“My first thought was to major in engineering, but I also wanted to do something artistic, so I wanted to combine these two things, and decided to study architecture, because fundamentally it combines art and engineering. In the end, I just went for it.”
Zhechen Shao Interview
ASR: [00:44] So Zhechen, let’s talk a little bit about you. What is your personal story? How did you decide to become an architect? And what led you to architect school?
Zhechen: [00:51] The main reason or the main intuition is that because my father is an architect. When I was a kid, he would let me see his works, and let me go on his side to get knowledge of those things. That’s the point where I started to be interested in those buildings. In those architectures. When I wanted to apply for universities, my first thought was to major in some engineering degrees, but I also wanted to do something very artistic. I wanted to combine these two things together. I looked at the major list and thought, “Why don’t I do architecture?” Because fundamentally it combines art and engineering. I didn’t take too much consideration actually, so I just went for it. I think this is cool. This is for me, and also my father is an architect so he will help me with that. That’s I become majored in architecture.
ASR: [02:15] Do you feel that what you expected to be true was true? That architecture does combine all these different disciplines.
Zhechen: [02:26] Yes and no. Right now, at least in school, it’s more artistic and overall the curriculum is more artistic and our student is more artistic. If we for example, in our class include an engineering class. Most of the students won’t be able to calculate those things properly. Mostly, they are not interested in those mathematical terms. I think the main focus is still a bit artistic. Which is fine, but it’s not exactly what I expected.
ASR: [03:27] Which school do you go to? You forgot to mention that.
Zhechen: [03:30] Pratt Institute.
ASR: [03:32] You go to Pratt. Even though Pratt is fundamentally an art school. You still feel that it’s…
Zhechen: [03:44] It’s probably true because Pratt is fundamentally an art school, but because it is a five-year program that is accredited by the NAAB, I would imagine other schools will also follow this kind of curriculum. So I think what we are taught is the same.
ASR: [04:12] But when it comes to the more rational engineering side of architecture. Do you find that to be useful, or do you find that to be too much perhaps, and interferes with your studio work?
Zhechen: [04:24] I’m not sure, and also I do want to have that conversation with you. In architecture school, especially at undergraduate, our main focus is on studio work and just doing drawings and very artistic things. Those engineering terms will come after the third year, so we won’t be touch anything engineering in the first year or second year…
Sorry, could you say the question again?
ASR: [05:18] It’s ok, you don’t have to address the exact question, but what I asked was, do you feel that the engineering component of your education, meaning structures, the calculations that you had mentioned before, the rational side of architecture. Is it too much and interfering with your studio work?
Zhechen: [05:35] I think the problem is, in studio work you have to be more artistic, and I know the fact that in reality, if you are doing some buildings for the most part you are going to deal with some engineering problems. I think in school, you just need to use your imagination. Not overly use your engineering side. Otherwise, if you do more engineering things than artistic things. I think, why don’t you major in engineering or civil engineering? I think in school you have to be imaginative and be a bit more artistic. It’s just that, you need to be aware that after you graduate, you are not going to be this imaginative. You are going to deal with those mathematical problems.
ASR: [06:44] Let me understand, you’re describing that the average architect after they graduate from architecture school, they’re going to have to compromise their vision for the project?
Zhechen: [06:56] I think so because from my intern experience and what I learned from other industries. Yes, we have to deal with that.
ASR: [07:08] But is it really a compromise or is it a negotiation? [Crosstalk].
Zhechen: [07:12] I think both.
ASR: [07:19] Compromise is a negative term. It says that I had a wonderful vision. It was inherently amazing, and someone screwed it up for me. That’s pretty much what compromise means. In the case of a vision, but in the case of back and forth with a client or a developer. Is it still a compromise or is it a negotiation that leads to something better?
Zhechen: [07:42] I think both, because if your building can not be built. How can it be good? If you cannot build it in any way, either financially or engineering, then it’s a bit useless. You’re basically an artist, not an architect. An architect has to build something, then it makes sense. So, I think it’s both, you both need to compromise and have a bit in negotiation.
ASR: [08:25] What is your vision for your career?
Zhechen: [08:28] I am a bit of an outsider in the school because I find myself not that interested in architecture anymore. I think I want to choose a different path than the traditional architects. That kind of sense.
ASR: [08:56] Ok, I want to talk about that. That’s very interesting. There’s a theory that architecture school opens the doors to many different careers and yet. At the same time, it’s a very technically focused education, because they want you to know how to design buildings or just the fundamentals of it. But let’s start from something else. What year are you in right now? Are you almost done?
Zhechen: [09:24] I’m in third year.
ASR: [09:25] Third year and you have already decided that you don’t want to practice architecture?
Zhechen: [9:30] Yes.
ASR: [09:32] Do you have any idea what you want to practice?
Zhechen: [09:35] Not yet. The reason why is that I have been interning at a design firm, and a real estate firm, and an engineering firm. I think right now the situation is not good for us. Either in real estate or design, because these two are fundamentally bound together. You need to have a good developer, then you have a good building. Otherwise, you are just basically making drawings. Right now the economy is not that good, especially in New York City. In the last few years, we have built too many high-end buildings. Now the market is basically just coming down.
Also, one of the problems with architecture is that it’s not as advanced as other majors. What I mean by that is, it’s a very slow process. If you look at Forbes under 30, that basically means that between 20 and 30, they are saying it’s possible for other majors to be successful. But you will never see an architect under 30, and for a reason. There are so many things and a lot of slow processes you need to take. A building takes 2 or 3 years to build, so you cannot rush this process. I think we do need a revolutionary change in this business. I know right now we have like Beams, Revit, that kind of thing, but I don’t think it’s fundamentally changed the business. It’s still very old-fashioned and a lot of schools, including my school, we are not as technically advanced to adapt those new things. For example robotics or Grasshopper, even now the school is struggling to teach us those new things. We are still using the old way to do things. Right now, I’m still finding the new path for this major, that’s why I’m not sure of the exact destination of my career.
ASR: [12:43] But you are aware of the skills that you have developed as an architecture student, I’m sure. My question is which of these skills do you feel are transferable to different areas? Which skills are useful to you to build a new career from now on?
Zhechen: [13:04] I’ve talked about this with one of my professors. We were talking about, “What’s the core value of architecture education?” He told me that he thinks the core value is to have a way of thinking. It’s almost like a consulting company. You have to have a structure of thinking. Critical thinking as it is because in the studio we have to go back and forth to criticize ourselves and to make a better project. That way of thinking is one of the core values that can be transferred to other professions. I don’t think there are many things we can transfer, at least for now. What we have learned is basically how to make good drawings, how do you use those software’s, and those things are limited to this particular profession. I don’t think they are that transferable.
ASR: [14:25] So how does someone who is in their third year of a 5-year long program. Who is disenchanted with architecture, continue to go through those motions, and continue to go to studio, and show up and pass courses? Do you still have the motivation that you had?
Zhechen: [14:42] I don’t hate architecture. I don’t dislike it. When I chose this profession, I thought, “This is cool,” and I still think it is. I still will be fascinated by those beautiful drawings, those beautiful projects. On the hand for example, if you study economics or even history. You don’t necessarily need to be a historian if you are majoring in history, or you don’t have to be an economist if you are majoring in economics. I think undergraduate, you practice yourself, you practice your way of study, and you practice your way of thinking. Those kinds of things. I think those things are fundamentally the same across all majors, it’s just that in architecture we need to learn more specific things that relate to the occupation. So I don’t see a problem with that.
ASR: [15:52] But there is a fundamental difference between a history major, let’s say as an example and a B.Arch pursuer. The architecture student in a B.Arch program, first of all, has less diverse courses on his roster, and secondly, has to spend 60 hours in the studio per week. As opposed to the history major who distributes the available time on different courses, and has a much wider range of courses that he is taking. So do you feel that it’s a sacrifice now? It’s kind of like a waste of time, that studio time, or is it something that is unique about you. That’s allowing you to develop something else that others from a liberal arts background do not have?
Zhechen: [16:30] I think this question, I cannot answer you. I will only say time will tell. In school, you can’t be that concerned about, “Whether I sacrificed myself, whether I made a mistake on this major?” Because in undergraduate, most students are coming out of high school. We don’t have an idea about what our career is. If you want to be successful, you have to work hard for this major because if you can’t work hard for this one, how can work hard for others? I think the way to work is fundamentally the same, you just need to work hard, and have creative thinking, and to focus on details. I think this criteria is all the same, across all majors.
Also like you said in the beginning, “What do you think is the problem with today’s education?” I’m sure you also have some thoughts. That’s why you made this interview. I imagine you have also the same question about education, is that right?
ASR: [18:25] I have many questions about architectural education. In this interview, I want to get your perspective, because my perspective I share it with people on many different outlets. But since you asked, I would say that the main area that I’m questioning is the traditional approach, knowing that there is the Masters of Architecture program, the M.Arch model, whether the Bachelors of Architecture program is still relevant?
Zhechen: [19:07] Viable?
ASR: [19:08] Viable obviously it is. Someone’s paying for it. Someone’s doing it, so it’s viable. People get out of college and they practice architecture because they have no other choice, they are kind of trapped in that. If you spend five years pursuing a degree and who knows how many thousands of dollars, you are kind of trapped in that field. It’s called barriers to exit. You don’t hear law schools anymore starting at the age of 18. Someone doesn’t make a decision to go to medical school at the age of 17 or 16, so why do they decide to become architects and mortgage their lives in that area at such a young age? That’s my number one question and I’m sure also, that had you had a chance now to choose an undergraduate study. You wouldn’t have rejected architecture, but you would have probably taken a different approach that was more experimental.
The other question that I have is the extent to which; for a person who is not disenchanted about architecture, whether the education actually prepares them for anything [chuckle]. That includes the field of architecture. Does the B.Arch or M.Arch education prepare you to be a leader in the building industry? So, what do you think about that? Not for you necessarily, but in general for people in the field, do you feel that the education that you receive prepares you to become a leader? To achieve your dreams and to become a leader in the building industry or not?
Zhechen: [20:51] No, I don’t think it’s true that you become a leader because, in architecture, you are required to have a lot of talent. I see many smart students, who just cannot do the studio work because they don’t have that thing in their head to do those designs. It’s not for everyone.
ASR: [21:29] Let’s say that you have that. Let’s sat that you have talent. Let’s say that you have the desire to do work, and let’s say you have all of that. Does the education prepare a talented student to do it, to become a leader in the building industry? Practically. In your opinion?
Zhechen: [21:46] No. For example, if you want to be a licensed architect after you graduate from B.Arch, you have to have 2 to 3 years of practice. There are so many things that you can learn from the experience, and the education we have is only at most half of the experience we needed to do this. Also, school is a very different environment than the actual design firms. That’s why it’s not a necessary major to become a leader in the industry, because there are so many things in the industry that you can learn, not from school.
ASR: [22:50] Your business education continues after, or starts perhaps after the architectural education is done?
Zhechen: [22:58] Yes.
ASR: [22:59] That’s a lot of education you have to have.
Zhechen: [23:01] Yes it is. That’s why I said it is very slow progress, and in the interim, it’s a very bad return of investment [chuckles].
ASR: [23:14] Maybe I agree with you, maybe not, but the way to see education as an investment is a great way to see it because you do spend a lot of money.
Zhechen: [23:34] Yes, and you don’t get the same amount in return, as medical school or law school. In our school, a promotion says that there are only like 200 or 300 black female architects. Licensed architects in the US.
ASR: [23:56] No, really? I had no idea.
Zhechen: [23:57] I kind of understand why they are so few black female architects that are in practise because there’s no money.
If we can earn the same amount of money as computer science majors. I’m sure they will be hundreds of black female architects, and other architects as well
ASR: [24:25] Black women are smarter and more sensible than white men, it’s true [laughter].
Zhechen: [24:36] Probably. Even though we are hesitant to talk about money, it is still a very important thing. Probably, it’s the most important thing when choosing which firm we are going to. Architects in most cases, they don’t get enough money and they get a lot of stress and a lot of work time. People are going to go to other things, like me, to have a different path.
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