Written by: Kamil Shah, Executive Contributor
Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise
When mentioning Architecture, images of flamboyant structures, skyscrapers or Renaissance buildings come to mind. Like many other design disciplines, Architecture is not only a reflection of the freedom of social and cultural psyche, it can actually be used as a tool of influence (think Totalitarian Architecture).
Architecture has played a vital role in not only my professional development, but more importantly in my personal growth. I have to admit, the journey through Architecture education and practice was one filled with joy and challenges. A mix of curiosity, excitement, energy and sacrifices along the way. It has taught me profound life lessons, and if I could re-write my journey, I would not want to change a single line from the story. Architecture has enriched my life and changed the way I approach it.
This article will explore the key lessons that Architecture has taught me, and I hope that it will be of great use in its application in your life as it did in mine.
Lesson #1 : Architecture taught me to be more curious and remove my obsession with pre-conceived ideas.
One of the toughest (but most valuable) lesson I’ve learnt from my Architecture education came in the form of a ‘shock-and-awe’ scenario. Yes, I was shocked, and I was awed, not so much by the fact that it was one of the greatest lessons I would have learned, but more so by the audacity in the way in which it had happened. Let me explain.
I had just sat down with my supervisor for a meeting to examine my work of a physical scale model of architects Herzog & De Meuron’s ‘Stone House’ in Italy. It was something which I had put a good amount of time and energy into, and labored over a couple of weeks to make. It was just perfect (so I told myself!). Half way through the session, my supervisor was silent and observed the model from different angles. He paused.
What he did next formed one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learnt not only in Architecture, but in life. He reached out to the model, lifted it, and placed it in the waste basket next to me.
Yup. It happened. A few weeks work literally in the bin. He turned to look at me, flustered, and said ‘Sorry, I can’t think, I had to throw that away’. As you might imagine, I was crushed. I needed answers! Why?!
After the dust had settled, I got my answers. My supervisor sat me down and explained that what I had produced was a mere direct representation, a copy, of the design. It did not allow me to express my true thoughts and interpretation of the real building. It kept me in my comfort zone by not allowing me to be curious enough in questioning and interrogating the concepts and ideas that went into designing the building. Yes, I had created a piece which I was proud of, but it lacked me questioning every single detail of the building. By being curious and engaged in continual questioning, I would have found my own answers, which would allow me to be more creative in interpreting the building by my own accord.
Now, looking back, the simple lesson of being curious opened up a whole new world to me. The lesson here is that curiosity has questioning at the heart of it and in doing so allows us to be more creative in our thinking and our own self-expression.
Lesson #2 : Architecture taught me the beauty of repetition as the mother of all personal masteries.
There’s beauty in repetition. Repeating a design element in architecture may have some practical basis to it. Imagine the repeated Greek columns (say the Parthenon in Greece) and their equivalent in our modern buildings. The columns are designed as a result of a practical need to support the beam, which in turn supports the floor or roof above. However, if they were replicated over and over again beyond the actual structural need, the design takes on a different meaning. A ‘forest’ of columns may evoke a different experience in a building. Similarly take the Spanish Steps in Rome as an example, with its repeated steps ascending to the Trinità dei Monti church at the top.
Something magical happens when a normal element like a column, a step or even a baluster is repeated to emphasize a bigger and stronger design concept. This creates a lasting impression in one’s mind. It becomes more striking. Repetition makes things more memorable.
This idea of repetition, of doing something over and over again, is so relatable in the way I live my life.
From the smallest things (such as making coffee), to the biggest (such as the way we learn), our habits are developed through the repetitive actions we have, either consciously or subconsciously. If we understand its true potential, repetition has the power to create personal mastery in any aspect of our lives (think Daniel’s ‘wax on wax off’ scene in Karate Kid). From physical health (e.g. what we eat and how we exercise), to mental health (e.g. developing a mindful routine), to even the way we learn (remember that thing about making things memorable?); repetition can be seen as the mother of all personal masteries.
Lesson #3 : Architecture taught me the wonder of creating models to live by.
Back in the day, making physical scale models was a major part of Architecture education and practice. Digital models and fly-troughs have somewhat replaced this over time but the idea still holds the same. Making a model translates the concepts and ideas of the proposed building into a form which can be seen as a three-dimensional representation before it is actually built. I actually loved making these models. It was a first step in turning an idea into reality.
In fact, I would begin with making the model first and then work out how to draw it! It just suited me better as I could immediately translate the ideas into reality much quicker. It avoided me getting bogged down by the technicalities involved when drawing the building and allowed my creativity to flow better.
In a similar way that making three-dimensional scale models allows one to physically see the building before it is constructed, researching and understanding existing models (for example business models) allows for an insight into the ideas and thoughts that went into the building and application of that system.
Looking at models as lived out by past and present entrepreneurs, for example, allows one to become a third-party observer of the methods, successes and lessons learnt from their time. It allows the learning curve to be reduced by understanding and adopting the methods and avoiding the potential pitfalls made by others. Depending on your definition, a model is not quite a ‘copy’. Rather, I see the idea of ‘modelling’ others as a form of understanding of a system and re-interpreting it uniquely in a more personal way. Simply put, model what works!
Lesson #4 : Architecture taught me the power of self-expression.
As one of the key disciplines of design, Architecture not only plays a fundamental role in cultural expression but also of a particular time or era. The design expression of buildings provides a record of the spirit, value and technology of cultures through the ages. What’s more fascinating is to see the movement of these expressions across geographies as other cultures adopt similar styles as its own (e.g. the influence of earlier styles like Renaissance and Gothic Architecture to Modern, Post-Modern and High-Tech Architecture). Architectural style of a certain era is guided by the availability of technology of the time as well as stylistic design expression. Essentially, Architecture can be seen as a three- dimensional expression of nations, encapsulated in a particular building or a group of buildings (e.g. a town or city).
Similarly, the freedom of expression offered by Architectural design can be adopted in the way we live our lives. What particular values do we hold dear and how do we express them? In a global society, what would our personal brand be? How do we express them and how do we value those of others? Looking back at our lives, it would be most interesting to observe how our values at the time and vision for the future may or may not have changed over the years. Truly, the expression of our thoughts translates into the creation of the physical reality in which we live in.
Lesson #5 : Architecture taught me that ‘Less Is Truly More’.
Architect Mies van der Rohe said it best when he described that we can accomplish more with less. The famous ‘less is more’ quote originated from his efforts to distil buildings and their components into simple forms, expressing the beauty of art and technology. In an age where we are now able to consume more than ever, and that everything seems to be at our finger tips, having ‘more’ doesn’t necessarily mean that we accomplish more. At times, having ‘more’, especially choices, can be crippling in deciding and moving forward. The inability to choose and focus on what is important can lead to ‘analysis paralysis’. Having less is, at times, a better situation to be in. It simplifies our choices and allows us to be more focused on what matters. Achieving simplicity, however, is not as easy as it sounds.
Systems which seem simple at face value tend to have a more complex undertaking. It takes great effort to make something simple look and operate effortlessly (think of the very first iPhone). To lead a simple life is far from easy and takes a lot of work and dedication. It is so much easier to carry a lot of ‘baggage’ with us (be it materialistic or emotional) and more difficult in confronting, dealing and coming to terms with them so that we can be truly free.
As Earl Shoaff said ‘Every day stand guard at the door of your mind’. Why? Because it is easier to let everything (good and bad) through the door, but takes effort in letting only the right ones in. Avoiding the superfluous and excesses can also help us move our focus away from the distractions to becoming more aware of the simple things that currently exist in our lives. We can also begin to develop a sense of gratitude when we realize that what we think of as ‘less’ is actually ‘more’ than what we actually need.
Lesson #6: Architecture taught me the value of the experiential journey.
Memory plays an instinct role in Architecture. Our association with the built environment is one that starts and ends with us as human beings. From the day we were born to our very last day, we have a relationship with Architecture. As one of the basic necessities of life, shelter allows us to moderate the external forces of mother nature for our survival. However, Architecture is more than just shelter. It is a physical expression of how humans thrive, and as part of that expression, comes memory associated with Architecture.
A house becomes a home through the memories and emotions contained within its different spaces. As one grows, so does the home. There can be great emotional attachment associated with the home, as for some, it is more than just the four walls and a roof over their heads. It embodies a lifetimes’ memories, reflects the sacrifices made and is a legacy to be shared and passed on to the next generation. This is why to detach oneself from the home (for example either through a sale or at the unfortunate event of it being destroyed), can be a painful experience.
Looking at the home (and Architecture) as an integral component of life, provides a useful reminder at how fleeting our relationship with it can be. It calls for us to be more present and to take a moment of reflection to soak up the surrounding spaces and atmosphere.
Isn’t it amazing how re-visiting old spaces can bring back a flood of memories?
If you get the opportunity to re-visit a building you were fond of in the past (for example a previous home or café), try to take a moment and engage all your senses. What do you see now that you hadn’t before? How has your view of things changed or do they appear the same as they did many years ago?
The spaces may appear much smaller now as you’ve grown.
What about the smell? The timber varnish of the wooden floor or even the leather seats. And what about the sounds that you can hear? The unique creaking of the steps as you walk up the stairs or recalling how you would skip two or three steps as you would race down them as a child.
What about the touch of the timber balustrade as you walk up the stairs, or the cold marble kitchen counter top? And finally, remember the warmth of the space around the place itself.
Architecture truly allows one to value their experiential journey as they grow through life.
Lesson #7 : Architecture taught me the value of empathy.
I have to say that Architecture training, like many other professional training (say Law or Medicine), is not for the faint-hearted. It demands long hours for the various modules, courses and design work. This dedication and commitment doesn’t end once one enters professional practice. A key thing that Architecture has taught me is to develop a much deeper understanding in human behavior. Design is subjective and being that, it is highly dependent on interpretation of the viewer (or user as in the case of Architecture). The design of a space may evoke different feelings from different users, and brings with it different points of views and critiques.
Architecture has taught me the value of being appreciative to positive feedback, and also become more resilient to criticisms. It has allowed me to value and celebrate success when the intended concept for a building is well received by its users, but has also allowed me to develop more empathy when faced with disapproving commentary (for example on the style or function of the building). This skill has made a significant impact in my personal growth especially when understanding that we do not have control over other people’s opinions, but we do have control in how we respond to them.
This then leads to the understanding that for the most part, people are seeking to be understood but can struggle to express their opinions constructively. Knowing this, we are able to approach the conversation in a more constructive manner.
Architecture has taught me a lot of things and the lessons I’ve learnt from this great discipline goes beyond my professional development. It has shaped my personal development in translating the education I’ve received most notably in:
Lesson #1 : Removing the obsession with pre-conceived ideas
Lesson #2 : Beauty of repetition as the mother of all personal masteries
Lesson #3 : Wonder of creating models to live by
Lesson #4 : The power of self-expression
Lesson #5 : Less Is Truly More
Lesson #6 : The value of the experiential journey
Lesson #7 : The value of empathy
These are priceless life lessons and hopefully they will be of great value for you as they were for me.
Kamil Shah, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine
Coming from a professional background in design, Kamil previously practiced in both the Education & Corporate Sectors. One life-changing event in his 20s saw Kamil's life plummet from having a progressing career in design, to living on $2 a day virtually overnight. This painful experience has taught him valuable lessons in Life, which he has used advantageously in regaining his feet and ultimately achieving Personal and Professional Success. He now shares his experience and knowledge in helping others achieve their own success through bringing on their own Personal Genius.