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The First Step on the Road to Success

Emerging professionals no more, AIA members describe what they learned on their first project

By Nalina Moses

In no other profession does it take as long to achieve professional mastery as it does in architecture. AIA Gold Medalist Louis Kahn was 50 years old when his first major project was built, placing his years as an “emerging professional” somewhere around his unsullied and enthusiastic 40s, and that’s not at all uncommon. For any architect, the years between school and success are challenging ones, packed with exhilarating discoveries, hard knocks, and probably decades of patience. AIArchitect spoke to some notable rising American architects to find out about the first big projects that set them on their path.

Instincts and Intuition
By Michael Maltzan, FAIA
Michael Maltzan Architecture
, Los Angeles
1999 AIA Young Architects Award Recipient

The first significant project for the office was Inner-City Arts. Phase 1 was completed in 1995, but Phase 3 was just completed in 2008. Inner-City Arts is located in Skid Row of downtown Los Angeles, which is an unlikely context for architecture, and at first it was difficult to convince people that architecture could exist there. The greatest satisfaction is that we have been involved with Inner-City Arts for so long. It gives you the opportunity to see how architecture can continue to evolve long after you have finished a design.

There were some rough spots at the beginning when the construction site was burglarized. The client purchased guard dogs and someone just came and stole the dogs. Eventually, this type of activity subsided, and the neighborhood has really embraced the campus. The community is protective of this place.

One of the most important lessons for me was to affirm that architecture can exist in a very broad range of social, political, and economic situations. I learned through the history of architecture that it can be a real agent of progressive change. I approached the project with that belief. I might have been naive about that in the beginning, but that naiveté turned out to be useful. I would always recommend listening to your instincts and intuition. It's hard to go too far wrong if you do.

Pursue the Language of Architecture
By Marlon Blackwell, FAIA
Marlon Blackwell Architect
, Fayetteville, Ark.

My first independent project was a garden house and formal garden in Wenham, Mass., that I designed in 1988, after hours, while I was working in an office in Boston.

I learned things I didn't learn in the office, which was highly stratified. Working on my own, I was doing everything—designing, drawing, and doing administration in the field—and had a chance to be involved in all aspects of every phase. That direct contact with subcontractors changed my ways of thinking and making. Now, I always bring them in at the front end of a project, which develops healthier relationships.

I learned that I had to raise the expectations of the client. They would have been happy with a neo-Georgian folly. It was satisfying to see my own personal growth as an architect in the garden house, as I moved beyond the Postmodernism that was popular at that time. I felt that I had found some new ground that I could develop further.

I would encourage young architects to pursue the language of architecture, and not just rely on the aesthetic of the office where they're working. It demands passion and patience to develop. I wanted my education to continue beyond a nine-to-five job, so when I started working, I also went to reading discussion groups, lectures, entered competitions, and started an independent after-hours studio. Architects have to be like sharks; we have to keep moving.

Values of Craft
By Randy Brown, FAIA
Randy Brown Architects
, Omaha, Neb.
2002 AIA Young Architects Award Recipient

My first significant project was my own studio/residence in Omaha. My wife and I sold our home and used all of our money to purchase a building on the main street of Omaha that was a former Montessori school. For the first year, we lived and worked on the project as we had time and money. I redesigned the entire space, creating a New York City loft feel with an office and a sleeping loft above for my wife and myself.

It was a challenge to take a small project with an extremely small budget and make it high design. It explores our values of craft, spatial experience, experimentation, expression of materials. This project was a starting point for our practice.

A Hierarchy of Importance in Design
By Jeanne Gang, FAIA
Studio Gang Architects
, Chicago

The very first project I completed on my own was a loft interior for Susann Craig, a collector of outsider and intuitive art. The technical challenge was designing an outdoor patio at the center of the space that was on the third floor of a 100-year-old building. And, of course, the budget was a challenge.

It gave me great satisfaction working in model, resolving design, and seeing things get built. There were moments of doubt, of course. In this case, most stemmed from worries about the contractor’s lack of experience.

An important lesson for me in the project was creating a hierarchy of importance in the design, and concentrating the resources to make those happen. It surprised me that the duration of the project is dependent on so many things outside of design time. It took eons longer than I expected.

I would tell young architects that choosing the contractor is an important decision, not only for the owner, but for the architect as well. If they don't perform well, it shows up and costs a lot of everyone’s time. So help the owner base the decision on more than the bid price—select who is best for the project.

Delicate Balance Between the Art and Science
By Joan Sorrano, FAIA
, Minneapolis
1993 AIA Young Architects Award Recipient

Bigelow Chapel in New Brighton, Minn., was my first significant project at HGA. This was my first religious project, which is always a little daunting.

We designed an innovative architectural solution for the chapel interior using curving translucent maple panels. This process took more than two years to research, design, and develop. Projects that push technology are always filled with ups and downs. On any given day, there may be four setbacks for every one triumph.

Bigelow Chapel was a turning point in my career. I realized how rewarding religious architecture could be, and the project touched me much deeper than any project before. I actually went through a kind of emotional withdrawal after completing Bigelow.

As a young designer, you think that all of your ideas can easily translate to buildable solutions, but the reality is a large percentage of architectural ideas don’t hold up technically or functionally. There is always this delicate balance between the art and science of architecture, in which each element pushes the other to achieve something greater.

Architecture is not about you or your ego. It’s about your client first and foremost. Really listen to what they are telling you, and try to understand who they are.

Distilling Design to Only What Matters
By David Jameson, FAIA
David Jameson Architect Inc.
, Alexandria, Va.

2004 AIA Young Architects Award Recipient

The first project in my studio was a small single-car garage located in Capitol Hill [in Washington, D.C.]. It was satisfying [to elevate] a typically mundane building typology into a crafted spatial experience.

An important lesson for me was in distilling design to only what matters. What surprised me most as a young architect was that clients not particularly interested in architecture could be educated and transformed by the experiential qualities of the project.

For a young architect who is about to take on his or her first major project, I have the same advice Hugh Jacobsen, [FAIA], gave me on the day I left his office: “Never take on a bad building project for the sake of work. It will stay with you and haunt you forever.”

Having Doubts is Part of the Design Process
By Coren Sharples, AIA
Architects, New York City

The first significant architecture project I worked on was Mitchell Park in Greenport on Long Island. The biggest challenge was working with all the different agencies. There were municipal, state, and federal agencies involved, and it was a contaminated brownfield site. Each party had a different agenda, and it was a challenge to communicate with all the groups.

As a designer, if you don't have doubts at some point in the process, then there's a problem. If an architect cares, then there will always be crises. Having doubts is part of the design process, which is especially true for architects on their first projects.

Working on a public project like Mitchell Park, it was very important to build consensus. For an architect who's just graduated from school and is used to the vocabulary of the studio, the jury, and the critique, the vocabulary of the client and the public is something completely new. It's important for an architect to learn how to understand the language of the people commissioning the project, and to speak in ways that are relevant.



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AIArchitect Special Report on Emerging Professionals—July 2010


Read the AIA Best Practices article “Understanding Work Preferences of Emerging Professionals.”

Visit the AIA’s National Associates Committee website.


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