From a Highschool Student at UNIS, to B.Arch. Graduate at University of Southern California School of Architecture
“Every time that we started developing a project with ASR, we always started with a technique that I was interested in, or a subject that I was interested in, an artist that I was interested in, and everything grew from these interests, which was a very fulfilling experience, because it was not about an exterior object that you had to study. It became a tool to grow myself and my ideas and whatever it was that I wanted to produce.”
Thomas Espinos Interview
Thomas: [00:14] My name is Thomas Espinos. I’m originally from France, a very small village named Margès right around the corner of Lyon. When I was younger I moved around, mainly because of my dad’s job. I traveled around France, around Italy, and ended up doing most of my high school in New York. In New York, I was in a French high school, a pretty regular high school, living the New York life. My dad works in the fashion industry. He doesn’t design or anything, but I guess I had that connection with the design world. Mainly through my dad, and my mother who also designs websites for a living. That’s my background based on my family relations. When I was in New York, I really enjoyed to draw. That was the very first connection I had with architecture. Two forms of drawing, one which was more visual and more related to the city itself. So, a lot of sketching and that sort of stuff. Another one, which was a little more funky and unusual. I was really into comics, French comics, American comics not as much, also Japanese comics. That was also what drove me to drawing on a regular basis. When I was in high school, I was already interested in the Arts, also through music and other stuff like that. I didn’t really know about architecture. I didn’t know anyone that was an architect, or worked in that industry. I had very little background knowledge about this job. That’s how I first started learning about architecture, very late in the game. Late in the 11th grade. I started to get interested in the field, only because I thought of it as a safe way of being able to produce art, without necessarily living the very dangerous life of the artist. Which seems perilous and unregulated. You have to make your own way through it. I guess I needed a certain amount of structure to produce, and that’s when I started to be interested in the field of architecture, and started to look into it.
ASR: [03:32] Which school did you apply to?
Thomas [03:36] I applied mainly in the US because coming from Europe, my parents were very into that mindset of the American universities. They idolized the whole American system of education which now that I’ve been through five years of undergrad studies, seems a little weird to me. I applied to most of the Ivy League’s and a lot in California. Berkeley, USC, Cornell, Pratt, some others in the U.S. McGill in Canada and a lot in the UK also. Bath, RCA maybe. I can’t remember exactly, but that type of university, and 1 in France.
ASR: [04:52] What were your top-5 that you got into?
Thomas: [04:54] The top that I got into or that I wanted to get into?
ASR: [05:01] Your top-5 preferences that you got into?
Thomas: [05:04] Berkeley, Pratt, USC. Those were the top three. I don’t recollect the others [chuckle]. SCI-Arc, I forgot that one.
ASR: [05:31] What was the process we followed as far as applying and getting in? We worked together, you were one of our students, one of the better students [laughter]. What did you think about the process? Can you describe what role it played in your application?
Thomas: [05:55] It was interesting. It was a bit of a slap in the face. I don’t know if it was because all these processes emerge at the very last second. It was a lot of hard work, but that I enjoyed a lot. Mostly because when you’re in high school, the level of work is one of high school. But when you’re creating a portfolio for architecture, it sets you in the mood of the working process that I have today, a lot of extra hours. Most of the focus was on the creation of the portfolio, which we created five main projects. Each one was a very specific theme and was trying to target an aspect of architecture. The idea was also to morph those ideas with what was written on paper. All the essays that were produced for the different universities, always had a conversation with the visual imagery of what was produced.
ASR: [07:53] Briefly, before we go back to talking about your experience in architecture school. I want to ask about your opinion on the strategic part, which is the first step of our process. What we went through as part of building your strategy, beginning with project development. I don’t if you remember the Piranesi projects?
Thomas: [08:17] Yeah totally. That sticks with you for sure.
ASR: [08:23] If you can tell me, how do you think the strategic development process helped you? What was the effect on your application?
Thomas: [08:35] Those first projects gave me an idea of what architecture could be. It was the first thing that I had seen where architecture could be related to the Arts. Every time that we started a project, it always started with a technique that I was interested in, or a subject that I was interested in, or an artist that I was interested in. Everything grew from these interests, which was very fulfilling because architecture wasn’t just this exterior object that you had to study. It really became this tool to basically grow yourself, and your ideas, and whatever it is that you want to produce. That’s how I visualize it.
ASR: [09:43] What was the role of the statement of purpose in that whole process, remember?
Thomas: [09:50] What do you mean?
ASR: [09:51] The essay. Do you think it was a constructive tool?
Thomas: [10:00] Yeah, the idea was to create a persona that you wanted to be. So, in that sense, yeah. It’s funny because it’s really hard to describe yourself and encapsulate who you are, so it was really helpful. Not only to understand who you are, but to build that person. To generate that ideal that you have in mind, that person that you essentially want to build further in the future.
ASR: [10:42] Going back to architecture school. Let’s talk a little bit about your current experience. Talk to me about what about your life there at USC, it must be amazing, right? What’s a USC student’s life day-to-day?
Thomas: [10:57] All right, so it’s not all sunshine even though I’m in L.A. I had never been in Los Angeles before, it was a very new experience to me. It’s weird. It’s basically this landfill of concrete, that’s how I like to reference it as. USC has this huge campus in the very middle of the city, and it’s like a very small city of its own. It’s very easy to live in that bubble that is USC, and not necessarily experiment L.A. as L.A. That was my first year. I got pretty tired of that lifestyle pretty fast, and from that point on I moved out of USC. That first year I was living on campus, and after that I branched off.
USC is super comfortable. It has a ridiculous amount of utilities, and basically they have everything that you need, to produce whatever it is that you’re looking to produce. As a student, I have it good, it’s definitely a very good thing. Especially in the architectural world. A lot of schools out there don’t necessarily give students the tools that they need to produce their projects. The facilities there are amazing and I respect the school, it’s really great. The professors are very cool as well. They are very young, I was very surprised by how young the professors are at USC. It’s very easy to relate to them, because a lot of them are just coming out of graduate school. Which is a little shocking truthfully because you realize like, “Well, this person is only a few years older than me, but I guess they have so much more knowledge than I do.” When you look at other schools like SCI-Arc who have these huge archi-stars being actual professors, there is a certain gap and that respect, which I always thought was good and bad. Sometimes it doesn’t feel super reassuring to have a 26 year old telling you what’s up, but it’s also really great because it’s much easier to communicate with them. A lot of them have their own professions. A lot of the younger people surprisingly have their own offices, and have their own projects. They’re very hands-on and they understand how the industry works. Especially in this day and age, where architects are big corporates and people wouldn’t necessarily know them. Especially for a person like me who does not want to work in the corporate world, and probably wants to stay in L.A. I’m not sure, we can talk about this later.
Also, I like to compare USC to SCI-Arc because it’s so close. USC is a huge school. What’s great about architecture is that it opens doors to a multitude of other disciplines that you are able to explore in a school like USC. For example, right now I’m very interested in animation, 2D and 3D, and I’ve been able to take some classes. Not that much, but enough to get it. Some kind of head start over people that don’t take them, and get a glimpse of what that world looks like. A school like SCI-Arc, which is very much focused solely on architecture; very experimental architecture. Which is great and also super open, but you don’t necessarily have the possibility to explore all these other paths and options that you get at USC. So that’s really cool.
ASR: [16:04] What is your aspiration as an architect? What’s your goal in life, and is the university curriculum helping you work your way there?
Thomas: [16:27] So, I don’t want to be an architect. Which is probably the worst answer you would want in this podcast [laughter].
ASR: [16:36] What.
Thomas: [16:27] But I would recommend architectural studies to anyone who’s planning to not be an architect. I would recommend architectural studies.
ASR: [16:52] Yeah, let’s talk about that, but before we do, do you know what you want to be or not yet?
Thomas: [17:00] Not really. I’m still thinking about it.
ASR: [17:04] [Inaudible] Becoming and architect?
Thomas: [17:05] Yeah, that’s the one decision I’ve made.
ASR: [17:08] Now, let me understand that. Let’s deconstruct that answer. Does that mean you don’t want to become a licensed architect? You don’t want to get your license or do you not want to design buildings? What does that mean exactly?
ASR: [17:21] It’s a broad statement, and it doesn’t mean that I don’t want to work in the architectural world. It just means that I’m not looking to get my architectural license at the moment. I am looking into a different path right now, that doesn’t regiment themselves to the classic architectural vision. Like going directly into a firm, or doing architectural graduate studies soon as I’m done with this last semester. The large picture I do not have, but I am more interested into going into the art world. That’s for sure. That obviously doesn’t exclude architecture, that’s totally in that realm. Yeah, it’s very open and I’m still you looking for some directions.
ASR: [18:28] Right, so your intent is to experiment a little bit, and try different things, and see where you fit.
Thomas: [18:35] Yeah, exactly.
ASR: [18:35] Right. Do you have any sense of where you would fit or what makes you happy?
Thomas: [18:45] So right now, I applied to one school only for graduate studies. It’s RCA, so experimental animation. That program is really interesting because it’s very open to whatever background you originally have, mine being architecture. They basically work with you to mix both worlds. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it will be animation that will be used for architecture. I see my architectural design background as a basis for animation. That’s kind of what I have in mind. I’m still waiting for a response at the moment.
ASR: [19:43] This decision to go to the RCA for grad school. Is that based on that one course that you took in animation?
Thomas: [19:55] Not really, I was doing animation before that. That class was just an additional way for me to experiment more. I already had an idea of what I wanted to do with animation. It did help, it helped in the sense that it got me more connections with the animation world. Whether it be students or professors, and that definitely launched the conversation in a more serious way. I’d be showing my work and they would be like, “Yeah, that’s very interesting, maybe you should think about this more seriously.” That got me pumped a little and from that point on, I did think of it less as a pastime and more as a professional objective.
ASR: [20:58] Alright. So if you were to do that, which you will. What kind of technologies and what kind of skills do you feel that you’ll be able to transfer to your new pursuit, from the School of Architecture?
Thomas: [21:13] Yeah. I guess that’s also one thing at USC. If we’re talking of pure skills when it comes to using different software’s and all that, they don’t actually teach you any of that at USC. There are no classes, except one, which is Revit, at the very last semester of your fifth year. Except for that, you’re on your own. Over the years, I have learned a few software’s like MyA and all the Adobe Suites. That will definitely help me in the animation world. For all these years, I’ve also been sketching and drawing a lot for the sake of architecture, which is obviously super useful for that. I guess from the actual studying at USC, I took a lot of my projects with a very artistic lense. A lot of my projects are very conceptually driven, so they taught me more how to think rather than how to make a building. That’s very valuable to me. That was definitely the most valuable part of my studies within these five years. How to think individually and how to create concepts that I really care for. That will be driving not solely my aesthetic, but the way I see life in the future, and problem-solving obviously. That’s really what I’m taking with me if I were to go to RCA today.
ASR: [23:19] Can you elaborate on what you said about them helping you on how to think. Can you describe that in some way?
Thomas: [23:27] Right, so every semester we are given one main project, and a lot of the work that you produce there is work that you do by yourself. There aren’t many team projects, which is bad and good. You don’t get to work too much with other people, but you also get to really persevere in your own thoughts and your own way that you think. You basically work with one professor full-time, 3 days a week, 4 hours a session. It’s a lot of back and forth and every 2 weeks, you have one main presentation that you do in front of your professor, your whole class, and sometimes other architects that they bring as a jury. It’s a constant conversation and you just think about this one project for 3 to 4 months constantly, night and day. Before going to architecture school, I had never focused so much energy on one problem, like being able to focus on one objective for a long period of time. Being able to be given that opportunity, hoping to solve problems that are not necessarily prescribed in the problematic of the project itself. Whether they be social or cultural, it is really expanding your mind about what’s out there, and how to tackle all these things that you didn’t even necessarily know were part of the realm of design.
ASR: [26:05] “I learned how to think.” Can you be more specific?
Thomas: [26:06] You’re exposed to such a multitude of personalities that don’t necessarily understand the way you think and your background. A lot of the people they employ are not necessarily just architects. You have filmmakers, you have people that work more intensely in the structural compartment of architecture, and you have people that focus more on the social platform of architecture. Being able to converse with all these different individuals, gives you the opportunity to see things differently. Yeah, I don’t know. I should think about that question more often.
ASR: [28:00] Well, it’s an important question. First of all, the answer you have given me is probably due to the fact that you haven’t really thought about it in very concrete terms. I’m sure, having been through architectural education, I know that a lot of it is visceral. It’s certain things that you don’t really understand, they come out as you experience the world and you do things. Is that right?
Thomas: [28:31] Two things that I’ve taken from these studies and from the way these people approach the different thematics; well, first of all, there is a very humanistic approach, which I wasn’t necessarily exposed to before. A very altruistic vision of problem solving, so when you are creating it’s very much related to not you.
ASR: [29:21] There’s also a huge compromise of your vision, I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing for you. What do you think?
Thomas: [29:25] Yeah. No, I think it’s definitely a good thing. They really push you, and it can be very nerve-racking because you propose something, you think it looks good, you think it works out, and there is never a definite answer to anything that you’re producing. That’s what they let you know by always having a comment, being positive or negative. You just realize that you have very little control over your environment. This ability of being aware of that and being very grounded to this reality of knowing that you’re still learning, and even these professors they admit that they’re still learning and that there is no exact solution. I think that’s also a main part of this education system.
Also, they kind of throw you, not under the bus, but they let you figure out things for yourself. They try to give you a direction, but again, it’s just a conversation. They just give you clues and it’s for you to figure out the solutions themselves.
ASR: [31:10] They throw you in the water to see if you can swim.
Thomas: [31:12] Yeah, exactly.
ASR: [31:13] And that’s how you learn.
Thomas: [31:15] Yeah, that has saved me. Because of that, I’ve been able to explore all these other fields that I’m interested in, that are not restricted to architecture. They gave me that recipe of being okay with not knowing what it is I’m doing and just learning on the stag.
ASR: [31:40] It’s interesting. I always feel like the mind of the architect is very close to the mind of the classic entrepreneur. What do you think about that?
Thomas: [31:51] Yeah, definitely. You basically have to figure out everything for yourself, and if you don’t have the passion or if you don’t have the vigor, and you don’t take the time to do that… And learning by yourself, it’s not just tutorials and looking things up online. Creating social interaction is also part of that and basically, you are creating your own virtual company in your head.
ASR: [32:32] It’s like building a network of people that you trust, that you can ask questions, or just exchange ideas?
Thomas: [32:37] Right, that’s definitely part of it.
ASR: [32:29] I know your chosen career now or direction is animation. Does it have anything to do; by the way, I forgot to ask that, with the fact that you’re in L.A. and you want to be involved in the animation industry there or something like that?
Thomas: [32:57] A little bit. I mean the animation industry in L.A. is…
ASR: [33:03] Any professional exposure to animation in any of the studios there?
Thomas: [33:09] Zero. I have none whatsoever. This is a very new idea. Yeah, this is super recent. I decided that like 4 to 5 months ago.
ASR: [33:21] Does your dad know? [Laughter]
Thomas: [33:22] [Laughter] It’s in the process of…
ASR: [33:26] Maybe he will learn it through this video. [Laughter]
Thomas: [33:30] [Laughter] Yeah, I’ll send it to him. We’ve only had so many conversations about the subject. How should I put this, he’s not against it. He obviously reminds me that it’s a risk that I should be aware of, but he is supportive. Again, I did completely break it down to him. Also I’ve made it feel like I’m completely secluding the architectural world, but one of my first jobs will probably be in an architectural office. Because this is my skill set and this is what I do. For example, I was thinking of going to work for maybe rendering companies. Which is obviously related to architecture but is more on the aesthetic side of presentation rather than building. That’s a step towards my other objective, so the way I explained it to him was not that I’m not following an architectural career, but this is what I’m interested in and I’m going to pursue it, and it’s going to be a mix-mash of everything that I’ve acquired so far.
ASR: [35:18] So it’s a detour perhaps, and may lead to something.
Thomas: [35:23] Yeah, and if it doesn’t work out, I don’t see; especially in these times where it’s like the worst moment to find a job, especially in the architectural industry. I don’t really see this as a problem.
ASR: [35:44] A couple months ago, but now yeah, because of the Coronavirus?
Thomas: [35:49] Yeah because of Corona.
ASR: [35:50] So have you seen any other people in your department that have decided to choose a career that is not traditionally architectural? Perhaps going into something yours or do set design or just design?
Thomas: [36:08] Yeah. Well surprisingly not that many. I feel that students at USC have a pretty corporate set of mind. A lot of the internships that my friends have been taking are very much related to architecture, and mostly in big architectural firms. Very corporate firms. So yeah, surprisingly not that many. A few are actually becoming artists. I have a friend of mine that’s two years older than me that has been traveling the world. He graduated from USC Architectural School two years ago. And now he’s basically traveling the world. Going from residency to residency to become an artist, but I guess that’s the only case that I’ve witnessed in the yeah in the architectural school at USC.
ASR: [37:12] Is that an approach that would interest you, to have a more artist-in-residence approach?
Thomas: [37:19] Yeah, totally. That’s what I was looking into, until all of this fiasco with the Coronavirus started. I was planning on taking a year and going around and applying to residences because it’s such a great way to keep exploring what it is that you want to do, with funds that they provide. That’s really great.
ASR: [37:56] Did you do any internships, and if yes, were they informative? In what way? And were they in some way responsible for your decision to change careers?
Thomas: [38:09] Yeah for sure. That was a big part actually. My first internship was in second year. It was at Frank Gehry’s, in their office in Los Angeles. That was really great. That was my only corporate experience, and that’s probably the best or most fun corporate experience that you can have. That lasted 2 to 3 months.
ASR: [38:38] I want to talk about your experience at Frank Gehry’s? How was it?
Thomas: [38:49] That was awesome man, it was really cool.
ASR: [38:52] What about it?
Thomas: [38:54] They really immerse you in their projects. They don’t really set you aside, so you are there the whole time with the architecture professionals and Gehry himself sometimes. You are in the meetings, you are producing with them. Obviously it was my second year, I wasn’t designing, but a lot of creations of Micats, creations of drawings. They really trust you, you really have a role there, and that was only after 2 years of studies. You do have a certain amount of responsibility as an intern, so the whole time that I was there I worked on one main project. Which is the extension of the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris. I don’t know if you saw, they are building this secondary building right next to the foundation. Right now it’s under construction. It was super interesting. I think what was really cool, was that… Well conversation with Gehry was obviously the coolest part, but I never hoped to get that internship. I didn’t think that was going to be a possibility, and when you get there, they really trust your judgment on stuff. I was super young so you learn a lot, model making, techniques, small things, but that as a second year you don’t get to do. That was a really good first experience in the architectural world and again a super big office.
The next internship that I wanted to do, I wanted to try something completely different. Their office is around 300 workers, and the next summer I worked in this small firm called Malka Architecture. Which is only comprised of 4 to 5 individuals. I wanted to try it out because I wanted to see the difference between a very corporate firm and a smaller firm. Where you had more contact with the individuals and had a closer responsibility towards design and the projects themselves. That wasn’t the best experience. It’s a small firm in Paris, and it wasn’t as great because there are way more opportunities in the architectural field in the U.S. than Europe. So in Europe, if you don’t have a lot of experience, they take advantage of your working hours. The 2 months that I stayed there, it wasn’t a paid internship unlike Gehry’s and they gave me a lot of work. A ridiculous amount of work that you wouldn’t trust a 20 year old with. I had no idea what I was doing, and I didn’t understand how they trusted me with these things. I was basically left alone in their office for a full month, by myself. No-one was there.
ASR: [38:51] [Laughter]
Thomas: [38:52] It was just ridiculous. I was looking at that dude’s Instagram. He was telling me, “Oh, I’m on a business trip.” I followed him on Instagram, that dude was in Monaco and Saint-Tropez, Ibiza. Like dude are you freaking kidding me, this is insane. I didn’t work in a small office in L.A. but I have seen my other friends do so in California. There is a very strong relation between the professors and the students at USC, and a lot of the students go work for the professors. From what I’ve heard, it’s always a very amicable environment. They understand that you are a student, so even though you are working for them, they follow you and explain every step of the process. That’s really cool. I didn’t get to have that experience, but I’ve learned that you should keep closer contact with the people that are teaching you if you want to learn more hands-on.
ASR: [44:02] So Malka was the last office that you worked at ever?
Thomas: [44:07] Yeah. After that the next summer I wanted to just work on personal projects. Yeah, that was the last summer.
ASR: [44:15] What kind of projects did you work on?
Thomas: [44:18] I was doing this animation clip for a friend of mine who does music, so that took me a while, and travelling also.
ASR: [44:32] Do you feel that it actually prepares people for a career, or is the education that you received truly philosophical there’s people for a career? That’s kind of leading the witness, but I’m just curious what you think.
Thomas: [44:44] I think that you can take it both ways. It depends what it is that you want to do. I took a philosophical approach, but they give you the resources. Not necessarily in terms of classes, but they give you the information that you need if you wanted for example, to pass your license in the next year. They do prep you for that world.
ASR: [45:28] Apart from that, the license is one thing, but I’m talking about professional practice as well as other skills that are transferable more easily to other professions?
Thomas: [45:42] I think that really came at the end of the studies, so like fourth and fifth year. I think you can take them to different grades of seriousness. The standards of what they are asking is not necessarily as much as you would hope for. Before coming to architectural school, I really thought that when coming out I would be able to build a building from scratch, and completely understand every step of the way, and be aware of all these things. But the thing is that, all that which encompasses the construction of a building, the amount of knowledge that you need is so broad, and so large, and so specific to each case. You come out with a general understanding of all of these notions, but you don’t necessarily feel super confident [laughter] or as confident as you would leave hoped to be when starting the whole undergraduate experience. It’s not the same as in Europe. I did a semester abroad in Barcelona and we were at this university called La Salle. A lot of the students went through an 8 to 10 year-long; I don’t know what it’s called, but by the end of it you are an architect. From what I have seen, in terms of what they were producing, it clearly seemed like they had more technical knowledge than we did at USC. It was a little scary [chuckle].
ASR: [47:59] Was that combining an internship with academic work as well?
Thomas: [48:07] Well they definitely do that in Europe in general, but even in terms of their classes, like was definitely more Pro-prac courses.
ASR: [48:20] It’s a little easier in Europe to become an architect in terms of licensure requirements, so maybe that’s part of why.
Thomas: [48:27] It wasn’t even the test itself, but…
ASR: [47:59] It was the knowledge of the field.
Thomas: [47:59] Yeah, the attitude they had towards design in general wasn’t as open, in terms of design, and, creation and personal involvement within that whole thing. It was just super technical and kind of raw.
ASR: [49:02] From the work that we did and all the things that you went through there, what do you think you carried with you to architecture school?
Thomas: [49:08] Yeah. Well, I must tell you that that Piranesi project really stuck with me. I really loved it. But first of all, the workflow. I think I said it before, being able to create for yourself. Creating something that’s meaningful, that was the first thing that I took from that experience with you, and if you believe in these projects, taking the time to produce them to a certain level that you think is acceptable. Which often is rare to find one’s own work acceptable. I don’t know. It was really about the discipline. The whole discipline of the whole workflow. The creation of the projects themselves, I feel like when you get into architectural school, changes a lot. Just because of the people that you work with and the expectations of the professors, but essentially the way we approached the different thematics that we were interested in is not so different. Those are main 2 points that I’ve kept.
I was never assured of that path of going to animation school. I’ve had this conversation with a lot of people which is, if I start doing another set of studies which is animation. It’s going to basically be exactly what I’ve been experimenting with architecture right now. Which is, they are giving me this set of tools, but the tools themselves don’t really matter. It doesn’t really matter what it is that you’re using, as long as the ideas are clear and what you interpret is broad enough that you can encompass your own interests.
ASR: [51:24] There are many examples of that to, of people who are very successful animators without knowing how to use the right tools.
Thomas: [51:31] That’s totally it. Again, all the people around me that I believe have what it takes to be great architects, most of them, they don’t say that they hate architecture but they don’t like to narrow mind the definition of architecture as, “I’m an architect.” The idea of being a ‘designer’ is more important and valuable in one’s own growth.