Our very last mentor visit was not at a studio, but at the offices of Sage & Coombe Architects, a firm of about 12 people that has been hosting Art Ready mentees for the past 3 years. We received a talk from the two Sage & Coombe architects who will be serving as mentors this year, Julia Tate and Andrew Kao. Their discussion focused not only on the question of what architects do, but the practical aspects of how they get there.
The first part of our lecture focused on how the form and function of architecture has changed throughout history, from the Egyptian pyramids to more modern developments like the High Line. We learned about how different styles of architecture address different climate conditions, as well as different lifestyles, and how the field has been influenced heavily by technology in recent years, as well as environmentalism. For a really detailed summary and images of Sage & Coombe’s architecture history slide show, see the 2010 Art Ready blog post.
Julia and Andrew also showed many examples of Sage & Coombe’s work. Unlike some architecture offices, which specialize in specific types of buildings like hospitals, Sage & Coombe’s architects may find themselves working on a wide range of projects at any given time. These include renovations of existing buildings (including the past and current renovations of Smack Mellon!), public buildings like a fire station and comfort station in Staten Island, nonprofit spaces, and interior/exterior design projects. A lot of Sage & Coombe’s buildings incorporate creative design elements; for example, for the reading room of the New York Public Library’s Fort Washington branch, huge overhead lamps incorporate photos from the NYPL image archive. Julia explained, “For this interior design project, we had to figure out how to make the biggest impact in the space without actually changing the structure of the building.” Similar to graphic design, architecture is all about working with clients to solve problems like this one.
Julia and Andrew also talked about how architects’ “creative ideas actually get built.” While initial ideas can get sketched out using a mere pencil and paper, today most architects use computer drawing programs to lay out each detail of a building. They also create both 3-D scale models and digital renderings to show their clients what a completed project will look like. Once a project has been approved by the client and ready for construction, detailed drawing sets need to be made for the contractors.
Needless to say, the complex, step-by-step work of actually seeing a project to fruition is usually stretched out over several months or even years, and is a very collaborative process: “To be an architect, you have to be good at putting your creative ideas down on paper,” explained Andrew, “but you need to know how to manage other people. You also need to have business and marketing skills.” Architecture also intersects with many other disciplines, such as physics, environmental science, and graphic design. Because of this, people sometimes change careers into architecture from other fields. While Julia knew she wanted to be an architect since high school and did a 5-year program at Cooper Union, Andrew originally studied fine art and art history in college, worked in design for a few years, then got his 3-year masters degree in architecture.
The career path of an architect is not an easy one; in addition to all this schooling, you need to get your architecture license in order to supervise your own projects, sign drawings, and officially be considered an architect. Attaining this license involves a combination of both acquiring enough internship hours during your first few years of working, and taking seven different exams. Both Julia and Andrew admitted to not sleeping very much in architecture school; however, they described the excitement of seeing how different students would all approach the same assignment differently. Unlike most of the fine artists we have visited in Art Ready, architects who work for a firm like Sage & Coombe usually have just one full-time job in architecture, rather than taking on other work to support their art.
Students who work with Sage & Coombe for their mentorship will visit different architectural sites around the city. They will also get to design their own projects, such as buildings or community centers, based on their interests and experience levels.
While the career of an architect may not promise easy fame and fortune (Andrew explained that most architects do not become well-known or do huge projects until their 40s or 50s), it can be very rewarding. “When I’m working on a building, it’s like my baby,” said Andrew. “I get to nurture it and watch it grow into something I’m proud of.”