Surprising to many, I am attending a Masters program in Architectural Design. Instead of escaping, as many expected, here I am, further entrenching myself. Moreover, at this moment, it seems as though I have taken a full year to return to the beginning, exploring some of the initial conceptual ideas that underpinned my first years in undergraduate school.
In truth, I feel rusty – like playing a sport after months of inactivity. I find myself once again unsure of myself – of the steps I should take, of the way I should delve into the ideas I have about what Architecture can be. It is an uneasy, yet oddly familiar, place to be. It brings back a state of mind that I long since thought conquered. But, then again, maybe I never really escape that mentality. Maybe, over the years, with the practice, I just got use to addressing the insecurities I had more efficiently than I do right now.
When I arrived for my first year of Architecture school, it was with the excitement and trepidation of every freshman college student. After all, I was, as repeatedly told by the countless friends and family that felt it necessary to share their wisdom on this period of my life, becoming an adult; college was, they encouraged, my chance to closely study an a specific discipline and, more importantly, learn about my own interests. It was a time to have fun, meet new and interesting people, and create memories that I would fondly look back upon years later. It was in college that I would lay the foundations for my future life.
Now, in undertaking the study of Architecture, there is a certain assumption made; you are there because you are quite certain that Architecture is what you love and an Architect is what you wish to become. As a five-year professional degree, it was the express route towards reaching that goal. And, as an express route, its purpose was to take you from beginning to end in the most direct way possible.
This was news to me. I was completely oblivious to the differences in academic programs offered, the complex nomenclature that defined a B.A./B.S. in Architecture from a Bachelor of Architecture and a Masters in Architecture, and the small fact that, after graduation, I would still need to intern for around three years in an Architecture firm before I could become a licensed Architect. These were all details that I knew nothing about; given my surprise acceptance to the Architecture department, I began school with an ambivalent naiveté that was remarkable unlike me; I was one to gather all possible information about a decision and its possible consequences. When my dad bought me my first bike, I spent months reading up on the latest in components, frame styles, and accessories to determine what might be the best for the price my dad had agreed to pay. Yet, on this occasion, perhaps because I felt the decision had been made for me, I sat casually by, learning things by rapid osmosis.
As a fast-track program, a “sink-or-swim” mentality develops; with a multitude of requirements needed to be covered in a limited amount of time, there wasn’t a whole lot of flexibility in our curriculum, especially during our first year. Foundation classes needed to be taken, a base level of knowledge needed to be established, before more technical information could be presented. As a result, there was little time to ease into our education; plopped into the fast moving current of our architecture curriculum, the hope was that all of us would quickly learn how to stay afloat.
In and of itself, the curriculum was not as severe as it might seem. As a way to ease us into our new discipline, we were only required to take four classes, which equaled 12 credit hours to all those who understand what that means. It was, of course, grossly undervalued, given the long hours that would be filled with studio time. But the hours weren’t the real challenge. Getting use to the way Architecture was taught was, in my mind, what made the first year so difficult.
Architecture, as an academic discipline, was unfamiliar territory to me. Unlike, say, my math or science classes from high school, where there was a structured way in which ideas and topics were presented, discussed, and reviewed, Architecture had a free-form quality that was, quite frankly, mind-blowing. Though I had taken an art class in high school, I still found the environment of such subjects foreign and uncomfortable. Whereas standard disciplines could be mastered through hard work and study, I felt that the Arts-related disciplines required a certain dimension of talent - of artistic intuition. I was quite positive that this was a quality I lacked.
Perhaps the hardest issue to grapple with is the fact that, in Architecture, as with any artistic discipline, you are dealing with the abstract notion of “taste”. Completely subjective, it has a certain hold over your impressions of artistic quality, integrity, appropriateness and beauty, despite all attempts to define your reactions through rationalized arguments.
This inherent subjectivity casts a confusing shadow over Architecture studios. While you are guided by your professors, whose general goal is to inform you of ways to ground your design decisions, in the end, design is still something that relies on your own “gut” reaction. Coming from an education system with “right and wrong”, where there were clear cut ways to evaluate your success, and ultimately, your aptitude of the subject matter, the loosely defined criteria for what it meant to achieve a successful design was both frustrating and infuriating.
In an Architecture studio, you are constantly told, “there are no right answers”. Yet, as I saw it, because you were being evaluated and graded, there were, implicitly, design choices that were “correct”. Therefore, those receiving good grades, which I self-defined as nothing lower than an “A”, would be the students with the best chance of becoming the future generation of leading architects. And, though I might not have expected to be studying Architecture, now that I was here, I was damn well going to be one of them.
As a result, college grading was an obsession of mine for much of my first year; for most of my first semester, I was on a quest to find a formula to guarantee a great report card. What was that secret combination of hard work, intellectual inquiry, craft and enthusiasm that would show my professors that I was good enough to be considered “talented” – worthy of their validation and praise? What would make me stand out?
Let me warn you in advance; for all those entering Architecture with similar ideas, you are on a fruitless search. There is no formula, there is no guarantee. More importantly, as I quickly learned, it is the best way to ensure that you will leave Architecture miserable and exhausted. I struggled long and hard that first semester, and I quickly discovered that my previous methods of achieving success – the processes I had used in high school to breeze by – were rather useless in my new environs.