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.

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.