are ahead and go into a program where you can actually earn a living.

  • Nicolina

    Love it, great article, spot on! and by the way it irritates me no end with all the negative comments you get as a high achieving student. I have long ago realised there is a lot of jealousy amongst architecture students but these standard comments suggesting high achieving students never make good architects are not only pure BS but also unsubstantiated. The whole thing tempts me to make a world wide survey to establish how many high achieving students became successful professionals. Sorry Vanessa if I’m not as humble about that first comment you got – I have just over time become really sick of having to feel a high GPA is not something to boost about and be proud of.

    • linda bennett

      @Nicolina I agree there is far to much jealousy going on. Additional to this there is often pointless division between groups of students who create private circles. I fear this gets carried into the industry beyond university also. It is quite off putting actually. I of cause feel admiration (and at times intimidation) towards any person to does something good. There is always going to be another person who is ‘better’ or doing something differently to yourself but I just don’t understand how that translates into anger, jealousy or anything else that calls for the desire to direct unsubstantiated comments towards another person. So thanks for having my back!

      Your idea of the survey is incredibly interesting! maybe we could collaborate on this. email linda@archi-ninja.com if you are keen.

      • Christine

        Linda and Nicolina. Jalousy is result of lack of selfconfidence. If you can not be better, you get bitter. And never forget you are women in mainly men´s world. Men are by nature highly competitive, women preffere communication and collaboration. I´m interior designer in Prague, Czech republic, and belive me I need break after 15 years. Good luck and great ideas! Hugs. Christine

  • Nothabo Ndlovu

    I’m in my second year, there are only five girls i my class so we are very close. We can admire “front facades and the built environmnent” on campus without any of the non-Architecture guys knowing that we are talking about them :)
    On a more serious note, I have learnt to persevere and see things from a different perspective (pun intended)before throwing in the towel, and I haven’t thrown i in

  • John

    good luck to all of you…..i practiced on autocad for my entire professional career….the least amount of time in school….translated into the most amount of time in real life…it has been 6+ years since being in an architecture job…..i can’t imagine myself ever fitting into an office ever again…..i have severe problems with stress….i am not the best social creature ever created and that is a hindrance in architecture because you have to know how to fit in, i think, but am not sure…the things i learned to do…..i just did….i learned from a friend all i ever needed to know about geometry 2nd year…..the rough part is that after school….your on your own…there is no real social life…this is an incredible stressor that didn’t exist at university…basically, all i really ever needed to know i learned very early on…..but haven’t actually put into practice quite recently….you really are on your own…..but this is actually a big +…..you define yourself…..no body defines you….it took me 45 years to learn that…..i don’t really care about the past, although it can be painful, but I am learning to just go along and find happiness in myself…really…number 4 was the most important one for me….there are no rules….

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  • Antony

    Things they dont teach you in architecture school…

    How about how to actually build a building?

    • Tim L

      @Antony – Some schools, like my alma mater Wentworth, take great pride in teaching their students building construction. We had several classes for structural design, materials & methods, environmental systems (MEP, egress, elevators, green techniques etc), site planning and landscape, and contract documents in addition to certain focuses in studio based on the construction process. NAAB has found that WIT students are better-prepared for the real world than some of the major university programs we also have here in Boston.

  • Derin

    Great advice, wish I knew this years back. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed discussing this issues with my daughter who is considering Architecture as a career.

  • Dyanne

    Very nice article you got there. It made me realize again as to why I wanted to pursue being an architect and well, it really boosted me up again to have my creative juices back again. thanks!

  • shadi

    nice and usefull,thanks

  • farnaz

    i have studied urban planning and i really admit you! working is really different from what you have learned in college or university! to my disappointment, i see that those collegues who has less education but more experience work so much better! i wish i had started working sooner

  • Luis Valenzuela

    Hi, I am a Chilean architect that studied & taught @ Boston, now back home teaching, researching and consulting on tangent fields to architecture. I would add two points. First, the other one thing architecture schools don’t teach you is that designers skills are extremely handy and appreciated for several areas of public and private professional exercise. Clients are a fruitful source for studying users patterns behavior. If design rules (design briefs) are set after a thorough (ok, sometimes not quite) process of diagnose, needs, understanding opportunities, investment imacts, and resource planning, what capacities don’t we have that stops architects – and designers in general – being active participants of pre-design processes? It is if doctors wouldn’t diagnose a patient and afterwards do the surgery to a them. Architecture schools don’t teach you that designers have high competences to participate way before design brief are issued, and therefore efforts are not solely focused as an on demand response to briefs, but quite more to being able to detect and articulate opportunities in a problem set. Marco Steinberg’s is a fine example of this amplified anticipation of the design processes. Second, being the first point true, then exercising fields for designers are much more than SOLELY PROJECT DESIGNER. Examples of such professional amplitude are again Marco Steinberg, also Tim Love, Alejandro Aravena, Buckminister Fuller, among others.
    Luis Valenzuela
    Territorial Intelligence, Director
    Universidad Adolfo Ibañez

  • Jan Fiałkowski

    Really accurate essay!! Thanks soo much!