You Have Hope: Why It’s OKAY to be A Clueless Architecture Freshman

You enter the halls of your Architecture School. This is it. This is what you’ve chosen for the next five or so years of your life. And you admittedly aren’t sure if you made the right decision.

Maybe you’ve never taken a single drafting course in your life. Or you aren’t versed in the architectural scene at all -You have no idea what Zahaha did, or how much did I.M. pay, or what kind of music comes out of a Renzo piano. Or you may have come from a long line of lawyers, bankers, or doctors in your family.

The bottom line is, your personal background hasn’t been the most conducive one in pursuing a design course. And for the most part, you don’t know what to expect – from the course, and from yourself.

Related: What Can You Expect to Learn in Architecture School? – Part 1

The first few weeks of plates and exercises hits, and you feel as incompetent as ever. You don’t know where to begin in drafting a sheet, you always get the feeling that you’re not understanding things enough, and you have no idea if you’re even designing properly.

This is helplessness. This is incompetence. This is cluelessness.

If this describes you, I’m here to pat your back and tell you why you shouldn’t dwell on it, and that with a bit of passion, you’ll get over the wall. 

You are not alone.

There are at least four kinds of students at the start of freshman classes in architecture school.

  1. The ones that don’t know what’s happening, and openly admit it.
  2. The ones who don’t know what’s happening, and quietly suffer about it.
  3. The ones who don’t know what’s happening, but try to make it seem like they do.
  4. The ones who do know what’s happening.

I’d say a big majority of beginning freshmen fall into the first three categories. Then there are the fortunate ones with a technical school education or a base background of the design profession. They are the rare pokemon in Le Corbusier’s playground.

The thing is, with time, anyone from the clueless caste can move into the fourth category.

As impossible as it sounds, you can evolve from being a Caterpie to a Charizard. Heck, even a Mega Charizard. But at the start, there are times when you will feel like a failure.

It’s how you respond to these feelings that matters.


Don’t be fooled by your beginnings.

I haven't failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that don't work. - Thomas Edison

The early years are a manual skills showcase. You’ll find people who are virtuosos with line, color, and flashy forms, who can produce drawings that make you want to polish the floor with yours. By comparison, their projects are a magnificent spectacle; yours are the fragments of a child’s work.

I’ll say this: be genuinely happy for them, and seek to learn from them. But don’t be discouraged about yourself.

The thing about people who are naturally talented is that once they accept that they’re the best, they stagnate – which is why these kinds of people have to be extra wary of the tendencies.

On the other hand, it’s the hungrier people who, provided they don’t give up, really make leaps and bounds in their growth.

The common denominator is effort and drive – and not raw skill.

I would like to be remembered as someone who did the best she could with the talent she had.
- J. K. Rowling


Eventually, what your mind can conceive will be worlds more important than what your hands can render.

Just ask Frank Gehry. Some of his sketches are but messy squiggles, but they capture the essence of his ideas – which, like them or not, sit at the pinnacle of contemporary architecture.

Related: One Simple Tip to Give Yourself A HUGE Knowledge Boost

Some of his professors dropped stinging discouragements at his shoddy drafting and drawing – and yet here he is now. Proclaiming his parametrics to the world. And the world can’t help but listen.

Your early work says nothing about who you can be.

Once you move towards the higher years, the terrain will equalize. It will be less and less about your initial skill, and more about how devoted you were to upgrading your craft – and how much you know.

It will eventually be about your thinking, and not your drawing. Because once you start unraveling the technical aspects of architecture, and your projects take a direction towards the complex, your professors will expect more mature and thoughtful work from you.

And when it comes to this, an empty, pretty rendering will be less appreciated than a well executed idea with integrity.

If it’s really important to you to be able to produce a Bjarke Ingels style rendering or graphic, then stay diligent in your efforts. But don’t sweat it  if your skills don’t add up to that of a master just yet. 

And more importantly, don’t focus so much on external presentation that you aren’t forming the most essential element of your architectural proficiency – your knowledge base.

A pretty drawing on canvas can incite fleeting awe in passersby, before they go back to their business.

But a fantastic idea on a napkin scribble can change the world.

(c) Aldo Mayoralgo

Architecture is learned by constant practice.

I've viewed myself as slightly above average in talent. And where I excel is ridiculous, sickening work ethic. - Will Smith

There’s a reason why the process of creating architecture is called “practicing” – from the word itself, you can see that it’s an activity which you get better in over time.

You’ll never be expected to produce perfect work in architecture school, and even in practice. But you should be aiming to always produce your best work yet.

Which is why you should aim to use every little experience, every little project to grow in some way. Even if it is small.

Maybe in Project 1 you become more adept at analyzing cross ventilation and wind-responsive design.

In Project 2 you learn to integrate change and modularity from the early stages of programming.

And say you choose to make Project 3 a devoted study in reciprocal framing.

By the time Project 4 hits, and if the design brief calls for it, you’ll be well-versed enough to propose a wind-responsive, change-responsive and flexible design that harnesses the structural beauty of a reciprocal frame.

All these little learnings add up over time, becoming second nature and making you a more well-informed practioner.

Constant practice is key. But it will only work if you commit to being aware of what you’re doing, and being conscious of what you hope to get out of each project.

Your attitude towards learning beyond your classes is the most important thing.

 You cannot solve a problem with the same mind that created it. — Albert Einstein

Don’t think you’re a failure if everyone seems to know more than you in your first lecture of design fundamentals.

You’ve got five years to take it upon yourself to learn outside of the classroom, in addition to being receptive to the lessons inside the classroom.

No architecture school and curriculum is perfect. There are always holes you need to fill in yourself. And I guarantee you that the most well-learned people you look up to read more than what was required, willingly went to seminars and expositions, and looked for mentors early on.

If you don’t do these things, then you’re going to end up as one of those upperclass-men who still feel like they don’t know enough to be considered good, and just grind through each project.

All it takes is a commitment to learn more than what is required.

You don’t need to consume your life hell bent on cramming multiple hours each day. Starting small but keeping it consistent is a much more attainable approach.

Fortunately for you, today’s connected world gives you access to a number of offline and online resources (like this one). In a future post I’ll be tackling what my favorite methods of additional learning are, which really helped me and could help you too.

Lastly, remember that grades aren’t a measure of what you are.

I understand that it’s important to try your best to get good grades. It’s something we should all strive for.

However, sometimes life happens, and a simple oversight or circumstance can start a chain reaction that will create a large depression in your report card.

You can’t let it get to you to the point that you start constantly doubting yourself. 

1st Semester Grades

I remember the crushing feeling of getting a 2.0 final grade (1.0 as highest, 3.0 as passing mark) in Arch 1 – Manual Drafting.

I was still at the stage that grades meant a whole lot to me, and I aimed to get a straight line on 1’s in my first semester and beyond.

I remember staring at the monitoring and wondering “If I can’t even hit my targets for the most basic Architecture subject, what’s going to happen to me in all the harder courses?”

As fate would teach me, I had a lot to learn about managing my life (Of course I still do, though I am a lot better at organizing myself as compared to a few years ago).

As I’d unravel the perils of higher years, I’d go through even more pressing academic trials. I’d grovel in despair at my constant struggle with Calculus and complex computations, and watch as they would taint my GWA time and time again, sem after sem. They were the perpetual demon that became my scapegoat, and the bane of my textbook academic aspirations.

But looking back, all these shortcomings were a miniscule determinant of where I’d end up, how much I’d learn about architecture, and how much more I could grow in my foundation for the profession.

Don’t lose your drive. Keep that little commitment to learn a bit everyday – and you’re going to graduate from architecture school knowing a whole lot more than you need to. I guarantee it.


Keep moving forward.

And everything is going to be just fine.


End Sign

 Any insights, comments or questions? Don’t hesitate to comment below or send me a message!

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