secrets to surviving and succeeding in architecture (school)

Architecture school, in fact this whole profession requires more than natural ability and various skills with your hands.

Those are crucial ingredients, but after teaching for almost a dozen years, I’ve developed a list of aphorisms that I might start to post on the wall at the beginning of each semester. I might share these at the high school career day I’ll be speaking at tomorrow.

I don’t understand it. Doesn’t everyone know this is a difficult profession? It is not kind to laziness and it will not tolerate ambivalence. None of us are exempt. We all have times to vent and frustrations to share, but if you want to succeed – get with it.


Here are a dozen things (OK, baker’s dozen) to consider if you wish to pursue this career regardless of where you are on the path. If you’re already out of school, substitute the school studio concept for your own office’s studio environment.

  1. Be relentless – Pursue this like a big game hunt or perhaps a marathon. You must be determined to succeed no matter what happens – no complaints. Have the attitude that no one will get in your way and nothing will keep you from achieving your goal.
  2. Be prepared – Come prepared to studio (or a meeting) – every time. When that does not happen sit quietly in studio and work on your project so you will be prepared the next time. It’s no one’s fault that you’re not prepared, therefore, it’s no one’s fault you don’t get feedback on…what you brought…nothing.
  3. Be pro-active – If you do not get feedback (or adequate feedback) from your instructor that day, seek out as many others as possible for additional feedback. Your classmates and other instructors might be available. Don’t allow your progress or development hinge upon the schedule of others. Learn to be self-critical of your work.
  4. Be organized. When preparing for a (final) presentation, start the processes that depend on others first or require time outside of studio. For instance, if you are working with team members, be sure to arrange and settle group matters first. If you need materials, buy them now. If you need to plot your drawings, plot early. If you use the wood-shop or similar facility get that portion done first. Once everything else is moving, you can sit at your desk and work on the things that you can control.
  5. Be independent – Don’t demand to be spoon fed. Architecture school is not a trade school or other higher level of instruction where one is taught the specifics of how to do something (no offense). You are being educated broadly, taught to think, to research, to question and to make. Develop your skills in spite of the conditions of your studio.
  6. Be responsible – Acknowledge the culture’s nature of blaming everyone else and commit yourself to take responsibility for yourself and your own work. Make no excuses.
  7. Be respectful – Address your instructors with respect (see image below). Our culture has permitted a more casual relationship where you might be permitted to use first names. I wouldn’t do that unless they insist. Always use a title – Mr. /Ms., Professor, Instructor, or whatever is appropriate. Never call them solely their last name (not even behind their back – be nice) and never address them in an email as “Hey Professor Calisti or Hey there.” These people are educated professionals, not your friends. They have already earned the respect, you don’t have to prove it to yourself first.
  8. Be diligent – Seek out examples and bring those to studio for feedback – share them with your studio. These might be examples of graphics, building components, design ideas, compositional arrangements, or just ways of approaching something. Don’t wait for your instructor to point you in a direction.
  9. Be a risk taker – Try something, anything – just try something. Architecture cannot move forward without attempts at solutions. The first ones are always bad, so hurry up and get them out of the way. Doing nothing will frustrate your instructor and won’t allow for you to have anything to discuss.
  10. Be visual – Don’t tell your instructor what you are thinking – show them. We are architects; we are visual people. Graphics and models are the vehicle by which we can measure ideas, suggest solutions, develop and make architecture. No one can read your mind, nor should they. See item #2 above.
  11. Be open to multiple ideas – Iterate. We used to say in school, there are no Mozarts in architecture. If I have to explain that, it’s not funny. Architecture is made by testing multiple ideas, studying various methods of approach and assembly. The first solution is rarely the best solution. The strongest solutions are typically found by testing alternate and opposite ideas and weighing strengths and weaknesses. When more than one idea or concept is alongside each another, the ability to test and judge is possible. Edit your work.
  12. Be a maker. Architecture is more than ideas. In fact, ideas are worthless until they take on form and context. Ideas lead to architecture, but great architecture is about more than one thing. You must be able to articulate your thoughts through a visual medium. However, architecture is about space too, so the third dimension is the most critical. If you are strong with 2D graphics but weak in 3D, you need to think about this career seriously.
  13. Be curious – Ask questions. Develop a sense of wonder and imagination. If you can’t posit reasons for something, you have a poor sense of curiosity. It might have killed the cat, but curiosity saved the architect.



This is ALWAYS a no-no. (See point #7 above)





Can you adopt these virtues or will you pursue another direction?

secrets to surviving and succeeding in architecture (school)

11 thoughts on “secrets to surviving and succeeding in architecture (school)

    1. It refers to point #7 but WordPress won’t allow me to place it within the body of a bulleted list. I suppose I could have taken #8 to heart and been more diligent about finding a way to do it.

  1. Good post Lee. I agree with #7, but it has to work both ways. There were issues when I was in college and the professors seemed to be of the mindset that the students worked (figuratively) for them, when in fact it’s the opposite.

  2. I always enjoy reading when other architects prepare these sorts of lists (since I’ve written my own before). Since everyone is dialed in to #7 I’ll cast my lot with Lee. The number of emails I receive where the individual hasn’t even taken the time to craft a proper letter drive me insane. If you want me to take the time and answer your questions, you should show me the respect and not email those questions in texting shorthand. And when did “is” become “iz”? Capitalization … it’s like they’ve never heard of it.

    I used to let it just bug me but now, I don’t even bother with a response. This is a matter of respect and if you’re asking someone for help, this would be the time to use it.

    1. Yes, yes and yes. The other thing that bugs me is when someone calls me to send me product literature or better yet for a job and I say “email me your ____________.” They then say “can you give me your email address?” My response…”find it.”

  3. I love this, as well as the retro images of architecture school. But it doesn’t really look like that any more at the schools I’ve guest critiqued at. There are desks with papers and computers when the students are there, empty when at home working. Also, the #4 works for employment too, especially with consultants!

    1. Thanks for commenting. I agree many studios do not have traditional drafting tables, but this isn’t retro – this was taken last semester in first year studio. Some have moved their tables this semester and have a flat surface. I still have my drafting table behind me. We all need a bit more organization.

  4. José Silva says:

    Great list not only for architecture school, but for life as an architect. The first #3 are the success for most of the other points. #6 and #7 are civic structures that help us walk upright. As always a great piece.

  5. Matthewfelix says:

    Matthewfelix writing from Nigeria.
    Thank you for the candid pieces of advice to the would-be architects.
    On #7 I was mistaken. Having no prior knowledge of what architecture entails, at times I feel I need to be spoon fed. But it always registers in my mind that I’m in the school of architecture to explore.

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