Most of the posts on this blog are articles previously published in national periodicals. Folks have been asking for these to be collected in one spot...and this is that spot. And, unless otherwise noted, illustrations are by David Gillett as well.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Letters to An Aspiring Architect

                I was where you were once, on the cusp of something really exciting, really big, really intimidating.  I had my own preconceptions and misconceptions, hopes, dreams and fears, and maybe I still do. There are a hundred things I’d tell my younger self, but I’ll begin with just three:
                Put that joy to work.
                Get your hands dirty.
                Look, look, look.
                You are heading this way not because you see architecture as a path to riches. You’re smarter than that. But you think you can make a living doing something you love; creating space, shaping community, building beautiful places.
                To begin with, design excites you and the prospect of dreaming it, planning it and seeing it built brings you a deep kind of joy. Hold onto that – keep that alive as you study the art form, as you learn the business, as you collaborate with others who may (or may not) have that spark in them.
                Nurture your joy by living a life, not just doing a job. Get involved in the community. Get to know and care about those clients and learn about their life. Study the ways of the city you live in. Truly become a citizen. And then the good design you produce will bring joy to you, just as it does to those who commissioned it. Design for fun. Draw for pleasure. Don’t let deadlines and building codes deaden your curiosity and  smother your enthusiasm.
                Secondly, always have a bit of dirt under your finger nails.
                Despite the comforting illusion that buildings are isolated forms on a screen in front of you, the reality is very much about weather, concrete strength, square corners and good drainage. There is nothing that can replace or replicate time spent on a construction site. And once on that site, there is nothing more instructive than climbing a ladder, nailing down shingles, cutting rafter angles, towelling concrete ...doing the coffee run for a bunch of fellow builders.
                It will pay off in the way you detail your buildings, in your understanding of the sequence of construction.  Perhaps even more importantly you’ll have empathy for the people who construct your designs and an understanding of what is most important to them (and it likely won’t be your design theory but rather the accuracy of your dimensions).  And when you eventually arrive on site as the designer, smack in the middle of the noise and mayhem of construction, you’ll be at home and  have some real credibility. Maybe even respect.  And you’ll have a chance to wear that ancient mantle of Master Builder and deserve it.
                  Lastly, look around you. Look at the pavement you walk on, the alleyways and broad avenues of the city you live in. Look at the ancient world where it all started and those places where great architecture has transformed lives, brought joy and created a culture.
                Don’t just see, but truly observe, as Sherlock Holmes would say. Pick apart the proportions of that temple. Think about why that great room feels  so right to you. Is it the light? The height of the ceiling? The sound of your feet as you walk through it?
Travel as much as you can. Around the block, across the city, across the country and  around the world if you can. There is so much to see, so much to absorb. And take a sketch book with you. Make that hand-eye-brain connection and stretch lines out across the page. Document the things that seem to work, feel those superb proportions through your fingertips. I had a professor who always carried a tiny 10’ tape measure in his pocket and wasn’t shy about pulling it out to measure the ideal doorway, the perfect chair or the magnificent proportions of a lovely archway. He had a whole notebook full of little dimensioned sketches, and he used them everyday while designing.
                Don’t worry that your first job might have you reading Building Codes and detailing stairways in hospitals. The Parthenon can teach you, an ancient cottage can speak to something deeper than those things, the width of a perfect street will stay with you ...and you’ll use all this knowledge someday. You will.
                To be a good architect you need to be a great observer, a competent builder, a person who thrills to good design.  But the tyranny of the urgent will try to subvert all this and soon you’ll only see balance sheets, deadlines and the wolf at the door. That’s reality.
                But the reality is also that you have chosen the path of design, of creation. Use that creative spark to keep the main things the main things. Stick with your gut instincts, push for that excellent design, stay true to the things that attracted you to this life in the first place.

 David Gillett    Published in PERSPECTIVES MAGAZINE Spring 2015