I was asked to speak to students at Mills Park Middle School in Cary a few weeks ago about a career as an architect. Whenever I speak about the profession, I try to show the larger view of what architecture really is because it in some ways, it is simpler than you’d think.
Like many from my generation, thoughts of becoming an architect started early in life. Most of my friends in design school shared similar interests in drawing and making models. Today’s kids play Minecraft and many already know free design software packages readily available on the web like SketchUp. I don’t think they realize how close they are to the profession.
I like to explain that art is where ideas form, but architecture is where they come together. Intuitively we know that impressive renderings of buildings in the news may not accurately represent the finished result. It’s true, the bridge from inspiration to completed building is as important as the initial “genius.” Fantasy images of ideas unable to be accomplished for technical, financial, or political reasons is a failure of the designer. However, the training to build this bridge is actually pretty simple and can start young.
So what skills development of school children will translate into a successful architectural profession?
For centuries, models have been used for design. A very high level of design thinking can proceed from simple paper and cardboard. Paper mache is about as basic and safe a medium as any for very young children to adults. For the average middle schooler, a cutting matte, hobby knife, steel ruler with non-slip cork on one side, and some white glue are all that is needed to build sophisticated architectural models. In fact, even professionals frequently use them, as the photo above of one of my own models in progress testifies. Advanced techniques add basswood and plastics, all available from local hobby or art stores for very little expense.
Today, architects sometimes build virtual models in the computer. These can be very realistic, such as my own example of the Reset House, still only a virtual project and physically un-built as of this date. When I was in middle school, my contractor neighbor suggested to me that architecture might not be a good career due to the rise of computers. This couldn’t have been farther from the truth.
The exploration of physical materials and the meanings and beauty that results is critical to being a complete designer. Being able to express ideas with models directly constructed by hand is as useful and appreciated today as it ever has been. To the uninitiated, this may seem short of the glamorous renderings in the news, but it is a more valuable skill and easy to do.