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Natural Selection

As thrilling as the design school experience can be, most graduates live in hope that their architecture degrees eventually will lead to a job. We asked principals from five top local firms to describe what skills and qualities they look for when hiring new recruits — and whether today’s architecture schools are developing them. The answers may surprise you.

A home for broad minds

by William Rawn FAIA

At its best, architecture is about ideas, about a nuanced understanding of culture, about the essential aspirations of clients and institutions, and always about a deep sense of place. Architecture has responded to these imperatives for thousands of years. It responds to these issues today.

This universality is one of the things that excites us about architecture. An architectural office should be responding to ideas, culture, and place as powerfully and robustly as it can. In our office, architects must be similarly well informed about these qualities. Following are three personal characteristics we look for in interviewing prospective architects for our firm. I would hope that architectural education — at the undergraduate and graduate levels alike — would focus on them.

First, an ability to be creative in the design process is a given. Design is unbelievably rich, broad, and very difficult. That said, in the interview process, we always are trying to make judgments about an applicant’s design intelligence and intuition. This is step one.

Next, we know design is broader and more complex than simply intuition. In addition to design skills, we expect our architects to be conversant with and able to articulate the subtle and nuanced elements of ideas, culture, and place. We find this is best captured in a set of life experiences, which add depth of thinking about those issues to the normal skills that an architect learns in school. I find that the best education — in concert with life experience — comes from a broad-gauged liberal arts curriculum. We do not care if one majors in English or chemistry or art history or a social science — or architecture, when it is combined with a liberal arts training. The important element is the depth of thinking coming from that education. Liberal arts education suggests an insatiable curiosity, an ability to express oneself visually, verbally, and in writing; a willingness to dig deeply into a problem.

Finally, our office maintains a strong belief in meritocracy. Anyone — from any part of the country, from any social background, from any college — can succeed here. That is our basic mantra. We are proud that for many years we have had a plurality of staff who grew up in the Midwest. I am from California, and when I first arrived in Boston, I did not know a single person here. From a similar start, I want anyone applying for a position here to know that family and social connections have no influence on hiring.

So many of us are immigrants — from abroad or from other parts of the country. That is one of the joys of Boston. Many of us came here to go to school, and ended up staying. We did so because Boston is an unusually democratic (small d!) and egalitarian place. It is a place where “outsiders” can make it. Succeeding is simply a matter of personal qualities, intelligence, and hard work. We are terrifically proud of this mantra. It has been valuable to us for more than 25 years, and we want to bring people to the office who believe in it, too.

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A useful education

by Sho-Ping Chin FAIA

A course I took decades ago in architecture school, Fin-de-siècle Vienna taught by the cultural historian Carl Schorske, was not required but strongly recommended. I signed up but asked, “Why?” It was much harder than design studio, what with writing treatises on how the intersection of Sigmund Freud, Arnold Schoenberg, and Adolf Loos gave rise to Modernism. Although I didn’t get a stellar grade, the course began to discipline me to think analytically, which was instrumental in developing my skills as a designer and practitioner.

Decades later, what I learned in that course still resounds within my professional career. I am relieved to hear that architecture pedagogy continues to emphasize intellectual development via studio exercises and theoretical discourses. But I have also heard much disenchantment on this exclusive focus, which often leaves students ill prepared for the rigors of the pro-fession. It’s unfortunate that some academicians have never — or barely — practiced architecture and, conse-quently, are often out of touch with realities on the ground.

Our profession has evolved into a demanding multi-faceted and exceedingly competitive business on all levels. The designer of today has to find the work, design it, and manage it within financial constraints. Now, more than ever, architecture education has to better prepare graduates for these expectations.

My firm, Payette, has a core practice in designing technologically complex buildings, primarily in science and healthcare, typologies often overlooked in the academic milieu. One would expect recruitment of the best and brightest would be challenging for us, but we have been fortunate to have access to a wealth of competent graduates. In interviewing a candidate, we emphasize the following attributes:

Design acumen. For the portfolio, conveying the thought process graphically and verbally with clarity and brevity is far more compelling than showing Rhino renderings. We like to see creativity through inquisitive explorations within a disciplined rigor. Hand sketches that express the design concept are prized. And demonstrating successful collaboration on a team project is a welcome attribute.

Multidimensional competency. We are interested in other skill sets outside the core curriculum. Active participation on the debate team or writing critiques in the school journal adds depth and breadth to one’s character. Versatility is much sought after in the professional practice.

Pro-activism. We like to see young designers taking initiative to enrich their development. I once interviewed an applicant who organized a school lecture series outside of the usual “in vogue” architects to focus more on students’ interests, such as pro bono initiatives, new modeling technology, or works by lesser-known architects. A résumé with a list of community activism to rival Barack Obama’s is indicative of leadership aptitude. As the baby boomer owners stream into retirement, firms are now scouting for the 20- and 30-year-olds who exhibit strong leadership skills to be groomed for the future.

Architecture is still one of the most challenging professions to master. Having a strong foundation in critical thinking will never lose its relevance. The rest has to do with the individual: inquisitiveness, collaborative spirit, discipline, and passion. Please contact me if you have all of the above.

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Desperately seeking generalists

by Alex Krieger FAIA

When seeking younger staff for our office, the catch-phrase “think globally, act locally” sometimes pops to mind. For me, this clichéd advice about responsible citizenship evokes — in the context of a staff search — an individual who has wide-ranging curiosities about design and planning coupled with very particular skills to perform design or planning roles. The above may sound a bit abstract, or slightly contradictory, but is crucial to the way that our office operates.

Because the Boston office of NBBJ undertakes a diverse set of projects, including many in urban design, we generally prefer generalists — generalists who are broad-minded, with passion to enhance the built world but always seeking specific ways to achieve a better-built world. What we take from the original dictum of Leon Battista Alberti — a large house is like a small city, and a small city is like a large house — is the challenge to inform the design of the part, or a building, or an urban place by studying its larger human setting and vice versa. We believe that better architecture and better urbanism more consistently result when they are influenced — infected, if you will — with insights about problems smaller and larger than those immediately being addressed. This is why we welcome a generalist’s perspective.

Of course, a design office must have people who draw and render beautifully; or detail expertly; or compute, or plan, or manage, or coordinate very well; or fulfill several such roles concurrently. But even when they are responsible for a specialized task, they must think “globally,” if not about the whole planet, then certainly about how their specialized task relates to the project overall; the expectations of the client or user; and the physical and social context in which the project will be set.

Only rarely do we hire “a specialist”; indeed, we prefer those trained in more than one discipline. For example, a talented architect or landscape architect who acquires a second degree in urban design or planning; an interior designer with a background in architecture; or, simply, someone trained in one design discipline but committed to learning about a kindred design discipline through intensive collaboration and willing to step out of his or her disciplinary comfort zone. Such people are exceedingly valuable.

So we seek out young colleagues who think across tasks or disciplines.

On the other hand, we have had less success with people who just think. Now here is where I must proceed with caution, lest my academic colleagues express their disdain. By “just thinking,” I mean people who are moved more by theories about the built world rather than the application of those theories to the design of actual places, or designers who confuse their wondrous renderings with the far more granular process of placemaking.

Newly minted graduates tend to exhibit such thinking, at least for a while. That is not to say that design schools should become trade schools. Their primary purpose isn’t skill building but unleashing the “thinking powers” of future professionals, developing their creative, conceptual faculties. We seek out such thinkers, yes, especially those with a mindset predisposed to action.

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A crit for teachers

by Steven J. Brittan Assoc. AIA

Fierce competition, economic cycles, and constant pressure to deliver exceptional service for reduced fees only increases the challenge of finding highly competent students who can learn the ropes quickly and become reliable contributors to a firm.

Until about a decade ago, the practice — and teaching — of architecture had changed minimally. Today we are at a point where architecture is fighting to stay relevant, precisely because it has not evolved. Large firms are trying hard to fight the commoditization of their services, and smaller firms are struggling to maintain their unique design identity.

What are the qualities that make the ideal candidate in this battle to survive? Ironically, some students today have a better sense of where our profession is headed than do the legacy firms and their leaders. They are skeptical about their training and question where their education will lead them. They are restless and searching for relevance. Why? Because, as architects, we have been slow to adapt, while other industries capture and leverage the inherent value of our discipline.

The notion that design is uniquely the endeavor of a single creative genius is anachronistic. Either the profession accepts an increasingly reduced role in providing design ideas and intent or we find a way to manage and lead the supply chain of the built environment. In the face of climate change and increasing urbanization, architects could be foremost in conducting teams to create meaningful, sustainable solutions.

Real change will most likely come from the bottom up: from the millennials who are innovating as I write. They are capitalizing on the rapid speed of decision making in start-ups and apps. They are adaptive, aesthetically attuned, multidimensional, and communicate in ways my generation has difficulty understanding.

Universities are failing to provide relevant subject matter to adapt to the massive changes under way, and we owe it to future architects to do so. We should reduce the distraction of esoteric theory being taught at top-ranked schools and give students the experiences and tools to collaborate and innovate in the context of the contemporary world. Cisco Systems, IBM, and Siemens are fundamentally transforming the way we build — scientifically managing the construction and efficiency of infrastructure, buildings, and cities — yet architects are hardly participating in this arena.

Interdisciplinary, team-based courses that should be included in the core architecture curriculum would better prepare our students to help meet these global megaconstruction trends. Here are a few I would recommend:

  • Systems integration, manufacturing methodologies: Aerospace, automobile, shipping industries as models; modular construction, fabrication
  • Renewable technologies: Materials, systems, applications; building/environmental/material science and engineering; nanotechnology
  • Data-driven design: Performance-based design; Building automation systems (sensors, devices, and controls); project management/lifecycle delivery systems)
  • Sustainable urbanization and climate change: Smart Cities/urban ecosystems; infrastructure, waste management; behavioral sciences
  • Business finance and management: firm management; real estate finance
  • Research and development: Strategic partnerships; intellectual-property development

With design as the critical underpinning for all these courses, leaders in practice and academia alike need to anticipate the change happening in our industry — and, in so doing, allow future talent to emerge and help shape our future.

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Welcome to the real world

by Arthur Cohen FAIA

The role of architectural schools in creating graduates ready to “hit the ground running” has been debated as long as I can remember. As the education of an architect is a lifelong endeavor, I offer an explanation of how we at ARC/Architectural Resources Cambridge integrate recent graduates into our practice and help them in their journey to becoming architects.

Since ARC was founded in 1969, newly minted architecture school graduates are first assigned to the ARC Studio. As fellow architects who were once thrust into professional practice ourselves, firm leaders do not expect new graduates to be knowledgeable in all aspects of the industry, but to possess a solid foundation in the arts and sciences as well as archi-tectural studies. Some schools try to incorporate courses in practice and business principles, which get lost in the fog of studio work and only come into focus when one moves into project or firm management.

The Studio serves as the heart of our office in both workflow and energy, allowing young interns to grow professionally and personally within the office culture. It is here where these interns get a chance to work on multiple projects with all members of the firm, ranging from other intern-architects to project managers to senior staff and principals. Through their time in the Studio and their experiences on these projects, they learn how we collaborate, communicate, and ultimately create unique solutions for each client’s specific needs. It is in this role where these individuals grow in their knowledge of architectural practice and eventually “graduate,” yet again, onto project-specific teams.

One recent graduate of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute who experienced the ARC Studio observed that her time in the studio was critical to her transition from student to early-career architect. The work and demands she faced, she noted, felt similar to those she had encountered at college, and yet in the process of working closely with design teams, her knowledge of the profession expanded rapidly. “I quickly gained the experience that I would not have seen for years had I only worked as an intern on a single project,” she wrote on her blog.

Now working within a small team on an addition linking two large buildings, she will continue on this project through all phases of its development, learning more about how buildings are put together and how interdisciplinary design and construction teams collaborate.

Such observations from those who have experienced this transitional approach from academia to the workplace validate how ARC continues to offer our employees on-the-job continuing education and an understanding of what it means to be an architect.

No matter what a particular academic program may offer in an attempt to prepare its students for the real world, it is the workplace that must offer individuals an environment in which they can find their own path to success. How individuals apply what they have learned in school and embrace the necessary spirit of collaboration — combined with the creative thinking required in an architectural practice — is what will determine their way forward in the profession.

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