Studying Architecture: Advice from practitioners (Part 1)

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We asked a number of practitioners, including our colleagues, about the advice they’d give anyone considering studying a built environment topic. In this first blog piece we by asked some of the staff at Architecture and Design Scotland:

What advice would you give to anyone thinking about studying architecture/planning/landscape architecture/interior design?

Explore your own interests as much as possible

Laura Hainey, BSc Architectural Studies and MArch Advanced Architectural Design, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow.

“Explore your own interests as much as possible within the scope of the brief. While you have a library and an Athens password, explore and learn as much possible beyond the curriculum. Travel as much as possible and volunteer (here or abroad) where your skills are needed, if the opportunity offers you scope for growth and a profit isn’t being made – as in a volatile economic/ job market these things can all give you an edge, especially if you want to move beyond the traditional architectural career path.

Don’t underestimate the value of a year-out spent in a small practice, and the comprehensive experience that can give you. On return from my part-1 year out while I only worked on several small house extensions and alterations to a college building I was confident in running a project, had gained site experience and had a good understanding of running a small practice. Colleagues who returned from big-name practices and had worked on higher-profile projects had a good understanding of door schedules and room layouts – lots of them!

Finally – don’t take tutors feedback on completely – they all contradict each other anyway, and sometimes themselves!

Produce, Produce and Keep Producing! (and avoid the all-nighters)

Steve Malone, studied Architecture (undergraduate, graduate and diploma) at Strathclyde University, Glasgow, including an ERASMUS exchange in Vienna in 3rd year.

“Produce, produce, and keep producing to work through your ideas, and record everything in sketchbooks or some electronic medium… It’s the best way to work through problems and at the end of the project it’s helpful to have early ideas/sketches to refer to, to show how your idea developed. For my diploma year project I displayed my whole year’s work, which showed the breadth of the project and my thinking. Worked for me!

Also, and it took me until the latter years to realise this, don’t sleep in and leave working until the evening. The working late/all-nighter thing might seem cool and macho, but you’re better off getting a good night’s sleep, getting up and working through the day! Plus it’s good training for the real world”…

Find out what attracts you; and talk to the people already doing it

Eric Dawson is a qualified architect and planner. He studied Architecture at HWU/Edinburgh College of Art between 1980-1985 and has a BArch (Hons) and Dip Arch, and gained RIBA part 3 in 1987. He studied Urban & Regional Planning at Heriot Watt University between 2002-2005, gaining a Masters with Distinction.

“The advice I would give to anyone thinking about studying architecture and/or planning is that these (and other) professions cover large subject areas and contain aspects that straddle professional boundaries and which themselves can form defined areas of study – e.g. urban design, environmental psychology, community participation, project management.

Do you have broad professional interests, or would you choose to focus on a particular study area… or perhaps your interests extend even wider?

Traditional routes to professional learning are responding to changing contexts and there is increasing emphasis on cross disciplinary working. Try to identify what it is that attracts you – generalist or specialist; within or across professional disciplines? Identify people who are doing the sorts of things you fancy doing and talk with them about they got there.”

Great design is about understanding user needs

Diarmaid Lawlor is a Landscape Architect, studying Environmental Resources Management, Dublin Institute of Technology, Masters of Landscape Architecture, Edinburgh College of Art, and a Masters of Urban Design, University of Westminster.

“Design is about understanding problems and imagining possibilities. So key skills include problem finding, analysis, imagination, problem solving, 3D thinking, scenarios, synthesis and presentation. It’s not just about nice drawings – build up a portfolio which show your skills.

Great design is about better understanding user needs. This is gained from listening and engaging in team work. Show examples of team work, creative ways of working with groups; examples of good listening driving some action.

Go to places. Imagine them like a person. How does the person welcome you, what do they say to you, how do you interact with them, what does it feel like in their company?

Build up a way of describing your experience of places and buildings. This is about observation skills but also communication, written and graphic.

Get some work experience. Talk to friends of your parents. Go to talks and lectures. Get a sense of the inspiring bits (great design) and the practical bits (great organisation). Build up a picture if what a typical day or week would be like. Challenge your thinking when you are this picture too romantically or too practically. Check out practices on the internet. Ask to interview them.

Join in on architecture and design challenges like Teambuild, or initiatives by PAS or the V+A or universities. Get some experience of working on design projects in a fun environment.”

You need to love it to make it through the long training…

Johnny Cadell, studied architecture at Oxford Brookes University, did his practice year at Aldington, Craig and Collinge in Haddenham and moved to Bath for Part 2. He then worked for Cullinan Studio: Architects and Masterplanners getting his professional practice (part 3) qualification from South Bank Polytechnic en-route.   

“Think hard.  You must love it and be interested from an early age by the architecture and landscapes you see around you, with a practical interest in how things are designed and put together.  You need to love it to make it through the long training and generally poor earnings prospect.

The architecture school you choose is important and they have very different emphasis: some are stronger on practice/construction/ engineering; some are strong on planning/urban design; some on design theory/philosophy; others are more rounded. A hint: look at other courses in the same department that give an indication of shared teaching programmes and related fields that you may also be interested in.”

Use your summers to gain experience

Alex Laurenson studied interior design at the City of Glasgow College and Glasgow School of Art, graduating in 2014.

“My advice would be to not take a full three months off each summer, use that time to gain some kind of placement working in practice as you learn so much more and quicker doing so.”

Be true to yourself

Danny McKendry is a landscape architect who studied Geography at the University of Glasgow and a Masters in Landscape Design at the University of Newcastle.

“It is a cliché but be true to yourself even if that is not initially a clear vision. I left high school after 5th year in the midst of teacher strikes with good grades and huge appetite to learn more. Uni couldn’t come soon enough for me and, whilst briefly  toying with the idea of architecture, I joined the science faculty at Glasgow to study geography, but kept my interests open with classes in physics, geology, and archaeology. I became fascinated in the interaction of human and physical geography and how this manifested in ‘place’. I was keen to pursue this interest and turned down a funded PhD on the Geomorphology of  Saharan Wadis to do a Masters in Landscape Design at Newcastle University! That post-grad route to become a Landscape Architect really suited me, as my idea of what I wanted to be had matured and I was inspired by life in a new city with international student classmates with backgrounds in planning, architecture, geology, classic civilisation, engineering, horticulture and film studies. They remain friends for life! I still try to retain this enthusiasm for people and place and use my design skills to better understand the world around me and hopefully improve it where and when I can . Quite a privilege, really!”

Graduate with your vision of what is possible

Sam Patterson studied architecture at the Glasgow School of Art between 2006-2012.

“When studying architecture don’t forget that you are designing for other people – travel as much as possible, experience as many buildings as possible, meet as many people as possible and graduate with your own vision of what is possible.”

Keep firmly grounded in the world outside architecture

Emelie Borg studied architecture at Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, Sweden, with a one semester exchange to Stratchclyde University in 4th year.

“I didn’t think of becoming an architect until fairly late (20), but when I did it was because it seemed like it would perfectly combine the theoretical and practical, aesthetic inspiration and pragmatic usefulness, with a chance to make the world a better place in the process.

I will continue to discover what that education left me with for the rest of my professional life – much of it seemed a bit ad hoc and separated from the real world at the time, some of it still does. There is however no doubt about the value of the lessons in teamwork, how to approach problem solving, considering several different scales at once and most importantly considering who it is all for in the end.

If you are going to study architecture I would say that it is very important to keep firmly grounded in the world outside architecture, be it through hobbies (yes, you are still allowed to think other things are also important), friends or other work. Don’t be fooled into thinking that ‘being an architect’ has to mean any one thing – the best way of understanding this is to change your context to a different educational institution, country or workplace in which to practice your skills and gain new ones.”

Don’t get put off by the impenetrable language…

Heather Chapple studied architecture at the Welsh School of Architecture, Edinburgh University and KTH Stockholm.

“Don’t get put off by the impenetrable language and introspective nature of parts of academia or the groups of students that swim happily in that world.  Architectural education can be very artsy, looking for abstract meaning or symbolisms in form, and where knowing the latest star or fashion is seen as really important.  For a serious young girl from a working class background this was very alienating for me.  I remember an exchange trip we did to Stockholm where we did a design module with Swedish students. At the crit at the end of the month some local students, understandably, slipped into Swedish to explain their designs and someone would helpfully interject ‘In English please for our friends’ to help us engage in the discussion. Then one of my UK colleagues launched into an impenetrable explanation and needed the same gentle reminder…

The practice of architecture, however, is about making places for real people to have meaningful life experiences.  Some of the best architects I’ve met cannot explain the theory behind their design, and don’t use words like palimpsest or morphology to do so.  But they can listen to what the users need, understand how the space they’re designing responds to that, and help the client test with them how it will feel to be there and how it might help the users live, learn, heal…  Equally importantly, they can design a space that feels that way to a broad range of people, not solely those who understand the metaphor. By doing that they can exceed the client’s expectations and broaden the user’s views of how buildings and the spaces between them enrich lives not merely contain them. We need more folk who can do that.”

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