Yale School of Architecture (Susan)

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    Susan Surface
    Apr 19, '10 6:54 PM EST

    When you are enmeshed in the stresses, deadlines, social-climbing, and competitiveness of architecture school (and in some cases, architecture career) it is easy to misplace priorities.

    The slippage started when I chose to make a career out of what I love to do. I have the immense fortune and opportunity to do professionally the things that I'd otherwise spend many of my waking hours doing anyway: researching, reading about, discussing, and making architecture. I do not forget how privileged this makes me. I am glad I chose it and that I am able to do it.

    But a split started to happen. I put in all this time on school work. But both myself and my critics are dissatisfied with the results. To keep myself engaged, I took on design projects outside of school - on my own terms and with collaborators I willfully selected. I'm not only proud of those projects personally, but they actually got published or won awards. I do good work when I do the work I want to do. I do my worst work when I don't believe in a project, yet am still invested just enough in the ideas behind it to not be able to pump out content for the sake of pumping out content and getting assigned tasks done. Utter busy work, I can produce with aplomb. "So close yet so far," not so much. A valuable thing to know about myself. I guess I could "work on it." I'm not sure I want to, though.

    We get told "You don't get to pick and choose in the real world. That's how it works. Grow up, reality check." I don't know if it's serendipity or if I somehow have a skill at finagling good situations or what, but I haven't found that to be true. Previously (and coming up this summer, thankfully) I've loved the jobs I've had, the projects I've worked on, the clients I've worked with. On the rare few occasions when that wasn't true... I was able to end my participation in the projects and leave. I found the right people, and in some cases, they sought me out because they LIKE how I approach design and what I make - rather than trying to hammer it into something that it is not, that I am not. This has, and continues, to work out beautifully in the Real World. Not so well in academia, where that isn't how it works.

    I couldn't make myself give a damn about designing a project whose existence repulses me in the first place, the premises of which I find unethical, and which will do nothing more than sit in my portofolio until it gets cycled out by enough professional experience... when an organization that I absolutely LOVE reached out and asked me to do the interior reconfiguration of their cramped and crowded office, which would for many reasons (client privacy for legal counsel and wheelchair accessibility, in particular) benefit from a spatial overhaul.

    You get the degree to do be able to do the work you want to do. But then an opportunity to do the work you want to do arises while you're frantically producing busy work you don't like, to get that degree. What do you do?

    It is easy to start to believe that you must sacrifice family, friendships, love, and community for the sake of the all-consuming and perpetual charette.

    It is easy to get brainwashed when you're told that your priorities are wrong when you have to prioritize family and relationships over your work. That this is proof you're not committed to your profession. That you aren't a "real" architect." That you're soft. That you aren't cut out for the job. That you should take this quarter and call your mommy and tell her you aren't going to be an architect anymore.

    So easy that I treat people poorly. Put academics & career first. Because I have to - it's expensive, this degree. Treat even people I love very much as if they are less important than What I Am "Really" Doing With My Life. Forget that loved ones (individuals and communities) are the reason that I wanted to get into this profession in the first place.

    I do not want to live in a world designed by people who don't know how to LIVE. I do not want to live in a world built up by people who work 80 hours a week and subsist on coffee and ambition. Do we really want to live in buildings designed by people who don't think it's important to enjoy life? You know. The people who render giant plazas with no people. The people who like architectural photography with no people. Prop stylists and idealizers. Ugh, no.

    I want to live in a world that is designed by people who love other people and who love life and living. I love life and design accordingly.

    This is an ASSET to my architecture career, not a distraction.

    So. I have been away from school for a year. Hence being away from the blog for a year. But am returning to Yale in the fall. And I Refuse. To. Get. Brainwashed. Again.


    • Sbeth85

      Good for you... I will be especially interested once you resume blogging to see your perspective on the pressures of school from a person determined to maintain her humanity.

      Apr 19, 10 7:12 pm
      Paola Echegaray

      Here, Here!

      Apr 19, 10 8:14 pm

      Even having just finished my first year of undergrad, I know what you're talking about. Are teachers really pushing hard in order to get the best results from students, or are they just propagating a culture of no life outside studio...

      Apr 19, 10 10:18 pm

      i think we can do it. we (you and me and few others out there) just have to know when to draw the line and get the f out of studio, and when to find humor in this funny lifestyle of an architecture student.. and seeing from above, at least now you know how not to be :)

      Apr 19, 10 11:51 pm
      Lian Chikako Chang

      Wow, excellent (and important) post and wonderful to see you back here! What will you be studying in the fall, and where?

      Apr 20, 10 7:34 am

      I agree wholeheartedly. Welcome back Susan! We missed you.

      Apr 20, 10 8:19 am

      Great post Susan. This is something I remind myself over and over, because its so easy to not be conscious of it even as it unfolds right in front of me. I tell myself "I don't want my life to be about architecture; I want architecture to be about life."

      Apr 20, 10 11:04 am

      Susan, thanks for this. I appreciate it and I hope that fellow students do as well. Miss you, and I'm so glad you'll be doing something you love this summer...

      Apr 20, 10 4:32 pm

      Yeah welcome back!!!!

      Apr 20, 10 7:36 pm

      dear susan,

      i have a great story related to what you said here.

      i spent three days with great architectural photographer julius shulman in the spring of 2008 and recorded some wonderful conversations, unpublished yet but perhaps the last long format interview with him.
      at one point, i asked him why he and his wife hired raphael soriano when he knew almost every great architect in the planet including, schindler, neutra, wright, mies and so on.

      he looked at me, smiled, and said,
      "because raphael was the only one who lived and loved life!"

      apparently when they met at the empty lot near mulholland drive overlooking los angeles for the first time to discuss the project, soriano showed up with case of wine and they all got drunk and talked all night until the next day conversing just about everything but not discussing a word about the project.

      as soon as all got sober, shulman called soriano and told him he has the job...
      shulman and his family lived in a beautiful house designed by soriano. the rest is history.

      all the best to you.
      julius would approve.

      Apr 21, 10 12:20 am

      Emily, it's not too late to hang out before I go back in a few weeks :) And Orhan - what a lovely story! Why haven't you published yet?!

      Meredith - I think some people do produce well with "negative pressure," e.g. the "This isn't good enough. Do better. Make more. Or you'll fail." I tend to be more like, "EFFF YOOUUUUUU" when treated that way. It just does not motivate me at all. Also, the schedule isn't entirely the teachers' fault. I mean, 3-ish years to cram in all the NCARB requirements... they know how it is and I don't think a lot of faculty like this either.

      On the other hand, my favorite professors/employers have been those whose work totally blows me away - Greg and Cecilia from Visionaire, Cameron from AFH, Kazys, etc. I have to really get behind something.

      I missed all of you too!

      Apr 21, 10 3:56 am

      fantastic story orhan!

      susan, i agree with you 100% and am a bit relieved to read that was not only me who felt school was a bit off that way. the real world works the way it works, but it isn't anything like fixed or static, and does not demand anything more than we choose to give (or take). of course we get to choose projects and careers, and of course we can set our own limits and desires and goals. those who say not are possibly jealous, but maybe they can be coaxed to change their minds by your example.

      looking forward to reading your coming adventures.

      Apr 21, 10 4:01 am

      This speaks for our generation.

      Apr 22, 10 12:49 am

      Susan, great post and very glad to see you back here. Thankfully the paradigm seems to be shifting.

      Apr 22, 10 10:51 am

      I am glad that you are all glad to see me back! I get such Blogger's Guilt. If I don't post for a while I feel really silly posting again. Heh.

      jump - I feel like *most* people feel this way? I don't know. I mean, based on a random sampling of my classmates, and what people say here, etc. many people are a little... concerned... about the overall sustainability of the school structure. I certainly don't think I am, and have never felt, alone in these feelings. Some people probably just are more inclined to "deal with it" rather than do anything to try to resist it, though.

      Side note:

      There was just an article in NYT on whether marriage helps you live longer. While the whole marriage thing is problematic in itself, one part that stood out to me was the sampling of "stressed out" people that were cited in the study: STUDENTS!

      "The Glasers, who worked at Ohio’s State’s medical school, had ready access to an ample supply of stressed-out students, and so they decided to study the toll exacted by school pressure. They took blood samples from a set of students early in the semester and then did so again in the middle of final exams. The Glasers discovered that the stress of examination time seemed to cause a significant weakening of the students’ immune response: by examination time, the medical students showed a significant drop in so-called natural killer cells, a type of white blood cell that battles viruses and helps prevent cancer. " (From

      Apr 22, 10 6:16 pm

      Very nice Susan. I know that taking a year off between 2nd and 3rd year was one of the best decisions I made. It definitely allowed the much needed time for everything you've learned already to soak in, as opposed to the non stop blast of drinking from the fire house approach. Good luck.

      Apr 23, 10 10:49 am

      hm, i guess it makes sense that many students feel that way susan. my professors were never un-supportive, though i do believe the pressures and isolation of academia made them a bit "different" in other ways ;-)

      that NYT article is scary. running an office during a recession is a lifestyle built on stress. hopefully my kids and wife make things even out?

      Apr 26, 10 8:31 am

      Susan. We once exchanged portfolios on here while preparing for arch school applications, and then I'd see your work (or your apartment, actually!) on places like Apartment Therapy. Anyway. Loved this post (and I just happened to wander over here on accident, haven't checked these pages in years), and glad that you've been able to clarify and articulate why it is that you do what you do. :)

      (FYI update on me: I ended up leaving my program since I realized I loved life more than architecture, and that I probably never even loved arch in the first place. Just thought it was something I'd have fun learning, which I guess isn't really a great reason to get a masters for it. Haha.)

      Aug 23, 10 2:52 pm

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