Decoding the success of the greatest architects of last century

Getting to the Hall-of-fame of Architecture is not easy.
Other than wearing black, here is what you have to do to become one of the greats in the field of Architecture:

1. Begin as early as possible

(Get born in the family of creatives)

The 10 Keys to becoming a great Architect - Begin as early as possible

It’s always good to be encouraged when you’re a child – and no one identifies the talent of a young artist better than another, elder, artist.

While there are exceptions, a majority of prominent designers come from a family where they had early exposure to art (in one of its forms) and/or craftsmanship. They were exposed to art, music, literature (and the creative process) from a young age, and grew a fascination that carried them forward.

  • Gehry used to build cities of scrap wood and cardboard with his grandmother, a fascination that guided him in his designs later
  • Zaha Hadid’s mother was an artist who encouraged her zeal for experimentation
  • Renzo Piano was born in a family of builders
  • Peter Zumthor’s father was a cabinet-maker
  • Frank Lloyd Wright played with geometric blocks at his experimental kindergarten which informed his sense of three-dimensional composition later in life

You don’t have to start drafting your house plans at age 6, but having an inkling towards creating things will certainly get you a headstart.

The earlier you start, the better off you will be, and it’s never too late to begin.

2. Associate with the greats

(Choose your mentor wisely)

Great breeds great, and the art of Architecture is best transmitted in a mentor-pupil relationship. It is no wonder the pioneers of modern architecture, Mies Van Der Rohe, Le Corbusier, and Walter Gropius, all worked under Peter Behrens – who was among the first to break away from the dogmatic approach to building design; at the beginning of 20th century.

One way of identifying the greats is to seek the cutting edge. Seek those who are walking with times and are not afraid to go against the stream.

Only when you are at the cutting-edge, you are well-positioned to spot and conquer the most promising adjacent intellectual territory. This is where the breakthroughs happen. The cutting edge usually lies in a Design school or a Design firm..

  • Frank Lloyd Wright worked for Louis Sullivan
  • Richard Neutra worked for Frank Lloyd Wright
  • Renzo Piano worked for Louis Kahn and Z.S. Makowski
  • Tom Wiscombe worked for Coop Himmelb(l)au
  • BV Doshi worked for Le Corbusier
  • Kevin Roche worked under Eero Saarinen
  • Shigeru Ban worked for Arata Isozaki
  • Bjarke Ingels, Zaha Hadid, Prince Joshua-Ramus, Ole Scheeren, and 42 others worked at OMA for a period before moving out and starting their own ventures.

While Rem Koolhaas’s OMA cannot be denied the title of ‘The Architecture Powerhouse’ of this generation, it doesn’t mean you flood their inbox to get that one job, or that it is your one sure ticket to Architectural stardom.

It is important pick a mentor who aligns with your goals and approach to Architecture; someone who can give you support, direction and space to experiment on your own.

3. Lead the current or swim against it; never sail

(Redefine Architecture in your own terms, and stick to it)

The 10 Keys to becoming a great Architect - Lead the current or swim against it; never sail

Every new generation faces a new set of problems and every new problem requires a new paradigm to solve. There lies the space for innovation.

While every Architect has his/her own way of defining Architecture, the Architects who make a difference are the ones who sustain and refine their definition of Architecture as they (and their practice) grows.

  • Mies’ desire to build for the times, and not for the “glorious” past, led to one of the most celebrated buildings of his time: The Seagram building.
  • Seattle Public Library by OMA redefined Library for the 21st century by integrating digital with analog
  • BIG combined power plant with ski slope, turning an otherwise repulsive (or ignored) structure of the city into a public recreational space.
  • Louis Sullivan seeing that the older ideals of Architecture will no longer with skyscrapers: stated: Form follows Function which became the manifesto of Modernism
  • Rem called Zaha Hadid ‘a planet orbiting itself’ in school – she pioneered what is now called Parametricism
  • Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers won the Pompidou by making a building inside out. People called it hideous, but it soon became a landmark in Paris.

Sticking to your own definition doesn’t mean getting stubborn, it means having an original, ever-evolving framework that guides your design process.

4. Do more than just Architecture

(Take inspiration from other fields)

The 10 Keys to becoming a great Architect - Do more than just Architecture

Architecture is informed by a number of other fields: Painting, Sculpture, Literature, Construction Technologies, media technology, new scientific discoveries, new materials and even political movements. There is a continual flux of ideas that Architecture is renewing itself with – picking, incorporating and trashing with need and context.

Further, every creative field has its limits, and Architecture is more limited than most. Working in multiple mediums allows for freer creative expression and informs back the practice of Architecture.

  • Libeskind was a musician before he decided to pursue Architecture
  • Rem Koolhaas is first known as a theorist, then an Architect
  • Calatrava is a sculptor and combines structural engineering with Architecture,
  • Zaha Hadid was a painter who studied Mathematics before Architecture,
  • Gehry hanged out with more artists than Architects
  • Eero Saarinen worked as an Industrial designer
  • Le Corbusier practiced painting along with Architecture
  • Alvar Aalto worked with furniture, textile, glassware, sculptures, and paintings

While some Architects gravitate towards computer code, some turn to filmmaking, graphic design or writing, and some (like Norman Foster) stick to the good-old sketching.

Working in multiple mediums is the key to keep the creative juices flowing and expand your portfolio.

5. Solve bigger problems

(You are only as big as the problems you solve)

At its core, Architecture is a service business. Your value as an Architect is directly proportional to the value of the problem that you’re solving.

There is no great architecture that doesn’t, either:

  1. a) Solve an existing problem, or
  2. b) Innovate an existing solution.

Modernism was not just a new style, it is a result of the need of quick construction after a war and thanks to the discovery of steel, the new-found ability to construct taller without compromising floor space.

  • Alejandro Aravena is dealing with social housing
  • Charles Correa designed low-cost social housing for Mumbai
  • Geodesic domes designed by Buckminster Fuller were used for housing in World War II
  • Laurie Baker built for the lower-middle class building residences, schools, and hospitals.
  • Foster + Partners proposed a cycle route in London that could reduce commute time by 30 minutes
  • RE(X) came up with a performance center that could be molded for every different type of performance.

It is much more fulfilling to be providing for the world’s needs through your design than to spend weeks choosing the right curtain fabric for a high-paying client.

But that’s just my opinion.

Remember that it’s real people you’re building for, and real people have problems.

As of the beginning of 21st century, with the rising air/water/noise/light/soil pollution, the most important (and urgent) issue you can work upon are seeking sustainable ways to build.

Here are the top problems that Architecture can (and should) cater to.

6. Have a long-term vision and commit to realizing it

(Dream, Execute, Refine)

The world of Architecture thrives on visions of what could be. It is not important that your vision must win. It is that the grander vision always wins.

Having a vision of both you and the contribution you’re going to make through your work is vital in sustaining the hardships on the way to becoming an Architect.

This is especially important with the rise of social media. Architecture is public art and everything worth talking about will be talked about.

Is your vision inspiring enough to gather a following?

If you do not consider yourself to be the ‘visionary type’ but know how material gets together or how to keep a group of workaholics from killing themselves; your best bet is to align yourself with the visionaries you find inspiring enough.

  • Fuller was expelled from Harvard school twice, later invented geodesic domes
  • Zaha Hadid’s buildings were initially considered ‘unbuildable’ until she was encouraged by Structural engineer Peter Rice (who also worked on Sydney Opera House)
  • Norman Foster worked as an ice-cream salesman to fund his studies at Manchester School of Architecture.

There is no good reason to not be firing on all cylinders once you’ve made up your mind.

If you don’t have an overarching vision of your contribution to the world, prepare to be blown by the winds of confusion and ‘market forces’.

It is not going to be easy, but it’ll sure be worth it.

The 10 Keys to becoming a great Architect - Have a long-term vision and commit to realizing it

7. Teach the younger generation

(Spend time in a design school)

Teaching at a design school will not only inform back your professional practice but also establish your position in the academic circles,

While some ideas are best incubated within the culture of ideas, some ideas need refinement through practical work.

  • Libeskind taught for 20 years before actually designing a building.
  • OMA aims to renew its workforce with 25% of bright, young architects’ every year so that the firm doesn’t get stale
  • BV Doshi did more than just the building of a hyperlocal modern architecture style. He developed institutions that promoted, in the words of pritzker jury: serious architecture. His designs put culture in its rightful place in building design.
  • Rem Koolhaas has been on the top of his profession for 4 decades. He does it by continuously critiquing himself, and the outside world, and creating a system that that does just that.

Good design schools are incubators of novel ideas. Further, fresh minds bring fresh ideas with them, and they are willing to question the status quo.

Only the Architects who kept reinventing themselves and pushing the boundaries of what-is-possible throughout their career have made any substantial contribution to the field of Architecture. Those who got stuck in their own paradigm find their plateau too soon.

Studio culture will refine your own design philosophies and keep you up with the latest development, that the younger generation brings with itself.

Combining professional practice with teaching is a sure way to making the highest contributions to the field of Architecture.

The 10 Keys to becoming a great Architect - Teach the younger generation

8. Seek Mastery, Style will follow

Following the footsteps of media-driven starchitecture, our unhealthy pursuit of ‘style’ as an Architect is a sure way to confusion and misery; whereas seeking Mastery, on the contrary, offers unmistakable clarity and paves the path to greatness.

At the foundation of every great Architect (and Architecture) is the mastery of technical skills. It’s the thousands of hours they have spent on their drawing board, drawing, building models,  correcting and re-doing over and over again.

Mastery is the foundation on which Style stands.

Instead of seeking happiness, seek criticism, and wherever you work, make sure you are honing your skills.

The 10 Keys to becoming a great Architect - Seek Mastery, Style will follow

9. Participate in competitions (Not just to win)

While Architecture competitions have a 2500-year-old history. We are lucky to be alive in the 21st century where we can participate in international public commissions from our offices.

Competitions are designed to allow new ideas to emerge. They give you free marketing and provided you take the feedback, the chances to win improve with every competition you partake in. When you have won enough competitions, clients may start reaching you directly.

Competitions not only allow for new, radical ideas to be recognized and bought into the mainstream, but they also open up discussions within architectural circles to a broader audience.

The quickest way to rise to the top is to build ground-breaking, prestigious projects, that matter.

Nicolas Moreau and Hiroko Kusunoki, were relatively unknown until they won the Guggenheim Helsinki Competition.

If you live in the clouds and have no intention of getting something built, there are idea competitions like FairyTales and eVolo Skyscraper competition.

The most optimal way to practice Architecture in the 21st century is to keep putting your ideas to test. Rinse and Repeat.

10. Feed your muse

(Get inspired on a spiritual level.)

In between political issues, (mis-)coordination with engineers and consultants, halted construction sites, going over budget, leaky roofs, your love for Architecture may easily turn into frustration and cynicism.

It is important (and sustainable) to feed the ‘muse’ that inspired you to become an Architect in the first place.

  • Every year Renzo Piano spends one month sailing. He also makes sure that he eats lunch at Pompidou Centre (his first major commission) at least once a month.
  • Louis Kahn found his muse in the ruins of ancient temples, and faithfully served and fed this muse for as long as he remained alive.
  • Neimeyer found his inspiration in the feminine form
  • Louis Barragán found his inspiration in the works of Ferdinand Bac
  • Antoni Gaudi’s strong faith and religious background formed the base of his Architectural explorations

If the buildings lacks character, it’s going to show.

Ask yourself what made you become an Architect,

  • Did your love for philosophy inspired you?
  • Your passion for technology?
  • The ability to bring in social change through Architecture?
  • Or the ability of Architecture to evoke inexpressible emotions?
  • Your love for nature?
  • To create something beautiful for the world to experience?

When you find it, and you’ll know when you find it. Feed it. Serve it.

Most buildings lack inspiration, and they sit in the background of more magnificent, prolific works of architecture that are a delight to visit and inhabit.

Which one would you to be proud to be a creator of?

BONUS: Go outside the brief

(Give more than you’re asked for)

This is the secret sauce behind most (if not all) Bjarke Ingels Group’s winning designs. They give more than what is asked from them.

Whether you like BIG’s designs or not, it cannot be denied that Bjarke Ingels has hacked his way to the most prestigious projects of this generation – using this key.

There is seldom just one way to solve a design problem, and more often than not, a brief is a limited way to look at a project.

Once you have bagged enough experience to understand the project better than your client does, you can go ahead and alter the brief to solve the core problem better.

Architecture is not a ‘career’, it is a way of life and the great ones let it permeate to every aspect of one’s lifestyle. The core to becoming a great Architect is becoming great at Architecture, and the practice of Architecture is way more than just designing buildings.


Himanshu Kalra is an Architect / Writer on the mission to understanding the interplay between individuals and their physical, societal environments. His latest obsessions are perceptual and environmental psychology, systems thinking, cultural evolution and Zen.

1 Comment

  1. Ekpenyonganwan Ekpenyong Reply

    This has increased the flame of my inspiration for architecture. Indeed it is not a career but a way of life. Thank you

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