At least once a year, some bright-eyed young student calls me up and, either out of academic compulsion or actual interest, asks to interview me about the architectural profession.

I can never say no to these requests, because I had to do the same thing when I was in school. But as much as I try to put a happy face on my profession, when our little chat is over, these kids always seem to leave a bit discombobulated, their image of the architect suddenly not so much "Fountainhead" as Mr. Potato Head.

It’s certainly not my intent to disenchant them. It’s just that many people’s preconceptions about the architectural profession are pretty far from reality.

The romantic myth of the architect is that of a brilliant loner at the drawing board, conjuring poetic designs with dramatic sweeps of the pencil. And, truth be told, architects seem perfectly happy to sustain this notion: When Frank Lloyd Wright was asked where his creations came from, for example, he mischievously replied, "I just shake them out of my sleeve."

Yet nowadays, even among the relatively few architects in a position to design entire buildings, the artistic aspect of the profession comprises only a small fraction of the job. The rest is gobbled up in researching building codes, producing working drawings (the "blueprints" of yore), hewing to voluminous civic design restrictions, keeping clients happy, and not least scaring up enough work to pay the bills.

The majority of architects, however, don’t end up in solo practice at all, but rather go to work for larger firms where they seldom get to shake much of anything out of their sleeves. At best, they may design certain bits of buildings, while at worst they’ll be relegated to writing specifications or some other less-than-artistic pursuit.

Money, or the lack of it, is another thing that shakes up these students. Among the professions that require both schooling and a rigorous licensing process — medicine, law, engineering and the like — architecture is by far the least lucrative. According to U.S. Department of Labor statistics for 2006-07 (which predate the current economic malaise, mind you), architects earn an average salary of $69,760.

This is nothing to sneeze at, but given the academic requirements, it’s nowhere in the league of physicians (average yearly income: $142,220) or lawyers ($113,660). It’s even quite a bit less than the $81,750 average pulled down by our nearest colleagues, engineers.

Faced with the prospect of enduring four or five years of college, three or more years of internship, and 30-odd hours of examinations, this is not necessarily the kind of payback young people have in mind.

Given these realities, I always conclude my little lecture this way: If you’re absolutely smitten with architecture — if, like me, you’re happy spending both your working time and your free time basking in its intricacies — and you also don’t care much about money, then there’s no more rewarding profession on the planet. But as these downcast young faces so often reveal as they’re going out the door, it takes more devotion than some people bargained for.


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