“I was impressed by how ASR’s process pushed me to change my way of thinking in ways that I had not imagined before, which led to a portfolio that reflected a spirit of innovation and desire to challenge myself. This, along with the fact that the portfolio reflected exactly who I was as a designer and as a candidate, made me much more competitive.
I was quite unaware of what I needed to do at the beginning of the application process. I thought the portfolio was just a few slides thrown together. Then I realized that a great admissions strategy is what makes or breaks an application, and I worked with my strategist at ASR towards developing something truly great.
Following the development of strategy, we went on to build my portfolio, statement of purpose and overall application, all of which came together seamlessly in the end, thanks to this strategy we had built in the first few days of the process.
The entire process was unexpectedly rewarding in more than one ways.”
RODRIGO GARCIA MORA FULL INTERVIEW
ASR: [01:30] Rodrigo thank you for joining me, my friend.
Rodrigo: [01:32] Yeah, the pleasure is mine.
ASR: [01:34] Rodrigo, tell me a couple of things about you and your background? Where did it all start from? The Rodrigo story? How did you decide to become an architect?
Rodrigo: [01:50] Ever since I was a kid, I always liked building stuff. Legos, blocks, even the bricks from houses when they were building them. I always liked building spaces and experiencing the sensation of creating a space and having an interaction between the space and what the user would feel. I didn’t know better at that time, but I always like that. I always liked impromptu art, for example, more wishful art in that sense. Growing up I always thought of myself as an architect, even so, I didn’t realize it because of my naiveness of other things, such as job growth, and job stress. I was just a kid. I just wanted to be an architect. I think most people just think about that, so I decided to study architecture at a university here in Mexico. I am from Mexico.
ASR: [03:04] Yeah, where are you from?
Rodrigo: [03:06] I am from the city of Toluca, which is the capital of the state of Mexico. I live here in a small town, which is at the outskirts of the city. I am basically living at the base of the volcano [chuckles]. It’s a little bit cold here, but I like it a lot. We have a university here, an international university, and they gave me a 90% scholarship because I got the grades they wanted from my high school, so I decided to do architecture. I checked a little bit about job prospects and job growth but it was not as much research as I would have liked, and you will know later why. At that time, yes there was an internet but I could not do that much of the research, so I just decided to study that based on the opinions of close friends and family members. I went on with my studies. I entered architecture in 2007, and I remember it very well because I couldn’t believe that they were still teaching how to draw on these large desks that architects used to draw on before. [Chuckles] Imagine that, but that was only for 2 semesters. I really liked the concept of creating your own space. Like baking a cake. Something that you can design and enjoy. That was the main aspect that I liked about architecture. In this sense, it was something that was both useful; because you could create almost any building, and also profitable according to my research. Well, my research based on opinions.
I continued with my education. I went to different places, for example, I studied at the Politecnico in Milano for 1 semester, and it was fun because I learned how to design in a different way. The Italian way they said [chuckles]. It was more sophisticated, more simple, but with more playful materials. That was really nice, then I worked in China. My first internship was in a company in China, and that’s when it hit me. The first red flag for me. The work-life balance and stress. It was fun to go there, and I always liked travelling a lot, so any opportunity I could, I would take it. I went there with some friends, 10 friends. 5 of them went to Shanghai and 5 of us stayed in Beijing. I had to learn how to work with my teammates because some of them were industrial designers. Not only professionally, but also personally because the chemistry between us was not that good, and I had to learn how to improve it. The thing that drew more of my attention from that experience, was great stress and the disenchantment that some of the designers had. Both the Mexican and Chinese ones.
ASR: [07:02] Disenchantment? In what way were they disenchanted?
Rodrigo: [07:05] As if, you are not there with passion, you are just there for the sake of being there. Yeah, we know that the company has to survive by making profitable decisions, but that doesn’t mean that it has to strip away all of its workers’ passion. They were excellent designers. I applaud them for their amazing capacity, yet I always devised this kind of detachment from what they were doing. Especially because they made us work incredibly long hours, for example, we stayed working at an office for three consecutive days, day-and-night. Without going back home. Without sleeping.
ASR: [07:55] Are you serious?
Rodrigo: [07:56] Yeah.
ASR: [07:57] Wow.
Rodrigo: [07:58] That was the first red flag for me. Well, also in Italy but not as much as here. I said, “Well, is this life for an architect? Is this what it really means? To be stressed to the limit?”
ASR: [08:17] That was in Shanghai?
Rodrigo: [08:19] This was in Beijing, and our boss, even though he was very tough, I liked him a lot because he taught me about the real world. That’s a big treasure that you can always learn from anyone, in my opinion. How the real world works, and how you’re going to fit your expectations in reality, like how are your plans going to be reached with the tools that you have here. That was cool.
I went back to Mexico. I worked and had an office in Mexico City, but this was; not less stressful, but less demanding. We again had to stay longer hours. Red flag number two. The work-life balance, I had never heard about that before. I realized at that time; in my case, of course, I was losing the passion that I had when I was younger. I just needed to finish everything as soon as possible, so that I could get home so that I could take transportations on time. This disenchantment process happened, even though there were also good things. The payment was not one of them [chuckles], but when you are starting, everything is like that.
ASR: [10:07] So the disenchantment was based on too much stress. Too little pay. Too many hours of work. No balance between personal and professional life. What about the quality of the work, was that something that fulfilled you?
Rodrigo: [10:26] I learnedhow to improve my skills at Revit, and my boss seemed to like what I did. Especially for garden design, because the section we worked for was a landscape architecture section. I had never done landscape architecture before, but I had to learn. That was nice. I love learning from other places and other perspectives because that’s the real treasure. Learning from real life is going to give you real-life tools to improve. It had good things of course, such as improving my skills, learning about the corporate world and travelling around when I could. In the end, the stress was way less than at the beginning because our boss left the office. He went to another place, and they cut the personnel. Another red-flag. Personnel cuts are common in architecture.
ASR: [11:51] So they just fire you?
Rodrigo: [11:56] Yeah, they fire you. In China, there’s not much of a problem. Our peers told us that if they get fired, that was not much of a problem, because there were other offices there that would hire them. But imagine as an architect in Italy, or Mexico, or the US. That’s not the case. Would you fire a lawyer that has the experience, or a lawyer from Cornell? No, but you can always fire an architect.
ASR: [12:32] I just want to clarify that you mentioned Cornell because eventually, you ended up going to Cornell. [Crosstalk]. We will talk about that later, so what happened there. You got fired, then what?
Rodrigo: [12:48] We didn’t get fired since it was an internship. We ended that internship, and they paid us at the last moment. Can you believe that? [Chuckles] Then I went back. I worked at an office in Mexico City, and I learnedmore from there. Not from the owners, but from the guy next to me who did almost all of the hard work. Then I graduated, and after I wanted to apply to a university in the USA because my life-long objective has always been living there. Not because I don’t like Mexico that much, but because I like it more there. A little bit of a background here. In my case, there is more social, economic, family, and even geographical similarities between Mexico and at least southern-USA, or even middle-USA, than with any country in the world. Even more than other Latin-American countries, because of the family ties that we created there. We are heavily connected with the USA.
ASR: [14:13] You have someone here in the US?
Rodrigo: [03:04] Yeah, I have family in the US and I would always go to visit them, and that’s why I also fell in love with architecture from America. My uncle would take me around these luxurious neighbourhoods where he lives, and he would teach me how the houses were built, and the wooden work. That was really amazing for me, to see a house being made, and I loved the architecture from that part. It was very modern. I liked it a lot. That’s why, between my desire to go there, my liking of the country, and my desire to be an architect. That’s why I decided to go to a university in the US. It’s very hard to get a job in the USA with a degree from Mexico, but if I enter a university, I might be able to work. I said, “I would rather wait and that might be easier. That might help me to get the job faster,’ because the other way is to work here for like 10 years, then apply and just pray that someone will hire you. It’s really hard.
I decided to work a little bit before applying. I started seeing the application process and requirements, such as the GRE, the essay, in our case, the English proficiency test, and of course the portfolio in architecture. The GRE and the portfolio were the hardest, followed by the essay, and the letters of recommendation because you have to make them with impeccable writing, grammar and syntax. Not only that but also getting the recommenders to follow the complex process for 10 different universities. Imagine for example saying, “Hey Evangelos, I want to enter this place. Can you please give me a recommendation letter? Oh, and can you please send them to these 10 different emails.” It’s social pressure in that sense, and personal pressure because you have to work.
I remember when I was working in Mexico City. I got this job, because of a man I met at a Harvard meeting in Mexico City. I wanted to apply to an Ivy League, because I knew that, “The better they sell you, the higher your chances were to be hired.” My objective was always to be hired. That was the main goal. If that could increase my chances, then I would do it. I also knew that they would give me scholarships for that. When I found this guy, I asked him if he could give me the opportunity to work with him. He said, “Yes, with pleasure,” and he contacted me with an architecture office he knew, because that guy was not an architect per se, he was more of an engineer. I worked at that office for 4 or 5 months, but then they closed temporarily. If I recall correctly, there were no projects at the time, so they took a break. It was perfect and the owners were great with me. I remember using every spare minute I had to open my book and study for the GRE. At a bus. At the station. At the subway. Everywhere, even going back home. One of my passions is also going to the gym. I do it for health reasons, both psychological and physical reasons. That helps me a lot. I have nothing bad in health terms thankfully, but I just enjoy doing that, because exercising helps me cope with this sadness that sometimes comes with this pressure. I would recommend some exercise here and there.
After that, I went to an in-person course, but I found it to be quite ineffective. In the sense that, it was a waste of time, of transportation, and it was not as good as online courses. That’s when I found you when I was looking for a way to make a good portfolio. I talked with my parents about the price, and they supported me, thankfully. Through this process, your insight was a treasure. Learning from those who are in the position that you want to be, or those who have gone already through the path you are going to go through is the best thing you can always do. That’s the best investment, and I knew it, so that’s why I wanted to go with you.
ASR: [21:02] Can you describe the process overall? What was it like for you?
Rodrigo: [21:05] When I met you if I recall correctly it was September or August.
ASR: [21:14] Yeah, probably September.
Rodrigo: [21:14] We had less than 5 months to prepare everything or the application deadline, which was December 31. I had already finished my GRE. That was the most intense exam I’ve studied for. 2 whole months, without going out, just dedicating myself to studying a new topic every day and every night.
ASR: [21:50] I remember we had many conversations where you were trying to figure out, how to do the work that I was giving you and at the same time, study for the GRE. It was a lot of negotiation [chuckles].
Rodrigo: [22:07] Oh yeah. I don’t remember when I presented the exam, I think it was in August.
ASR: [22:18] What about the process of the portfolio development?
Rodrigo: [22:23] After the GRE, I was less pressured and I started with the portfolio. Since both the portfolio and the GRE are the most important things, I had to decide what to do first, and I wanted to prioritize the portfolio. To do that, I had to take care of the exam first, so that I had free time to dedicate to the portfolio fulltime. When I met you, we had some informational interviews about my background, where I want to go, why I wanted to go there, and which projects I had to show in my portfolio. To create the best portfolio, we decided to first choose the 10 best universities. After that, read what they want. Read your client right, and they want innovation.
The educational quality from universities in Mexico is good, but it’s never gonna be as good as the Ivy League schools, or other schools in the USA, or Europe, or Australia, or Japan. I felt I had a disadvantage, and that’s magic that you did, turning the projects that I had into marketable projects. To analyse them, interpret what the selling points were, and improve those selling points through text and through the explanations so that the portfolio could be constructed around those main aspects. In my case, it was a mix of realistic and illuminative projects. Realistic because of the house that I had designed and had already been built, and illuminative, for example, the hotel that I did. That was a very crazy thing to dot. The first project we did, in fact, was the hotel. Also practical, for example, the hospital or the residential places at that time, so yeah, we tried to make a marketable label for me, so we could sell that to the universities throughout the portfolio.
ASR: [25:30] I just want to clarify, you are using a lot of marketing terms like marketable, but you mean digestible maybe by the admissions committee. Something in their language, so that they get it but at the same time that is competitive enough?
Rodrigo: [25:46] Correct, because at the end you are a product, you are a product that you want to sell to them, and you have to know your selling points. What are your advantages? What is your elevator pitch that you are going to explain at the start of your portfolio? You have to know what other competitors in the market have, so yeah it’s negotiating with them about your skills and your goals. In fact, I think that was one of the winning terms I found, that can heavily improve your chances to be accepted. What are you going to offer to them, to make them more recognised?
The last thing I did was the essay and the recommendation letters. I had to make the recommendation letters, and find the recommenders, which was my boss from China, my career director at the university and a friend of mine who was an architect too. The last thing I did was the essay, and in both the essay and the recommendation letters, my sister helped me a lot. I think it was because of her that I was accepted [chuckles] because she added something to the essay that I didn’t think about. When I saw it at the end I was like, “Why didn’t I think about it?” The thing she added was, “ What I would give back to the university at the end.” For example, I want to study here because at the end I want to become someone that can represent the university through his work and can greatly make the name of the university recognized. Again, negotiation. What are you going to give me, for what I’m going to give you?
ASR: [28:13] Can I ask you about the strategic work that we did. Can you talk a little bit about that, as far as trying to develop your strategy? Can you describe a little more specifically how we proceeded from there, as far as portfolio development?
Rodrigo: [28:34] We looked at my main selling points, creating a scheme of how the portfolio was going to be created. For example, taking the five best projects and knowing which ones to show first and last. It’s like a building, you first create the structure, which is the main points. Then you work on the decorations [chuckle]. On the walls and windows. You work on the drawings and the texts. The texts have to be small and concise. They have to be perfectly written using grammar, syntax, and orthography, because the smaller the text, the more they are going to focus on your ability to write, and your English proficiency. Even if you’re not an international student, they want to see that you can manage a good level of professionalism in language terms.
In regards to the projects, we had to devise a way to show the projects in the best way possible, and that was through the system we talked about before. The star system. First, we talk about the situation, for example, the hospital, what was the situation? We have people suffering from delirium since they are trapped inside the hospital every day and connectivity is low. Our task was to find a way to reduce the delirium and stress levels that make the patients stay longer in the hospitals. Also improving connectivity, and having that connection with the place. We have the situation, we have the task, so what’s the action? The situation and task are explained during the first 2 pages of the portfolio. Then in the next 2, we talked about what actions we implemented. So what did we do? We took the concept of the cross, and we took the concept of the Tree of Life which is native to this town, and we mixed them both create a colorful hospital with intersections that create internal lighting sections, and also improve the connectivity of the hospital. That’s the action, and how are you going to show that action? Through the results. The results are blueprints with some small explanation and renters. That’s the fourth page, the results. The fifth and sixth pages are the renters. The best renters you can get to show off the facility. Repeat that 5 times, and you have a portfolio [laughter].
Oh, I forgot something important. It’s something you taught me initially, and I reinforced with other professors at Cornell. Show yourself, not only as an architect, but show yourself at the end. If you have any other interesting things that you think may show your versatility and flexibility, show them. Did you do woodwork? Show everything you do. For example, I do video game art concepts. That’s something that I have also been doing, so I did it. I made this pretty foldable sword that can be printed in 3D and actually works, so I added it. At that time we added some ‘artistic things’. Some images and pencil drawings. The important thing here is to show your professional side and your human side, because that’s how you convince people, by attacking from both ends. You have to conquer their hearts, and you have to conquer their minds. How do you do that? Perfect text. A good and systematic explanation of your project, but also showing your passion. Through wording in the text, and through additional projects which you might be able to add at the end. Like 2 or 4 more slides. I think that we did the process.
ASR: [34:22] And overall, your evaluation of our process was good, bad, ugly, or what.
Rodrigo: [34:37] [Chuckle] Something that I value now more than ever, but even then is someone who can give a clear and methodical approach to your objectives. Meeting someone who knows what they’re doing. Who leads you step by step because sometimes you have this technical disassociation, where you are listening to their words, but you don’t know what they’re talking about. This happens a lot at universities, where the professor explains and explains, and yes you understand English, but you don’t understand his English. You don’t know what they’re talking about. You don’t know what a profitable schematic or a big data framework is. The beauty of being humble in the explanation is something that I really value and that I got with you. Methodically speaking, it was perfect, and to this day, I can still explain it. That’s the best teaching that one can have. It’s so simple yet effective, that up to this day, I know what we did and I still apply it, and I have taught it to other students of mine, in English.
ASR: [36:02] That’s really wonderful to hear. That’s what I live for. Also, to feel that I have the appropriate effect on someone’s life, I am very excited about that.
Rodrigo: [36:22] That’s what a good teacher does.
ASR: [36:33] Let’s talk a little bit about your experience with Cornell. You got in, and I remember that you were very excited to go. Cornell is a great school and you got into which program? The MS program to my recollection.
Rodrigo: [36:50] They changed the name now, but at that time in 2015, it was called Masters in Architecture II.
ASR: [37:00] Now it’s called what?
Rodrigo: [37:03] It changed because I recently checked for a job.
ASR: [37:09] Masters in Architecture 2. MS. Arch in many cases. It’s the post-professional 1 or 2-year degree. It’s research-based, right? Describe the program to me. Let’s describe the program a little bit, so it’s not studio-based, it’s other things.
Rodrigo: [37:38] It’s a one-year program divided into 2 semesters and 1 intensive semester. The first intensive semester, AKA 2 months of intensive work, is done in Manhattan. At that time, I think it was in 32nd street, so imagine me, I had only gone to New York City once in my life, and then I go again, but now living there.
ASR: [38:14] You lived there?
Rodrigo: [21:50] Yeah, I lived in Central Park, in 103rd street, and I had to go all the way down to the 32nd street. That’s a 40-minute ride, plus walking, and it was very hot. I’m not used to hot weather, despite living in Mexico, I live in a cold place, so I’m not used to hot weather at all.
ASR: [38:42] When I hear Mexico, my assumption is that you have sunshine all day.
Rodrigo: [38:50] People think that it’s hot here, but that’s because they have images of beaches and the desert in the North, but here near the centre, we’re at a higher altitude so it’s cold. My city is the coldest one in the country.
ASR: [39:07] Is it? Mexico is very high, you are absolutely right.
Rodrigo: [39:09] In fact there is a volcano here with snow, and we don’t use AC here [chuckles]. You may continue.
ASR: [39:22] Go back to the story, let’s talk about the real experience. You were saying that you were in New York and that you were studying there. Go ahead.
Rodrigo: [39:33] The first semester is divided into 2 months, and it’s just to be introduced into the 3 different focus areas that you would have to choose in your second semester. Being urbanism, ecological architecture, and theory. They send different professors to teach you. I must say that we didn’t have AC at that time because it didn’t work until the last day [chuckles]. That made the studies a little bit more difficult. That semester is done in the building, and it’s the only time that you are going to be next to all your peers. The 24 students that we were at that time, we were all together in that room. It’s a room only dedicated to architecture. You have to go through the 3 phases that I have mentioned, and they are going to grade you.
I don’t remember which ones went first, but we had urbanism with some very good architects and urbanist architects. For example, an Argentinian architect who does a lot of urbanism. Theory, that was cool because we had this woman come and explain the history of New York City. Why the city came to be the way it is, and the impact of different ideologies on the building of the city. For example, the mayor of New York during the sixties, going against the ideals that wanted everything to be conservative. It was cool to learn about that. For ecological architecture, we went on a field trip to Brooklyn if I remember correctly, near Dumba. We went to these offices that were working on different things that I had never seen before but were very nice. It was a very tall guy, and he was very cool. He taught us about ecological things, like these bricks that were self-sustainable and were made from trash.
We worked hard, and the last project we did was a boat. We gathered into teams of five, and we had to devise a way to create a new architecture school. That how do you devise a school of the 21st Century? We said, “Let’s make it a boat that goes around the world and recycles things whilst going on the trips, because of all the trash in the ocean.” Well, that’s regarding the job. Regarding the stress, it was incredibly tense. I remember some of my companions crying at times because they were very stressed. When they say intense work, they don’t joke around. You don’t do anything. I never visited New York. Only once, and that’s because they told us to go on a field trip, the field trip I told you, but I really didn’t see anything about New York City. That’s okay because we didn’t go there to travel, we went there to study.
ASR: [44:18] You saw the 70 streets between 32 and 103? That’s it?
ASR: [44:25] You know what, that’s really the best part of New York so you were lucky [laughter].
Rodrigo: [44:30] The good thing was that I had already visited New York City before, and as my dad says, “You have to focus on what you are doing. There is a time for everything.” My objective was to be hired, and I didn’t care about anything else.
ASR: [44:48] Then you moved to Ithaca?
Rodrigo: [44:52] Between stipends and the scholarships, they gave me 5 economical supports. 3 from Cornell and 2 from the country, but one of them was being a TA, and after having finished with the 2 intense months, we had 3 weeks to go to Ithaca to relax, before the semester started. Not for me though, I had to go there earlier because they wanted to give me a course, so I had only like 3 or 5 days to rest. Not even that, because I had to go quickly back to Ithaca. I had never been there, so I had to prepare the apartment and everything.
ASR: [45:55] To set up your living situation?
Rodrigo: [45:58] I had already prepared everything for the rent, but I had to go there to buy things because that’s also part of student life. Something that people sometimes don’t see. How do you prepare to sustain yourself? Do you know how to cook? You know how the transportation system works, in case you need something? For example, right now, students that can’t go out. How do to you think they are coping with themselves? That’s another important aspect of it. If you’re prepared to live by yourself, or if the place you have rented is near the university. All of those aspects also influence your student life quality. In my case, for example, the apartment I rented didn’t have AC, and its, “Oh, who needs it?”. But, it was very hot and you can’t sleep, and if you can’t sleep, you can’t study well. All of that. Even though it wasn’t that far, you have to look at the transportation systems, so you can use the most effective route, with the least amount of time possible. The time that you use to commute, that’s very important.
ASR: [47:48] Tell us a little bit about the curriculum. We will talk a little more later about the experience at Cornell. I also want to hear more about your experience as an architecture student, specifically at Cornell. After you have set up everything, how is it to be there day-to-day. Before that, let’s talk a little bit about the curriculum, the quality of education you got at that particular school. You said that you also received multiple types of scholarships. That could have added a little bit more pressure on you to maintain, but you also had responsibilities. You had to do a TAship and stuff like that. Talk a little bit about the curriculum there, what you liked, what you didn’t like, and also your experience as an architecture student on a day-to-day basis.
Rodrigo: [48:19] Regarding the curriculum, it’s incredible. If your objective is to learn the most innovative tendencies in architecture, or the most up-to-date research terms for architecture, that’s the place really. I had never seen something as amazing as I saw there, at that time. The curriculum is divided into four classes or credits and you have to choose. For example, you had 12 credits, and either you choose four classes of three credits each, or you choose one class of four credits and the rest to fill the credits. That’s the way it works there. The classes, you will have one main studio which is going to take 70% of your time or 80%. It’s very intense
ASR: [49:25] So you did have a studio?
Rodrigo: [49:27] I had a studio.
ASR: [49:28] That’s interesting because mostly, the type of program that you went to they don’t require a studio, but you had a studio.
Rodrigo: [49:42] Like a professional working studio?
ASR: [49:48] What I mean by that is the courses that you are supposed to take. For example, the similar program that you went through, at MIT the way my experience was, was that students that were in the Sparks program did not take studios. It was 100% research-based. It was a 2-year program and yet they did not do studios, it was 100% all about research on a very specialised subject. Some of them chose to take studios of course, but it was up to them, it was not required. Does Cornell require that you take studios as part of that program?
Rodrigo: [50:33] Yes. For the two subsequent semesters, you have to take the studio classes. You have different studio options and you have to pick one. they give you the catalogue, and you have to pick your studio and the rest of the classes that you have to take complimentary classes. The first studio I went to, was from this amazing wonderful teacher. A superb woman I admire, it’s Caroline O’Donnell.
ASR: [51:19] What was so great about her?
Rodrigo: [51:25] This is on a personal level. Her attitude reminded me a lot of home. People don’t know a lot about this, but Ireland and Mexico have a lot in common. Their way of being, we have a lot in common with them, and vice versa. It’s incredible, so when I met her I was like, “Oh my God, this is like being with family.” [Chuckle]. Not only that, she was intellectually superb. A very high quality of intellect that knew how to render you into a better student. She was demanding but I’m used to that because of Mexico. My mom and my sister are like her, and I was like. “I’m home.” Yeah, she really knew what she was doing. She was very good at teaching that, and she was supportive.
I had another professor, who was very smart. That’s the thing. people there, I think are the 98 to 99 percentile of the most intelligent people in the world working in architecture. You can see that not only in the quality of work and the quality of teachings but also in the quality of human interaction. They are sometimes where due to the difference of both wisdom and intellect, you cannot fix a proper communication path or talk in the same frequency as the other person. Whereas in this path, everyone knew what the other was thinking about. That was incredible, that people knew what you needed even before you told them. [Crosstalk]. It was very stressful, again. I think if I could summarize architecture in two words, playful stress. [Chuckles] [crosstalk].
From my complimentary classes, I had professors from Spain, with a very nice class about the theory of architecture buildings around the world, and trying to redraw them to extract, as I see it, the selling points of those architectural buildings. I must say that sometimes, because of the architecture thinking, it tends to be a little bit more metaphoric or even dreamy, in their explanation. Meaning that sometimes you don’t know what they’re talking about, and because of my family, they are physicians, so I’m very prone to liking direct and concise explanations. Be direct, don’t be telling me, “Oh the wind will blow at the …” No, it’s, “The facade has a system to take the wind and turn it into energy.” That’s all.
ASR: [55:12] You don’t like the elaborate explanations?
Rodrigo: [55:15] No, because there’s a time for everything and in teaching, I don’t think that’s the proper time to be talking like that unless it’s a creative thing.
ASR: [55:31] I just want to clarify, this lasted 2 semesters and you had a thesis?
Rodrigo: [55:42] No, there is no thesis requirement unless you are undergrad. They are required to write a thesis because the bachelor is a 4-year program, whereas our masters was a 1-year program. Since we already had our bachelors’, we all knew what we were there for. At least, that’s what I inferred from them, we were there to take a job, by taking our careers further or with connections. That’s why you go there, not only to learn from the most innovative but if you have the tools, take them. It’s not every day that you have the opportunity to be hired by a company in the US, especially now.
ASR: [56:28] Let me ask you this then. As far as that is concerned, as far as applying your skills in the professional world whilst you are a student? Number 1. Secondly as far as getting where you want to go in your career, do you feel that Cornell offered you the opportunities and the tools to do that?
Rodrigo: [56:52] The opportunity, yes of course. It will always depend on the person, the university can do much, but ultimately you have to do 80% of the work. You are the one who has to do the project to show that you were interested in. Yes, the tools are there that the university offers you, such as career referrals, the networking options and the online job offers. They are extremely helpful because they’re only focused on Cornell students. That’s a great advantage if you compare that to applying to Linked-In or Indeed, because there are jobs, especially for Cornell students, from very good firms. There were no jobs for international students all the time because of sponsorship, but there were and that’s very good.
ASR: [57:56] Your experience was to an extent defined by the fact that you were an international student. Defined by it, because of some hurdles that you had to go through?
Rodrigo: [58:13] It was defined not only by that, but also factors such as my personal economics because that affects how much you can move around to go to the interviews, and also your networking options. Everything that you have in your pocket, you have to use it at that time. That’s the part of the law, that 80% of your work is going to be applied to 20% of the time that you are at Cornell. I would dare to say that 98% of all the work that you have done so far in your life as an architect, is going to be applied in the 2% of your life at Cornell. That 2% it’s a career of everything that you have, you have to show it off.
ASR: [59:36] Let me ask you something else Rodrigo. I understand that you wanted to get a job and live in the US, but what was your goal as an architect? What was your dream as a young architect coming from Mexico? For your career, where did you want to be as an architect when you were like 60? Where did you want your career to end up?
Rodrigo: [01:00:04] Well I always wanted to make houses in the USA. I always liked the houses a lot. Since I was little, I would design them in the sand, in lego, in programs online. I designed one of them here, and then I designed another house before going to Cornell.
ASR: [01:00:37] You designed houses, which were built, before you came to the US?
Rodrigo: [01:00:47] The first one I designed whilst I was studying and it’s the one that was built. The other one, I just designed, I sold the blueprints to my client, and they liked it. It’s humble work, it’s fun, I really like doing houses a lot.
In Mexico, the architectural techniques are different to those in the USA, in the sense that in the USA they use a lot of woodwork. Maybe not in New York, but mostly in houses. Here we use brick, mortar, and cement, so I didn’t know how to do wooden houses. That was completely new to me, and that’s why I wanted to learn how to be an architect who would be able to make houses as they do in the USA. So I could both work there, and also export the idea here because some people here are still living in the postmodernism era, and that created a horrid view of the towns and cities. Because there was no urban design here. Everything grew organically, but without any controlled chaos, and so I wanted to change that by learning how to do the houses, working in the USA, and then applying those knowledge techniques to some terrains that I have here. I wanted to create some apartments and houses. I have some acres of land, and they are in a very good selling spot. My sister and I said, “Let’s do a clinic and some apartments. Small apartments of very good quality.” That is why I wanted to learn how to make these practical but beautiful places that would sell.
In that sense, I think that’s a point that Cornell lacks. Not in a sense that it’s a bad university. In no means, but in the sense that maybe sometimes instead of teaching you to run, they have to teach you how to walk. That means, teaching you how to make a simple house. Ok, we know how to make parametric design. Ok, we know how to implement these ideas and do market research on our terms, but hey, we don’t even know how to build with wood or mortar. Our first jobs aren’t going to be a hospital, that’s only for 0.2% of the architects. 80% of architects end up working in other areas unrelated to their field. 20% are going to be working in architecture, yet they are not going to make the designs. This is something I know because I have talked to the directors of the offices. The design is reserved for the main cats. You as an entry-level architect, the most important things that you have to know, is Revit and how to do structures. Structures and Revit, are the keys to having a job. Of course, you have to know drawing, but those things seem to be the most important things for offices. I can tell you this because I have applied to more than 300 offices. I went in person to do interviews to talk to the directors in Houston, in Mexico City, in Tennessee even. I went to Tennessee with a friend so he could help me to see if I could find a job there. Also in Houston, it was simple networking, friends, that’s the best option that you can have. You never know when the friend, of a friend, of a friend, can help you. I think sometimes universities need to have a hold. Land on the earth and be more humble. In the sense that you have to teach how to fly, and you have to teach the basics. They have the courses, but in our masters, it was more on research and theory. In no way is Cornell a bad university, if it was, it wouldn’t be the best university for undergraduates in architecture, and also for masters.
ASR: [01:06:02] It’s still a top-5 university for masters, and we have to underline that it was a Masters of Science. You already had a professional degree and maybe that’s why they didn’t introduce you as much to what you wanted to learn. Do you feel that even though you wanted to learn more about designing single-family homes and things like that, that you expressed that there and they did not help you find the right courses to study what’s necessary? Or do you feel that it just didn’t exist, that there was nothing available for you to learn what you needed for your career?
Rodrigo: [01:06:55] For my objectives, I don’t think that they were the best classes, to help me fulfil the objectives that I had. You have to know what companies want, and this is what I heard. You have to learn Revit which I already knew, not as an expert, but at least I knew. I was at that time the only one who had international working experience, already built projects, and I think I was the only one there who knew how to use Revit. As one friend told me, “ Cornell will help you reach your objectives, as long as you know what you want.” It’s like a catalyzer, but if you don’t know you’re going to be thrown into different classes without a clear objective and that’s dangerous.
ASR: [01:08:12] That’s the question that I’m asking. You knew what you wanted whilst you were there right? So what happened?
Rodrigo: [01:08:19] What happened is that it was a masters and it was mandatory to take a studio. The classes that would help me get to my objectives mostly were classes for undergraduates, but they were classes with the same amount of work level or even more than the studio, so it would be not practical at all to take them. Not because I didn’t want them, but because it was not a realistic option. Instead, I tried to take classes with 3 credits. The studios were 4 credits or 5 credits, and these other classes that I told you, some of them were 6 credits or 5 credits. They were heavy.
ASR: [01:09:17] So what are you saying? You are saying that it was too demanding for you to concentrate on what you needed because of the studio?
Rodrigo: [01:09:28] Yeah because the most important thing there was the studio because I needed the credits to show on my portfolio. That’s why I’m saying that it’s very important to see the commuting parts and the living part because that affects your availability to focus on doing your work. That’s why I couldn’t take other heavier classes, in my case. Not only because of where I was living but also because of the time availability. There were days that I would not go home.
ASR: [01:10:07] Did you live that far from the architecture school?
Rodrigo: [01:10:12] Not that far. In fact, I lived in the hills but it’s far walking. Even if you take the bus, it’s a long walk to the bus stop, then a long wait for the bus to arrive.
ASR: [01:10:34] Yeah, I know Cornell buses are terrible.
Rodrigo: [01:10:38] [Laughter] People can’t believe bat buses here are of very good quality. If you ever come here on vacation, take a bus. You feel like you are in the first class of an aeroplane. I wish I could say the same about the greyhound.
ASR: [01:11:10] Let’s go back to Cornell for a second. Your day-to-day experience there, did you at least enjoy it? Was it a fun thing? I know you had an incident with a fire, but we will talk about that later. As far as your day-to-day experience as an architecture student, was it something that you were excited about? Was it exhilarating or was it boring? How was it?
Rodrigo: [01:11:43] I asked several friends, “Why were they there?” I was very thankful for being in that university, and I still am, despite everything, but I didn’t have the passion anymore. I was just there for the sake of being there. It didn’t help that I got into a bad emotional state at the time, so I asked several of my friends if they were there because they like architecture? I always looked at them and they seemed to be unhappy, and some would even post online that, “I wish that I was working on the radio and blah blah blah.”
ASR: [01:12:45] What did they say? You asked them whilst you were there or you asked them later on?
Rodrigo: [01:112:53] I asked them if they were there because they liked architecture or because they wanted a job? Some of them said, “Yeah, I like architecture,” and you could see that they still had this passion for it. That was amazing to see people only focusing on the good things, that’s something to learn from that was very amazing. In my case, I still tried, I wanted to be an architect, but at that time after going through the bachelors and everything I went through. The stress more than anything…
ASR: [01:13:38] You feel that your friends that you were asking maybe had lost touch with reality as students there? Is that what you are saying to an extent? Meaning that they were there because of the love of the profession. They just forgot that they were studying to be professionals, and it was a matter of achieving some kind of success in the field?
Rodrigo: [01:14:02] As I see it there are two kinds of students. Those who are there because they like it, and what I mean is that they’re willing to go through economic problems, and they don’t care because they really have a passion. That’s something that one has to acknowledge, being willing to study architecture despite the lack of jobs sometimes, the slow job growth, and sometimes the horrid pay. In some cases of courses and in other countries too. If your passion is bigger than all of that, or if you already have a connection. Ok, go on, but if you don’t and you really don’t know how it is, you have to test your passion. It’s just like medicine, my sister also tells me that. They really love medicine, because for physicians it’s the same. It’s a very high-stress level, well the payment is better, but my sister has told me that you only enter to study medicine, only if you are passionate about it. If not, you will not make it through. It’s very hard. [Crosstalk]
ASR: [01:15:34] You lost your passion while you were at Cornell or before Cornell?
Rodrigo: [01:15:38] Even before.
ASR: [01:15:40] Before Cornell. You got in and you had your objective, which was to work in the US. That’s why you wanted to use that platform to get there. Do you feel that your work and your studies there suffered because you lacked that passion?
Rodrigo: [01:15:55] Yes but also some things at Cornell made me have this wonder again, and that was amazing. When I saw all the work that was there, I said, “Oh my God, so I can do these things?” But again you have to be practically realistic. How many hours of work it’s going to take you to learn that. Can you cope with all these different classes which are gonna demand this different amount of time? So you have to be very smart on which classes you take because one wants to be the Superman in academics right. That you can do everything but that’s not reality. You have to be very careful with your time management. That’s what I mean, so, you have to sacrifice some things to focus on another. In my case, I had to focus on the studio, not only because that was mandatory, but also because I needed the projects for my portfolio. If not, what would I have to show as my Cornell experience?
ASR: [01:17:06] A lot of people mention time management as the number one thing that makes a difference between a successful student, and an unsuccessful student. It sounds like you agree?
Rodrigo: [01:17:24] Time management. Stress Management too because it’s very stressful. I remember these days, I wouldn’t even go back home. I slept on the ground, at the studio, and I had to hide behind their desks because they have a policeman especially to see that there are no students sleeping during the night in the studio. But I would hide behind the desks, and just put a small pillow here.
ASR: [01:18:00] Isn’t the studio open 24 hours?
Rodrigo: [01:18:02] Supposedly not but you can go at any time.
ASR: [01:18:09] I remember at MIT, it was a thing. You would bring your sleeping bag and your little yoga mat, and you would sleep there.
Rodrigo: [01:18:22] That’s also fun, like camping.
ASR: [01:18:23] It was permitted, but it was mostly during finals. You said that you did that a lot during the semester?
Rodrigo: [01:18:29] Oh yeah.
ASR: [01:18:30] Oh wow.
Rodrigo: [01:18:31] Almost every night.
ASR: [01:18:32] Are you serious? Every night?
Rodrigo: [01:18:35] Yeah, there was no time, and that’s another point I wanted to talk to you about. I got jealous of other careers. With my friends from India, we would stare at the windows sometimes. Just because we were tired, and just looked at these people doing exercise, and we were like, “How the hell do they have time to do that? We don’t even have time to go back home?”
ASR: [01:19:04] Right, yeah.
Rodrigo: [01:19:06] That’s when this little bug entered my brain, that there are other careers with a better work-life balance and that might also pay more. But I was like, “Well, whatever, I’m here now.”
ASR: [01:19:23] You finished Cornell, then you entered the process of trying to position yourself in the professional world. That has been a journey for you? Talk about that, please.
Rodrigo: [01:19:40] In the second semester during the career fair, I was preparing my portfolio to show it to different companies. When you’re an international student, you can apply but there are fewer companies that use international students. Why? The money of course, but also availability, they don’t want to go through the process. Unfortunately, this fire thing happened. My apartment got destroyed and I lost all my data. I had to take a pre-saved portfolio from a computer. Thankfully there was a pre-saved version of my portfolio in a computer at the school. I had to rework again. I still applied, but at the end, I was only able to talk with one company. That was a company in Boston, and I went to Boston. Again, one has to be prepared to make these trips because they are a part of your expenses. Unfortunately, I learned that the company was not looking for international students, and that’s a risk.
ASR: [01:21:13] Didn’t they know when they asked you to go all the way to Boston, that you were an international student?
Rodrigo: [01:21:22] That’s what I said, “If you know who I am, then why invite me?” But that was okay.
ASR: [01:21:30] At least you got an opportunity to practice.
Rodrigo: [01:21:31] Exactly, it’s never a lost experience. It’s always a good experience.
ASR: [01:21:36] And it’s a good thing to also know that there is someone out there, that liked your portfolio. As far as your self-confidence is concerned.
Rodrigo: [01:21:45] Exactly, it helps to build it a lot and to just delve into the world of interviews. Even if you can go to a company, and just ask to talk to the director. That’s the best thing.
ASR: [01:22:09] Years later now, I believe it’s 5 years after graduating. 5 or 4 years? 5?
Rodrigo: [01:22:20] 4 years and 6 months, something like that.
ASR: [01:22:30] Four and a half years later, you are you’re back home again. You did not get a job in the US after graduation. You tried to get a job in Texas, you did not get a job there however you tried very hard as you told me. You returned because you wanted to be home. You described before, that the field in Mexico is even worse than in the US. It’s very hard to find a job, especially in your town, and in your city. It’s a large city, but it’s not necessarily ideal for architects. Now, where are you now? What is your status now, as far as architecture is concerned?
Rodrigo: [01:23:20] I had to return because my OPT time limit had already come, so I had to leave the country before that time. Never do something illegally, that’s something very important because that can hamper your chances of a visa and everything later. I came back home, and I continued applying and applying, but then ‘poof’. Between the dispassion that I felt and this burden of feelings that comes to you after 20 years of investing everything, I just let myself go. I still applied but not with the same amount of passion as I did before.
I applied in Mexico. It’s not bad here if you live in Mexico City or a big city, but if you’re in a city like mine, the architecture jobs here are sparse. The only way of finding a job as I’ve seen it here is going to Mexico City because that’s a big cat. That’s where the jobs are. I continued applying and I went for interviews. I had an interview from Callison in Texas, and I was in the second round of interviews back in 2017, if I recall correctly. On learning that I was an international candidate, that hampered my chances because of something I learned later on. Then I went to an interview, in an office in Mexico City.
ASR: [01:25:09] Let’s mention what you learned now. What was that?
Rodrigo: [01:25:14] When I went to Tennessee, I networked with this girl from Texas who was working in Dallas. She’s a Mexican American who told me the reality of things and helped me a lot with my CV. She told me what to put in the CV, for example, if you’re going to apply to a job in Texas, you have to change your address to Dallas. No matter if you have or not, because they want proximity. You just have to say that you’re there, and then you are there [laughter].
ASR: [01:25:54] I see [laughter]. That makes so much sense.
Rodrigo: [01:25:59] These are the little things that no one tells you, and she also told me that it’s not only me but hundreds of other people from foreign countries who want to get a job. We will not get hired, because speaking in terms of economics it’s not too wise. It won’t be profitable to hire a foreign worker because of the Visa process. It’s very expensive, sometimes more than the salary, and she told me the only way to get a job here if it’s not through the process of a university, is that you turned yourself into someone very useful for a company back in your country. Then move here, because the working Visas are given mostly to the supervisors. The big cats. Those who are a good investment for the company to bring to the US. She told me, “I didn’t have that problem because I have dual nationality.” Why? Because I think she married someone there. The truth is if you want to save time, marry someone.
Every single successful person that I have seen there that was a foreign student or worker, married to save time, and to avoid being deported and to continue with their dreams. That’s the reality, and one has to look at life like it is, with all the tools, not only the professional ones.
ASR: [01:27:48] There is another way to be successful from what you are saying?
Rodrigo: [01:27:56] Yeah, one has to see everything.
ASR: [01:28:01] Do something that is more practical perhaps? What do you think? Not retrospect. Looking back at your career, your education, and everything else, what are the things that you would do differently?
Rodrigo: [01:28:16] If I can be completely honest with you, I would have studied another career. After all of these years of research talking about people, successful people and not successful people, I came to a conclusion. That it’s true, if you want to succeed, the only good careers are engineering, medicine, nursing, and law. The other ones, yes they are useful, but you will have a great disadvantage. It’s not that I don’t like architecture, for example, yesterday I just did a small sketch for a house for a friend [chuckle]. That was fun, but the most important passion is life. How are you going to sustain yourself? That is something that worries me. That’s why I have to change now, I decided to change paths. I also wanted to be a physician, but it’s not practically feasible because I would have to spend 15 years from this point, to become a physician in the USA. I don’t want to tell you how much they pay the physician’s here in Mexico.
ASR: [01:29:43] Rodrigo it’s been a pleasure. I still love the work that you did in the past. I hope that you keep practising architecture, and if you study civil engineering, you are more hireable. The architectural education that you received will not go away. It’s not like you are gonna start to become a geologist or something. As an architect, you will be able to market yourself better perhaps with a civil engineering degree, which is what you are going to be pursuing now in Mexico.
I still feel that you were one of these people that had it, and it’s unfortunate because right now you’re saying that you lost the passion, but I remember how passionate you were about it. I think that it’s not lack of passion, it’s not lack of talent, it’s definitely not lack of effort on your side. I think it was something else circumstantial. I think the job environment in the US perhaps at that point, was not ideal for you. I think overall, the field of architecture is just a horrible horrible professional environment and just eats up the people that serve it essentially. A lot of things haven’t changed.
Rodrigo: [01:31:16] The field and the practice are not the same. Practicing it as a career, in my thoughts, it’s only for those who are really passionate because money follows passion and passion follows the money.
ASR: [01:31:31] Let’s not forget also, that aside from being passionate about it, you also have to have a way to sustain yourself. You’ve been talking about money a lot. You said, “I had to go to Boston, and I had to think about the fact that I had to pay for a trip there, just to go for an interview.” Where someone else would have said, “Yeah Boston, I took my car and I drove there, I don’t care.” You were at a huge disadvantage compared to someone who had money, so it’s perhaps a field that is designed for people who kind of have other ways to support themselves until they become successful architectures.
Rodrigo: [01:32:10] If I can say, I’ve been thinking about this a lot. In fact, I talked with a friend yesterday just about this. He was a lender for a bank in New Mexico, and he told me about this experience of a friend of his who was an architect and got fed up with this career at 40 years old. He said goodbye, after being treated as a slave. Something happens with a passion in this career, it’s dangerous for the passion. One has to be careful not to lose it. I’m not saying that architecture is bad, I’m saying that the field of architecture as a profession it’s dangerous. Not only because it’s not stable economically because the first jobs to be lost during a crisis are construction jobs and the petroleum engineering jobs. One has to take a look at that also.
Job stability is very important. One has to be careful to choose something that can sustain our souls. Something that moves the world because, that’s where the money comes from, and what I’ve been thinking is that, the only people in my experience, that can have the luxury to practise architecture are either those who already have a connection. Be it their family members or some kind of friends who already have an architecture firm, and know that they’re going to hire them. Or someone willing to give up everything else, their emotional stability, their economic stability, for the passion of building things. Of course, if you already have money, I think that’s the best treat. People who don’t have this worry about having money can focus on the artistic part of the area. Architecture is said to be the profession with the highest divorce rates, more than physicians. That’s something I don’t want for my life, I want also to have a work-life balance for my family.
In conclusion, Cornell was a splendid experience. I would not change it, but I would change my path because we don’t have all the time in the world. The older you get, the lower your chances are to be hired. One has to look at the world as it is. As you said, it’s cruel and one has to be very smart to overcome these problems, and if one is going to choose architecture, I really wish them the best. Just be smart, just be logical, and prepare the best network skills they can have, as well as the technical skills. What they want is someone who can solve their problems, especially structural problems, who knows Revit, and who can be reliable. Excellence in the work. That’s all I can think of.
ASR: [01:35:57] That’s a great endnote Rodrigo. Thank you so much for your time, this has been eye-opening.
Rodrigo: [01:36:05] No, thanks to you. It’s my pleasure.