According to Architecture I have what you might call a Past. I never thought I did, but there you go. I do. What I mean precisely is that at one time I had a life that did not revolve around architecture. I’m one of those suspicious Non-Architectural Background types—or a person from the realm of the Non-Architectural Background.
Architecture has found ways to accommodate people like me, but at times it is still an uncomfortable accommodation. Architecture likes to view itself as cosmopolitan, cultured, and intellectual, but when it comes face to face with individuals who have educations and experiences of non-architectural sorts it doesn’t always know what to do with us.
More after the break.
In the academy, it was the same way. There were the Non-Architectural Backgrounders in one M.Arch program and the other students, who had already studied architecture, in the other program. One of my first experiences in graduate school was the perceived wall between these two supposed castes. It was interesting to note that the ones with the architectural backgrounds seemed to spend most of their time learning how to use Maya and Rhino and design buildings that looked remarkably similar to designs their instructors had done. Apparently, this was different from the architecture they had been doing before.
Meanwhile, us Non-Architectural sorts were thrown in head-first and doing everything in a compressed sequence of experiences designed to make us viable architects (or so it seemed) in roughly three year’s time. Trial by fire. The M.Arch for us was truly transformative—or designed to be transformative. I think it genuinely was in a lot of ways. I don’t think I really learned how to be an architect, however. That came later.
You would be surprised how many times architectural pedigree comes up in conversation. Well, then again, since you are probably in architecture, you wouldn’t be surprised. You are either a Non-Architectural Backgrounder yourself or one who is suspicious of them. I think suspicion is the right word in this case.
I wonder if there are different perceptions of this in Europe or South America, for example. Is this simply an American phenomenon; the product of a certain narrow definition of the architect based on an obsession with professional boundaries or a specific type of education? Do we get too carried away with the “disciplining” of architecture?
I have been to more than a few interviews where my non-architectural past and non-architectural interests have come to dominate the conversation. Here is a recent example. I am invited to a reputable firm in my city for an interview. I sit down with two of the principals and they begin to ask me questions. One of them is interested in my design work and wants me to talk about some of the examples I’ve brought. Seems to be going well, right?
The other principal continues to look over my resume and starts asking questions about what I did before architecture. This is when it gets interesting.
“It says here you have a BA and MA in…what is this…East Asian Languages and Cultures? Why did you study that?”
“Yes. I was in the Humanities. I primarily studied modern Chinese literature, art, and film. Before I decided to pursue architecture I was doing a PhD in this field. “
“So, you wanted to be a professor?”
“Yes. At one point I did.”
“But…why did you switch to architecture?”
I looked right at him and said, “I was interested in it.”
“Well…this couldn’t have happened overnight…. I mean, they aren’t even related.”
“It was a gradual process. Would you like to hear the story?”
“Yes. I think we need to understand.”
At this point I had already decided I didn’t care if I blew the interview. I had been grilled like this before by other architects. By now I was used to it. I even expected it most of the time.
These days, whenever I’m questioned in the manner above, I like to be honest. In the past, feeling rather defensive, I used to try and come up with an elaborate mythology that made it seem inevitable that I am now doing architecture—or trying to do architecture. There would then be a flash of recognition on the other architect’s face as if he suddenly got it. It all makes sense now and he can perceive me as someone who is more like him and was indeed destined to be an architect from a young age and didn’t get distracted by other meaningless pursuits…like philosophy, literature, foreign languages and the like.
Many architects envision themselves in archetypal terms, like they are the embodiment of the western conception of The Architect. This archetype helps them construct a professional and personal identity by connecting them to the discipline, a lineage. I’ve written on this before as it relates to the culture of the profession. In this case, it becomes a matter of personal identity and how it informs people’s responses to things outside the profession.
Whenever I attempted to tell the story of my “journey” in architecture I found I was just making things up, trying to match what I perceived to be the expectations of my audience. I wasn’t trying to deceive. I was genuinely trying to make sense of my “transformation.” What was most puzzling, I think, was the obsession others had with me having a story for this change. I had to be able to explain it even though I couldn’t necessarily do it so easily or in some sort of linear fashion.
It’s weird. It’s the only field I have been in that expected me to have a teleogical narrative of how I came to this, and why I came to this. Of course, I did it for the money, the fame, and the glory. I wanted to make a difference? I wanted to do CAD all day? I like computers? My high-school guidance counselor said I should do architecture or I would end up in jail or in an asylum? I like long hours?
If you are a Non-Architectural Background person like me you might know what I mean. You are automatically suspect unless you did architecture as an undergrad, which is the right way to approach it, apparently. If you are educated outside the field, in another discipline, let’s say, you are somehow not authentic, not hard-core, not passionate…enough. You are an outsider. You didn’t do studio for four years or five years as an undergrad.
The interesting thing is that there are a lot of us. I don’t know the numbers, but I have a feeling it’s a fair percentage. We may not outnumber the “born to be architect” types whose entire higher-educational experience was devoted to architecture, but we make up a fairly large population. Just guessing here. And I’m not going to bother to get statistics for this so you can look them up yourselves if you like. Just ask around your office or in your graduate program. Lots of weirdoes come to architecture. It’s one of those professions that tolerates…to a certain degree…eccentric individuals.
Anyway, after enduring a number of interrogations, I decided it would be best to challenge the basic assumptions of my interrogators. I’m not going to erase or fabricate my past just to suit their narrow conceptions of what an architect should be or what type of background an architect should have.
There is no single model to follow, after all. I could be like Ando and box or drive a truck. I could be like Rem and write screenplays. I could be like Zaha and study pure math. We are complex humans who at some point decide to pursue changing the built environment. And, by the way, we must be masochists, too.
To be perfectly honest with you, I have been interested in many things in my life. Architecture is just one of them. I’m not sure I can pinpoint the exact moment or epiphany where it became clear to me that I should pursue architecture. It was more a convergence of factors and life events. I did not have the luxury of peaceful contemplation or the early exposure to an architectural mentor. In the middle of a storm, I jumped, not fully cognizant of what I was getting myself into. I didn’t know a damn thing about it, actually. I didn’t care.
Architecture never crossed my mind until I was in my 30’s. It was perhaps more the result of an early mid-life crisis rather than enlightened intellectual curiosity. It was also a field that seemed wide open with possibilities, like there was no single way to pursue it. You could seemingly follow your own passions and, for lack of a better term, vision. At a certain point in my life I was looking for something like this, something difficult and open to the eccentricities of a creative mind.
As long as I am doing architecture I feel there is no need to justify why. There is no real story to tell and if I did tell you a story it would not necessarily make it any clearer to you why I entered this profession. Any narrative I attempted would be mostly fiction anyway. I think the stories people tell about how and why they became architects can be interesting but I also think they are partly post-narratives, constructed after the process of becoming an architect has reached a point where it is time to solidify a proper identity, an archetypal identity other architects can recognize and understand.
So, this is what I told the interviewer:
“I really don’t know when I first became interested in architecture. It’s a part of my life now. It’s sort of like asking me to tell you when I first became interested in living. Would you like me to try and answer that question for you?”
I thought for sure they would never hire me after that comment. Much to my surprise, however, the phone rang a couple days later. I turned them down. You see, there was no foundation for trust and it was clear I would have had to pretend I’m a different sort of person. I’m a Non-Architectural Background person and that’s fine with me.
New book out soon! ‘The Real Architect’s Handbook: Things I Didn’t Learn in Architecture School’, by Sherin Wing and Guy Horton.