Over the last few years, I would always hear people say that “school has nothing to do with working in an architecture office.” And I always thought they were just being cynical. Now that I am transitioning into the field, with my school days still fresh on my mind, I can kind of see why someone might say that…BUT, I don’t think that statement really covers the difference.
Check out this video to hear the actual difference between architecture school and the real world.
(Great! Glad you checked that out. The difference between school and practice was something I wondered about since as long as I can remember, and I’m glad to finally be able to shine some light on the real world for you ;))
So right out of the gates, I can say that one of the biggest differences I see is that everyone is FASTER. I’m not going to lie, I was feeling pretty inadequate about how long it too me to do things, compared to the other people in my office (and I still do to some extent) but after talking to some friends, I think this is actually something that happens to pretty much everybody. And that reminded me that you hear about the same thing about college athletes who are transitioning from college into the NFL or the NBA. Someone who might be the big man on campus, enters into the arena with men, and they don’t quite dominate like they did when they were surrounded by college kids.
The other thing is the subtle difference between Architecture and the IDEA OF Architecture.
School only ever deals with the IDEA OF architecture.
I think a lot of people love the idea of architecture. They think about beautiful images of making buildings and having an impact on the world. But they don’t like the hard work that it takes to do that. (and by hard work I don’t just mean long nights in architecture school. I also mean grinding it out in architecture offices to know how buildings goes together and drawing pretty much every single piece of them.)
But the very nature of school is that it is particularly susceptible to getting caught in the neurotic loop of thought without action. You do plans and sections and models, but the buildings never get built, and they never get to the level of detail it takes to build it.
In an architectural office, conversely, you will spend most of your time dealing with real consequences, grounded in the real-world constraints of assembly and construction. And that is just the nature of the profession.
In school, they try to find ways to teach things like assembly or structure by doing large-scale drawings and models. But when you are modeling a CMU wall with a sheet of chipboard, you are not gaining an understanding of what it means to build a wall of stacked concrete blocks.
Also, when you are building a model and you are off by 1 ½ inches at a 1/16” = 1’ scale, its really negligible (and you would probably never even realize it.) But when the floor to ceiling windows that were already ordered are 1 ½” too big, that is NOT negligible.
Architecture is about building. It is necessarily material, and requires assembly. To contrast the nature of architecture, consider the art form of music, the most immaterial of all the arts. There are certain struggles that come with creating music—maneuvering the constant flow of time with the playing of notes, fleeting ideas that are near impossible to write down and go back to later, etc.—but those aspects are inherent to music, just like the struggles of drawing details and assembling buildings are inherent to architecture.
To make architecture, you have to grind it out and do the strenuous work of figuring out the details and looking for the problems and figuring out solutions, AND you have to have a great idea.
For example, in the project I showed in the video, you could come up with the idea of using really strong concrete columns, supporting a pier, and an overhead trellis that provides relief from the sun, while defining the space on the deck, over a bench, where people could sit. And the idea is great. But once you start drawing it to make it real, there are other things that have to be accounted for. And there is just more to it than the idea of a pier cantilevered from two concrete columns. It just takes more mental energy to figure it out– it’s not a soul-destroying amount of energy, but it’s just something more than what you go through in school. Over time, you will learn to intuitively measure things like brick coursing, and wall thicknesses.
Architecture is more than drawing pretty pictures and changing the world—it can be about that too—but a bulk of architecture is about drawing the details it takes to actually build the ideas. Which may seem less glorious than what you do in school, but anything rewarding requires hard work one way or another. And honestly, there is a LOT of beauty to be found in the details as well…
The difference between school and the real word is that in school you can get away with not figuring out the details.
So we have a collection of ideas that still need to be detailed and still require a lot of work. In the field we call this “Schematics.” But in school we call this “the whole project.” For a multitude of reasons, it’s hard to get much past that in school.
There is a difference between architecture and the idea of architecture. I wish I could give you some advice about what to do about it, but that would require being even more broad and vague than I have been already. Just know that there is a difference, and when you see it, you are moving in the right direction.