Architectural Ellipsis

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    Analysis of the Profession - Metallurgical Analogy

    Everyday Architect
    Aug 26, '19 5:01 PM EST

    A note before you get started ... this post is the result of an innocuous comment in Thread Central, a slow work day (ok, a couple of slow days), and some research a la Balkins (meaning my superficial understanding of these terms comes only from Wikipedia). This post is probably full of inaccuracies and incongruities that probably won't make sense if you actually understand metallurgy (which I don't). So don't take any of this too seriously.

    ... I've heard it described that architects know a little about a lot of things rather than knowing a lot about one thing in particular. What better way to illustrate that than by taking my superficial understanding of metallurgy and using it to analyze the career stages of an architect?

    In many ways, the career of an architect is one of lifelong learning, of responding to new knowledge and changing things either gradually or abruptly in your process and approach to the problems you'll encounter. Even then, there seems to be a general trend in the types of changes that might occur during a career, and I've taken the time to find their analog in metallurgical processes below. 

    (image source)

    Architecture school (first years) = smelting and refining. This is a process of extracting the desired material from ore and purifying it. Some students come to architecture school more refined than others, but the first years are usually about getting rid of the impurities from the students in order to be able to build up their design sensibilities. 

    Architecture school (later years / grad school) = forging. Applying heat and/or pressure to shape and form a material. The goal is to rework the material's inner structure to be stronger and more consistent. It's a rough process that usually requires further working to produce a final product. The procedure here is mostly handled through design studios and critiques to form a student's design sensibilities. Some students can handle this very well, and some cannot. Regardless, the process is not over and further work must be done to develop a successful architect.

    First job / AXP program / ARE process = annealing and quenching. Annealing can relieve internal stresses and recover the internal grain structure that is disrupted by those stresses through a gradual heating and cooling process. This leaves the material softer and prepared for further shaping and working. Quenching is more about abrupt cooling that puts the material in its hardest state. The material is prone to breaking after quenching as it is brittle and inflexible. Both of these processes are still working the material to produce desired effects and ready it for further development. In most careers these are formative years in the first job(s), working through the experience and examination requirements to get licensed, and ultimately becoming licensed.

    First years after licensure = tempering. After quenching, the material is usually too hard and brittle. It could be used as a final product, but the risk of breaking due to inflexibility is great. Controlled heating to a certain temperature followed by gradual cooling will reduce the hardness of the material while also relieving some of the internal stresses cause by quenching. The process leaves the material more ductile (flexible) and tougher (resistant to fracture). This is similar to the the process of getting additional responsibilities, advanced mentoring, and work experience. 

    Continued work and experiences = any number of surface finishing processes. Grinding, polishing, burnishing, gilding, pickling all have an effect on the surface of the piece giving it a different look and feel, but the underlying structure of the material would remain roughly the same. This is continually happening throughout the middle and late stages of a career. The changes we make here may look significant, but they may not change the underlying sensibilities developed earlier in our careers. The approach to design may remain largely the same, but the result or expression of that approach may be different.

    Late stages of career = plastic deformation and fatigue. Over the length of a career we get pushed past our elastic limits and permanent deformation will take place. Continued strain into the plastic range leads to continued deformation and eventual fracture. Fatigue can happen even if we don't get pushed into the plastic range. Faults at the molecular level can be introduced with cyclic deformation in the elastic range resulting in microscopic cracks that get larger and larger, weakening the material. As with plastic deformation, continued loading will result in fracture.

    Where do you find yourself in these phases of your career? Are there phases that I've missed, or need to revise? Let me know in the comments.


    • Full disclosure, these sentences were particularly hard to write because they are probably more autobiographical than I care to admit ...

      "After quenching, the material is usually too hard and brittle. It could be used as a final product, but the risk of breaking due to inflexibility is great."

      Step 1 is admitting you have a problem, right?

      Aug 27, 19 11:50 am  · 

      As the architect daughter of a metallurgist, I approve of this analogy.

      And I am definitely, definitely in the fatigue stage of my career. But also, in a way, ready to melt it all down and start over fresh!

      Aug 28, 19 10:04 pm  · 

      Thanks Donna. I debated adding something about melting down to start over fresh or something like it. Ultimately, I felt like for a career resurgence in the middle or late stages of a career it should be something to indicate more structural change (i.e. not a surface finish), but not something so drastic to imply completely melting down and reforging the material. I didn't find a direct metallurgical analog that I thought fit this career resurgence stage. The closest analog I could find was welding, but I wasn't sure if I wanted to get into combining materials where everything in the post was mostly focused on single elements. I liked the wording of "lifetime extension with aftertreatment methods" from the quality portion of the welding article, but it seemed like too much to get into for this post.

      Aug 29, 19 3:46 pm  · 

      I would argue that you have a lovely patina that only comes about by being exposed to toxic elements in the atmosphere .

      Aug 30, 19 12:03 pm  · 

      Digging around a little this afternoon and came across this gem of a thread: 20 Years Of Practice ... Lost My Focus & Drive.

      Weltschmerz was definitely in the fatigue stage of his career. I do wonder what happened with him. I hope he regained his focus and passion and is happy and healthy whatever he decided to do. We need the "22 Years of Practice" followup. Or maybe it would be "20 Years of Practice and 2 Years of (Doing Something Else)" followup. 

      Aug 29, 19 6:01 pm  · 

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About this Blog

An ellipsis [...] is used to signal an omission, an unfinished thought, aposiopesis, or brief awkward silence. Architectural ellipses are those aspects of the profession we (perhaps intentionally) omit, gloss over, or let dwindle in silence. Generally applied this blog should encompass many aspects of the profession. Yet, as an intern architect (now architect) I'll focus primarily on the architectural ellipses that occur in the internship process (and beyond).

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