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How to Be a Successful Architecture Student: A Practical Guide

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Studying architecture is unlike many other fields of study. It combines creativity, technology, passion and personality. Unlike other fields where While in other fields grading occurs according to standardized point systems, grades are much more subjective when it comes to architecture. This is especially true when it comes to design studios. So what is the secret on how to be a successful architecture student? And how can it pave the path for a successful career in architecture?

Let’s dive in!

Behind the Blueprints: Understanding the Real Aim of Architecture School

During my studies, Peter Eisenman was a guest critic and shared a valuable insight at a design studio: “You can learn Revit (or any other contemporary architecture software) in your first two months on the job. But no one is going to teach you how to design great architecture once you graduate.”

This is crucial to understand. While your studies will equip you with the software and tools necessary to design buildings, along with a basic understanding of building codes, the ultimate goal is to learn how to design architecture itself.

In the real world, a team of consultants and specialists will handle the technical aspects of the buildings we design. As architects, we need a working knowledge of these topics to manage and coordinate projects effectively. However, our true expertise lies in architectural design. We ensure that the building creates exceptional spaces where people can live their best lives, and that its exterior enhances not only its own value but that of the entire neighborhood.

This is a complex task. Managing proportions, creating facades that are both functional and aesthetically pleasing, and understanding how to create inspiring, positive spaces cannot be taught through conventional methods. There are too many variables, too many intangibles, and an immense amount of creative sensitivity involved.

But design ability is the key to being a successful architecture student. Your main focus during your architecture study should be to maximize your ability to think creatively, and your architectural design skills.

Now that we’ve established the importance of focusing on creativity in architecture school, let’s delve into practical strategies for developing your skills. Read on to discover how you can actively enhance your architectural design skills and set the stage for a successful career in architecture.

Building Your Architectural Design Skills: A Practical Guide

The short answer is: learning by doing. No matter how many books you read on design, until you put pen to paper (or mouse to pixel?), its just abstract theory.

We’ve all experienced this: We get inspired by a particular design, and we think we understood exactly how it works and what’s behind it. Then we try and recreate it ourselves. And we realize that our version doesn’t look half as good as our reference.

Design is deceivingly complex. Everything must be in a perfect balance for the design to “work”. The scale, proportion, context, color, placement – in short everything plays together.

So how can you develop the architectural design sensitivity that allows you to create outstanding designs and to stand out as a successful architecture student?

1. Copy: Learn from the Masters

I remember Hernan Diaz Alonso, now Director of SCI-Arc in Los Angeles, once asking a student: “If you want to create a great painting of an apple, what do you do?”

Sure of his answer, the student answered confidently: “I get an apple, and study it deeply, from every angle, catching every detail.”

H.D. Alonso said: “Wrong. You look at the best paintings of apples in existence and study those.”

Copying in art and design is not new. Pablo Picasso once said “good artists copy, great artists steal.”

The goal is not to create a perfect copy of a design. But by looking closely how other designers have solved particular design problems, you learn. Besides, even when you try to copy it, the end result will be different. Perhaps even better!

Don’t be afraid to copy when starting your design. Design is a process, and that starting point doesn’t matter.

2. Practice Relentlessly: Refine Your Design Skills

Like all skills, architectural design skills can be practiced. And the more you practice, the better you’ll get. Take every design task during your study seriously and try to make the most of it. If you are free to choose, pick the electives that focus on design.

As mentioned before, you’ll get plenty opportunities to learn about building core, project management and technical aspects on your first job.

3. Seek Inspiration: Nurture Your Aesthetic Sense

Develop your sense of aesthetics by paying attention when you find something beautiful or striking. It doesn’t have to be architecture. In fact, even better if its from a completely different field, or from nature.

Make a mental note, take a picture, or save images of it for later reference. Try to understand why it speaks to you and what precisely you find appealing about it. How much can you take away before it stops having the same effect?

Always be on the lookout for ways to enrich your “creative pool” of ideas. Having a large treasure-trove of ideas, patterns, and designs is the hallmark of a successful architecture student. When it comes to approaching a design task, you’ll have a wider range of creative reference and starting points.

4. Master Design Tools: The Key to Expressing Your Vision

During our study, we all encounter this situation: We see an amazing design by an architecture studio or by a peer student, but we have no idea how to “create” such a design.

Remember when I said you shouldn’t focus on technical aspects and save them for your architectural internship or first job? Design tools are the exception.

A great painter can’t do his best work if only given an old, worn brush. Like-wise, without the right design tools, you won’t be able to turn your vision into a tangible 3D model and plan material.

In addition, American architectural critic and theorist Jeffrey Kipnis once said that the tool you use will guide your design. In his view, modeling software or model-building techniques are not just tools that concretize what we have in mind, they channel our designs into a specific direction. The tool is partly responsible for the design output.

What your are looking for when it comes to design software, is complete freedom of expression. Choose a tool that doesn’t constrain you to predefined ways of conceptualizing architecture.

Rhino 3D is perhaps the most powerful version of a constraint-free design tool. It can create all imaginable forms and shapes, and thanks to its abstract, geometry-focus it gives you the freedom to break free from conventional architectural thinking.

Grasshopper, the parametric design interface of Rhino, is another powerful way to expand your ability to 3D model your designs. I learned Grasshopper during my study and it truly transformed my designs. Suddenly my designs had a level of intricacy and impact that I struggled to achieve by modeling my designs completely “by hand”.

If you want to learn Grasshopper to bring your architectural designs skills to the next level, check out my course: Grasshopper for Architectural Design.

5. Be Driven: Think Beyond Classroom Boundaries

In many fields, your learning is often limited to what your teachers impart. They are experts, and their goal is to pass on their knowledge so you can, hopefully, reach their level of expertise in the future.

However, architectural design is a different beast. Your goal isn’t to mimic the design approach of a specific professor or instructor. This approach often results in graduates who are merely lesser versions of their teachers, confined to a particular design style because that’s all they were taught.

To truly thrive as an architecture student, you need to push beyond the confines of your assignments. Cultivate a drive to learn beyond the curriculum. Remember, your professors and instructors are not the limit of your potential. Set your own bar, and aim to surpass it. Make the mastery of design your ultimate goal.

Maximize your learning by engaging with your teachers. Ask questions, seek their insights, and use them as a resource in your journey. In this way, you can truly harness the full potential of your architectural education.

6. Explore Design Languages: Expand Your Horizons

Understanding and experimenting with different design languages can broaden your architectural perspective. Often students find an institute or instructor that teaches a design language that resonates with them. It feels easier or more comfortable to continue doing design studios in the same way. But as your are learning your architectural design skills, your goal is to make yourself as uncomfortable as possible (design-wise, more on that in the next section). We learn the most as we stretch beyond our current abilities.

Try as many different styles, design approaches and design languages as you can. Even if you don’t like the result, there is something to be learned in every approach.

Do you like to work conceptually? Then try a formalist design studio.

Do you enjoy parametric design? Then experiment with a collage-based approach.

As an example, I challenged myself to use a different design software for every design studio I did.

The Myth of All-Nighters in Architecture School

Architecture attracts ambitious, creative individuals who thrive in vibrant, collaborative environments. In architecture schools, studios become social hubs where friendships form, ideas are exchanged, and designs come to life. However, the camaraderie can sometimes lead to late-night work sessions, especially when a design deadline looms.

Yet, the results of these all-nighters are often disappointing. Our minds function optimally during regular waking hours, particularly for creative tasks. In fact, you can typically accomplish in one focused daytime hour what might take three hours late at night. Plus, you’ll be alert and ready when it’s time to present your design, rather than struggling to stay awake.

Rushing to finish a project overnight also means missing out on valuable feedback from teachers and guest critics. The discussions and critiques during design studios are invaluable learning opportunities.

The key takeaway is this: all-nighters are not a prerequisite for being a successful architecture student. They don’t enhance your creativity and can even set a harmful precedent for your professional life.

Remember, unlike engineering where there’s a definitive solution, architectural design is an iterative process. A design is never truly complete; there’s always room for improvement and further development. So, pace yourself, respect your body’s natural rhythms, and strive for consistent progress rather than last-minute marathons.

Final thoughts

In conclusion, understanding how to be a successful architecture student is a journey that goes beyond mastering the technical aspects of architecture. It’s about cultivating a deep passion for design, relentlessly honing your skills, and maintaining an insatiable curiosity that drives you to constantly learn and grow. Remember, your journey in architecture school is unique, and it’s okay to feel overwhelmed at times. Embrace these moments as opportunities for growth and learning.

As you navigate this exciting path, consider further enhancing your skills with our course, Grasshopper for Architectural Design. This course is designed to help you unlock new levels of creativity and precision in your designs. So, why wait? Take the next step in your architectural journey and enroll today.

Remember, the architect’s greatest tool is their mind, and every step you take in your education is a brick in the foundation of your future success.

Happy designing!

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Thomas Tait
Lead Designer at Snøhetta and Head Instructor @ Hopific (or, in plain English, I help designers use Grasshopper to supercharge their designs.

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