The Long (and Short) Of Things

A few years ago, I read a piece by David Brooks entitled “The Summoned Self” that has remained fresh and relevant as time and life continue on.  Given what I believe is a relevant message for young professionals, and  really people of any age or stage of life, this blog post is my personal reinterpretation and synthesis of Brooks’ piece, through the lens of my own life and experiences as a millennial and person experiencing rapid-fire change both professionally and personally.

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Having lost a parent at a fairly early age, I am constantly trying to reconcile my long and short-term goals and views, both personally and professionally. This often looks like an internal dialogue that mimics a pendulum swinging between thoughts regarding “live in the present moment and enjoy it to its fullest” to the extreme of “what do I really want to accomplish—to achieve in my lifetime?”

Having discussed these states of being with many friends and colleagues, in many different contexts and subtexts, it seems this oscillation between the quotidian and the profound, the domestic and the daring, is fairly universal.

More simply said, it seems that having to decide on the “best” decision at a certain moment versus the long-term impact this decision might have when paired with subsequent decisions is simply a necessary feat in order to live from one day to the next.

While I might conclude that there is really no option but to act on the decision that elicits the most confidence and to then proceed with unflappable conviction, I believe that perhaps one of the biggest challenges young professionals must face is how to balance the two—i.e. to accept a healthy amount of organic evolution of their career and life while still steering their ship towards long-term goals that align with personal ambitions and aspirations.

As it’s graduation season, it’s perhaps best to illustrate this idea when considering one’s initial departure from academic life. After graduating from academia, this line of dual decision-making becomes omnipresent. It is also at this time that a legible fork in the road becomes highly visible.

What does this fork look like, you might ask, and where do the roads lead?

Speaking only from personal experience, watching myself and peers figure out our own “paths” post graduation, years later these roads continue to look like two different approaches to what I still hope will be a similar outcome.

The first is the pursuit of what might best be called a “set course,” inclusive of a decided upon career, place to settle, and ultimately—a multidimensional life comprised of what one might consider “predictable” decision making. In many ways this path is the foundation of American life in the mid 20th century; a time when pursuing a “stable” career and domestic bliss would lead to known “success” related to specific decisions and actions (some might still refer to this as one manifestation of “the American dream.”)

The second path, which seems increasingly popular in this mobile and global lifetime, looks more like a Robert Frost poem. “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”

Perhaps the first true millennial, Frost might have suggested that exploring a new path is a chance to explore and evolve, all the while not really knowing what the set outcome might be, but pursuing one decision to the next in order to find out.

At the precipice of my 30’s, I’m finding that the paths of the millennial generation, both “less” and/or “more” traveled, are beginning to converge (after a decade of what one might only describe as exciting divergence.)

While some of my contemporaries chose to settle into careers and family life shortly after school, they are now in many ways beginning their Frost-like journeys, having achieved success at an early age. Others continue to explore, waiting to see where they land. The majority, it seems, are still in the middle, starting to make decisions that might lead to less physical movement and a greater sense of investment in people and place, but all the while trying to stay cognizant of which way the scales his/her decisions might tip; short and long, present and future.

The IMPACT of Storytelling

aia atlantaI have been lucky enough to attend the AIA Convention for three years in a row now. Every Convention has a different theme with a general goal of improving, bettering and furthering the profession.

This year’s theme was IMPACT. We heard from President Bill Clinton on his work with the Clinton Global Initiative and the impact that architecture can have in developing innovative solutions. We also heard from Julie Dixon on the art of telling a story. This message resonated with me in a way that few messages have before. Not only is it important to tell a story when presenting a project or understanding a client’s needs and they way they use a building, but I see a place for storytelling in spreading the message about the value of architecture and how we get the public to understand what it is we do as architects.

ps_family_james-shanks-artspaceThe impact of how a house or a place is influences (positively or negatively) someone is much more effective than describing a “moment of two materials joining” or the “innovative structure” used to reduce impact. Julie Dixon describes storytelling as this:

“A vibrant storytelling culture means the difference between whether your organization has a living, breathing portfolio of different stories, from different perspectives, that share its impact—or just a single, somewhat stagnant story. It’s the difference between having one person in the organization dedicated to storytelling (whether that’s the CEO, development director, or head of communications) and everyone in the organization having compelling stories at their fingertips. And for many organizations, it’s the difference between investing in telling the organization’s story in a more compelling way—or not investing.”

jackson flatsStorytelling is much more than creative ways to share a project or an idea. Storytelling gets to the core of why we design great places in a way that everyone understands. For instance, Confluence Denver just wrote an article title “Three Ways to Keep Housing Affordable for Artists” The article describes a couple who has small children and needs a place to work on their art. They have found a great home in a live/work building, Artspace Jackson Flats. The article goes on to explain why the space is so great for the family and the work they do as well as the impact of the physical space. This article is not an architect speaking to the effectiveness of the design or the decisions that influenced the final parti. It is real human issues connected to a family that many people can relate to and just so happens to explain why they enjoy their home so much. And as we all know, they enjoy it because of the architecture and the care the architect took in designing this home.

jackson-flats_artspaceThe key is this: whom are you targeting for your message? We know our conversations are often insulated and difficult to understand. Today, try and think of one story and how you would share this with your mother or your best friend (assuming they are not in the profession). Speak to the importance of good architecture but relate it emotionally to your audience. It doesn’t need to be about changing the conversation, but about directing and connecting it to the right people.

Finally, go ahead and share your story! We have to be the ambassadors of the architecture story.

The Architecture of Creative Placemaking in Paris and Amsterdam

MainThis featured blog is written by one of the AIA AEF Scholarship winners, Frank Romero. He takes us through his journey to Paris and Amsterdam.


In September last year I travelled to Paris, France and Amsterdam on the 2014 Hobart D. Wagener Travel Scholarship.  I was in Paris, France for nine days and Amsterdam for five days.  I was awarded the scholarship because of my interest in Creative Placemaking within Cultural Art Districts abroad. I chose Paris because of its rich history in Art, Architecture, and Urban Design.  My reverence for the progressive Dutch Culture and Architecture took me to Amsterdam.

As a Denver citizen and young professional, I am excited about the growth of our relatively young city. I am inspired by the energy and vibe of the places in and around Art Districts, as they are often a melting pot for new ideas and creative thinking. In order to narrow my focus and not get too caught up in French baguettes, crepes, and berets, I narrowed my focused on the design in and around buildings and plazas that drew this creative crowd.  Once in these places I stole an idea from classic French films on how to look or examine a scene.  In French films, Mise en scène  is a technique used to composed a scene.  Directors use it compose all of the elements in film scene.  The physical objects, foreground, background, lighting, and angle of the camera.  By using this method I was able to sit in these environments and look for characteristics that made these places attractive.

8In Paris, I stayed in Montmarte, which is in the 18th arrondissement (neighborhood) up on the hill in the right bank. This is about a 15-20 minute subway ride from the Louvre.  Many great artists once lived and worked in this neighborhood and it still has the old Paris feel, with narrow streets and the infamous seven story buildings clad in buff colored limestone and patina copper roofs.  This area is also home to the Basilica of Sacre Coeur.  I rented out an apartment from a local Parisian and after long days touring the city I would stop at the local market or cafe and grab some food to eat.  Because my bank account was thin, I didn’t indulge in the fine French cuisine, but instead enjoyed cheap local spots.

As for the architecture in Paris, it’s hard not to be enamored by every building.  I frankly, enjoy modern architecture, but I have a deep respect for historical buildings and enjoy seeing old and new buildings being juxtaposed in space.  The Centre de Pompidou plaza, La Defense plaza, the Tuileries Jardin, the Seine River canal, Parc de la Villette, the Eiffle Tower Jardin, and small cafes are the place where I found this crowd of creative conversation happing.  Paris is such as big place, these plazas and open spaces offered a place where people could gather.

5In Amsterdam, I stayed with a local couple in their house on the west side.  I took mass transit and avoided the sea of bicyclists zooming across the city.  Amsterdam itself is a cultural melting pot, where a more liberal crowd can be found.  This in turn makes for some progressive ideas and architecture.  The new Eye Film Theatre and The Nemo Museum are an example of this.  There are also lots of new multifamily projects popping up all over the city and their forms are testing the traditional building typology.  I noticed a large amount of warehouse conversions, similar to what we see happening in RiNo district in Denver or Pearl district in Portland.

My agenda for the trip was to find places of Creative Place Making.  Looking back on my experience, these places where not in a distinct location, but often they were located around cultural buildings like museums and urban parks or plazas.  In a way the trip became more of an urban design study where most of these creative places where happening in urban nodes.  These nodes were at intersections of a transit and pedestrian collision around a plaza or building.  Lastly, a few of these places are found just outside of the city center, almost at the urban edge, where rents were cheaper and life is a bit grittier filled with artists and entrepreneurs.

7My experience traveling abroad was unmeasurable.  Being able to travel to these places was like walking through an Architectural History Course. The architecture and design that once seemed so distant is now much more tangible.   It was an inspiring trip of a lifetime.

-Frank Romero

Strength in Numbers

There are probably hundreds, if not thousands, of blog posts and articles offering advice for taking the Architectural Registration Exams. There are even more comments within ARE forums, which are great for broadcasting the wide spectrum of human emotions. This post will probably not be anything mind blowing for most reading it, but here goes nothing.

This past January my wife and I began studying for our first ARE and are planning on sticking to the same test schedule to go through this whole arduous process together. When I told people about this strategy, the reactions usually went one of two ways. The first reaction was a positive one with some form of, “that must be nice to have a constant study partner so you aren’t neglecting your significant other and have some one to go through it with”. The second reaction, which was much less common, would pose a question I was hoping to not answer very soon, if at all: what happens when one of you passes and the other one fails?

Unfortunately, I found out my answer to this question after the very first test that we took (CDS). I woke up to the always stinging “fail” grade on my NCARB page while my wife had passed. Neither of these developments was exactly unexpected or earth shattering, but it did present a new development to our studying strategy. While I was happy that she had passed, I couldn’t help but be dejected about my own shortcomings.
However, at some point later that morning, something had dawned upon me: the fact that I had not passed this test had almost zero effect on my day to day life other than the fact that I would have to re-study for that test at some point. I was still expected to perform at the office, I was still going to come home to my family, and my friends were still going to be my friends. Your life does not all of a sudden fall into shambles because of this one test. Having the support system of my wife helped me come to this realization (that and being stressed out at work and not being allowed the time to wallow in self pity).

When it comes down to it, having a support system around you while taking these tests is a tremendous asset. Whether that is with a family member, a friend, or even just a study group, surrounding yourself with people in a similar situation is often one of the best tools for pushing forward. Some people will argue that going it alone in focused solitude is best and that may be fine for them. This is simply a strategy that I have found to be greatly helpful for keeping things in perspective. After all, we all got through the hell that is architecture school and much of the reason that we were able to do that was because of the people that we gather around ourselves.

Since this first test, we have both taken and passed our second test (PPP) and have another scheduled in the coming weeks. After my initial shortcomings, having my wife and a handful of others at work has helped to keep me motivated and on track. If nothing else, having a person or group of people to bounce ideas off of, explain ideas that I don’t quite get the first time around, or to just act as a sounding board for unusually high stress levels is a great way to stay sane through this process.

That being said, please feel free to use the comment section of this post to help you relieve some stress from your day.

Revisiting Wright

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Many posts ago I eluded to a rather embarrassing moment in my career development, but never quite disclosed the full story.  Months later, an experience has prompted me to tell the story in-full, if only to set the scene for a recent trip I took with Knoll and several other local Denver designers to Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright’s winter home, studio, architecture school, and in many ways, complete Xanadu in the Arizona desert.

 So here goes…

If the diversity in age and educational background of my M.Arch class is any indication, it’s evident that a calling to become an architect finds people at many different ages and stages of life. From a 40-something former computer programmer to a 30-something friend that had studied medicine and law before deciding on architecture (rounded out with classmates including a physicist, mathematician, and environmental designer,) our past vocations and interests ran the gamut of possible professions and passions.

My calling to become an architect came twice. First, as a young child with a preference for building with blocks rather than Barbies, and consistently requesting that my parents and I go for walks to “look at houses.” Throughout school, when given an open-ended assignment, most of my papers were written on various architectural topics. From a research paper on Julia Morgan to a humanities project in which I “recreated” Frank Lloyd Wright’s sketchbook over a 10 year period, my love of architecture remained present throughout my academic development.

All this changed when I discovered school “politics.” After pursuing school president and working on some local political campaigns, around the time to apply to college I decided confidently on the George Washington University, where I might hone my skills in the sociopolitical sphere.

Fully accepted and with my first deposit in place, my family and I went on a last hurrah family vacation during spring break of my senior year. My parents had planned a great trip to Arizona- exploring Phoenix, Scottsdale, staying in a Frank Lloyd Wright hotel, and later exploring the stratified landscape of Sedona.

Where it all began...

Where it all began…

One stop on our vacation led us to Taliesin West. Fast forward from parking to sitting in the first stop on the tour; Frank Lloyd Wright’s personal studio. As a full group of about 25 people looked on, our youthful 80 year old docent began explaining the unique environment that Wright created. Several minutes into this speech I began to cry. Not quiet, muffled tears, but true, loud, ugly sobs.

In perhaps what might be one of the very few epiphanies I might have in this lifetime, all of my ambitions and aspirations to become an architect became apparent at this moment.

To the chagrin of my younger sister, and the beckoning calls of my mother that I was already accepted at GW and that I should not apply to the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, I left Taliesin with a complete change in mind and attitude regarding my future academic and professional course.

While I ultimately did not attend Wright’s school (and was consequently not required to build my own dwelling place first semester), I did end up pursuing art, art history, and English in college, all the while building a portfolio to attend architecture school on the graduate level.

Currently I have one more ARE and I will finally be allowed to say that I fulfilled a dream to become an Architect (with a capital A!) rooted in a meandering path and a powerful moment of understanding.

As you can imagine, given the opportunity to revisit Wright, I felt both trepidation and excitement. Would I feel sentimental, inspired, or-least desirable—underwhelmed? Having been taught to accept and give constructive criticism at a moment’s notice, would I feel critical of a place that at one time felt magical for reasons both tangible and inexplicable?

Thankfully upon experiencing a tour as an older version of my rather consistent self, I felt both the nostalgia I had anticipated, as well as a deeper connection to why the tour had been special the first time around.

The man himself...

The man himself…

While I am not a Wright zealot by any means, being in an environment entirely curated by one individual’s subscription to a specific way of life communicated through design still proved to be visually and conceptually fascinating, especially given the small chance a place like Taliesin could ever be realized in today’s society (building code alone would drastically change the aesthetics and proportions.)

Wright’s vision to create an environment that is school, residence, museum, not to mention a living laboratory that continues to facilitate experimentation and a special appreciation of nature, art, and culture remains highly relevant.  In most architecture studios today, these principles remain an important cornerstone in how designers think about thoughtfully integrating nature into the built world (and vice versa.)

As we drove to the airport from the landmark, I felt appreciative of the opportunity to see something of personal significance twice in my life, not to mention at vastly different stages of life. Not only was it a moment to reflect, but also a moment to acknowledge that for me personally, intuition and accepting life’s obvious and subtle cues remains an equally important part in decision-making as reason.

Something tells me Wright might agree.