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How to almost miss out on architecture school

by Steve McKee on August 23, 2009

It was working out pretty good knowing by age eleven that I wanted to spend my life drawing up cool stuff. In fifth grade my buddy Paul and I had an unofficial “drawing club” where we assigned ourselves all these detailed drawings of jets and tanks and things like that. We would meet in the library at recess to admire each other’s effort. Our pal Bob was also sort of involved, though his drawings usually showed more “heart” than technical skill. We always found something to praise.

I remember we each drew a cross section that showed a cutaway view of a big underground “headquarters” for some nameless secret army, like something from a James Bond movie. It had secret entrances, sleeping quarters, underground aircraft hangars and hidden trap doors to catch intruders. Paul’s drawing even showed little tiny drips coming from the showerheads in the barracks

I knew people could make a living doing drawings and being creative. Like architects, for instance. When I was about twelve years old my mom let me design the room-divider cabinet that would separate my part of the bedroom from my brother’s part. It was pretty exciting when the cabinetmaker showed up with the cabinets on a truck and I saw my drawing transformed into reality. When my mom’s friend Mrs. Heckenlively heard about this she hired me to design a raised bed platform with a built-in desk space under it for her son. Never mind that it was never built; it was a masterful parenting moment on the part of my mom and her friend, completely validating me and filling me with confidence in the way that good parents know how to do.

Then came the regrettable “era of doubt” when my ninth grade mechanical drawing teacher required all of us students to endlessly draw images of obscure and boring “machine parts” chosen only for their geometric shape, sucking much of the fun out of drawing. There also came an overheard conversation in which my best friend’s older brother lamented that “it was the math” that would keep him from ever becoming an architect. His “can’t do” attitude wasn’t good for my young fragile mindset.

On such vagaries as this are destinies shaped. So architecture was out and photography was in, particularly sports photography, inspiring me to choose UCLA as my college because the teams there were good and the possibility existed for discovery by Sports Illustrated. (They would woo me to join their mag – so went my vision.) But then I started to notice that the photos I was creating for the Daily Bruin were not drop-dead awesome and the realization came that passion for something did not equal talent for it.

While at UCLA I declared my major as Economics because it seemed to offer good overall knowledge that would serve me in whatever field I managed to “settle” on. A magic moment arrived when the architect idea re-entered my life. I remember exactly where I was when it happened (family car crossing the Ridgewood Road railroad tracks as my dad mentioned random career ideas.) This idea created excitement and even a feeling of instant certainty and focus that was such a relief. (Insert Hallelujah chorus here.)

Even though UCLA had only a graduate program in architecture, they offered a tiny sprinkling of undergraduate classes each with only about ten or twelve students in them. I loved those classes and made sure to excel in them. My mission was now to get into UCLA’s Graduate School of Architecture and get a Masters Degree in architecture. As for the math challenge, I would just study to overcome any difficulty. Surely doing so was better than facing a life of quiet desperation. (Potential architects take note: the math difficulty thing is way overrated.)

Therein arose the next obstacle, this one pretty significant. Turns out it’s damn hard to get into a noted graduate school in which only twenty percent or so of the applicants are accepted. Especially if you are something as bland sounding as an Economics major and your competition has backgrounds that sound exciting, like the gal who spent a year helping to run a Paris art gallery.

I honed myself with a good GPA and did things like intensely study vocabulary words with flashcards to get my GRE score up (the graduate school equivalent of the SAT.) Eschewing obfuscation on the GRE was easy; what I didn’t “get” was how important it was to present a dazzling portfolio – an eye catching bit of artistic splendor showing how creative and amazing you are.

I submitted measly eight-and-a-half by eleven sized black and white photocopies (arg!) of what actually was a cool project: a monument to Ludwig van Beethoven in which the neoclassical proportions of the building were based on the mathematical proportions found in the musical harmonics taken from the opening notes of his Fifth symphony. Not half bad, if I may say so myself . . . . but the ugly little tacky copies I used to show the project! How clueless could I be?
Later I saw that others used color to dazzle and also submitted their projects in large black hardbound portfolio cases; I submitted mine with a sixty-nine cent plastic cover.

The dean of admissions at the school let me hang all summer on the waitlist until late August when I met her in her office and, amidst lots of blinking on her part, was told “We will be unable to grant admission.” (Actual sentence recorded in the journal I kept that year.)

I drank heavily that night, only because it seemed like something one was supposed to do at times like that. Even as I was doing it, it felt a little foolish.

The first day before the partitions get added

The next day I enlisted the help of Tim Vreeland, an architecture professor who knew me well from two of the undergraduate classes I had taken. He believed in me and worked behind the scenes and somehow got me in. (Cue again the Hallelujah chorus.) To this day I remain slightly awestruck by how valuable this man was to the course of my life. Maybe I should send him a copy of this, no?

So that’s how I made it into grad school.

One last thing.  That female student who had helped run the art gallery in Paris and sounded so interesting on paper ended up washing out after just two quarters. During her short stay her drawing board happened to be next to mine and I can tell you she couldn’t design her way out of a wet paper bag if her life depended on it. Meanwhile the lowly Econ major (that would be me) hung in there just fine and went on to get his Master of Architecture degree and then got to make a living drawing and designing cool stuff for people.

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