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What it Takes to Become an Architect

May 21, 2010

If any of you have been following the blog for a little while, you’ll remember a feature that MTV’s Get Schooled did on our principal, Alan Hart back in November called “What it Takes to Become an Architect.” We’re entering a busy time of year for our staff, and so it gets harder for them to find time to write thoughtful pieces. As a result, we’re going to start something called a Friday Feature where we highlight different staff at our firm (and possibly outside of the firm) and look at what it took for them to become an architect or a planner.

To kick it off, we’re going to repost Alan’s feature (which gives us some time to get features from our other staff ready):

Alan Hart, architect and co-founder of VIA Architecture, talks to Get Schooled about what it takes to be part of a great team and how he’s trying to make Vancouver and Seattle better places to live.

Alan Hart

GS: What was the biggest hurdle you faced along your educational path?
AH: For me, the biggest hurdle in becoming an architect was believing that I could really become one.

In my junior year in high school, I didn’t know what I wanted to do as a profession. My dad suggested that I had the artistic eye and creative mind necessary to pursue becoming an architect. I thought that it was a great idea, but had no idea what that involved.

The career counselor at my high school told me definitively that I didn’t have the required course work to go to architectural school; ‘not enough Chemistry or Physics.’ I took his advice at face value and decided not to pursue architecture.

At college, I tried all sorts of courses, first majoring in History, then Psychology, and finally Urban Planning. All this time, I remained very interested in Architecture. I photographed buildings as a hobby and became friends with a number of architectural students. These friends saw my interest and encouraged me to take Architecture as a post graduate degree.

It seemed that those who knew me knew I would make a good architect, yet I listened to advice that I didn’t have the stuff to become one. And ultimately, it was me who had to believe. The rest is history.

GS: What schooling is required for success in your career?
AH: Schooling is such a personal choice. What schooling you pursue to become an architect depends so much on what aspect of architecture you are interested in (there are so many).

In a way, I was lucky not to go directly into Architecture right after high school. I had the opportunity to develop a much broader understanding of the world around me and how it worked This bigger view has allowed me to put architecture in a more real world perspective that has given what I do more meaning and value. My advice is to begin by studying the broader context before you delve into the detailed aspects of architecture.

GS: What inspires you?
AH: I am inspired by the commitment of recent graduates that we have hired to make the world a more sustainable, fairer, and healthier place to live. The younger generation I work with has reminded me of the important questions that have long been overlooked or forgotten. Common sense that has long been forgotten–like putting people before cars, being concerned where our food comes from, understanding that sustainability begins with our personal choices, and that making the world a better place is a very exciting reason to be practicing architecture.

GS: Your latest project was selected as the site for Athlete’s Village at the upcoming Vancouver Winter Olympics in February 2010. That’s amazing!
AH: We were very excited to be involved in the project from its inception as an “ecodistrict”, or a community that would model walkability, livability, and deep long-term sustainability principles. Our planning emphasized the need for conservation, restoration, management of energy, waste, water, and transportation, and integration of opportunities to grow food in this urban neighborhood. Buildings will use less energy and create less waste. As architects, we feel that work of this kind is a contribution that we can make to our communal well-being, and we hope to take these ideas much further in our future projects.

Here are a few bonus questions that weren’t featured on Get Schooled’s website (including a photo that just had to be shared):

Alan Hart2GS: Who is the teacher who had the most influence on you and why?
AH: I have had some very good teachers who have taught me but the one who had the most influence at a key time in my life was Mr. Wright, my English and History teacher in Grade 10. He was an animated teacher whose joy was seeing the present as part of a continuum of history. He could put you back in time as if you were there today. I really enjoyed his way of seeing life and he influenced how I perceive the world we live in. But Mr. Wright went beyond the subject he taught; he taught me to believe in myself, especially during difficult times. And I saw tough times in that year.

It was a time when I was trying to explore new ideas and find new ways to express myself. In the process my clothes, my hair, new music all changed. Changes that were not welcomed by many of my teachers. It seemed the more I tried to find what I really liked and who I really was the more friction I got . Conflict I didn’t welcome but that just seemed to be part of the journey. Many friends were unhappy with my changes and many teachers who once liked me now seemed to be disappointed and even hostile to me. The whole situation seemed to take on a life of its own.

It was in the midst of these tough times for me Mr. Wright seemed to go against the flow and spent extra effort to engage me. I found him asking me about my ideas and he seemed genuinely interested in what I had to say. A group of us would often stay long after class and discuss things that seemed to really matter. It was through these exchanges that Mr. Wright’s generosity shined through and I learned to focus on ‘content’ and not get lost in ‘personality,’ to do things out of joy and not fear, and to know your own voice in ‘the conversation.’

GS: What is the best advice you were ever given?
AH: The best advice I was ever given was from an architectural professor who advised me to focus on content before personality. He said that we so often get caught up in who or how people are saying things rather than what is actually being said. The principle of this is that innovation comes from ideas and that ideas are ‘open source’ and not possessed by someone. He said possessing ideas is death to innovation and that if we truly believe in what we do we have to be ready for the best idea to win.

GS: Is your field growing? (ie. is there room for new entries and is there career growth?)
AH: The answer to this question depends on what your definition of growth is. Right now, many firms have much less building design work than they had a year ago. As a consequence, many architects, like other professions, have lost their jobs. During hard times though there is a real opportunity for new ideas to solve problems in an innovative way, a time to rethink some of the basic assumptions about how we build our cities and our communities. It takes a lot of thought and consideration to do more with less. Therein lies the opportunity for young people entering the profession.

Our experience is that during prosperous times, there is a desire to get things built quickly in order to profit from the economy, but often the resulting buildings suffer in terms of quality. At VIA, because we approach our work from the perspective of longevity and integrity, our firm is often less busy than others during fast times. Conversely, slowdowns in the building industry often mean busier times for our practice because we can better serve clients who are interested in developing thoughtful, reasonable ways of doing projects. Our clients are more likely to ask the questions “Why should we build it?”, “How much should we build?” and “Are there other ways to achieve this than building something?”

GS: What advice would you give someone considering a career like yours?
AH: My advice to those considering architecture as a profession is to think of it as an opportunity to help make the world a healthier, fairer, and more sustainable place to live.

If our cities are to become more sustainable, the world need leaders who can understand, envision, and implement the possibilities and who can inspire others to make the necessary changes come true.

Architects, because of the breadth of their training, their ability to visualize and to communicate ideas and have the skills to build them, have a great opportunity to become those needed leaders.

GS: Describe your latest project or current focus.
AH: In the past few years, we’ve realized that the way in which we can make a difference is to look beyond the design of buildings as stand-alone works of architecture. At VIA, our focus is on both buildings and infrastructure, and using the integrative power of design to make sure that all the parts and pieces of a community fit together in a way that supports people’s lives. A recent opportunity to accomplish this was our planning work for a neighborhood in the central part of Vancouver, Canada called Southeast False Creek.

This 50-acre site consisted of former industrial lands, bordered on the north by False Creek. We were very excited to be involved in the project from its inception as an “ecodistrict”, or a community that would model walkability, livability, and deep long-term sustainability principles. To our delight, the site was subsequently chosen for the recently completed Athlete’s Village for the upcoming Vancouver Winter Olympics in February 2010. The Village will be converted to predominantly family housing immediately following the Games.

Future residents will enjoy a community where they can live, work, play, and learn in a neighborhood that will achieve the highest levels of social equity, livability, ecological health and economic prosperity and that will support their choices to live in a sustainable manner. Our planning emphasized the need for conservation, restoration, management of energy, waste, water, and transportation, and integration of opportunities to grow food in this urban neighborhood. Buildings will use less energy and create less waste. As architects, we feel that work of this kind is a contribution that we can make to our communal well-being, and we hope to take these ideas much further in our future projects.

One Comment

  1. Hey, I’m Lara Repass. I’m very interested in architecture, and I was wondering what classes you would prefer me to take, and maybe the college.

    Thanks!
    Lara

    p.s- I saw that you were interested in photography, too! I plan to be a photographerwhen I grow up, too.