Working out of the Box is a series of features presenting architects who have applied their architecture backgrounds to alternative career paths.
Are you an architect working out of the box? Do you know of someone that has changed careers and has an interesting story to share? If you would like to suggest an (ex-)architect, please send us a message.
Archinect: Where did you study architecture?
Ioana Urma: In undergrad, at Cornell, while studying interior design, I took electives in the architecture school (world arch. history, Japanese arch., anthropology + arch., and structures – yes, as an elective!) and abroad in Denmark (DISP) for a year. I got my “official” architecture degree in grad school at MIT, and while there also took some courses in urban design and landscape architecture at Harvard.
At what point in your life did you decide to pursue architecture?
The first time I realized I wanted to study architecture was in second grade, when we drew a plan of our classroom in Romania. I remember I really liked making that neat measured plan and coding the door in green and the windows in light blue.
Later on, though, I actually wanted to become a psychiatrist, like my aunt, who I was very close to, and great-uncle. I thought studying (and helping) people (the mind) would be really interesting – (it turns out that a little bit of that is necessary in architecture as well) - but I was afraid I was too sensitive and would be affected by the patients.
Since I was good at math, it was my favorite subject by far, my family pushed me to study math or engineering. With math, I wondered what you can do other than teach, so I dismissed it completely, and engineering seemed boring as a job. I secretly liked to draw, but for fear of failure (and lowering my high school GPA) I avoided art classes which involved drawing and took photography and drafting instead which lead me to architecture.
I applied to Cornell first for architecture, which was one of the top programs at the time (early 90s), but I had a crisis moment in the middle of my application and decided that the undergraduate program didn’t offer enough electives in other fields and, coming out of an average US high school, I felt I needed a more well-rounded education, so I switched at the last minute and applied to the interior design program. By "switched", I mean I had to literally erase my whole application and type a new essay on top of the smudges. This sounds funny now, but in those days you only got one paper application to fill out.
I thought I would switch to architecture while at Cornell if I wanted to, but the program not only was short on electives, it seemed like pure evil. There were horror stories of students getting their models ripped apart and original hand-drawings written on by mean professors; there was an overall air of great snobbishness surrounding the school; the department had all black furniture, and I had heard that they were not allowed to use colors in their projects. That just didn’t seem inviting to me, particularly the ban on colors.
When did you decide to stop pursuing architecture? Why?
Right after graduating with an M.Arch, I knew that I didn’t want to work in architecture. Either too much of it in school killed the passion or having been introduced to public art during grad school sparked that flame. I had also started painting my school models very carefully and colorfully and I noticed nobody else did that or cared much about colors...
I had worked for a few architecture firms a few years before going to graduate school, so I was familiar with the office environment and how little creativity, how much drafting and management is present in real projects.
Since I needed a job, and the prof. I had TA’ed for at MIT wanted me to work for her (Maryann Thompson), I ended up there for a few years, and I learned a lot, but deep down, still felt it wasn’t colorful or challenging my potential enough. In fact, I told her I wanted to quit from the first day I started! So crazy! Who does that to their boss?! But we were kind of friends, and she actually understood, being a very free and creative person herself.
I lingered this way as I tried teaching architecture studios at various colleges, having my own office/freelancing in Boston, moving into the more artistic LA environment to work on larger urban projects, until finally an opportunity arose where I could do something creative on my own for money: graphic design and illustration, and later, on paid art projects.
This sounds like I hate architecture, but that is not true at all. I very much like designing spaces and structures. I even like drafting because you can put the headphones on and task away. And I definitely like the construction/detailing/craft part of it and collaborating with builders.
The issue is the pay is too low to compensate for the difficulties and complications (very many people/voices involved; codes, site, budget and construction complications), and the huge life-safety and legal responsibilities you have. The low pay or bad deals architects make also lead to extremely long hours. It’s a lot of work with very little creative input (particularly if you are not working for yourself/on your own projects). It’s not balanced.
Architecture is one of the last standing old-fashioned professions where you need to have a well-rounded knowledge of very many things (structures, codes, construction, budgets), but those things have grown gigantically in specificity in the last 50 years. I talked once at length with my dad about this who is a structural engineer, and he thought it would be better for architects to stick to doing the design, which they are trained for and interested in, but as hired by a project manager which could run the rest of it, particularly the budget aspect. Management is not most architects’ strength or interest.
Anyway, with more artistic (non-architecture) work, you might get paid less, possibly, but you are allowed more creativity and the life-safety responsibilities are much smaller, if present at all (2D design).
Describe your current profession.
I have completed a number of (public) art projects – murals, installations and other media – and am constantly coming up with ideas and developing more. I would like to work as a full-time artist and creative director, but I am far from that goal.
To support that, I work as a freelance designer on a variety of commissions, from 2D to 3D: books, illustrations, interiors, art installations, paintings, murals, architectural renovations, exhibit designs... and ones I have the capability for but haven’t yet tried: set designs, fabric designs, additions/ground up architecture projects, urban design.
Most of the work that has come my way has been graphic design and illustration, and even more specifically, educational illustrations for science and engineering based topics. I actually really enjoy it because it involves research and analysis... and because it is mainly geared toward children, the colors and forms can be bold, free and friendly!
I have done a couple interior design projects and helped out on some architecture projects, but, I started my own practice, leaving the architecture firm I was employed at, exactly before the recession hit in 2008. So it isn’t like I have had the opportunity to turn an architecture project away! It’s actually a miracle I have survived and developed a design business on my own in this climate.
What skills did you gain from architecture school, or working in the architecture industry, that have contributed to your success in your current career?
Because, as I mentioned, you need to be so well rounded to practice architecture, there are so many useful ones, for many design fields overall, and particularly for building art installations:
Do you have an interest in returning to architecture?
Yes, if I can stay on the more design side of the practice. One person can’t really perform all the tasks required of an architect on a project.
As I said, I haven’t yet turned a project away... so if a project finds me, the more daring the better (the nicer the client, the better as well... it’s really important to get along), then, sure, I’d love to do it! It’s got to be colorful and a little crazy/experimental though... idea-wise, not just formally. I would love to take the “life is a theater” approach.
My architectural hero is Gaudí – he was an artist, a craftsman and a technical innovator, and he loved colors. He was lucky to have had a fantastic client who was both intelligent and culturally educated, and, most importantly, gave him a lot of freedom, construction money, and trust. As my graduate thesis advisor, Hasan-Uddin Khan, used to tell me, “To make great architecture you need not only a great architect, but also a great client.” It’s the marriage of the two that results in something of real value. Gaudí also worked really well with the builders/craftsmen, directly, without a lot of paperwork but with good face to face communication. That is hard to do today because of our litigious society, but I think we should try to try to find a way back to it.
My life hero, as you may have guessed, is Pippi Longstocking.
Learn more about Ioana Urma at ioanacolor.com.