Friday, April 17, 2009

Doing what matters: the long view of what's useful

A few days ago, Intern Timmy and I went to lunch to get out for a bit and talk a little smack, and talk smack we did.  I think hanging out with interns benefits me more than it does them--I learn so much by seeing the world and workplace through their eyes.  We chatted about a variety of issues and how we've coped with them, and of course we shared insights on people in the office.  As my Southern grandmother used to say, it ain't gossip if it's true.

I shared an insight with Intern Timmy that I only realized about a year or so ago.  If I could go back to visit myself in college, I'd tell me this: the skills that make you a B student in Studio now will make you an A employee later.  I recall the kids in Studio who made the super amazing designs, immaculate models, stunning floor plans, and it used to infuriate me that they got As while they only had half the required drawings listed on the syllabus and final project requirement sheet.  I was even more infuriated that they got those As while using ridiculous words like "tectonic" to explain their projects instead of using words that actually made sense.  In contrast, my projects were decent looking--not amazing, stunning, or dramatic, but decent-looking.  I think this may have been due to a lot of factors, one of which is that I grew up in rural Georgia and didn't exactly have a full visual library from which to draw.  Another factor was the fact that I've always been so practical that it never crossed my mind that the point of school was to come up with crazy shit--there would be plenty of time to be practical later.

What I had instead of amazingly awesome-looking projects was a respectable-looking and buildable-looking project that had all the required drawings and models included in the presentation.  The arrangement and locations of the spaces required in the program made sense and were where they ought to be for a useful building, and that's how I used to describe the project.  I described my project using grown-up words but nothing particularly lingoistic.  And I got Bs.  Bs for six years, except for one C and one A.  And bear in mind, my faithful WAD readers, that Studio is a five-hour course, so a bad or so-so grade in it really drags down your GPA.  Thank God for all the French and Psychology classes I took to boost my GPA at Georgia Tech.

Fast forward to the workplace, and it turns out that all those skills--arranging spaces in a tight floor plan in a way that makes sense for their use and the flow of the users through them, having all the drawings necessary for others to understand what you're trying to do, designing buildable exteriors--are really useful and desired skills in an architecture office.  One of the reasons I'm so highly valued at my company is that I'm really good at putting ten pounds of program (required spaces) in a five-pound building, and I can do it in a healthcare building, arguably the hardest type of architecture to do.  (I said arguably--everybody out there doing strip malls calm down.)  I'm also valued because I get all the drawings done that tell the contractor how to build a building.  It's been my experience that everytime you don't give them all the information they need, the contractor throws money at something when they estimate it, or they just flat out build it wrong.  It's a rare contractor who cares enough to call the architect and say, "Here's how I'm thinking of building this; what do you think?"

Another skill I never used to think of as a skill was my attitude and demeanor.  When applying for grad school, I somehow got back a copy of the letter of recommendation that one of my GA Tech profs sent to the University of Virginia (who turned me down, by the way).  The sentence that stands out in the letter even to this day was, "Although Pixie is not a strong designer, she has leadership qualities that I believe make her an excellent part of any studio environment."  I was stunned and even a little insulted.  Is that how he could politely say, "she's a funny gal and sweet and her dad was murdered during undergrad but she didn't quit school, so that should make up for the fact that her designs are kinda lame"?  I read the letter to my fairy godfather back in Small Town, GA, who was (and is) an interior designer.  His reply put it in perspective for me; he told me that projects in the real world last much longer than a project in college--months and months and even sometimes years instead of weeks.  During that grind, it gets easy for people to get tired of each other and the project.  It's easy for everyone to walk into a room with a bone to pick with everyone else and start out a project on a contentious foot.  When a member of the team makes everyone's lives easier and keep sthings on a positive note, it can make all the difference in the world.  Fair enough, I thought to myself, but nine years later I realize what a difference an attitude of friendliness, teamwork, and service--yes, service--makes.  I make an effort to communicate clearly and fairly with all the parties on the team, but I don't think about it until I get calls even two years after a project ends from a contractor, wanting to meet for lunch or drinks or dinner, and at which meeting the words, "God Pixie, we miss you" are uttered.

Yes, architecture students have college to learn how to be creative, and they have their entire careers to learn "real world" skills and techniques.  But there are certain skills that are useful no matter what career path we take, and sadly, those are the skills that no school can or perhaps will teach.


Anonymous said...

I always felt that the problem with architecture students was the inability to succinctly convey their ideas. The studio environment is dependent on how the instructor teaches and essentially critiques projects. If the instructor uses words that are no where to be found in an English dictionary then the students will follow suit. And I feel like it's this reason that most students are set up to fail during their final presentations, when they have to present in front of jurors who have absolutely no idea what the project entails.

Despite receiving good grades I never really cared about grades for my architecture classes, especially studio. If you want an A in studio all you have to do is everything the instructor tells you to do. If you want to be a good architect then fully understand the problems that need to be solved, develop imaginative solutions that create a cohesive design, and strive to learn everything you can.

ms. kitty said...

Pixie, this seems like an important insight that students in many fields might make use of. It's the pluggers who provide the buildings or the engines or the infrastructures or the landscapes that WORK, most of the time. The visionaries are great for ideas but the pluggers are the do-ers. Good for you for being a do-er---and a nice one at that!

Wilderness Gina said...

Yur studio at GT was the first real live person (Ali Chan) I heard use the word paradigm. I remember thinking "Pix, I don't think we're in Kansas anymore."