The Kids Table

When I was growing up, our Thanksgiving day tradition was to have dinner at my grandparents’ house. It was always a large gathering — my dad was one of four kids, each of whom had married and had two kids of their own, for a grand total of 18 people celebrating the holiday together as a family. As most family traditions tend to go, every year was remarkably (and comfortably) the same — my uncles would hole upn the living room and cheer on the Cowboys, one of my cousins would claim a turkey leg, another (the finicky eater in the family) would eat nothing but microwaved chicken nuggets, Grandpa would get the neck all to himself… and after dinner, Grandma would discover one forgotten side dish hidden in the oven. Good times.

Grandma was fortunate to have a large formal dining room in her house, but it wasn’t large enough to seat all of us, of course. The kids always got their own table, a folding card table set up in the sitting room just off of the dining room. Close enough that our parents could keep an eye on us, but far enough away that our Thanksgiving became its own separate event — sort of the same as what our parents were doing, but different, segregated, smaller, with our own bastardized form of table manners and dinner etiquette.  As the years went on, we watched my older cousins eventually graduate to the adults table, never looking back.  After dinner, when the pumpkin pie came out, was when I would crawl up into my mother’s lap, becoming part of a conversation that I did not fully understand, a glimpse into what adulthood might hold.  I remember how nice it felt to be included, even for that brief period of time.

I frequently use the kids table as an analogy when I talk about young professionals trying to break into architecture. Often it feels like we can be relegated to another part of the office while the adults make all the major decisions and do all of the heavy lifting of marketing and business development.  Rightfully so, due to the experience and investment of those involved.  Taking advantage of the glimpses into how the firm operates, whenever and however they are offered, becomes crucial to earning one’s seat at that table.

It’s easily been 20 years since we’ve celebrated Thanksgiving in that manner. We’ve all grown up, moved on, started our own traditions, celebrating the holiday with families of our own. For now, my family still fits at the same table, and I’m thankful for that — it makes me feel like we’re more integrated, cohesive. As I watch my family continue to grow, though, I wonder how much longer it will be before we are forced to establish a kids’ table of our own.

Anatomically Correct

Allow me to confess to one of my not-so-guilty pleasures… I’m a fan of Grey’s Anatomy.. This coming Thursday marks the 10th season premiere, and I will most likely be in front of my TV when it airs. I’ve seriously watched the show since the very beginning, when it began its life as a mid-season replacement before becoming a Nielsen juggernaut and next-morning’s-watercooler television, complete with companion soundtrack(s).


Early influences: Dr. Carter…

What I like most about Grey’s is its focus on the youngest members of Seattle Grace’s medical staff — the surgical residents. They are young, ambitious, and fresh out of medical school. They make mistakes. They have career-defining successes and soul-crushing failures. In other words, they are just like us. And in spite of the slightly declining quality of the show in recent seasons, despite all of the crazy plot devices over the years (Izzie resurrects a deer! Owen stabs pigs! George gets hit by a bus! A plane carrying 75% of the cast crashes in the woods!), it’s that dynamic — the uphill stuggle that comes with being at the lowest rung of the professional ladder — that keeps me interested.


…and Dr. Dorian.

(I’ve already noted the dearth of architectural role models in primetime television, so instead, I look for inspiration tangentially instead of directly. I’m drawn to depictions of the coming-of-age story, which I feel is at the core of any internship experience. Medical series tend to be rife with this dynamic — in college, I became an instant fan of ER thanks to Noah Wyle’s earnest portrayal of John Carter, and Scrubs, which drew humor out of Zach Braff’s inexperience, was one of my all-time favorite comedies, especially during the first few years of my internship.  I looked at these guys — doctors, not architects, but equally as wet behind the ears — and in their perseverence in the face of constant challenge , I saw myself.)

But back to Grey’s, which seems to strike a balance between ER’s melodrama and Scrubs‘ tongue-in-cheek zaniness… A subplot near the end of the eighth season involved the residents … wait for it … preparing for, and taking, their board certification exam. Really. The drama came less from the exam than from seven years’ worth of interplay, seeing these characters simultaneously encouraging one another while competing at the same time. Even the results were as varied as the personalities themselves. Cristina passed with flying colors… Meredith handled the challenge competently and confidently… April failed miserably. Probably the most realistically, Alex (who was originally not even going to take the test in the first place) felt the pressure of being left behind by his colleagues, and rushed in at the last minute to sit for his exam. This arc –about a professional exam, mind you — lasted for several episodes. Imagine, for a minute, if the setting of this show was the architectural profession instead of the medical one. Would the exam settting have the same inherent drama? Would anyone want to watch? Would we have to call the show Graphic Standard?

(If there ever were a weekly series about architects, I’d hope that it would contain this kind of dynamic — the passing of the baton to a new generation, the transfer of wisdom that comes with experience. And if they need someone to play the good-looking lead character, with perfect hair, living in his Airstream trailer out in the woods… give my agent a call.)

"...I can't beleive they used to be us."

“…I can’t believe they used to be us.” (Grey’s Anatomy episode 9×08, terrible screen capture by the author)

To me, one of the most effective parts of the show has been its dedication to refreshing the cast through a new crop of surgical interns. We’ve watched the core cast develop and grow, over the course of seven seasons, into confident, experienced professionals. This past season, in their place came a new group of recent graduates — recurring guest stars last season, now promoted to the regular cast — and it’s through their perspective, their inexperience, that we are able to appreciate how far their peers have come. This was illustrated quite poignantly in one of last season’s early episodes (x9.08, “Love Turns You Upside Down,” for those of you keeping score at home), which saw the interns pull their first grueling 24-hour shift. On their way out of the hospital, physically and emotionally exhausted, they literally run into their mentors, now level-headed fully-minted physicians, acting during a triage situation.

Two groups, at opposite ends of the spectrum, with only time and experience separating them from one another. The students have become the teachers, and with a new group of interns, have an opportunity to share what they themselves have learned. The silence is broken when one of the interns exhales: “I can’t believe they used to be us.”

Youth Looks Forward, Age Looks Back: A Love-letter to Internship (part three)

Note: the following post was originally written in 2004, as my entry for the ArchVoices Essay Competition. This was at the completion of my IDP requirements, a time in my life where I found myself feeling somewhat disenfranchised with the profession, as I’m sure many interns do. Some of my thoughts hold up pretty well, while I can’t help but shake my head at the naivete of some of the others… but seeing as this blog is devoted to internship, I figured it was worth sharing. Parts one and two were published in earlier posts. The original (full-length) version can be found here.

Somewhere between the youthful exuberance of academics and the bitter cynicism of the profession lies the intern.  After graduation, young architects willingly trade the academic world for the professional one, bringing with them varying backgrounds and levels of experience, but with one common denominator: heart.   The determination to do the best job that they possibly can at that which they have chosen to devote their lives.  Heart.  And, as quite often is the case, the harsh truths of the real world can rip out that heart and stomp on it. It can become nearly impossible to avoid having that heart broken, nearly discouraging to keep one’s faith.

The near-ubiquitous impatience with internship, and the subsequent rush to licensure, is a direct result of the desire for credibility, the need to reclaim some of that lost faith through career advancement.  But despite the negative vibe that it has developed, internship isn’t such a bad thing.  It gives young architects a chance to grow and develop with a level of comfort, knowing that there will always be someone looking over our shoulders and correcting our mistakes.  I cannot rightfully go forward from here without first pausing to acknowledge those who have helped me to get this far.

toiletrm_yellowA list of my most admired architects, the ones who have been the most influential to my own work, would no doubt differ greatly from yours.  Beside historical figures like Daniel Burnham and Louis Sullivan, alongside modern masters such as Antoine Predock and Norman Foster, would be the names of some of the architects that I have worked with on a daily basis.  I owe much of my development as an intern, and the future of my career as an architect, to the things that I have learned as my path crossed with theirs.  I’ve been inspired by the quality of line drawn by a stubby #2 pencil.  The flourish of a break line.  The depth and artistry of material poche.  The graphic representation of years of professional knowledge and experience passed along to me, with a modest amount of style and panache, as a series of red lines over my static computer-aided plots.  A drawing where red bleeds into black transcends the sum of its parts.  It becomes a palimpsest of information, where wisdom meets inexperience. There, the gaps are filled in, the errors corrected, the questions answered. In our world of graphic presentation and representation, a red line is a measure of knowledge; to draw one indicates an understanding of how a detail is put together, to yellow one out (hopefully) means that knowledge has been passed along, and will one day find its way to the next generation in a new layer of crimson ink.  Nowhere can one find a truer expression of youth looking forward, age looking back than in a redlined drawing.  I owe it to those who came before me, those architects who have graciously shared with me a little of what they themselves have learned, to do the best work that I can, and to then pass that knowledge along to the next generation of young architects who will come under my care.

Nine little exams from now, I will have earned the right to call myself an architect.  The word “intern” will no longer be a part of my title, but my experience with internship is only just beginning.  Soon it will be me drawing redlines, providing advice, and hopefully inspiring a young mind.  To that end, my most lasting contribution to the future of the profession is to never leave my internship experiences completely behind me.  As an architect, I must never forget how it felt to be an intern, struggling to make the most out of every opportunity that came my way.  The exam is a major milestone, no doubt, but it is not the final assessment of our talents and abilities.  The ultimate, quantifiable measure of how much you’ve learned is how well you can teach.  The quality of your work and your character can be judged by how much it inspires the work and the character of others.  Looking back on my youth, even at this early stage in my career, I can see how much I have been influenced by the others around me.  When I turn to consider my future, I think of the interns whose paths will one day cross with mine.  Will I contribute to their overall development, helping them to emerge as a masterpiece like the David, poised to slay the goliath of the profession, or leave them unfinished as a Prisoner?  What will I be able to pass along to them?  When they move on, what part of me will they take along?  For right now, I am unsure of the answers to those questions.  But I have faith that the answers will come to me as I continue along my chosen path, and look back at the youth of my career with the wisdom and experience that comes with age.  Our legacy is more than bricks and mortar, architectonic planes and poetic space; it is also what we, as mentors, will pass along to the next generation.

Sometime in the future, if we should look back and find that we never did receive that Pritzker or make that magazine cover, we shouldn’t be too disappointed.  It would have been a wonderful achievement, but ultimately only a signpost of a past accomplishment, a reminder of where we’ve been. Looking back on it would only serve to remind us of our age.  The only way to stay young is to constantly be looking forward.  Who needs to celebrate that which has already passed?  I’m more interested in where we’re going.  Show me an intern, and I’ll show you the future.

Many Happy Returns

Today marks the one-year anniversary of In DePth. Allow me the self-indulgence of a little reflection.

As of this writing, I’ve published 40 individual posts — well over my initial estimate of two each month — and sent nearly 600 tweets since my introductory post one year ago. When I decided to take on something like this, I was only hoping to offer a little bit of advice and guidance (and maybe a little bit of entertainment) in the interests of providing some online mentorship to emergent professionals in Pennsylvania… but the reach has surprisingly been much broader than that. The blog has received over 2,700 views, which is about 2,699 more than I had expected. Most of the traffic has been from the United States, of course, but people from countries as far away as the Philippines and the Republic of Korea (including a place called Azerbaijan, which I didn’t even know existed) have viewed this site, which I find incredibly humbling.

Managing a blog has been a huge learning experience for me — hammering out a few hundred words each week has been a discipline, to say the least. Auto-scheduling has proven to be both a blessing and a curse; it’s allowed me to publish while sitting in the beach, but also led to more than a few misfires (I really didn’t mean to publish a nuts-and-bolts essay on Easter Sunday, if anyone was wondering…). While I’ve always been incredibly critical of my writing, this format has only intensified that feeling — some posts sit as drafts for weeks, while I meticulously tweak grammar and sentence structure; strangely enough, in spite of that, my most popular post ever was written in under an hour (while nursing a mild hangover, to boot). Some of my more recent entries, about the Blackout and the transition to ARE 5.0, have also gotten a lot of exposure (thanks in no small part to NCARB’s help in sharing them), meaning that I am indeed reaching my target audience. The blog format has also allowed me the freedom to develop ideas, some of which have then been considered fit to be included in local, state, and national online publications. Again, for a guy that sometimes feels like he’s punishing his keyboard for wrongs done in a past life, this is quite humbling.

Lastly, I wanted to give a huge shout-out to someone that has really provided a lot of support for the blog in its first year — my main man, Ted Mosby. Earlier this year, I wrote about Ted’s presence as one of the few architects in prime-time television, and as part of my New Year’s Resolution to include more images in the blog, I uploaded a photo. Those references to our favorite fictional architect led to anywhere between 10 to 15 unique hits on the blog, per day, for a series of months. I have no idea if any of those people that stumbled upon this site actually read anything that I wrote, but I’m grateful to Mr. Mosby for the exposure.

Thanks to everyone who has visited this page, read these words, left your own comments, and shared these random thoughts of mine — it’s appreciated more than you know. Anything you want to see me cover in the coming months? Leave me comments below (bonus points if it involves a mention of Ted). On to year two!

The Village

swingsAs the old saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child, something I’ve become all too aware of in the past few years.

My wife and I welcomed a son in 2011; it’s been a life-changing experience, in ways that we never expected. We knew, going in, that parenting was going to be a huge responsibility. Turns out, we were wrong — parenting is an enormous responsibility, and I don’t just mean sleepless nights and dirty diapers. We’re in the process of creating a person; in doing so, we have charged ourselves with teaching our son right from wrong, good from bad… in other words, making sure that he becomes a decent human being. It didn’t take us long to realize that, while we have been his primary care-givers, much of what our little guy has learned has been influenced by other people in our lives — his grandparents, his aunt and uncle, his cousin. A little further down the road, there will be many others — teachers, coaches, friends and classmates — that will enter his life and share their knowledge. We may be new to this parenting thing, but we’ve already seen that we can only teach him so much; the idea that he has so many other people looking out for him and influencing him by their example, makes me feel that much more confident that he really will turn out okay… and become a much better person in the process. 

 The development of a young architect is not that much different, really. An intern just entering the profession has a great deal to learn, and the responsibility falls on the rest of us to show them the ropes. This profession of ours takes on a great many different forms, and we’re asked to wear a variety of hats throughout the course of a week, or in some cases, even in the same day. Passing along even a small part of that experience to a younger architect helps to broaden their perception of what architecture is really all about.

Mentorship is one of the “hidden” benefits of IDP… A mentor is an optional part of the program, but one that can have a profound impact on one’s professional development (through an unbiased third-party perspective, as well as how quickly one can complete IDP, through Supplemental Experience — a mentor can provide oversight on design competitions or take an intern on a tour of a construction project, both of which qualify for IDP credit). A mentor can be a constant companion throughout one’s career, or someone who helps out on one particular day; as such, an intern can — and should — have many mentors throughout the course of their burgeoning career. NCARB has formalized (and increased) the mentor’s role in an intern’s development by developing a series of guidelines to follow (which you can read about here), but mentorship doesn’t have to follow such a strict system of rules. Anytime that anyone offers a little bit of advice, from the technical (“don’t use that type of brick tie…”) to the mundane (“hey – don’t drink that… there’s better coffee in the second floor kitchen”), mentoring is taking place… and both sides, I feel, are a little stronger for it. I say this from my own personal experience — some critical parts of my development came not from my daily supervisor, but from the guy(s) who occasionally looked over my shoulder and offered some friendly advice. 

 Here’s the catch: that advice has to be offered. Our profession was founded on the principle of mentorship, the nurturing of future practitioners through a “master-apprentice” relationship, working under the wing of an experienced professional, nearly one-on-one with that individual, in developing their mastery of the craft. That was then, this is now. I won’t bore you with the same old details you’ve probably heard hundreds of times by now (building projects are more complex, budgets are tighter, clients are savvier, staff sizes are smaller, yada yada yada…). Suffice it to say, the profession has changed immensely, and along the way, has seemingly turned itself inward; that type of dedicated mentoring has been lost. We’re a long way from the master-apprentice relationships that used to define architectural practice, and guaranteed that our collective knowledge was being passed down to the next generation of practitioners.

I can already hear some of you grumbling, and believe me when I say that I agree with you — mentoring is a two-way street, and the mentee has to bring something to the table as well. A mentor is supposed to be an adviser, or at best a coach, not necessary spoon-feeding knowledge to someone who isn’t interested in receiving it. But I believe that we owe it to ourselves to at least try. The profession depends upon this type of “pay it forward” attitude to survive. We all live in this village together, and it’s up to us to make sure that it’s taken care of by future generations. 

This post was originally published as a full-length feature article in the Winter 2012 issue of Pennsylvania Architect, the online magazine of AIA Pennsylvania, and also earlier this year as a Viewpoint in AIA-Pittsburgh’s COLUMNS. My son is now three, and he has a little sister on the way — my village is more appreciated than ever.

Taking the Leap

Success is an interesting thing — sometimes someone else’s success actually can be more important to you than your own.  Maybe it’s because you understand the process, the steps that needed to be taken.  Maybe it’s because you were too close to your own achievement to fully appreciate what went into it. Either way, seeing someone else take that leap can be just as exhilarating.  On the rare occasion when one can say that they might have had a small part to play in that, the feeling is very difficult to put into words.

leap-of-faithOver ten years ago, I was asked to be a mentor for a high school student, one who just happened to be writing a paper on architecture.  It was part of her senior project, and she had to choose a topic that was based on her intended major of study.  I was more than happy to help… and this being the first time I was asked to mentor someone, I took it very seriously.  Maybe a little too seriously — I returned her first draft to her literally dripping with red ink.  I tried justifying it by telling her — and myself — that I was preparing her for what was yet to come, but it might’ve been a little too much for a high school student to take.  Luckily she didn’t create a voodoo doll that looked suspiciously like me… or if she did, as an intern trying to painfully work his way through IDP, I didn’t notice.

She and I stayed in touch through her five years of college; eventually, the time came when she was looking for a job, and landed her first architectural position with the office that I was working for.  I actually had the opportunity to become a true mentor to her, especially when she was placed on one of my projects.  Of course, that meant a little more red ink — on her details this time — but I think (hope?) that by this point in her career, she at least had a better understanding of where I was coming from.

We lost touch a little when I left the firm.  The last time I saw her, at a pre-proposal meeting for a project we were both chasing, she told me that her goal was to finish her exams before her birthday.  Her most recent score reports being fairly regular, she even had scheduled her last division of the ARE so that she would receive her pass letter on her actual birthday itself — a bit of advanced planning (and ambition) that would make even the most anal-retentive architect (particularly this one) beam with admiration.

Today is her birthday… and yesterday, I received the wonderful news that she has earned her architectural license.  The fact that I celebrate the licensure of newly-minted architects is no small secret, but this one is more important to me than any other.  Even though I knew that this day was coming, I have been completely bowled over by the amount of pride that I feel.  (And to anyone who might think that the only party that benefits from mentorship is the younger one, you’re doing something wrong.)

Happy birthday, kid, and congratulations on taking the leap.  It’s been a pleasure to have been a part of your journey.  Now, hand over that voodoo doll…