I had many conversations over the past two weeks, and I need some time alone to take in all the information I received. As quarantine comes to a close, and life goes back to normal, I have to find a proper direction. Where is architecture going? What is my place in it? And how can I best influence how design is built, created, and experienced? These are the questions I've been wrestling with since Cornell, and I've never really let go of my search for an authentic, creative voice. As I look deeper into all these potential avenues of exploration, it always comes back to my preferences -- what do I want to do? Where do I think I can grow as a person?
Architecture as an End
When I first began my journey, back in 2009 at MFAA, I saw architecture as an end of itself - the highest form of visual and sculptural art, where you, as a creator, can create immersive spatial experiences, an "art" which you can encounter day-to-day, and which becomes a backdrop to the theater of life. From this point of view, and through school, design was really a solo, creative, and encompassing act, in which our end goal was to define and learn a creative process, and where design is less about individual tastes, and more about defining the outcome of a analytical and intuitive design exploration. In the same confines of school, we can isolate architecture as a distinct field, and study it fully like a scientist researching a specimen. My classmates and I went on a dizzying global tour, sampling all the strange histories and phenomena of different cultures, and how they relate to the built environment. This world of "play", in the safe confines of campus, meant that Renaissance architecture in Italy can be discussed in the same breath as postwar metabolism in Japan, and sustainable buildings can find common ground with postindustrial cities and robotic technology. By the time I entered my last year of B.Arch, I felt all at once more knowledgeable about the subject as an academic field, and simultaneously 100% less sure of what and where to go next, and how in the world a building actually gets built. I knew that my thoughts tend to run ahead of my actions (if you can't tell by now), and the best thing to do is to get professional experience.
Architecture as a Means
In practice, the "turning point" for young designers come, when they realize that architecture works in service of all other sectors and professions of society, and architecture is essentially a service industry dedicated to project management. For clients, the questions are, and will always remain -- how does this building help fulfill my financial, social, and personal goals, and can you get it built? From concept design to construction administration, the job of the architect is to shepherd the project vision from scratch notes and excel sheets into a fully realized building; the goal is to maintain aesthetic intent. The scope of responsibilities for a project team can be immense, from site visits to client meetings, bid selections to punch-listing, consultant coordination to city approval processes. On a day-to-day basis, an architect works with a whole host of characters, from structural engineers to GCs, running notes from one stakeholder group to another, just trying to make sure that ever teammate is informed of the project progress. In the reality of the AEC field, architectural design, while important, may only take up 5-10% of the entire project's attention, while the meat of the job is to communicate the vague reality of a building to owners and stakeholders, through renderings, measured drawings, 3D models, and project specifications. Practically speaking, architecture is used to service the client's specific goals and agenda (usually about money or status), and not one's own (or society's). The expertise, mastery, and beauty of the field comes, when you can do this, while still executing something of aesthetic value (i.e. you should really enjoy drafting).
Here is where we take a slight detour -- understanding that the field is a team sport, which position do you play? And, moreover, as time and technology continually changes the rules of the game, how do you stay relevant in the sport? Do you still want to play this game, or do you want to play another? These are questions that school and work cannot answer for you. You have to go out and find it for yourself, which is frightening and exhilarating all at once. You may decide that your true talents lie in project management, and you want to extricate yourself of all drafting responsibilities (which it seems, universally and strangely, nobody really ever, ever, ever, ever wants to do, and would rather outsource immediately, and this seems completely hypocritical to me). Or, you are sick and tired of not being in control of the design vision and prompt, and so you become a property developer, or a city planner. Perhaps you find the whole game a bit ancient and in need of digital transformation, so you go headlong into design technology, and perfecting BIM workflows and processes. Or, you leave all together, taking that design and management knowledge you learned to another adjacent field, like building the next Alexa for Amazon, or designing the next great running shoe, crafting the perfect UI for workplace management software, or coming up with the next great consumer startup. You can do anything, when architecture is no longer an end or a means --- except that you are definitely, 100%, no longer making buildings.
What Architecture is For
I went into this field because I liked to draw, and I liked to communicate through my drawings. I liked the idea of creating spaces and experiences. I liked the idea that my services could make someone happy, and make an impact on a place. I liked the idea of working with both numbers and texts, explaining my design process with geometry, figures, code, and prose. I liked that architecture gave me a connection back to metropolitan Hong Kong, my hometown, when my family immigrated to suburban Missouri so many years ago. I liked that I could make sense of the world through this lens, and mediate between the needs of the owner and the needs of the community, or the global development economy and the local, street-level politics of cities. I liked researching strange quirky ideas, like poche and boat trusses, and study history endlessly. The question now is, am I suitable for the nature of the job still, or can I find all these things and more, in software design?