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A Survivor’s Guide to Architecture School

Life of an Architect Podcast

A Survivor’s Guide to Architecture School

By Bob Borson, FAIA | September 3, 2018

Fall is just around the corner and that means it’s time for students around the country to return to their desk’s at architecture school. For most, this time is a mixture of excitement and enthusiasm, while for others, it’s a mixture of anxiety and sleepless nights … during my time in school is experienced a mixture of the two. Landon and I sat down in this episode to talk about architecture studio and how to come out with not only the best possible experience, but to make your time in school a little less stressful.


Future Self Providing Advice to Past Self [0:33 mark]
If you could go back in time and provide some advice and insight to a younger version of yourself, what would you actually say? The real question is would your younger self even listen? Pretty sure younger me would hang on every word older me had to say … at least, that’s how I like to imagine it.


Working in Studio versus At Your Apartment [1:49 mark]
Of all the areas where someone could call me an old-timer, this would be it. While it wasn’t mandatory to do your work up on school property, back in my time, this was true for 99.99% of the people in architecture school. Working up at the studio instead of your apartment provides for a myriad of educational opportunities that the living room in your apartment does not … and I would argue that the lessons learned from sitting in a room for hours on end with other architecture students might be among the most important ones you could pick up from your time in school.


Jury Process  [16:38 mark]
I have been a juror member several times and I make it a point to think about how my behavior and comments impact the student who is presenting. I typically go into each review with the following intentions:

• I’m going to be constructive
• I’m going to be positive
• I’m going to point out some things you need to work on

The main reason I do this, other than remembering just how brutal these juries were at times for me, is the attitude one of my professors had when he was a juror. He was never mean, rude, or disparaging to the work that the student was presenting. He would always try and find something positive to talk about – even if that was your bathroom layout.


“When you elevate the student, you’re going to lift them towards doing their best work, as opposed to when you tear them down you’re going to what …? Shame or guilt them into doing something better?!?”


This is the attitude I work with now and I wholeheartedly believe that this is a better way to go when it comes to providing feedback to students.


From the Perspective of a Juror – The BIG Idea [25:20]
This is an easy concept to understand, but it seems that the memo hasn’t been distributed to students, and for that, I blame the professors.


“The work wasn’t there … the ability to draw well was there, but this not a drawing class.”


While it might be easy to snowball the visiting jurors into thinking your project is amazing, your professor knows who has done the work and put in the time to develop not only their presentation material but the initial concept. Your grade isn’t dependant on what happens during your final presentation because hard work is easy to see and everybody knows who put in the time and the effort. Everything you pin up on the wall should support the main idea or concept of your project … everything else is simply wasting space.


Break the Rules [34:40 mark]
I took me almost 800 posts before I finally showed one of my projects from school – gloriously displayed in the post titled “Your Projects from Architecture School are Silly” This post isn’t really about how amazing this project was … because it was absurd. Your college projects will be silly because they are designed to make you think outside what you already know. They are also supposed to force you to evaluate your own belief system, your own understanding of how spaces work, and the things that shape your ideas. Breaking the rules in this case simply means “Who cares about the program?! Go for the idea, get your concept out there.”



Make Stuff [40:05 mark]
The act of fabricating items that aid in the design process has a value that goes far beyond that initial studio presentation – it’ll actually help you get a job.


Landon Williams – Virginia Tech Thesis Plan


Visit Your Professor [42:59 mark]
[enter Landon]
A fact we both learned, probably a little too late in school, is to actually GO visit your professors, whether that be their office hours or catching them in the hall to have a chat.  Your professors, especially in architecture school, will go above and beyond to satiate your curiosity and equip you with the tools for further academic exploration.  Not only will you get a personalized lesson, they undoubtedly (believe it or not) have a degree of expertise in your field and can point you to some excellent resources.


Landon Williams – Virginia Tech Thesis Section


Case in point above, the professor who eventually became my thesis advisor in school pointed me to a book called On Growth and Form by D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson which heavily influenced some of the ideas I explored in my thesis on the form of a village.  A book which is really about biology and evolution, it might have never popped up on my radar had I not gone to him with questions on a lecture he gave.

update a reader sent me a link that will provide access to the D’Arcy Thompson book for free – you can find it here


Landon’s Spare Time [46:26]
The most recent alternative transport craze to hit Dallas, the electric scooter has been an easy-peasy way to zip around in the Texas heat. I recently grabbed one for the first time and took it for a test drive around our firm’s parking lot (mostly because I knew we have some extra bumpy speed bumps to really test the airtime potential of these little guys).  Having not ridden a scooter in almost a decade, it was a glorious combination of ‘90s nostalgia and the most base thrill of instant acceleration.  While I felt like I could take on the Porsche at the red light a few yards away, it turns out these puppies only get going about 14-15mph tops. Needless to say, they’re an absolute blast to ride around, and speed bumps or not, it’d probably be wise to wear a helmet if you ride them a great deal…or if you’re trying your hand at a 720 McTwist in front of the Italian restaurant.

And, yes, the tongue does increase your aerodynamics. Science.

The scooters that have descended upon Dallas are the Lime Electric Scooters and Bird Electric Scooters. Both function in a similar manner, around 35-mile range on a fully charged scooter and for the Lime, it’s $1 to unlock and $0.15 per minute to ride. There are all sorts of considerations (wear a helmet, don’t abandon the scooter on private property or you might get charged a $120 pick-up fee, etc.).


Bob’s Spare Time [50:31 mark]
I have been working a lot over the past few months and the obligations and deadlines have finally caught up to me. As a result, I don’t really have any spare time at the moment to go out during the week and drink alcoholic Capri Sun’s [51:02]. As I wracked my brain for anything that would make it seem like I have a normal life, I came up with two things that, quite honestly, I don’t think I could live without (in the most superficial way). They are:

“Napster” is the music listening service that I use and I love it. It was originally branded as “Rhapsody” when I signed up as a member back in 2011 when streaming music was a relatively new thing. It is a rare event when I want to listen to a particular song and it isn’t available to me – and I have a fairly wide bandwidth of knowledge when it comes to music. While I recommend it to anyone who might be interested, there have been rumors for years that “Napster” isn’t going to make it, which is why I have been trying out new platforms for about the last year. Based on the current evidence at hand, I think I’ll end up on Amazon Music Unlimited since I am already in so deep with Amazon. You can get a free 30-day trial to Amazon Music Unlimited here and decide for yourself if it’s worth it. (it will be)

One thing that is ABSOLUTELY worth it is my subscription to Audible. I listen to a lot of audiobooks and considering that my monthly subscription is less than $10 (if you pay month-to-month and you are not an Amazon Prime member like me it will be $15), this is an easy hit on my entertainment budget. I originally started listening to audiobooks when my daughter was voraciously plowing through books – and in an effort to connect with her, I wanted to read the same books so we could talk about them together. What that means is that in the beginning, I wasn’t “reading” heavy autobiographies, I was listening to books about dragons and kids with superpowers. As I mentioned previously, since I already have an Amazon Prime account, I get around 50 rotating titles available per month for free … but they’re never the ones my daughter is reading … they’re normally from the New York Times bestseller’s list.


I’m 25+ years removed from my time in Architecture school and while I wouldn’t want to go back and do it again, I have zero bad memories. All the things I went through eventually got me to where I am and made me think and behave the way I do. It’s funny to think about how I struggled so mightily in the beginning, to the point that dropping out of school was possible, only to have figured enough of it out and I walked away with positive life-changing experiences. I truly believe that this could be the experience for everyone if you can get your head into the right space. This obviously doesn’t happen for everyone, but that’s okay because you don’t go to school to learn how to do something, you go to learn how to learn. Taken in that light, there are no bad experiences … just the ones that get you where you need to be.



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