Architectural Education as a Primer for Other Careers

Personal reflections of an architecture student turned filmmaker

There is a big question that hangs over architectural education: how well does it prepare students for a career in architecture? I studied architecture myself, but have subsequently pursued a career in a completely different profession. As such I am more interested in the question: How well does studying architecture prepare students for a career outside of conventional architecture practice? There is, of course, the question of where the focus of architectural training should be – purely vocational or a general arts degree? Another point to consider is how, armed with an architectural training and all that comes with it, graduates can continue to engage with the built environment through alternative career paths that lead away from conventional architectural practice.

I came to study architecture with no particular aspirations to necessarily be an architect, but because I thought it would be a good mix of creative and technical training. I completed my undergraduate degree at the Welsh School of Architecture, and then took a year-long placement in a medium-sized commercial practice, working mostly on education projects and the occasional car showroom. I then returned to Cardiff to complete my Master’s, graduating in 2014. During this time I also undertook two design and construction projects in East Africa with the architectural charity Orkidstudio, where I was commissioned to document the projects through film. It was upon returning from the second of these projects that I decided to pursue work as a freelance documentary filmmaker. Via many false starts and lots of trial and error I now work full time with a Cardiff-based production company, making films for a wide range of clients as well as working on factual TV programs.

When I am asked whether I think I wasted my time studying architecture given that I didn’t pursue it as a career, my answer is always categorically no. There are numerous transferable skills that I learnt during my degree that I use every day, whether that’s bits of software skills, the ability to sketch out ideas, or brief-writing for example. I think what’s more interesting and perhaps more widely relevant though are the less tangible skills that I learnt. These can be applied across almost any design or creative discipline, as outlined below:

Working to a brief – usually a written or verbal thing, understanding it and questioning it and then translating it into a different medium. Whether that is a building or a film, I think that it utilises the same bit of your brain.

Presenting and critiquing – Selling ideas to people. Being happy to share your work at any stage of completion, talk about it, and take feedback in the right way. And vice versa – being able to offer constructive criticism to others.

Collaborative working – Being an agent who works between different parties, translating your aims into different people’s way of thinking. Knowing when to listen to someone and when to make sure you get your point across.

Organisation and time management – There are often tight deadlines which means tasks have to be prioritised. Knowing when to drop something and to move on to the next thing and knowing when it’s good enough to leave.

Work ethic – an architectural degree seems to instil in most people an impressive work ethic, level of commitment and perfectionism that is well regarded in the professional world. I was never one for staying up all night, but I find it almost impossible to procrastinate ‘properly’.

Is architectural education as I experienced it then not focussed enough; is it too generic? A number of friends and indeed my partner, who work in architectural practice, frequently suggest that most of the skills they employ in practice have been developed since graduating, and that university didn’t fully prepare them for professional life. It would seem then that an architecture course needs to be more vocational whilst also catering for those people like myself who, in terms of their subsequent careers, benefit from the more general design training that an architectural education can offer. This balance is a conundrum that continues to have far higher word counts devoted to it than this piece can offer, but if I were to offer my two cents then I would put forward the following thoughts:

In many cases the unit or studio-based design project tries to emulate the form of project that you may deal with in practice, i.e. starting with a design brief and finishing with a design represented through drawings, models, etc, at a detailed design level. There is however an issue in that there are critical pieces of that process missing, such as the fact that because these projects are not seen through to construction, you are not developing a relationship with a real client, and you are not working with a wider design team to deliver the project. As someone starting out in their career, an architecture graduate is also highly unlikely to have sole responsibility for a project from conception to completion. I would suggest therefore that these academic projects should be more centred on engaging students in specific design tasks and learning outcomes, shorter in duration and scope, and focussing on specific aspects of design. These ‘charettes’ would provide the backbone of design training without piling on the immense pressure of the 3 to 6 month long design project. A further benefit could be gained through introducing collaborative aspects to these projects, working with peers from both the same discipline and others such as structural engineering and urban planning. Alongside this, faculties should do more to facilitate work placements from an early stage in university courses in order to expose students to the realities of architectural practice alongside their studies, rather than trying to emulate them in an academic setting. Not only would this start to equip students with the skills required for professional practice, but it would also enable them to weigh up their expectations of working in the architectural profession with its day-to-day reality. This in turn would enable them to make a more informed decision in their career choices after graduation, such as the size of practice, location, specialism in which they choose to work, or even if they want to work within the profession at all. Some universities, such as Bath, have course structures in place that follow a model similar to this one, but it would seem that they are still in the minority across UK schools.

The final point to be considered is how, having gained a qualification in architecture in whatever form that may have taken, a graduate can move forward into a career in the built environment outside of the realm of conventional architectural practice. Speaking personally, if I gained nothing else from my time studying architecture, I at least gained an appreciation and passion for issues surrounding the design of our cities, towns, homes and everything in between, which exerts a powerful influence over how I see the world every day. The closest analogy that I can think of is taking the red pill in The Matrix, but only realising it afterwards. Of the many students that leave university fuelled by this passion, a great number go on to work in architectural practices, inspired to effect great change through design. However, my fear is that it is incredibly hard to achieve these goals within conventional practice, as it is limited by the fact that the architect is providing a service to a client, beit a private homeowner or a multinational developer. Occasionally, the client may share the aspirations and vision of the architect, but ultimately the architectural aims need to serve the requirements of the client. I believe that architecture courses should do more to encourage students to consider how they may be best placed professionally to fulfil the particular passions and interests that they possess when leaving university. New modes of practice and disruptive technologies offer huge opportunities to engage and attempt to effect change in the built environment outside of conventional architectural practice. Examples that I have come across include apps designed to streamline the planning process, artist-led engagement projects that bring communities into the regeneration process, and city-wide activism to try and protect buildings of historical importance. I might note that all of these examples have taken place in Cardiff, and within the past year, and so presumably represent a microcosm of what is going on globally.

My architectural education equipped me with a wide range of skills that I employ every day as a documentary filmmaker. I also know plenty of other people who, having studied architecture, have gone on to excel in alternative careers. From my perspective, the most frequent bemoaning of architectural education comes from those working in architectural practice who claim to have been underprepared for the realities of the profession. There is an argument therefore that architectural education should expose students to the realities of conventional architectural practice in a more meaningful way, starting perhaps by encouraging work placements from an early stage and integrating opportunities for collaborative working and engaging with real clients and end-users. Finally, students should be encouraged to consider the myriad career opportunities in the built environment outside of the realms of conventional architectural practice, to give them the best chance of fulfilling that passion to effect change so often instilled by an architectural education.

Jonny Campbell is a documentary filmmaker, cameraman and editor based in Cardiff, and has worked on a number of award-winning productions with Welsh production company Copa Cymru. Jonny is an alumni of the Welsh School of Architecture having studied there between 2009 and 2014.

This article was first published in INVOLVED Special Issue on Architectural Education (March 2019). For more articles on the topic, you can purchase the issue through here.