Becoming an amateur architect?
June 21, 2011 11:14 AM   Subscribe

How do I take my interest in architecture to the next level without going to architecture school or going pro?

So far I've been content reading about architecture. I would like to get more engaged, purely for my own amusement, without going pro. I'm thinking maybe be able to learn the basics of the trade, how to conceptualize ideas (sketching, working in 3D) and other basic stuff.

How can I learn these things without going to architecture school? Please recommend a road map, literature, courses, tools or just anything else you seem fit for the education of an amateur architect who probably romanticize the profession too much :)
posted by Foci for Analysis to Education (17 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Do you live in a big city? A city big enough to have walking tours, ideally architectural walking tours that might need summer tour guides? As well as the training that you'd get out of that (from most such organizations, anyway) you'd be building a network of other architecture enthusiasts.
posted by aimedwander at 12:17 PM on June 21, 2011

Best answer: Community Colleges will offer classes like this (assuming you're in the U.S.) -- mine offers fundamentals of architectural drawing, freehand arch drawing, CAD drafting for archies, history of architecture, etc.

And yes, seconding the walking tours and other tours (bus, boat, bike, etc.). Go on them, and, if you can, become a "docent" for them. They're interesting, fun, you'll learn a lot. Many bigger cities (and plenty of smaller ones) have an architeture foundation of some sort -- they may run the walking tours! -- where you could get involved. Many local libraries have a local architecture collection of some sort with information and documents relating to important local buildings/houses and typical local building styles.

My friends who are architects are pretty generous about enabling my nerding out about architecture. If they have particularly good floor plans to hand they'll even invite me special to look at them. :) They're usually pleased someone is curious about bathroom arrangement in public buildings or ductwork in a historic renovation.

Depending on where you live, there may be local blogs on local architecture, etc. One of the things I love about Chicago is that everyone from the Streetwise vendor to the millionaire commodities trader all have STRONG AND STRENUOUS OPINIONS on Chicago's architecture and you can strike up a random conversation on the street about whether there should be a spire on Trump's tower or whatever. And EVERYONE will have a educated opinion about it. That is a good city in which to be an architecture nerd as everyone thinks it's a totally normal thing to be nerdy about.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:26 PM on June 21, 2011

Find a program that architects use to do layouts (rhino, cad? I have no idea).

Learn it. (because you can learn anything on the internet)

Then build yourself a model city. That would give you some sort of hands on action, and a way to learn by trial and error and have fun with it.
posted by Vaike at 12:31 PM on June 21, 2011

To do what Vaike suggests, maybe download Google SketchUp. It's not ideal, but the controls/usage in general is fairly typical of 3-D software and it's free.
posted by aimedwander at 12:35 PM on June 21, 2011

Best answer: Oh, PS -- Blair Kamin, who covers architecture for the Chicago Tribune, is a really accessible architecture critic. His longer pieces on specific buildings are awesome, but he also has a frequently-updated blog here. I have learned a lot from reading him, and he doesn't assume you have any special knowledge or encyclopedic background.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:35 PM on June 21, 2011

Best answer: I've been beaten to the punch re: volunteering, but I'll add my own experience as a fellow frustrated architect: It's a different kind of hands-on, but do consider volunteering as a docent at a nearby historically significant house. Chances are good that there will be some training that covers a lot of different aspects of the house (history, building decisions, alterations, architectural significance, etc.) so that you can give tours of the house and answer questions yourself.

It's a great way to spend a whole day in a structure most people only get to see fleetingly, and you'll probably get to see parts of the house not open to the public. You may also get opportunities to privately tour other structures; when I was a docent at the Ennis House (Frank Lloyd Wright's last concrete block house) we got to tour the Millard House (his first concrete block house) with Wright's grandson.

On the actual design/construction front, It's been a very long time since I played any 3D shooters but I used to really enjoy building custom levels for Quake 3 arena. I forget the name of the construction tool but it was free, and I'm sure there are equivalents for the newer platforms. It was a little lighter-weight than learning a full-blown CAD system, and the effort/reward balance was just right for me. It's very satisfying to construct and light a space, and be able to run around in it even if you aren't playing shoot-em-up.
posted by usonian at 12:36 PM on June 21, 2011

Decades ago, I took a course called something like "Energy Efficient Building Design." It's the only remotely architecture-related learning I've ever done, but it has proven to be the single most useful course I've ever taken, aside from learning reading and arithmetic. You'll be living in some kind of shelter all your life; your life will be lots more comfortable if you understand the basics of how energy works in buildings.
posted by Corvid at 12:40 PM on June 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Can you define "more engaged" for the purposes of this question? Do you just want to know some background on how the profession operates and be a knowledgeable afficionado, or do you actually want to design stuff?

The first thing to note is that the architectural profession requires a license, in the same way that building contracting and law do. To call yourself an "architect", you must meet your state's requirements for licensing, which typically include a certain amount of time worked or in school, possibly documentation through the IDP process, and passage of the Architectural Registration Exam, which has seven parts administered separately. Some states require a certain level of degree, typically ending with Arch, so you'd either have a bachelor's or master's in architecture (as opposed to a bachelor of science in architecture, like I have). Without meeting those requirements, you're at best a "designer", and are limited to designing simple single story residential buildings unless you can enlist an architect or structural engineer to provide stamped drawings for something more complex, or you work in a firm on projects that are primarily designed by others and reviewed by any number of licensed architects in the firm - this is the normal path to professional practice that most architects follow for the first 10 years or so of their careers. So, long story short, you either go pro or you can't call yourself an architect, and there are legal ramfications for doing so if you're not qualified.

If you just want to get acquainted with designing buildings, Sketchup would be a good thing to just play around with. You can mess around with spatial stuff, not really have to worry about codes and structural stuff, and get into detailing and rendering (i.e. making the drawings look pretty) if you get really involved.

For educational materials, a good starting set of books would include Form, Space, and Order by Frank Ching, So You Want to be an Architect, and some sort of history book - I used Trachtenberg and Hyman when I was in school. If you want to get a rudimentary, simple look at how buildings are actually built and why, Building Construction Illustrated by Frank Ching is also pretty good. I've seen a book around called 101 Things I Learned in Architectural School, which seemed decent but was about half useful info and half jokey things.

Most people that tell me they've always wanted to be an architect seem to have very little idea what the profession actually entails on an everyday basis, so I'm going to be a jerk and assume the same about you. There's a lot of code research, calculations, budgeting and just plain production work that needs to be done in order to get a building built. What most people think of as "designing" occupies maybe 5% of our time on a good day. A few months ago, I spent a week going through a 300 page insurance report on what was in a building that suffered a fire so that we could put back the same things that were in there previously. I've spent quite a bit of time designing parking lots, with alternative designs in case the first option didn't work. etc.

If I have time later, I can write up some sort of walkthrough for doing a building in my home town, complete with links.
posted by LionIndex at 12:42 PM on June 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Architectural professional here.

I don't mean to burst your bubble, but the architectural field actually contains very little designing. It's a lot of paperwork, working within the constraints of building code, and dealing with contractors and client demands. If you're lucky, you get to work on a cool project where you have time to detail out a feature wall, or have a wealthy client who wants you to make their home a design piece. Unless you are a super-famous architect, these projects are few and far between. The basics of the trade, as you say, are boring and tedious.

That said, there's no reason why you can't pursue your interest in design. Design is exciting!

If you want to learn how to sketch, take a life drawing class. You may not be interested in drawing naked people, but it will help you develop your eye and you'll learn about basic drawing materials. Practice sketching every day. Draw buildings and furniture. The above-mentioned class in freehand architectural drawing sounds like a great idea. If you want to learn to work in 3D, take a package design class. Photography is an excellent way to develop your eye for three dimensional form as well. THEN start looking at actual architectural design courses.

I'll disagree with some people in the thread and say do NOT bother with learning AutoCAD or 3D modelling programs: they are drafting tools and will not teach you anything about design or architecture or how buildings are put together. You need to develop your eye and learn to draw before you need a good tool with which to draft.

If you haven't already, read A Pattern Languagee. Read Thompson's On Growth And Form. It's a classic biology book that emphasizes the roles of physical laws, math and mechanics in the transformation of biological life; many principles in the book apply to architecture and design in general.. Read Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. And read Francis Ching! Architecture: Form, Space, and Order, Architectural Graphics, and A Visual Dictionary of Architecture are all fabulous.
posted by Specklet at 12:46 PM on June 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

On preview: what LionIndex said!
posted by Specklet at 12:47 PM on June 21, 2011

Following on what LionIndex and Specklet said, a book that helped me get over most of my lingering "wish I'd studied architecture" pangs of regret in my mid-20s was Architect? A Candid Guide to the Profession. It delves into the less glorious aspects of architecture-as-career... the last edition was 1998 so parts might be a bit out of date, but I expect that many aspects of the architect/client/contractor dance haven't changed much since antiquity.
posted by usonian at 12:57 PM on June 21, 2011

In addition to Google Sketchup, there are free trial versions of design software available:ArchiCAD and AutoCAD. If you are a student or you have access to an academic account, you can extend your trials for up to a year.

In the meantime, check out some cool architecture sites, like Death by Architecture or Bustler. These sites often advertise free architecture ideas competitions, meaning that they are open even to amateurs. This would be a great way to learn about the field while making active contributions.

Do you live close to a university? If so, can you sit in on lectures or audit a class? What exactly do you plan on doing as an "amateur architect"?
posted by nikayla_luv at 1:12 PM on June 21, 2011

Response by poster: aimedwander and Eyebrows McGee, I haven't thought about architectural walking tours at all. Although being a guide for one of them doesn't work for me right now - mainly because lack of knowledge - I think I will hang on to the idea for the future. I could, however, definitely go on one of these!

usonian, oh, I have definitely thought about using a game development tools to do prototyping. I am a programmer so coding isn't an issue. I imagine that there are toolkits for rapid prototyping that are very visual. I tried Sketchup some years ago but I'll give it another try. I've read some of the literature that you've suggested but I'll look into Building Construction Illustrated. Right now I'm reading A Visual Dictionary of Architecture and 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School because they're pretty hands on. The walk-through that you mention would be incredibly generous and appreciated but please don't stress yourself because of me.

LionIndex, I want to emphasis that I do not want to become an architect (hmm, should not have used the term amateur architect). I just want to know enough about the profession to be able to sketch/prototype buildings, be able to analyze buildings in-depth, etc. This is purely for fun as a hobby. So I guess this is more about me scratching an itch and being a "designer" than an (amateur) architect.

Specklet, gotcha regarding the architect vs designer thing. I'm not planning to start using any 3D modeling tools right away, because honestly I don't ace the fainest idea what to do or how to do it. But eventually I would like to fool around with these tools because they seem so much fun. Thanks for the literature recommendations; Ching is indeed awesome (I'm reading A Visual Dictionary... right now).

Thanks for all the great suggestions and sharing your own experiences.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 1:52 PM on June 21, 2011

Small towns and large cities both have a surprisingly large number of commissions, advisory boards, and other voluntary groups that deal with historical preservation, plan review, downtown redevelopment, and every other aspect of physical and social design. Usually the key requirement is to be a local citizen and to have at least a passing knowledge of the issues involved. There's no better way to learn the realities and compromises of design in the real world, plus those groups often have real power.
posted by Forktine at 3:13 PM on June 21, 2011

a big part of design (which, as noted, is a small part of architectural practice) is explaining and defending your ideas. You should look around for lectures by architects, to see how they talk about their projects. If you happen to live in a college town where they have an architecture program, find out when they have critiques and see if you can stand quietly in back while the students defend their work. Remember that it's (relatively) simple to have ideas that seem great in your head, but much harder to convince a reluctant client to shell out $$ or a critical review board to approve a design. As an amateur, of course, you may never submit your own work to this kind of critical forum, but if you ever get the chance to, you should: criticism clarifies the ideas in your mind, weeds out the weak stuff and tells you what is really worth pursuing.
posted by Chris4d at 4:56 PM on June 21, 2011

Best answer: After a 15 year career in Literature teaching, I left to study Interior Design at a serious art School - it is the right amount of architecture for a new person, with some CAD work and, for me most interesting, lots of learning about building materials. There are very few frou-frou cushion scattering decorating units in serious Interior Design courses - the focus in very much on the materials, space-planning, 3D visualisations and communicating your concept. I especially liked the materials study, design history and making models. [Making models is a great way to get to know about buildings]

Also, for me the experience of doing my own building projects has been the biggest teacher about materials, drafting, schedules, gant charts etc. Have you got a friend having a house built or work done? I regularly dropped into a friend's building site in the early mornings on my way to work, and learned a lot. I often do this instinctively when I see a new build in my neighbourhood, watching the processes and their schedule. I also helped redesign friends' renovations - kitchens, bathrooms, cabinetry, external decks etc while I was doing my course. Can you hang around with a Project Manager from time to time?

I'm now writing about architecture which is a great balance for me. As specklet said above, there is a lot of office work that I feel puts me off taking the leap into a proper Design job. Although it is fun to use SketchUp [I use it all the time] Photoshop and Archicad I don't think I could do it all day in an office. The design course gave me the fundamentals and I feel much more confident talking about buildings and understanding what I am seeing when I look at buildings I admire.
posted by honey-barbara at 4:29 AM on June 22, 2011

Best answer: There are some good blogs and forums out there, some I check religiously. In america you have a very good website called Archinect which was recently spruced up and now looking very nice. They have regular news features, a series of school blogs and a very active forum. Think it would be easy to find something interesting and not too esoteric there. Another nice website is Dezeen, which is more generally about design, but features a mix of the wacky and iconic, and sometimes more traditionally minimalist stuff, all of which makes good eye candy/inspiration.

Finally it sounds like you just want to play and models are the best for that, whether digital or real world, except real world models are lot more immediately satisfying. Rather than suggesting any particular modelling material though I think getting some 1:100/1:200/1:500 scale models of people, cars and trees to play with around the house and randomly juxtapose against existing stuff would be way more fun.
posted by doobiedoo at 6:28 AM on June 26, 2011

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