Much ado is made about the difference between architecture school and the architectural workplace, or the practice of architecture. Much of this noise is about the chasm of knowledge between the two: why so vast? Is there no way to teach at least some of this workplace stuff in college?
The short answer is no.
I myself wondered if it was possible to teach some “work stuff” when I was in college and even grad school, and I’ve come to find in the past eight-and-a-half years of practice that there is no way I could teach someone in any meaningful way about what I do at the office or in the field. The reason you don’t see a lot of construction administration classes in architecture school is that you need a real project on which to learn, and few architecture firms feel like leaving CA to chance with some college kids. Even harder to understand is that there are some processes—such as CA, again, or even bidding and negotiation—that one must go through before they even learn how to do it. The only way out, it could be said, is through.
So, when an architecture student becomes an architecture school graduate, and then an architectural intern (or just an intern, depending on your state’s rules about the use of the word architect), s/he has to work at least three years and collect hours upon hours of experience in IDP or a similar training program in order to sit for the exam. Yes, a few states will allow a student to begin taking sections of the ARE before they have completed their training units (no word yet on how that’s been affected by the change in the exam format), but overall it’s a long, hard road.
I mentioned that the short answer to my question was no. The long answer involves considering the point of architecture school and architecture work. Architecture school is about you. It’s about what you like aesthetically and philosophically. It’s about finding your place in this profession: what are your strengths? Your weaknesses? Your interests? Your goals? Think about all the crits you stood through and presentations you prepared for and rehearsed in college and grad school: a majority of the sentences and explanations began with the word “I”. Even if you are given a program and maybe even get to talk to a hypothetical client as part of developing your design, every form and void you imagine is completely yours. Architecture school helps you develop your voice, your style, and your strengths as a designer and philosopher. But then, those crits. Every school has that guy or that gal whom no one wants to see on their jury. That juror (or jurors, if you should be so unlucky) will eviscerate your design and even sometimes your personality and identity until you wonder why you didn’t just go to Sally Struthers’ International Correspondence School and get a certificate in TV & VCR Repair. But frankly, a respectable jury will call you out on sloppy designs and weak motivations in your project and let you know where you fell short of your and the project’s goals. So architecture school is also about building endurance, courage, and the ability to protect your core ideas and beliefs such that you can filter nonsense from the criticism that actually helps improve your work.
And you will need that endurance, courage, and ability to protect yourself when you enter the architectural workforce because architecture work is not about you. It is about everyone and everything else. You no longer sit at your drafting board and parallel bar and work alone, night and day. You’re part of a team, for better or for worse, and your efforts have to be in the service of your job and that team. Your team consists of engineers, owners (who are paying the bills), and contractors, and it feels like everyone is speaking a different language. Then there's the reality element: the project you're working on is actually going to get built, so every line you draw counts for a lot more. And you draw a lot more lines for a lot longer, too: a semester in college goes for 14-16 weeks, while the design and documentation process for a typical commercial project is at least four months long. More complex projects, like college buildings or hospitals, can range 6-12 months in these stages. You have to keep up your enthusiasm for a project for much longer than before. And the details? Lawdy, at all the details. Presentations in school were 4-10 artfully drawn 30”x42” sheets hung on a wall for everyone to discuss while using words like “architectonic” and “parti”. Drawing sets are now a bound stack of 30”x42” sheets at least half an inch thick, over which contractors and cost estimators pore and curse while using words like “value engineering” and “dammit.” Budgets are now involved, and the bloodletting begins as soon as the contractors sharpen their pencils. And then…it has to get built. Construction takes anywhere from four more months for a small commercial building to three or four years for a large hospital or college building complex. While construction proceeds, the architect is answering questions from the field and finding out just how inaccurate and unclear his/her drawings are, and/or how incompetent the contractor or subcontractors are, and/or capricious and annoying the client is.
At this point, the work is very much about everything but you, and yet it is about you in a roundabout way. Adversity not only builds character; it reveals it. How you handle recalcitrant contractors, weary consultants, and panicky clients tells everyone, including your boss and your boss’ boss, the stuff of which you’re made. Hopefully, you’ve developed some skills during your four to six years of college—organization, communication, prioritizing, problem-solving, working in teams, and behaving with a modicum of decency and humility—and those skills will be some of that stuff.
While the focuses of architecture school and work are different, they have certain things in common and certain skills that will make either easier. The plus side is that many skills that make someone a successful architect also make them a successful writer, teacher, event planner, physical therapist…whatever. If you decide not to pursue architecture, you haven’t fully wasted your time.