I’m sure I’ve shared this story before.
A few days before the start of my senior year of high school something clicked. I don’t remember the details. Who was there. What was said. How it happened. All I know is that there was a discussion and being an architect came up. Suddenly I remembered that’s what I always wanted to be.
I had forgotten.
I was one of those little kids that always wanted to be an architect. When I was in first grade an architect came to our class. At least I think he was an architect. I’ve tried to ask people in the class who it was, but who remembers that long ago? And why would anyone remember such an insignificant moment from their childhood? Well insignificant for them. For years I thought it was the dad of a girl who had the same birthday as mine; it wasn’t. Or if it was, then he wasn’t an architect.
The architect talked for a bit and then we were sent home with work to do.
Our homework that night was to design a house. I drew the floor plan of my own house and then added an ice hockey rink below it. I didn’t care about hockey, but that’s what everyone was talking about that day. So, boom! Raised ranch plus ice hockey rink. That’s my first architectural design. If I close my eyes, I can almost picture it. For years after that day, if anyone asked, I said I wanted to be an architect when I grew up.
Eventually though people stopped asking that question. By high school I forgot about being an architect—until right before the start of my final year. Then it all clicked. Everything I loved, and loved doing, pointed to being an architect. I know now as a real architect that was a false positive, and I was ignoring things (like my deep love of playing the bass in any and every band I could be in). But whatever. The signs weren’t wrong. Architecture was one of many True Paths. And all the others vanished once seventeen year old Jared realized that being an architect could be a real thing. Well that’s not actually true. The majority of my freelancing between 15 and 30—until my second daughter was born and Shoegnome was a year old—was music, not architecture. But that’s for another post. Once I understood that Architecture was my Destiny, I turned my life upside down. I dropped classes (music classes) to fit AP Art into my schedule—one needs a portfolio to apply to architecture schools, though my portfolio also included a CD and a few tapes that my high school band self-produced. I signed up for physics (why I wasn’t planning on taking physics is a story for another day) and made other changes to my life, including once again thinking of myself as a future architect.
I remembered I wanted to be an architect around September 1st. By January 1st, I had finished applying to colleges; I only applied to architecture schools. I gave myself no backup plan. It was going to be architecture or disaster. I applied to six colleges and got into three. Here’s two pieces of advice for prospective architecture students. Take the application process very seriously (especially the portfolio portion). I didn’t. And I should have. Don’t be cocky. The competition is very tough (as an aside, when you get to the Architeture Registration Exam, take that seriously too. Here’s my advice on that). Assuming things haven’t changed that much since 1998/99, take a science SAT II. A horrible score is better than no score. I didn’t take one and that limited which architecture schools I could apply to. That’s stupid on so many levels, but such is life. Because the three schools I got into were either west of or in walking distance of the Mississippi River, I ended up heading west from Connecticut—and haven’t stopped heading west since. Today, if I wanted to, I could drop my daughters off at school, drive to the Pacific Ocean, have a seaside lunch, and be home in time to get them before the bell rings.
Only getting into 50% of the schools one applies to is a bit scary, and disheartening. I think back to the application process and I’m kind of surprised my architecture application even made it through three schools. In fact, years later I learned how close it was to 33%. I mostly remember my applications to Tulane and The Cooper Union (I got into Tulane, not The Cooper Union). With Tulane I had to do some project to get a scholarship. The details are hazy both because it was a long time ago and because I didn’t understand the importance of the task at hand, so I never knew all the details. I wrote about tessellation creation and got offered a half-scholarship. If I was born five years later, that would have been done with cool software rather than color pencils. Different times.
The Cooper Union was a fun application. It involved all sorts of creative tasks. I’m confident I bombed it. Everything I did was reflective of my personality and spot on with who I am today, but I’m sure it was laughed out of the admissions office. I wrote an article about devils attacking the US Senate. I drew a cartoon about an alien thinking my mailbox was a spaceship that wouldn’t answer it’s questions. I probably did something related to tessellations—I was obsessed with M.C. Escher. And I know I definitely ruined my chances with my answer to the task “show us the 20th century house”. I was seventeen and ignorant. And not taking the application as seriously as I should.
What’s the 20th century house? To seventeen year old me it was the nice colonial with a front porch and a two car garage that all my slightly richer middle class friends lived in (maybe I should have gone with raised ranch over subterranean hockey rink). I found an image of that clichéd colonial from a magazine advertisement and drew a pleasant three-quarters perspective of it. I’m sure the people at the Cooper Union looked at that and thought “dullard.” The funny thing is, if I were to be asked that question again today, I’d probably give almost the same answer (though I would be wiser about the graphic representation of my thoughts). But now I understand why I would be giving it. Is that proto-mcmansion the best thing to come out of the 20th century? No. But is it a shadow over everything we do? Yes. It’s probably better to claim one of the Levittown houses as the true 20th century house, but they aren’t. They were the harbingers. They were the first attempt. They aren’t the exurb or the culmination of 20th century suburbia. They aren’t what we’ve been running from and reacting to for years. They aren’t what the 21st century will spend so much time dealing with. Nope. Much of what we do now is in reaction to that stupid two car colonial. It’s to prove that there’s a better way. It’s easy to list all the influential and great houses of the 20th century. But ‘the 20th century house’? I nailed it when I was 17. But I didn’t know why.
It’s important to remember that I was applying to colleges in the Fall of 1998, a few weeks after Google was incorporated as a company. This was before the era of search engines. The Internet existed, but the ability to use it as a knowledge force multiplier was not yet a reality. I couldn’t read blogs about the experiences of others who had come before; I couldn’t get advice from a sea of current and former architecture students; I couldn’t spend my evenings on discussion forums (well I was using IRC, but for nothing of any use); I couldn’t sift through architecture websites showing off all the awesome work being done by current practitioners; I couldn’t read page after page of Wikipedia. I should have done research at the library or maybe looked at the books in my parents’ house. But the encyclopedias in my parents’ basement were from 1948, so not exactly the ultimate source for learning about the 20th century house or how one should go about applying to architecture schools.
By the way, this dangerous path of ignorance continued into college. For that story, read on.