“Have you ever had a mentor? What was the greatest lesson you learned from him or her?”
Mentorship, in architecture, is incredibly important and something that I wish was taken much more seriously in a lot of the cities that I have lived and worked. In my experience there is a substantial divide between senior architects with the knowledge and experience to truly shape the next generation of architects and the interns who desperately need that knowledge and experience through professional guidance. In my own career I was lucky enough to have a true mentor very early. He was the most senior architect at the first firm that I worked for and he quite literally took me under his wing and went about teaching me the real guts of architecture. Later in my career, after I had left that firm, I learned that the other partners were talking of letting me go because, quote “I didn’t know anything” and so this one partner said “give him to me. I’ll teach him.” And so they did, and he did. I’m every grateful to this day for that singular risk on his part. His name is Walter Taylor, FAIA, and at the time I was working for KBJ Architects in Jacksonville, Florida. KBJ, formerly Kemp Bunch & Jackson, has a very long and distinguished history in Jacksonville and in Florida, and has birthed some of the most talented and successful architects in the city, thanks in no small part to senior architects like Walter. I hope to live up to that legacy in my own career.
Working for and with Walter was always interesting. A brilliant designer and architect he was sometimes maddeningly exacting in his expectations and unwavering in his desire to have those expectations met no matter what. I remember many occasions when I’d be working through some task he had set for me and he’d walk over to my desk and lean over my shoulder saying “hurry it up, my meeting started 15 minutes ago.” Mind you I had most likely only been working on whatever it was for 10 minutes or so. It was certainly never dull and while I worked on many projects with him the relatively short while I was there, the one project I worked on the most and learned the most was the Orlando International Airport South Terminal Expansion. The project is a 1,000,000 square foot airside and landside addition to OIA which Walter had originally designed many years before. The project was split between our two offices (Jacksonville and Orlando) and our office was responsible for the landside portion which included the main entry, ticketing, baggage, and all the other stuff before you actually get to your concourse.
As you can imagine, this project was immense and you might even think that on a project like this it’s easy to get pigeon-holed into doing nothing but door details for months on end. But this wasn’t the case. Even as a second year intern I was responsible for coordination mechanical and electrical drawings with the architectural, creating the necessary stair sections and details for both service stairs and main public stairs, even editing and updating the myriad building sections and wall sections as were needed. And the most enjoyable was a specific design task that Walter put me in charge of – a cantilevered planter at the mezzanine balcony overlooking the main atrium.
Now, this may not sound like fun to some, but realize that the main atrium was nearly 1/4 mile long and curved. So, this planter is going to be one of the first things you see when you look up after entering the doors. No pressure. :-\ And it was during the design of this suspended planter that Walter gave me one of the greatest pieces of advice I’ve ever received. One day I was working through some section details of this planter which had to attach to a steel beam support for the mezzanine and had to be designed in such a way as to carry the load of the plant material as well as a drain space for water, etc. The easy part was the prefabricated pan that held the plant material. The hard part was the rest of the framing that supported the pan and the finished metal panels. So, I’m slaving away at my computer trying to figure this mess out and Walter comes over and takes a look at what I’m up to. After about 30 seconds he starts asking me some questions and he’s pointing to random lines on my screen. Questions like “what do these lines represent?” and “Where does this framing go?” After a few minutes he realizes that most of the framing I’ve drawn has no real 3 dimensional significance, so he stops me and says “no matter what you’re drawing, whether plan, elevation or detail, don’t draw anything that doesn’t represent something in physical space.” In other words, if the line doesn’t have a purpose, don’t draw it. This has been the singular most valuable lesson anyone has ever taught me. It’s why I like to think of myself as a good detailer because I think about each line I’m drawing and how it relates to all the other lines around it. I think about how the flashing for windows works not just in 2D but in 3D. How does it terminate? How does it interact with the corner flashing that turns up the face of the opening? How does the counterflashing work? In elevations, how does the gable trim intersect with the eave trim, etc.
That one piece of advice, which didn’t seem like a lot at the time, has led me to learn all I can not just about architectural detailing and drafting, but about construction and how buildings work so that my drawings will be better, more detailed, more clear and more easily constructed. That, after all, should be the goal of all architects.