Sometimes I wonder why I left behind a successful career in traditional architecture, where I got to design anything and everything from hotels and skyscrapers in Dubai, holiday houses on exotic islands for private clients, to speculative conservation projects on the Hauraki Gulf, social housing for the government in what little spec of unbuilt subdivision remains in Auckland’s center. It wasn’t always so glamorous of course and there were weeks where all I did was sit down and do flashing details for remedial work on leaky buildings. Admittedly, it was mostly fun; I was competent, and a designer in my own right. But then…
Let me take a step back. I stumbled across my old portfolio (which follows at the end of this rant) in the trusty cloud Google storage as I am also in the process of revamping my CV in anticipation of finding some paid work in the Bay Area. When you get a doctorate, nobody tells you about the giant abyss that exists between the highly regimented, if at times self-indulgent, years of academic research, and what happens once you get that degree in hand and you walk away with three additional letters after your name. They really ought to have a mandatory refreshers course for how to warm up to such a reality that sets in once you pass your viva voce. Fellow thesis supervisors out there, I hope you are listening. To my friends that are still laboring over your dissertation, the cat is out of the bag. If you are still a year or two from graduating, do set aside some time to figure out what you’re going to do after you submit your stack of paper soaked in your blood, sweat, and tears.
In other news, I spent the last weekend hunched over the coffee table scribbling love notes to everyone whom I am thankful for this holiday season. I immensely enjoy writing a small batch of personalized thank you notes year after year; a part of me always looks forward to it, because this private moment also affords me the opportunity to reflect on my past imperfections and to learn from what I have experienced through the year. For example, I spent the first eight months of this year seemingly suspended, as I searched high and low for ways to properly reroot myself in another country, and by that time I had become an expert of sorts in none other than the post-doctoral waiting game — waiting to get the date for oral defense, waiting for funding to be approved for a conference, waiting for papers to be accepted, waiting for the publisher to return my phone calls — because someone, somewhere must also be interested in publishing my book, right? But I digress. At dinner parties, I am the mysterious architect authoring a book on disaster relief. The point is, I spent much more time than I would like this year simply waiting, instead of doing. This is not to say that I have spent all my time waiting, no. As addicted as I am to making lists and plans some weeks in advance and actually following through on them (a habit which I taught myself during grad school and I’d go as far as saying that it’s worth going through the PhD program if for nothing else than just to teach yourself some more discipline – it has changed my life!), it’s led me to doing quite a few awesome things, things that are meaningful, definitely memorable, and well aligned with the vision I had exchanged my primary career in architecture for.
I am only where I am today because at 24 I formed a firm belief in creating my own path that few people had gone before me, which is living life according to a vision for the world beyond yourself. Call it a fantasy, a dream, a quarter century crisis, but here I am, still in it. Mine was a vision for the world where design is not a luxury, but a core skill that everybody can cultivate outside of architecture. A skill that can bring light to discussions, excite people, foster leadership, enable people to make better decisions. A skill that is participatory by default, and widely available. Ultimately, a skill that could make even a lay person go gaga over architecture once again. For me, to design is a basic human right. And good design is about having and cultivating multiple options to choose from. Perhaps in all those years somewhere at the back of my mind the real reason why I felt the UN’s Millennium Development Goals were not all that it was cracked up to be, and they in reality too were not as successful as they could have been is because in meeting those targets, the bottom 20-30% of the population that the goals were developed for were not given very many choices. Most of the last minute efforts in a hurry to meet some of those goals was a handout in disguise rather than a hand up. And the lack of ownership or input into decision-making are almost always closely followed by low compliance rates. I could go on, but that’s for another day.
The portfolio is very naughties (’00s), but still fun and quirky just as I’d remembered. I will now tell you a small secret: it was good enough for Mark Wigley!