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

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. While some of my thoughts hold up pretty well, 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. Due to the overall length of this essay, this is part one; parts two and three will be published in later posts.

Nearly four years into my career, I feel that I have learned much about myself and the profession, and I have come to one major realization: that my life as an architect, at best, will be only a modest one. Mine isn’t a career that will change the world. My name will never be etched into a glass door at the entrance to an architectural office. Magazine covers featuring my work will never be printed. A space on the mantle will never need to be cleared for a Pritzker.

And I’m perfectly okay with that.

This is not to say that I have “given up” on anything. More the exact opposite, actually. I am as passionate about architecture as I was on the day that I received my degree, if not more. I aspire only to a modest career, one that I can look back on with the simple satisfaction of knowing that I did good work. That I provided the best possible services to my clients. That I improved people’s lives. And, in doing so, left a little bit of myself behind in each of my projects. My legacy, if you will.

As I write this, another milestone has quietly slipped behind me: my IDP requirements are complete. Nine little exams from now, I will have achieved the professional goal that has driven me for the past four years: I will be a registered architect. This is an interesting point in my career, a time to take a deep breath and pause for a little reflection. Looking ahead, it seems, requires one to look back at the same time. I’ve reached the point where I can finally start to see the light at the end of the internship tunnel, but the road to get here has been a rough one. Being an intern has more often than not seemed like an uphill battle, between learning the ropes of the professional world and endeavoring to create a post-modernist masterpiece that conforms to building code under the pressure of a looming deadline… all the while trying to eke out those last few fractions of an errant training unit, only to slog through the seemingly endless paper mill known as NCARB. Ironically, only after completing the requirements set forth by the Intern Development Program do I feel that I have begun to understand their importance. Completing IDP feels a little like graduating from high school — I couldn’t wait to get out into the great big world beyond it, but upon doing so I begin to wonder if I made the most of my time while I was there. Such impatience seems to be the hallmark of my generation. We rush to grow up, only to find ourselves longing for our fleeting youth even before it fades from our memory.

Boy With a Pipe, 1905, Pablo Picasso

In college, some of my fellow students fostered the somewhat snobbish opinion that architects were an elitist group, one that looks at the world in a manner that differs from virtually every other group of professionals. The layman simply looks at art, but the architect understands it. The architect looks at Picasso’s “Boy With a Pipe,” for example, and sees layers of meaning, devotion to the craft, the careful consideration of color and composition, the tortured soul of the artist; the non-architect sees, well, a boy with a pipe. Looking back, I’ve come to realize that the opinion of my classmates, while maybe more than a little prudish, wasn’t entirely wrong. We are a unique group, but what truly sets architects apart, in my opinion, is that once we begin down this path, we never again are able to look at anything without seeing an opportunity for creation (or, in some instances, a missed opportunity). Architecture very rapidly stops being considered just something that we do; it is what we are, and what we always will be.

Opportunities to create can present themselves to us in many forms: an empty canvas, a fresh sheet of bumwad, a clean piece of chipboard, a blank AutoCAD screen, a vacant brownfield lot. Each offers unlimited possibilities, waiting only for that someone who can see their true potential. To that list, is it really all that unreasonable to add “a recently graduated intern?” Are young architects any less of a blank slate, any less deserving of the touch of the master’s hand?

Part two: the blind men and the elephant.