This article was originally published by Common Edge as “A Letter to Prospective Architecture School Parents.”
Is your child suddenly wearing angular clothes and pretending to need glasses and talking about things like maylines (sorry, forgot we’re not in the 90s anymore) and 3d-printing and the power of the research lab to change the world studio? Has your child started rejecting your Frank Lloyd Wright photo books and started asking for that super sweet punched-out Chora L Works thing that makes no sense to you because there are literally holes in it? Has your child refused to go on anymore holiday house tours because, seriously mom, this is what I do all day at school?
Then congratulations! You now have an architecture school student child. And as much as we have—and need—the framework of, say, Adult Children of Alcoholics, just as deeply do we need a framework for Adult Parents of Architecture Students. You may be panicking right now. You may be wondering why Bessie is suddenly hating prints (unless she’s wearing all the prints at the same time); why Mark is rolling his eyes when you say there’s a nice-looking house for sale down the block. Rest assured, these are phases that will pass.
I would like to offer you the Phases of Architectural Education, so that you may feel calmer as you embark on this new journey:
Phase 1 – The “Omigod you so totally don’t get what architecture even IS” phase.
This is when your child comes home from college and says, “I’ve decided not to major in international relations because all politics is a power game and besides the real way to intervene in structural economic problematics is to problematize the problem of space within a Foucauldean metric,” and you’re like, “Oh, that sounds nice honey, are you going to look at buildings?” and your child is like “OMIGOD IT’S NOT EVEN ABOUT BUILDINGS.” This is the phase where the discourse and theory of architecture are first introduced. If your child is at a school like Princeton, there will be many presentations about letters of the alphabet and also axonometric drawings. If your child is at Harvard, he or she will grow up to get a job one day and you can literally stop worrying right now; you don’t even need to read on. If your child is at Sci-ARC, expect a bunch of cool-looking shit of indeterminate function. If your child is at UC Berkeley, prepare to be very deeply schooled in the micro aggressive potential of the vending machine. (It’s like… a machine …within the machine, bro.)
Phase 2 – The “OK, I’m actually looking at buildings now” phase.
This is when everyone has calmed down a bit and started looking at buildings. Suddenly your child may be asking if you can visit all the train stations in the surrounding area so that she may be more deeply diagram the relationship between train station, train track and bird flight. Your child may not be able to explain to you why the bird flight is so important, but rest assured that your child’s professor has offered the suggestion to “do something diagrammatic with bird flight which will later make sense to you” and that your child is learning something. (Hint: when not to listen.) Be prepared for lots of “Well, THIS parking lot sure is inefficiently angled” and “No, the point is obviously not to go through the doors after buying the tickets” and also be prepared for fervent sketching, which will then be turned into an Instagram-filtered photo which will then have various raster effects applied (you don’t need to know what raster effects are; your child probably doesn’t either) and then printed out very very huge and suspended from the ceiling like a Calder mobile of flightful birds.
Phase 3 – The “Why didn’t I just major in international relations? Why didn’t you STOP ME?” phase.
This is when it all stops getting fun and starts getting real, i.e. your child has either come up against an enormously powerful theorist who reads Derrida out loud and says things like “The structure is not the structure but it is the form” or goes all Hejduk and says, “What is a wall even, isn’t it just a floor that was turned into a wall?” or brings up the famous Louis Kahn apocryphal quote about “a window is … a… ….. ……. [fifteen minutes of silence]… hole in ….. a….. [another fifteen minutes] wall.” This is where your child will really need your support. Simply be there for your child. Do not say, “I’ve been hoping this day would come…” or “Why don’t you look into what it would take to transfer to international relations?” or “I never really thought you could draw anyway.” Simply say, “It sounds like you’re learning a lot!” and “How do you spell Hejduk?” Give them concrete reminders that they ARE learning stuff, it’s just super ephemeral and complicated and weird—and also remind them that architecture doesn’t need to be that super ephemeral and complicated and weird.
Phase 4 – The “I’m going to save the world” phase.
This is the best phase. This is where your child—now a few years into his or her architectural education—has waded through all the theory and the “what is an object, and is a building an object, and where is the architecture even?” and has realized that, Hey, architecture changes the way people live! Like Diller + Scofidio’s Slither project in Japan gave everyone a front door! That was cool! All we have to do is figure out how to give everyone a front door! Oh wait, budget? Codes? No, but there’s a solution! This is when your child will come home for Christmas break and point out to you all the flaws in your own home. “Do you see the alienation that having the master bedroom at the end of the hallway creates? Do you see how this apartment complex is indicative of the depersonalization of the individual self? Are we going back to the Middle Ages and everyone sleeps in the same bed but just whenever they want because there’s no bedtime and everyone has two sleeps?” This is the time to be proud of your child! 1/100th of this spirit may remain, and it is important to cultivate that 1/100th.
Phase 5 – The “I’m graduating in two months and wtf am I going to do for work” phase.
This is the worst phase. Sadly, it comes right after the best phase, and is often at the whims of things like The Economy and also, The Rhetoric of The Economy. There actually are a lot of jobs in architecture. I know this for a fact. I work with an architecture firm and we are trying to hire two people. That’s two jobs! Now multiply that by all the architecture firms in the world: That’s so many jobs! It is also a very annoying myth that almost no one uses architects. Actually, many people use architects. Some architects end up designing bathrooms and hallway closets for a while, but that’s how they get skills in drafting, etc, and eventually they design the rooms adjacent to the bathrooms and the hallway closets. Some architects win awards and competitions and are suddenly very famous and then they need a lot of people who can actually design stuff and have practiced a lot by sketching parking lots and then taking pictures with their iPhones and rasterizing them.
Phase 6 – The “You know, I actually learned a lot in architecture school” phase.
This is a few years down the road, where your child may or may not work as an architect. But no matter her profession—she might be a writer; a cook; a novelist; an editor; a PR person for a developer; a shaman—this is where everything she learned in architecture school will come into play. “Remember that thing about bird flight I did?” she will remind you as she boards the plane for Leipzig, where she will work on bird conservation for the next three years. Or that thing about the depersonalization of the self, as she works in development for one of those apartment building designers who don’t let you open your windows more than 4 inches (so she adds on a little trick for how you can do it).
Architecture school is a peculiar beast. It almost never actually prepares students to be practicing architects, and 90% of what is written by architects and architectural theorists is incomprehensible garbage. But being able to discern what is and what is not incomprehensible garbage is a profoundly useful life skill. As is knowing if you are good at drawing or not. As is knowing how to look more deeply at a train station and to consider bird flight, even if it seems irrelevant. Actually nothing in this world is ever inherently irrelevant; and architecture school is the only place where that is taught.
So rest assured that your child will grow up to make a difference in this world, simply by having existed. And know that the difference will probably have many more modes of investigation and inquiry because that’s what architecture school gives: ten thousand ways of looking at a blackbird in flight, and the thousand ways of representing that. And if nothing else, just be really relieved your child didn’t go on and get a PhD.
Eva Hagberg Fisher is the author of two books about architecture—Dark Nostalgia and Nature Framed—and of It’s All in Your Head, a best-selling memoir about brain surgery, maybe-cancer and friendship. She has two degrees in architecture and is en route to her third.