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Want To Be An Architect? Study the Liberal Arts!

a room in a library with a table

A client of mine is a budding architect.  He is taking an independent study in architecture at his high school. He has become very enthusiastic about the possibility of turning his interest into a career. But he is unsure about what road to take as an undergraduate.  Should he look for universities that offer a Bachelors degree in architecture. Or should he opt for a liberal arts degree. Then, head for graduate school to get his Masters in Architecture and his license to practice?

Not being an architect myself, I asked a college classmate, Cary Bernstein, who has her own successful architecture practice in San Francisco, if she would mind fielding a few questions from my student.  She agreed. She also agreed to let me share her answers with our readers.  So here is her case for why the liberal arts provide excellent preparation for a career in architecture.  (I’ve reproduced it here in a “Q&A” format to make it more readable).

A room in a library with a table that has a laptop and an open book on it.

Question 1:  

I am extremely interested in pursuing architecture as a profession. But, I don’t want to commit to something that I may later realize I don’t want to do halfway through college. What would you recommend I study in college so that I can study architecture but I can still make changes if I decide that I want to take a different direction?

Response: You should study things that interest you. You are more likely to do well at subjects that keep you engaged.  It is important to develop your writing, research and analytical skills. You can do that in almost any subject within the humanities or social sciences.  You should take as many drawing or shop (i.e. wood shop, metal shop) classes as possible, but you do not need to major in art. 

I majored in Philosophy and have found it to be extremely useful for understanding theory, intellectual history, interpreting text and constructing positions in (unfortunately) adversarial situations.  But mostly, I just love Philosophy.  You should have some basic computer skills because so much work is done on the computer and the programs keep changing all the time.

Question 2: 

If I were to go straight into architecture, what classes would you advise to someone who is much more interested in the design aspects of a structure instead of the engineering that goes into it?

ResponseTake as much painting, drawing and other studio art as possible.  But also take as many humanities  – where you will have to write papers and do research – as possible.  The people who do poorly in the profession are those whose verbal skills are weak – you need to be able to talk about your project as well as design it.  You would think this is just about design, but architectural practice requires verbal as well as visual skills – which is what makes architecture the coolest profession ever.

Question 3: 

Being a professional architect, what did you gain the most out of your college studies and what classes were the most valuable to your future in architecture?

ResponseI never worried about how my undergraduate classes would be directly “useful” in graduate school.  In college, in addition to Philosophy, I studied languages (Russian, Italian and French). They have been useful in so many ways (how to think about different systems of communication, different cultures, exposure to other parts of the world) and have led to an interesting life.  Philosophy, as mentioned above, has been incredibly useful. But it’s a dense subject so if you don’t like it don’t study it. 

I wish I took more courses in History and Literature but there just wasn’t any more room in my schedule.  Architecture is the “mother of the arts” – it encompasses everything (art, science, history, economics, psychology). So most subjects feed it well but I would steer you towards history, literature and language studies first and foremost.  The more time you can spend making things and drawing things the better. But you’ll get plenty of this in a graduate program.  Classes in art/architectural history are also helpful – you should know the history within these subjects.

Question 4: 

What would be the best way for me to discover if I really want to pursue architecture? I am already in an architecture class but I feel I could be doing more to truly know if this is what I want to do.

ResponseThere are summer classes, such as the Harvard Career Discovery Program (also known as “Career Disco”) which many people find helpful.  I believe Columbia University also has one.  You should also try to get an internship in an architecture firm (do anything). Or, if you can get a job in construction spend the summer building something.  Work for Habitat for Humanity or other community groups that build things.  I hope this is helpful.  Architecture is an incredible pursuit – I wish you the very best for your future.

Clearly Cary Bernstein is very content with her educational trajectory.  What is your educational trajectory?  How can I help you choose the college–and major–that fits you best?
Mark Montgomery
Independent Educational Consultant
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