December 17, 2021

Learn: Absorb knowledge like a sponge. Don't be a rock. (left photo by Pille R. Priske on Unsplash; right photo by USGS on Unsplash)

Relative to other industries, mentorship in architecture is scarce. Why? Let’s look at this from the viewpoint of a young architect. If a senior architect approaches the fresh-faced junior architect and offers, “I would like to mentor you. You would be my protégé.”

In many other fields, the young professional would be flattered by an influential industry leader taking him under the wing of mentorship. But not true in architecture. Why would some entry level architects find it demeaning? Is “protégé” such a bad word?

(illustration by Tumisa from Pixabay)

The junior architect may argue, “Protégé?! Me, a protégé of you?! I don’t need your guidance or mentoring.” And such comments of arrogance and disrespect would continue.

Our design education (here, here, and here) mothers us, inflating our self-worth. Like when an awful singer auditions for American Idol, and the judges cringe. Ignoring the rejection, the singer proclaims, “My mommy told me I am a great singer, so there!”

upper left: Luma Arles Arts Center, Arles, France, by Frank Gehry (photo by Baptists on Unsplash); upper right: East Building, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., by I.M. Pei (photo from pcf-p.com); lower left: Design Pavilion, 2010 Shanghai Expo, by BIG (photo by Iwan Baan); lower right: Beijing headquarters for CCTV Headquarters, Beijing, China, by Rem Koolhaas (photo by DuKai/Getty Images)

It comes down to ego, youth, and naivete. When a legendary Pritzker-awarded architect completes a major new project, say a billion-dollar museum or civic center, immature architects are so ready to pounce, armed with nothing more than attitude and contempt. With no experience, no awards, and not much of completed projects other than their uncle’s kitchen renovation, these no-name fledging architects are already commenting negatively, as if they could have done better. They are instilled with so much confidence that it borders dangerously on superiority. And they say:

Frank Gehry? His work is all the same,”
I.M. Pei? Predictable corporate stuff,”
BIG? Cartoonish architecture,” or
Rem Koolhaas? He doesn’t even design the work anymore.”

And so on and so on. Sure, juvenile architects are entitled their opinion, even their condescending know-it-all opinions, but such hyperbole reaches levels of absurdity and delusion—to think they are better than architects 50 years their senior.

Gary Cooper as Howard Roark, The Fountainhead (1949)

At the crux of the demise of mentorship is this delusion, this self-aggrandization. If you think you know the ins and outs of an entire city at the bushy-eyed, fuzzy-tailed age of 25, then you don’t need a tour guide, GPS, or any kind of map. If you hold national design awards and have completed 100 projects of which many have graced the covers of magazines, then okay, you might not want to be mentored by an accomplished individual. But if all you have done is graduate college, in the process of getting your state license, completed a handful of minor projects, and are a literal struggling architect, then perhaps you should accept the guidance, training, and leadership of those that have come before you.

Yoda and Luke Skywalker in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

The success of a mentee is to be like a sponge, and be comfortable, excited actually, in such an open-minded position. Don’t be a stubborn rock. Don’t be a jerk when someone offers to help you.

lightbulb (photo by Riccardo Annandale on Unsplash)
© Poon Design Inc.