go get it – learn

industrial house 1

It is back-to-school time and as many of you know I teach part-time at a School of Architecture here in Pittsburgh. In fact I’m privileged to teach first year studio – I am their first experience with architecture at a university level (**gasp**).


For those you who are students or those considering architecture as a profession perhaps I can lend a bit of wisdom or rambling – you decide. It is been said that one attends a university in order to learn how to learn. What I have always prided myself in my college education was that I went away for six years and received an education not merely training. There’s nothing wrong with educational avenues where the goal is to train someone to do specific job and do it well. Moreover, not everyone is wired for college or a university setting. Nevertheless, my focus is on a university setting.


It seems obvious to me; however, it apparently needs to be stated that one needs to make the most of their education. In other words one should not just be a passive bystander soaking in whatever information is doled out by instructors and what is determined to be on the curriculum list. There ought to be intent and focus on the part of student; even at 18 years of age. This may be very difficult since many are not confident in their career choice so early in life. I hate to say it, but maturity seems to be happening later and later in life. Yet, as the semesters go by, areas of interest beyond the limits of the classroom ought to emerge.

I can’t say I was always cognizant of this as a student (I was often half-awake), but I knew that my education was costly financially as well as my time, blood sweat and occasional tears. I knew that I needed to be an active participant in it. Many of the things needing to be learned were not necessarily going to be professed from the front of the classroom. There was the opportunity and a responsibility on my part to research things of interest and discover things at the same time. I needed to make it my business to figure out what information was necessary to be successful as a practitioner and seek out those opportunities. If you are now in practice, you’ll agree this still applies.


When one looks at a situation as a means to learn, then one’s attitude towards the instructor or people involved should change for the better. One becomes less critical of the instructor’s style or instructor’s knowledge specialty and can see that this person knows something. Everyone can teach us something or be a vehicle to get there (not the Ides of March version though).

Several years ago, I went through my college portfolio with a mix of emotion. I looked at it with a bit of disappointment in comparison to the portfolios that my students are putting together today. Students of our digital era produce graphically intense and amazingly rendered images through a collection of media used to show their work. My drawings look painfully simple (plan, section, elevation, axon) and less visually appealing in comparison – but my models kicked…ah, you know. In the old days (in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s) our presentations were largely conventional architectural drawings and well built physical models – I mean ‘Swiss-Watch’ level models. I suppose that made me smile (another cheap music reference).

If there was time or room for splash then some attempted it (we used air brushes). I suppose in all my drawings there were some elements of visual interest but the onslaught of digital tools has made it easier to quickly augment drawings with richness – and at times bury the bad design with eye wash.


As I continued to review my school work, I also had a feeling of satisfaction and a feeling of accomplishment with the content of the work. I believe our work, where I attended school, was complete and resolved. The programs made sense, the programmatic relationships were well considered, the properties in section were dynamic and the formal gestures were appropriate (most of the time). The relationships to the site were thoughtful, yet I we frequently pushed the boundaries (like when my friend Fritz put lights in his colored model when we were required to build an all white model in 2nd year).

What emerged from the memories emanating from the photos and PMTs or photostats (who remembers those) was a revelation that I had separate agenda for every project. I am not sure I totally got it at the time, but every project gave me an opportunity to explore something beyond the stated project specifications. Some of the things were formal explorations, some of them were programmatic explorations, and most were theoretical. In fact I remember being criticized that my city hall didn’t look like a city hall. I really didn’t care about that at all. I was more interested in the relationship between law and freedom (I read John Locke) and how it could manifest itself in the space and program. That is just one example.

It seemed that I saw each assignment as a chance to learn something of interest to me. Every project was a chance to go beyond the limitations of what the instructor wanted and gave me a chance to test something. I spent much time reading and sketching if you haven’t guessed.


I can’t say that every experiment yielded a successful result, but architecture school should be less about a product and more about learning a process. I acknowledge and understand that a really sharp portfolio is essential in getting a job. Yet a wise person taught me that I need to show what I can do far more than tell what I can do. This presents a dilemma you’re thinking. I must admit many of us went back and cleaned up our drawings and made a better portfolio after graduation. That still happens today. You can’t show what you can do unless someone takes a chance on you and hires you – right? After you’re hired, your school portfolio fades and your current work needs to carry you.

Simply put, education requires a relentless pursuit. In every assignment, there is potential to learn beyond the obvious and beyond the minimum. If you only give the minimum, you’ll never get any further than you are now. Figure out what it is that excites you and go get it.

Go on, that’s all the more permission you’ll ever get.


first and last photos are a model from a third year project of mine where the entire semester was to develop an industrial school campus based on a tight grid…i found that constricting. the model is of a single housing unit (one of ten). the pavilion and school were also…cranky. I managed to keep that model and it is in my office today.

all other photos are from stock photo galleries on FreeImages.com – click on photo to see author (used under the Standard Restrictions)

industrial house 2

go get it – learn

2 thoughts on “go get it – learn

  1. Im an Architecture Student in my second year in Nairobi, Kenya and thank you for shedding some light on some things that i have been thinking about of late 🙂

    1. I’m glad to have been here. Thanks for reading. As an adjunct professor at an architecture school, I address the topic of architectural education often. Stop by again sometime.

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