Monday, September 12, 2011

A primer for Architecture students (Letter to Arvin Hadlos)

I received a post on Jafri Merican Architect Facebook page from Arvin Hadlos of the Philippines recently, and in replying, took the opportunity to express my views regarding the prerequisite skills that in my opinion should be possessed by a reasonably skilled architect and the problems I’ve faced in my 15 years of practice. I’ve described the problems in detail for the benefit of young Arvin so that he would be able, as a student, begin to develop himself into a well rounded architect once he graduates. I also hope that by reading this letter, other students of architecture may benefit by understanding beforehand what is expected of them by practising architects once they graduate, and how good design skills can give them an edge over others in getting a coveted position in a firm.

Arvin Hadlos: i am a futuristic child and i want a guaranteed job when i graduate. I am currently a freshman student at Saint Louis University , Philippines. I wish i could work with your company maybe 9 years from now. i hope so. so let me know what are your procedures in admitting an architect in your firm so as for me to prepare. TY. =))

Jafri Merican: Dear Arvin, thanks for expressing your interest in joining our practice and indeed I personally am impressed by your enthusiasm. Working in Malaysia is not a problem; I’ve met many expatriates who are permanent residents attached to consultancy firms here and it’s a matter of getting your requirements with the immigration department in good order and finding a good place to stay. I’m very sure you’ll be able to find out more about this on the net.

What I would like to advise you at this juncture is regarding what you should aim to achieve as a student. As a freshman student, you have the opportunity to start right and develop yourself to become a well rounded architect of good design and management skills, a young professional of good character, and a very creative person with well developed talent and passion for his trade.

Although what I had just said appears obvious with the benefit of a good university education, please do not take these aforesaid qualities for granted as they are not quite straightforward. Throughout my 15 years of practice, I’ve met many architects from good universities who struggle with their work especially when doing design. By 'design' I do not mean the ability to create masterpieces like those by Calatrava or Gehry, but the practical ability to organize spaces described in a design brief into a coherent, well laid out architectural plan, that will enable the principal to improve upon. However, for some architects assigned with design tasks, they are simply incapable or ineffective at developing a design from an empty site to a preliminary proposal, the result being a dismal failure, a design that cannot work and has to be revamped completely in order for it to become acceptable for presentation to the client.

What is the reason for this? It could be that somewhere along the way, during their studies perhaps, the person in question may have bypassed or neglected the development of certain important skills, or simply became very content at just getting through with acceptable grades in order to graduate instead of doing what they really should: Learning to become a good architect.

Throughout the years I’ve always given credit to certain architects and technical staff in my office who continue to attempt and improve themselves at design (though they face a great personal struggle due to having not acquired the necessary skills to carry out design work) and some of them have indeed improved with time and effort. However, quite unlike the culture that I've set in my practice, I've observed after graduation, and during my early years in practice that many fellow architects have completely given up on this quest and content themselves by adopting the stand that not all architects should be able to design. Their philosophy is that some architects should only manage projects as ‘project architects’, and admittedly there are many who have become good managers and are successful in their employment by just working hard without the need for design oriented creative output (which incidentally are provided for them by another group called ‘design architects’ who according to them should do design only and don’t have to manage or understand what’s happening on site).

I have never subscribed to this concept of having two types of architects, each not being able to do what the other can. My rationale is this: Such a concept is not acceptable in other professions: Could people accept Chefs who cannot cook, Accountants who cannot count, Doctors who can’t attend to the sick or faint at the sight of blood? The answer for Architects who can’t design should be obvious, but at least some in the profession have accepted it much to their own disadvantage.

In my practice, I expect architects to be able to perform their core expertise and manage projects at the same time, and this should be perceived as a reasonably achievable expectation, by accumulation of skill through experience. In my view, (though disconcerting for some who may read this) architects who can’t design, cannot manage design, and through my experience, project architects without design skill or at least flair, make bad design decisions because they cannot differentiate between good or bad in a building. The impact of such problems is especially apparent in design and build projects where designs are being produced while construction is proceeding on site. I’ve had the personal experience of monitoring a project architect closely as I perceived his lack of flair during the my first design and build project and had intervened in some bad decisions he would have made on his own (Some architects despite repeated reminders to inform the firm’s principal of important decisions, do continue to confirm designs directly with the client/contractor). However, as principal, I could only monitor to a certain extent, and some bad designs do slip by to end up being constructed on site in this case a stair landing projecting into a void. Luckily, I was able to design this accident into an interesting feature.

In some fortunate cases, a project architect is able to manage because within the client/contractor project team there are design consultants, or experienced members of the group who could advise on design matters and the said project architect would follow and interpret, producing drawings of design decisions made for him by others. In this instance, situations such as this work out very well for this architect but unfortunately do very little in improving his creative skills, giving him a false sense of achievement (believing he has acquired knowledge to become a good architect) and when faced with the challenges of another project, in which there are no design consultants to advise him and the client/contractor project team is inexperienced, this person would become completely lost and his lack of skill/flair eventually catches up with him and he realizes his true worth as an architect.

Having said all that, I do not alienate, discriminate or belittle architects who unfortunately are facing this skill related situational dilemma especially when some of them are my friends whom I have known for many years. It is just that I genuinely believe that this is a problem that could be remedied if the person is aware of his weakness, and is committed to improving himself. It takes a good attitude and a great deal of humility for an architect to regain the ability to design under the guidance of a willing mentor, who could be an office mate or a friend. I genuinely believe the key to effective designing in the everyday practical sense (as opposed to creating masterpieces) is more a matter of skill rather than talent (I’ve met talented individuals who are not effective designers because of certain stumbling mental blocks in their thought processes). For a student, once made aware of the problem which he may possibly become afflicted with after graduation and at work, he could take steps to avoid future predicament and improve on his design skills by becoming more active in design classes, discussing with his tutors and professors in order to form reliable thought processes and good thinking habits which will help him generate ideas.

What are the stumbling blocks that prevent students and architects alike from producing reasonably sound architectural designs (let alone outstanding ones)? I’ve pondered over this question for many years and I’d like to share with you some thoughts and opinions on the subject. I do not profess to be an authority on the matter and whatever thoughts I have are based on working experience and knowledge I’ve gained from reading and insights I’ve gained while interacting with university students I met as a visiting lecturer and during a short stint as design tutor in UiTM sometime in 2007.

The most debilitating stumbling block which I observe to affect most architects is what Edward de Bono has described in his book ‘Lateral Thinking’ as “blocked by openness”. In this case the designer is blocked by open ended possibilities of an empty piece of paper staring him in the face. He hesitates to draw fearing his first line could be the wrong one. There are many remedies to this problem, and the best is to just draw a random line to get you going. There is a saying that goes “…the best way to come up with a good adequate design is to first come up with an inadequate one…” thus the best way to overcome a mental block would be to initiate a preliminary design, criticize it and come up with a better one in its place.

Another weakness which I observe with most designers comes after overcoming the block. The architect tasked with designing lacks knowledge of design philisophy, trend, concepts and precedent (difficult to discuss with regarding certain buildings that you’ve perceived to be good design examples because he is not aware of it), is not proficient with the visual effectiveness achieved in the interrelationship between plan, elevation and 3 dimensional form, and does not understand why certain designs become beautiful and some turn out ugly. This problem arises from a lack of interest in reading and failure to keep oneself informed of the latest developments in architectural designs. One would think that this is a problem for second year students and that by the time they graduate this is no longer the case, but regrettably this is a common weakness among working architects especially those who have spent many years managing projects and decided that design is no longer their area of expertise and expect others to accept them as they are. This for me is a step in reverse, and no one especially the person in question can ever benefit from this retrogressive attitude. During my tenure with Dr. Ken Yeang’s office in 1989, before leaving to further my studies, he gave me one of the best design advice I’ve ever received: “When you read architectural books or magazine, don’t just look at building form. Look at the plans and observe how they work, and the elevations to see how interesting forms are created from plans which are invariably simple”.

The most prevalent obstacle is the inability of a designer to overcome the natural rigidity of the mind. In architectural schools students are taught to manipulate spaces, solid and void, to move one room to one side to make way for another and numerous other design exercises to induce flexibility of the mind so that various optional layouts and forms could be produced for consideration. Architects afflicted with this form of mental block face difficulties to produce even one and more often than not, they are blocked by their own designs (for example one architect was mentally blocked by a staircase he drew as though it has already been built. When I told him to move the staircase elsewhere the design was solved. The advice I gave him was, in design treat everything as movable unless they’ve already been built as in renovation projects).

The problems facing designers are far more diverse than the generalized examples I’ve described here. In my observations talent related weaknesses are more easily overcome with the correct attitude and effort on the part of the individual student or architect compared to problems with attitude and behavior. Therefore it is important for the person I work with to be of good character and hardworking. I find myself at ease working with this group of secure individuals who take criticism well, willing to learn and above all continue to strive to improve themselves to become better persons than who they were yesterday. Progress takes time, sometimes years on end, but no progress can be made without the willingness and cooperation of the individual. Therefore Arvin, start your journey with the correct attitude, don’t be intimidated by seeing others seem more talented or better, stick to your pace, but strive to continually improve.

To quote Alfred Lord Tennyson in his poem ‘Ulysses’ always remember in your journey to become an architect, be,“…strong in will. To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

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