There isn’t an architect walking the planet that hasn’t questioned if they were making the right decision when they decided to become an architect—at least not if they’re being honest with themselves—which leads us to today’s topic of “Making an Architect.”
Today we are going to try and answer the question “Do I Have What it Takes to be an Architect,” which I will admit is a pretty loose premise, but it doesn’t stop people from asking me that question a few times every single week. This is almost an existential question, and the people who are asking it are typically are of an age when they shouldn’t be faced with such existential questions … but at what time of your life would you ask a question like this?
In these emails, the questions are always the same: They want to know if they would be any good at the practice of architecture—that before they make this fairly large career course-correction, would they be able to predict if they would experience success? Surprisingly, I get asked this question in some form or fashion all the time and responding to these emails typically requires some finesse. There are some serious implications on the line, I don’t have a functioning crystal ball, and most people’s circumstances appear somewhat unique … but here goes. We are going to start with the nebulous category of intelligence …
IQ as a Predictor of Capacity [2:11 mark]
The concept of measuring the IQ of an individual is credited to either German psychologist and philosopher Wilhelm Stern in 1912, or to Lewis Terman in 1916 (sources vary). Prior to these dates, large-scale testing was done by psychologist Alfred Binet in 1904 as part of a commission by the French government to create a system to differentiate intellectually normal children from those who were inferior (wow … harsh). Binet created the Binet-Scale and sometime later, Dr. Terman revised this scale to become the Simon-Binet IQ Scale. That scale classified the scores as:
Over 140 – Genius or almost genius
120 – 140 – Very superior intelligence
110 – 119 – Superior intelligence
90 – 109 – Average or normal intelligence
80 – 89 – Dullness
70 – 79 – Borderline deficiency in intelligence
Under 70 – Feeble-mindedness
You can find lists of typical IQ scores by profession on the Internet, and I’m not vouching for their credibility, but the part that is the most interesting to me is how these scores can be used to measure the relative capabilities of the individual in a real-world environment (i.e. what kind of job would you be capable of as the most valid predictor of future performance is general mental ability). To think that the intent of measuring one’s IQ is to determine to capability and capacity of an individual and that no amount of effort or preparation will allow someone with a 110 IQ to work a job that typically requires the capacity of a brain measuring something higher.
Top civil servants, Professors, and Scientists – 140
Surgeons, Lawyers, Architects, and Engineers – 130
School teachers, Pharmacists, Accountants, Nurses, and Managers – 120
Foremen, Clerks, Salesmen, Policemen, and Electricians – 110
Machine operators, Welders, and Butchers – 100
Laborers, Gardeners, Miners, Sorters and Factory packers – 90
All that having been said, having a high IQ doesn’t mean all that much to the unmotivated individual and success is relative and not an indicator of happiness (unless of course, you are only measuring it against failure).
Much of this data is taken from “Meritocracy, cognitive ability, and the sources of occupational success.” written by Robert M. Hauser but additional resources can be found here and here.
How to be the Best at What You Do [15:44 mark]
So moving on from intelligence, we get to discuss the more subjective characteristics of what makes a great architect. Which shockingly aren’t that much, if any, different from the traits that would make you successful at any type of work.
In my mind, there are five major things that will help determine if you will experience success as an architect:
1. They must take their work very seriously and consistently perform at the highest level.
2. They constantly aspire to improve their skills.
3. They demonstrate consistency in their delivery and their product.
4. They are impatient, frequently better leaders than collaborators.
5. They are passionate about what they do, motivated by improving themselves rather than monetary gains.
None of these should come as a surprise, these are traits that are appropriate to achieve success in just about any white-collar profession. You don’t need to to be a social and likable person to be the world’s foremost neurosurgeon … but it probably doesn’t hurt. You might also notice that I didn’t say these traits would help predict if you’ll make you a good designer – how could anyone really know something like that ahead of time? For just about everyone, your design skills will not be your road to success in this field, but designing is generally assumed to be the most alluring aspect of this profession.
The difference between someone doing well and someone doing great as an architect is not their design skills, it’s their ability to make a personal connection with the people who hire them, work through problems by extrapolating similar conditions and codifying that process, and understanding why some solutions work and others don’t. This last one is overlooked all the time by younger designers, maybe not out of negligence but due to their maturity level. Being able to understand why you did something allows you to duplicate your successes without having to replicate your solutions (pretty sure I’ve said that before on the site here … probably, but it’s good enough to warrant some repetition.)
The characteristics I listed above would obviously work well in other professions … that’s sort of my point. The people who do well in the field of architecture would probably do well in any field that they chose to follow because they have these three traits. I will openly acknowledge that I know many people who had these traits who became victims of the recession – so I am not saying that the people who have not had success did not have these qualities. I am saying that without these traits your road to success is far more difficult.
I think it takes a certain type of brain to practice architecture but that doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone can’t find a place. While most people don’t go into architectural school thinking that they are going to be anything other than the world’s next great designer, the truth of the matter is that it takes a small army of people in all sorts of different roles to take on some of the projects being built these days. The design side of practicing architecture seems to benefit from someone who thinks radially, rather than linearly. Architectural design is about finding a balance between many things – some at complete odds with one another. The skill in being a terrific designer lies in your ability to effectively set priorities that push and pull on one another until there is some sort of equilibrium in the result. This means that all variables are in play at the same time, and for those people who solve one problem and then move on to the next one, they will experience some frustration. At the same time, thinking linearly works exceedingly well for people who will control the flow of information, oversee the process, and organize and maintain procedure – things that the architectural process desperately need. I’m not saying that a person can’t be both radial and linear thinkers, but I think I could successfully argue that they will be better suited and experience greater success in one area over the other.