I need to dispel some myths about what makes someone a good architect.

Countless times people have said to me, “I always wanted to be an architect.” And when I ask them why they didn’t follow up on that desire the typical answer is, “Because I’m not good at math.”

Now while math is certainly a part of architecture, it is really only a small part. Many of my colleagues will argue with me, but I believe if you can count to 12 — as in, “there are 12 inches in 1 foot” — you know a lot of the math that’s required to be an architect. To reduce what will be a life-long vocation to, “I’m not good at math,” misses the point of what architecture is, reducing it to a concrete equation, and removing the poetry and the individual creative person from the story.

When I talk to architects who employ our students and ask them if it’s going well, they respond with four qualities that lead to success: the individual is smart, the individual is hard-working, the individual can draw by hand, and the individual is curious about all aspects of architecture no matter how big or small.

Of these four, “smart” and “hard working” are at some level true for all jobs. The third, “drawing by hand,” is a skill anyone (yes, anyone, including you) can learn; it simply takes practice, practice, and more practice.

But the fourth quality of being “curious” is not something that can be easily taught. If people have a high level of curiosity about their built environment, then they want to understand it, and they want to put that understanding to work to bring about change.

Architecture can be thought of as a balance between the creative and the technical. In many ways it is a balance of our right-brain and left-brain.

left-right brain

An architect needs to be able to imagine the possibilities of what could be (right-brain), but also needs to want to understand what it will take to bring those possibilities to reality (left-brain). As in any balance, the scale may favor one side over the other, and an architect may be more right-brained or more left-brained, more artistic or more technical.

There is no single, perfect combination of these aspects that leads to the good architect. Rather, within the vast field of architecture, we find practitioners of various abilities, talents, and interests, yet most can find a place across that range to affect change.

Digital photography of the Architecture program at the University of Maine at Augusta.

Digital photography of the Architecture program at the University of Maine at Augusta.

I believe the characteristic of curiosity — specifically, a curiosity about our collective built environment — to be one key to what makes a “good architect.”

If you look at an empty lot and wonder what could be done with that space to improve the community … you might be a good architect.

If you look at existing buildings and contemplate why certain proportions feel more “right” and want to understand how to reproduce them in your own work … you might be a good architect.

If you see rainwater rushing down a street, and wonder how that water might be collected to support the people living in the very houses it is rushing past … you might be a good architect.

If you’re interested in the spaces that we humans inhabit, and how those spaces affect our interactions and relationships … you might be a good architect.

If you are willing to work hard, explore the world around you, never get tired of learning, are excited by solving problems both big and small on a daily basis … then you might make a good architect.

Eric Stark teaches and coordinates the architecture program at UMA, where he has been for the past 10 years. Professor Stark also maintains a small architectural practice in Portland doing residential and institutional work. His research includes community partnering, the use of diagram in architecture, and furniture design.

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