Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Bad interview aftermath, and reflections on an undergraduate architecture education

Today, I had a one-sided Skype video interview with a big-name European architecture firm, hoping to secure a spot as an intern for a year or so. It was terrible. First of all, I didn't do anything wrong. In fact, I hardly had the chance to do or say anything wrong because the guy on the other end spoke the ENTIRE time. I'll paraphrase what he said:

"We don't want people that are living in a fantasy world. We want people who know how to deal with rainwater and foundations."

Let me explain.

I graduated with an A.B. in Architecture and a Certificate in Urban Studies. Architecture majors have "studio," where you spend [almost all of] your time working through architectural problems in drawings and models, and regularly present your work to juries. With the feedback from your professors, assistant instructors (AI's) and jurors, the projects continually develop until you present in the final review.

Princeton's undergraduate architecture education is not a technical education; it is a liberal arts program. If you looked at my portfolio work from the last 3 years, you would probably say "Wow, you've got some nice diagrams and drawings and layout, but I don't think that your buildings would stand up." I would respond "Maybe, but who cares? It's the idea that matters more." You would probably respond "That's silly, what's the point of architecture if it can't actually be built?" I would probably just walk away, as I've had that conversation too many times.

Look, people. I'll speak to what I know: undergraduate architecture majors (not civil engineers) at Princeton hardly worry about if the building will "stand up" because it doesn't matter. Yet. I never planned on graduating and going to start my own firm, turning my wacky conceptual montages and diagrams into actual buildings. I worked under the assumption that I would learn the technical details of construction in a real office or in graduate school, and delve in the fascinating conceptual potential of architecture while at Princeton.

"Well, wouldn't it make sense to just learn a little about the structural stuff and not ignore it?"

Of course, and there are required classes where we learn about construction, materials, loads, etc. But Princeton's undergraduate architecture program is not pre-professional, and exists within the context of a liberal arts curriculum where you might be taking classes on Chinese, economics, music theory and pottery at the same time. If I KNEW that I wanted to be an architect ASAP, I would have enrolled in a Masters program where I would have done nothing but architecture for 5 years. Instead, I attended a liberal arts university where you don't decide your major until the end of your sophomore year.

Here's the point: this guy was out of line in telling me that I need to "reconnect with reality" if I want to be an architect. He could have simply said that I was not experienced enough, and I would have agreed, because I'm not. Instead, he explained that lots of my work looks like student work. Well, I was JUST a student. There are no drawings of roofs and gutters? Well, we were never told to deal with DRAINAGE in our projects. No sections of foundations and concrete? I've got no clue how foundations work. Yet.

He even went as far as to explain what would happen if he hired me: I would work for this team, but wouldn't know how to do this so I would be bumped to this team, where I wouldn't understand this other thing, where I would be bumped down again, but I don't speak Italian so then I would be put in the model shop in the basement where I would be sad forever and ever.

To be honest, it felt as if he really wanted to put me in my place. Thing is, I know my place: I'm inexperienced because I haven't been educated yet, and my college education was not ONLY about architecture. Some would call that the curse of a liberal arts education, but I see myself as capable of doing more. You've just got to start somewhere.

So I don't think I got the job.


  1. Charlie,
    Send the link to your blog to Joe Siepot and Dave. I was telling Joe about it the other night when I had dinner with them at the PO. He is a nice guy and I think he'd get a kick out of some of your blog, but mabye not all of it!

  2. Amen. Anyone can monotonously practice drawing cabinet details and gutter sections until they are good at it. (Don't they have a robot for that yet?)

    We went to school to learn how to think for ourselves and address problems without conforming to the status quo.

    Sounds like the firm didn't deserve you.

  3. Sorry the interview didn't go well buddy.

    I always thought that many of these implementation issues fell more in the domain of civil engineering. Is there a clear delineation of responsibilities, or is there a sort of back and forth that goes on when designing a building that will actually be constructed?

  4. The good news, Charlie, is that in 10-20 years YOU WILL OWN HIM.

  5. Hello, I just started at Princeton this summer. When I tell people about all the things I'm interested in and then explain that I'd like to study architecture the response is often confused. So confused that I myself became concerned in an eyebrow furrowing kind of way. I got a little worried about the school I picked. But reading this is heartening. thanks. good luck.

  6. I'm a rising junior in architecture at Princeton and I'm a little worried! The next two years will be a lot of work, and for it to be seen as worthless and impractical (like your interviewer seems to see it) is disheartening...

  7. It shouldn't be disheartening at all! This was a special case scenario and won't happen in most cases with most places. I'd be happy to share a little more info, just shoot me an email and we can talk. stuckinthebubble@gmail.com