Sunday, April 16, 2006

What's next?

As of late, there is one question that has come up with too much frequency. What do you plan to do once you are done with school? If there was any one question that causes me more dread, more mind-wrenching fear, it is that. Ask me about my opinions on the foreign policies of the current administration, economic inequities found in higher education, the construction of social taboos in contemporary culture, the separation between church and state…please. They’d all be a hell of a lot easier for me to answer than what I might want to do after school.

For me, the answer to the questions requires a number of caveats. Like, if I am able to obtain my visa, then…Or, if I am able to apply my experience here in London to my IDP in the States then…Or, with my current work, will I even have a chance of a job in the States then…See? Everything needs a frame, a specific way in which the world must sort itself out before I am able to make any definitive choices.

For me, it’s not simply to stay or go. It’s, do I want to leverage my experience for something more, either here or there, or do I want to leverage my experience into doing something far, far away from the world that I am now in. Yes, I admit, even now, eight years since I first began, I hesitate. I still don’t know if I am cut out for this. Or if I want to be.

I’ll admit it now. My actual experience working in an Architecture firm is rather diminutive. Alright, it was one summer internship and another two months freelancing for a professor. Not really the stuff to build concrete opinions upon. Sure. But it gave me a taste, with a lingering after-taste. One which doesn’t necessarily have me salivating for more.

My first internship, the summer after my fourth-year, was in a small firm, two principals and eight employees, including me. It wasn’t ground-breaking work, but the people were great, which made it easier to come in each day, expecting to do exactly the same thing. Arrive, turn on computer, open AutoCad, begin correcting redlines. Day in, day out. That was it. Sure, sometimes the corrections got more complicated, more challenging. Like, when I found out that the construction documents for one of their largest projects had, somehow, been X-refed incorrectly, and now the exterior shell documents were being changed independently of the interior fit-out documents. That was four days hell. But, ultimately, I saw the days bleed into one another in a cycle of undifferentiated tasks. It made me stir-crazy. I was relieved to go back to school.

My second “working period” started during the second half into what I fondly consider my “year of drifting”. This requires a little explanation.

While I graduated with my Architecture degree in May, I stayed in school through the summer to finish my second degree. I mean, I had so few credits left, I thought, sure, why not? So, while my classmates had begun their job hunts in spring, I began mine in summer, looking to start work that fall.

I focused on the Pittsburgh area, since I was settled, had a nice living arrangement, figured I had contacts from school. I thought, I had a degree from Carnegie Mellon - that should make it pretty easy to get a job around here. I was wrong. REALLY wrong.

I’d like to think that it wasn’t my qualifications, it was my timing. The economy was on the verge of recovery, but construction had yet to pick up, which meant Architecture firms were treating new hires like lepers. Don’t want you, don’t want to touch your resume or acknowledge your numerous inquiries. Out of sight, out of mind. And that’s where I found myself, out of sight and out of mind of every single firm I applied to. That was pretty much every firm I in the city. I kept thinking, after the nth time I was ignored, so much for busting my ass in college. I fucking graduated first in my class. For what?

To bide my time, I worked part-time for the University, tutoring, of all things, Physics, and assisting another professor with one of her classes. Or, well, effectively running the class by the end of that semester, while she was devoured by several other responsibilities. At least I put my editing skill to use during those final weeks of the fall semester.

But spring came, and there I was, pondering what the hell to do. I had applied to graduate school by that point, and was looking for something temporary. And the offer came. Work for my first-year professor in his studio.

He paid me more than he probably could afford, and was a great teacher, once again. And I found myself enjoying each day. Yes, I was correcting his redlines, but I was also working out sketches from client meetings, or actually attending client meetings, or designing small portions of a project. He never once, in the time I was there, uttered the word “I”. It was “we” from the beginning, and I respect him for promoting such a mindset, appreciated the acknowledgement.

But, good things don’t last. At least they haven’t for me. The projects he had hired me to assist him with stalled, abruptly. The work dried up faster than water droplets on the hot pavement of a Phoenix summer, and I moved on, learning how precarious it was for a single practitioner, whose studio practice I admired, whose integrity I hope to emulate. I saw how hard it was to survive with ideals.

So, now, when I look towards the dreaded world awaiting me after school, I look back to these two experiences, and I, well, just get depressed. And weary. This might be the fate awaiting me. I don’t know if I want to go out and challenge it, try and change it, resign myself to it, settle, or take an entirely different path that puts me in line for something completely different.

So, why, given my ambivalence, am I still considering the hells of internship? Well, there is the pesky issue of getting licensed, which, as my parents remind me constantly, should be a priority. Get it done, and get it done quickly! Now, within the profession, where are arguments as to necessity of obtaining the license, but fact is, if I want the freedom to work on my own, in the future, I need it. And while I might not necessarily make architecture my entire professional life, I’d like the option. So I guess that means sucking it up and plunging in.

But, for now, if I don’t face the question, I get to hang out pool side, not having to deal with the mess of getting wet. And, pool side still has a pretty interesting view, even if I am removed from the action. It gives me space to observe, reflect, judge, like all architects do. For now, I want to just stay here, close to the action, but without the consequences. I’m pool side in jeans and a sweater, so I am definitely not in the mood to be swimming around. Maybe, soon, I’ll go change. Just not yet.


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