Architects are often noted for having bad work-life balance, a lot of stress and little free time. How can you take time off while still improving your skills as an architect? Can that time off even give you an extra edge? Compared to other fields, architecture stands out as a field in which you need to “know a little bit about everything." Thus, in order to live up to our name we must also do a little bit of everything, and as they say, a little goes a long way. So with that in mind, here are 11 activities which, while not obviously architectural, just might make you a better architect.
1. Playing Video Games
Video game developers have free rein when imagining and designing cityscapes and other spaces that frame the virtual universe. Such spatial experiences may never be realized in our physical world, but can still provide an entirely new perspective on the possible relationships between our bodies and our surroundings. They can go a long way in challenging your spatial problem solving, especially when Virtual Reality really takes off and becomes an ordinary tool in every architecture firm.
2. Reading Fiction
Fiction is possibly the easiest way for humans to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. As architects, this is a great tool for empathizing with different viewpoints in society, as well as understanding subjective spatial experiences and the emotions tied to them. A great example is "The English Patient" by Michael Ondaatje, a novel with characters from a range of socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds with memories strongly tied to spaces. Architects are sometimes accused of having little understanding of people, an issue which fiction could help to solve.
3. Watching TED Talks
An architect founded TED, however that isn’t why it’s on the list. As architects, we need to know how to defend our projects and ideas, making knowledge of rhetoric an essential part of the profession. TED speakers know how to construct an engaging argument within a relatively short amount of time, making them both entertaining and educational to watch. The wide variety of topics on offer will also undoubtedly help to build that wide knowledge base which is crucial to architectural practice. To get started, check out The 20 Most Inspirational Non-Architecture TED Talks for Architects.
© Ariana Zilliacus
4. Physical Activity
Consistent physical activity has been proven to reduce stress, something that most architects have an excess amount of. Not only will it improve your workflow, it will also serve as a productive break when you need some time away from the drawing board (or computer screen), as studies have shown that walking actually improves creativity. It’s important to maintain a healthy work-life balance in an industry that often demands long hours, especially when many of those hours are spent craned over a laptop with bad posture in an uncomfortable chair. A healthy body will make that time more pleasant and you will feel less fatigued by the end of it.
5. Taking Stuff Apart
When we experience stress, frustration and disappointment, many of us feel a primal urge to destroy the objects of resentment that surround us: that good-for-nothing laptop that’s slowing down your work process, or that annoying flickering lightbulb that’s giving you a headache. Most of us will, quite reasonably, resist this urge; you would not be a very popular coworker if you threw your laptop across the room every time it froze up. However, there is a certain satisfaction to be gained from taking things apart once they’re already broken or will no longer be used. More important is the understanding of how objects are put together and function. Although smartphones and toasters don’t exist on the same scale as buildings, there is something to be learned from the details of assembly. In the future, when that 3D Printer or those VR Goggles aren’t cooperating, you’ll be the company’s most valuable asset.
6. Painting and Photography
In the process of painting or capturing and editing a photograph, there are three fundamental elements to keep in mind: color, light and composition. Unsurprisingly, these elements are just as crucial when it comes to architecture. Being experienced with these components within another context can give you an edge and an alternative way to approach the design process. In addition to this, you will be far more acquainted with the details of your surroundings. By taking the time to paint or compose a particular photograph, one observes features with more care than if one were just to look at them.
© Ariana Zilliacus
7. Hosting Dinner Parties
When hosting dinner parties, creating a pleasant atmosphere and experience for your guests is of utmost importance. This doesn’t only require good social skills, but also a knowledge of cosy lighting, comfortable seating areas, and deliciously smelling food. In other words: sensory experiences that make people feel at ease. Architecture affects all our senses—perhaps with the exception of taste—yet architects often seem to get caught up in the visual elements of a building. Understanding how tactile architecture, for example, can affect people's comfort in, and enjoyment of, a building is a huge advantage for an architect. Because if we aren’t creating spaces that people feel good in, what is the point of our profession?
8. Living in Nature
Living in nature, temporarily or otherwise, is one of the most certain ways of falling in love with and fully appreciating our natural world. The large-scale impact that comes with being an architect means that we play an enormous role in conserving and sustaining our environment—a huge and unavoidable responsibility given the current situation of our planet. A vital aspect of sustainability lies within context and understanding the specific location on which a building is being designed. Experiencing the environment first-hand develops a deeper respect for how different climates are capable of assisting our architecture.
9. Travelling on a Budget
In our modern world, being a tourist has become such a popular pastime that the purest forms of cultural exposure are being compromised. Travelling on a budget, however, can give you that extra push to get to know locals and their cultures while looking for a place to stay or learning about the history of a place. By travelling you build a personal relationship with a range of contexts, gaining a deeper understanding for the individual qualities of different locations. Read more about the genius loci of architecture and the fight against global solutions in this interview with Ricardo Bofill.
10. Social Volunteering
As is made clear with the word "social," this activity encourages interacting and forming relationships with people, an important part of architectural practice. Architects design spaces for people to enjoy and feel happy and safe in, but in order to fully understand what this can mean for individuals it is necessary to understand people's needs and preferences. Social volunteering is a great way to make a positive impact in your community, while gaining a broader understanding of different spatial needs within society.
© Ariana Zilliacus
11. Playing a Musical Instrument
Learning how to play an instrument requires the development of one’s understanding of rhythm, repetition and slight variations that sound pleasant and appeal to almost all human beings. How can these properties be translated into space? That’s a question you might be able to answer after a few months of playing the trumpet.
Now, go have a well-deserved break, and come back a better architect than ever.
Wong, May. “Stanford Study Finds Walking Improves Creativity.” College website. Stanford University. N.p., 24 Apr. 2014. Web. 1 Sept. 2016.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published on October 5, 2016, and updated April 24, 2019.