Architecture: Make Your Mark On The Skyline

Architecture gives you the opportunity to build your own career path.
Click to follow
The Independent Online

When you've lived in the same village, town or city for the best part of your life, you tend to forget to look up and take in your surroundings. But wherever you live, there's bound to be some works of great architecture on your doorstep. Whether it's a chocolate-box, 18th-century cottage; a stately Edwardian townhouse; or the high-tech glass and steel Gherkin of central London, you're never far away from an architectural gem.

That's something Ellen Gadsden knows all too well. As a child, her architect technician father took her on trips around cathedrals and other buildings that impressed her so much she went on to study architecture at the University of Nottingham. Now doing a second year-out at Foster and Partners (responsible for the Gherkin, pictured right), between the first and second part of her architect's qualifications, she says it was the combination of mathematics, art and design that attracted her to the subject. "It was a way of encompassing the three subjects I loved. It can be very arts-based but it can also be maths-based. That depends on the university you choose and the choices you make," she explains.

Becoming an architect is a long trip, starting with a three-year course approved by RIBA (the Royal Institute of British Architects), which usually takes the form of a BA or BArch. From there, students are expected to work for a year in an architect's practice before taking a two-year diploma. After a second year out, following a project through from concept to construction and keeping a diary known as a PEDR form, comes the final test. This is a series of exams based on the work you've been doing and skills you've learnt over the past seven years.

But, says Gadsden, it's not all study, study, study - and the fact that she's extended her first year out, stretching her training to eight years, shows just how much she's enjoying it. "I like learning how everything works. You can be very naïve at university, thinking that you can just go into an office, design a building, and that's it," she says. "Of course, it doesn't work like that. It's about going to meetings, seeing how things work, learning the politics of it all."

Because she's at a large, prestigious company, Gadsden is working on multimillion-pound projects, including the new terminal at Heathrow, but many of her friends are in smaller practices working on loft conversions in private homes. When she qualifies, Gadsden hopes to set up in business with a group of designers and architects, working on everything from installations to building designs. It's a broad scope - but an architecture course is broader than you might think.

For those who don't fancy the whole seven-year stretch, a first degree will teach the technical drawing and design skills needed for a wide range of creative careers, as well as increasing your knowledge of influential architects and architecture styles. Even if you don't go on to the second part of the architect's qualifications, you may find work as an interior designer, architectural assistant or journalist, while computer skills could lead to a career in information technology and knowledge of landscape architecture could see you working in conservation.

You could also train as an architectural technician or technologist, who apply building technology to designs, select building materials and methods of construction, and look at how the building will work when in use. Technicians are highly skilled in information gathering and collating and recording data, while technologists contribute to the design and construction process and are involved in contract management, certification and the post-construction process.

Drawing, computer, mathematics and science skills are as important as they are for architects, and architectural technologists do carry out much of the same work as architects. But the entry requirements are more forgiving: a three-year degree in architectural technology is sufficient.

Becoming a landscape architect, on the other hand, can take as long as training to be an architect, although a first degree may be enough to get you started. And the two careers are more similar than you might think. Although the landscape architecture BSc tends to involve some horticultural education, it can be much more about shaping our cities than our natural spaces. Students who specialise in urban landscapes may go on to remodel disused industrial sites, design retail and business parks, or even give a new look to a city centre - as with Manchester's Millennium Quarter, created after the 1996 IRA bomb.

Working closely with architects, civil engineers and town planners, landscape architects consult residents, businesses, workers and other people who use the site, discuss plans with clients and draw up designs using computer-aided design (CAD) packages, in much the same way as architects. "It's all computer-based," says Gadsden. "When you go to university now they have great IT equipment. But even when I started, four years ago, we still had drawing lessons." At Foster and Partners, all the work is CAD-based - but then, with the company's projects ranging from the structurally challenging Gherkin to London's asymmetric, glass-fronted City Hall (left) and the once-wobbly Millennium Bridge, such technology is a must. Before CAD programmes were invented, such designs would have been impossible, even for the most talented structural engineer.

Of course, architecture isn't all about creating state-of-the-art show-stoppers for Britain's skylines. About 80 per cent work in private architectural practices, most of which are small- or medium-sized firms. Projects can range from turning a Victorian warehouse into luxury flats to restoring a 17th-century castle.

Architects often work closely with structural engineers, who have great mathematical and scientific knowledge of how buildings work, and will ensure that the architect's designs won't fall down, crack or leak in the real world. Even once designs have been planned, they need the approval not just of the client, but also of local planning and business control departments, which try to ensure that new buildings will benefit the local community.

The architect then goes on to produce detailed drawings for the builders, often aided by architectural technologists, in close collaboration with interior designers. They regularly visit the site to inspect the work of the builders and make sure everything is going according to plan.

It was challenges such as these that inspired Gadsden to study architecture. She had always been attracted to model-making, but soon found out that there are many more facets to the subject. For the final project of her BArch she decided on a philosophical subject. "I didn't even make a model of a building," she laughs. "It was quite way-out."

Gadsden is now trying to decide where to study the second part of her architect's qualification. Since only 36 schools are recognised by RIBA and the Architects Registration Board, architect students have less choice than most - but there's still a healthy wad of prospectuses to wade through.

"I've been to Nottingham and I know about it. I love the city but I want to try somewhere new," she says. Fortunately, with architecture, there are always new challenges and there is always something new to learn.