The Anatomy of an Architect

There is a quintessential story of the individual fighting against the collective, focusing on the emergence of a modernist designer in an age when the world was churning out on a continuous classical loop. It is a story that excites designers to be the hero of their own narrative, one that drives ego but also inspires martyrdom. At one point in the story, the protagonist is discovered passed out in a pool of coffee, from an attempted all-nighter. Architects cherish the relatable nature of working on your craft til you collapse, as it was not an uncommon lifestyle in our formative years of the profession. However, the question begs — are Architects truly filled with a need to create or are we all compulsives cut from the same cloth.

I have been an insomniac as far back as I can remember, but it was not until 4th grade I began to put it to good use. In 4th grade, I found my first mentor, a teacher who encouraged competition among ten-year-olds through the simple means of bribery. The three students who scored best on a test would be taken to a college sporting event on the teachers Alumni Ticket status. As to not leave any student in pain from the missed opportunity, she would vary it out a bit. Do not knock bribery as a means of engaging 30 ten year-olds in a public school system. It gave us a reason to focus, a developed sense of camaraderie, and a lifelong passion for the UCLA Bruins. Whether or not we were in the class because we were already over-achievers, I could not tell you. I can tell you the young determined day-dreamers, seem to choose the more difficult path.

Not until college, did I meet my creative matches and people that far exceeded anything I would ever comprehend. Through sleepless nights, you find the real archetype of any mentor you later seek — the colleague. My classmates pushed, encouraged, and inspired me – to which I truly found my way. You develop a kindred spirit with people you spend so much time with, they become some of your biggest supporters and closest friends. There is an honesty in friendships that amplify the beliefs you hold so dear, beware of the mirage that dims their sound.

As the years spin on, the long hours in the field curb with the efficiency of know-how. I have found those who have figured this out earlier on, are typically better off in the long run. These pragmatic designers are the ones who go on to become actual licensed architects; they prioritize, compartmentalize, and make it home in time to both prepare dinner and study for their exams. Although there are far more individuals in the field working as architectural designers, than those who are licensed and legally stamping drawings. From this observation, you would think architects would not necessarily be defined by the personal and financial suck of passing the 6–7 grueling exams, depending on state. Rather architects might just as well be defined by those working rigorously alongside you.

The ones effectively “working the system”, typically go on to greater things. These great things can range from running their own studio to wielding problem solving capabilities into an industry with an even greater purpose. Efficiency can sometimes just comes with age, having learned the “does it have to be now, does it have to be me” type of practicality we mature into. Then there are times – whether from exhaustion or lack of synthesis with your colleagues – you might not connect with your environment or ultimately the work. So really, the time you give does not necessarily equate to the meaning we seek. It is a delusion that the time we spend obsessing over our work means something, and yet, we still let it consume, almost possess us.

Truth be told, architects are more akin to artists than maybe engineers. With a brain that can understand the requirements of keeping a building structurally sound, there is more logic for us to go into an occupation like engineering, given its economic sturdiness and less need for late nights. The nonsensical mind of an architectural designer deludes them into thinking they are creating something far superior than anything else that could possibly occupy their time. The discussion between individuals immensely engrossed on a topic, is comparable to an almost euphoric excitement of feeling engaged and understood all at once. It would seem design is less about our ability to achieve and more about the constant need to do — an attribute sounding distinctly similar to that of the tortured artist.

Artists are constantly evolving and with that, improving in many regards. Than why are we so compelled to tell ourselves we are going to get licensed, work at the one firm we dreamed about in college, or better yet, create something not yet visioned? It is an unwavering, illogical drive that propels us deeper into the field — feeding every outcome we weave toward a greater achievement possible within the industry. Why am I analyzing this now? In the length of my short career, there have been two recessions, with typically another every 20 years. Architecture is a service industry — one that does not fare well with economic downturns. We work long hours only to be let go from our jobs or find ourselves working double to hold on.

During the last recession, after having worked 16 hour days for only 15 months at a job, I found myself like 50% of my classmates, at mass interviews for positions I would have found subpar the year before. The age range of applicants varied from people right out of college to my father’s age. I worked in several different lines of business for two years before I found my way back to Architecture. Only to discover, starting your career in the middle of a recession, will set you up for a significantly lower base salary than the class of students graduating, once the recession had passed.

Mid this second career recession, having survived the first wave of layoffs, I begin to weigh my options. One is waiting for the economy to level out and eventually move to a Business to Consumer structured company. The hours are less intense and the pay is better. The issue for a lot of architects, is not absolute design control over the outcome of a product. As these jobs are fairly focused on the overturn of new business, if not within a lead role, you may find yourself whittled out with age. The second option is going the Management route, working as a consultant in an adjacent industry. Issues here are less design involvement and a lot more stress. However with that stress comes a much larger pay check. Which does sound enticing for a generation drowning in student loan debt like never before. Last but not least, is committing completely to the field. This can mean dividing up your time between either academia or the side hustle, while also hoping the accrued time will garner a lasting position as a principal stakeholder or in a design director role. There is the obvious plus of still feeling part of the design machine, but the negatives are subjective. Those who leave might say because the industry is financially dismal or not stable. Others might feel gratified for doing work they love, but ultimately underappreciated.

In conclusion, there is no right answer. There is no right way to be an architect, there is no right way to use your degree. Most of us came into this field because we had a certain level of quirk in our step that has pushed us to this point. There is an interest in the creative and engagement by the complex. Regardless of how you feed your creativity at the end of the day is your own prerogative. In the end, I think we’re all just the same driven kid, trying our best, giving our all, and searching for reason and fulfillment for the path we have chosen.

by Bird

Brooklyn Designer, California Native - hopelessly optimistic. My writing is mostly nonsensical rants, essays, short stories, and letters to loved ones far, far away. I dream of one day finding the time to write a longer (albeit, more organized) tale. In the meantime, writing is my catharsis, I hope you enjoy.