Entry
Michael Bernard on Mentorship in Architecture

Michael Bernard on Mentorship in Architecture

Monday, March 08, 2010 | | Other Voices

“Recently, I spoke to a group of architecture students. We had just concluded a panel discussion on career alternatives to the traditional practice of architecture. I asked the students if they intended to pursue careers outside the familiar realm of traditional practice. Out of 30 students, 25 raised their hands.

I asked a second question: how many of the students intended to engage in the effort to obtain their architectural license? In response to this question, eight students raised their hands. As I see it, the future of the architectural profession is in the hands of these eight students – and three of those eight are “on the fence” about whether to pursue a career in architecture or to explore other professional options.”


Principals of small design firms face at least two challenges with respect to mentorship:

  • Finding the time to do it
  • Developing a mentorship network

The overriding question is: What will I gain from spending my time to mentor and train young architects?

Emerging professionals and seasoned architects face similarly daunting challenges, but from opposing points on the continuum of practice. Dismal employment prospects in a competitive job market see their counterpart on the practitioner’s side: the increasing marketing efforts required to land contracts.  Interns face ever-longer and more elaborate internship reporting, at the same time that firms are showing a diminishing interest in hiring licensed architects. Evolving technology requires training even in the absence of employment in order to remain relevant and marketable, and often the new software requires an understanding of building systems that entry-level designers simply do not possess. Firm owners are familiar with building systems but lack facility with rapidly evolving digital media. These conditions suggest that the continuity of professional knowledge is at risk.

If you're alone, who's going to anchor the rope when YOU need it?

Given the unpredictable nature of the economic recovery, firm owners face the daily challenge of maintaining a consistent backlog of work. This potential discontinuity at the firm level is similar to the situation confronting recent graduates and others who attempt to create continuity in their architecture careers. The obvious danger is that, faced with the prospect of long-term unemployment in their chosen profession, many individuals will choose to abandon architecture and to pursue careers in other fields.

Young Architects Are Seeking Non-Traditional Careers, Not Architecture

To preserve continuity, architects must pro-actively seek opportunities to mentor emerging professionals. Recently, I spoke to a group of architecture students. We had just concluded a panel discussion on career alternatives to the traditional practice of architecture. The panel was comprised of architects who had left architectural practice to pursue unique and non-traditional careers: jewelry-making, strategic workplace development, and information design.

I asked the students if they intended to pursue careers outside the familiar realm of traditional practice. Out of 30 students, 25 raised their hands. I asked a second question: how many of the students intended to engage in the effort to obtain their architectural license? In response to this question, eight students raised their hands. As I see it, the future of the architectural profession is in the hands of these eight students – and three of those eight are “on the fence” about whether to pursue a career in architecture or to explore other professional options.

Ways to Provide Mentoring to Young Architects

We need to remind ourselves of the value of strategic, pro-active mentoring, as a tool to provide continuity in our profession. But how and where do we find opportunities to be a mentor? How do we encourage young architects to seek a mentor? And what do I (and my firm) get out of all this voluntary good behavior?

It feels great to be at the top, and the glory is yours alone. But, then what?

Teach. Teaching is a very effective way to pro-actively and strategically mentor the next generation of architects. Of course, each of us is a teacher in everyday practice. But there is a critical need for experienced architects in the academic setting. If you do not hold an academic position, ask an academic colleague to integrate you in desk crits, on juries or on review panels. Investigate whether there are opportunities to teach at a local architecture school, university extension, or community college. Devise a topic of interest to young architects and present it at your local AIA chapter. In these settings, use the course(s) you teach as a means of communicating the importance of finding a mentor – and of fostering a mentorship network. The beauty of teaching is that we get to interact with the next generation of architects, learning what is important to them, how they perceive the profession, and hear what their professional goals are likely to be. Ask yourself, in the presence of the young designer, where they (and you) will be in ten years. In some cases, you will be working for them! So take time now to teach them the importance of rigor in design and management. You might find that the lessons you impart will be the platform for your own interaction with them in several years’ time.

Advise. Another strategy is to offer to serve in an advisory role to the groups or organizations in which interns and young architects participate, such as the Young Architects Forum. In California, the AIA California Council has developed the Academy for Emerging Professionals. Such groups offer the opportunity to mix interns and newly-licensed architects with experienced practitioners in a non-work setting. Advice and insights – from both ends of the experience spectrum – can be shared in a supportive and educational manner. The result can help to maintain continuity between generations of architects, both for those who wish to share a life of professional insight, as well as for those who seek insight into the career ahead of them.

Engage. Yet another approach is to organize career strategy roundtables for unemployed architects at your local AIA chapter. In San Francisco, AIASF hosts such roundtables twice a month. At any given meeting, the roundtable offers the opportunity to assess the current job market and to discuss interview strategies with other professionals who represent the spectrum of experience and age, discussing issues of contemporary practice. In a period where the luxury of a familiar work setting is absent, the roundtable has created a venue in which to discuss the profession.

Mentoring: What’s In It For Me?

What’s in it for me? What’s in mentorship for the seasoned architect? One benefit is the opportunity to see the future through interaction with the generation that will eventually take our places in architecture. Consider this a parametric model for mentorship – a two-way stretch that attempts to bridge the technical enthusiasm and savvy of the young with the design and construction experience of the mid-career architect.

The field itself is so vast that sometimes you need a team just to get back to tell the tale.

In your work, create the context for an exchange of ideas among and between different generations of architects. Our technology-driven profession is dynamic, fluid – and recognizably different from ten (or even five) years ago. The future of the profession, whether we discuss BIM, IPD, Revit, or other prominent trends of the moment, is in the hands of today’s interns and young architects. We have the opportunity to be mindful and present and to listen to the concerns of entry-level architects, to learn how they grasp and master digital technology concurrent with absorbing considerable complex building technology – as much as we offer them our own insights into practice. If we fail to do so, we run the risk of losing precious continuity between successive generations.

The profession’s very future relies on this continuity – and upon successful connection with emerging professionals. If we do not connect effectively with them or fail to provide institutional support, they will likely find creative expression in other fields. The loss of the next generation will be tragic, as it will hinder the architectural profession from developing in responsive new directions.

Michael S. Bernard, AIA
Director, AIA California Council
Architect-at-Large, Academy for Emerging Professionals, AIA California Council
Adjunct Professor, California College of the Arts, San Francisco

Be Sociable, Share!


About the author
 To change this standard text, you have to enter some information about your self in the Dashboard -> Users -> Your Profile box.


Tags: , ,

2 Responses to “Michael Bernard on Mentorship in Architecture”

  1. Jason

    22. Mar, 2010

    Thank you for laying out such great observations and stessing the seriousness of this issue. I completely agree that the conversation is not only about the future of our careers individually but also the future of the profession as a whole. There is a lot of work to do but I believe the first step has been taken.

  2. Michael Bernard on Mentorship in Architecture – http://bit.ly/9DuSTZ

Leave a Reply

Read previous post:
From Dubai to Haiti: Richard Best, Sustainable Architect

"A master plan has to take into account the natural and economic resources available in the region.…You have to think...

Close