Architect-turned-contractor Siu-Pei Choi explains why pig-headedness is more important than schooling in would-be architects

Like so many architects, I let out a relieved and exhausted sigh on hearing, sat at my office desk, that I had passed my part lll exams. Surrounded by colleagues, most of whom had gone through the same gruelling journey I had just completed, it was a relief that finally it was over. I could start my new life as an architect. The elation was matched only by the sense of crashing back down to earth, business as usual, as I quickly turned my attention to juggling a spreadsheet to balance an accommodation schedule for whatever scheme I was working on at that time.

Siu-Pei Choi

Of course, those members of the Arb club should be rightly proud of their achievements, having worked through school, requisite GCSEs, A-levels, part l, part ll, part lll … It was a difficult journey, filled with terrifying crits, late evenings, nights that ran into days, and a yearning that if only life had a Ctrl-Alt-Del …

Not to reflect too negatively, studying did also have its high points – how many other university courses include spending hours on end making models, drawing and essentially letting one’s imagination take over?

And I made friends for life from my years as a student. It is inevitable that many architects’ social circles are formed of the friends forged in this relentless journey, with a shared sense of belonging, having made it out the other end. We then find ourselves looking for practices in which to launch our careers, which are outputting work that aligns with our interests and aesthetic sensibilities, and which are filled with like-minded people who share our values.

I often found myself spending weekends, and even planning holidays, with friends (inevitably architects) to visit and explore cities and look at architecture. We spent Friday evenings after work at the pub, where conversations eventually would veer towards architecture in some way. We played in the architecture softball league, inevitably to meet other architects.

Perhaps this was just the predetermined route of an architect’s life – but I feel it was fuelled more by my pig-headedness to complete the road to qualification than by anything else. And along the way, blinkered by sheer determination, we as a profession somehow forget that the world is not filled by people like us, who experience the environment similarly and whose brains have been forged by the years of university education to think a certain way.

I wonder how many fantastic architects we are losing to our profession because of the barriers we put up before their careers have even begun

Now, as I work contractor-side, I find myself among a much wider selection of people – those who have, yes, gone to university, but also those that have built successful careers from trainee schemes and apprenticeships or just simply by learning on the job. As well as making for an interesting mix, it better reflects the society that we are not only living in but building for.

While university is a great challenge for some, it is not for everyone. And I wonder how many fantastic architects we are losing to our profession because of the barriers we put up before their careers have even begun. 

As architects we are infinitely versatile, and our jobs require this of us: to have a flair for design and thinking visually, to consider building physics, to understand how we interact with spaces, to be good at organising, planning and problem-solving, as well as to recall statutory regulations and understand contracts. Many of these skills are innate and are not necessarily learnt or proven through qualifications studied at school. When I look back on my own education and career, I see clearly the benefits of learning from my peers, the mentoring and office osmosis which helped shape me to be the architect I am today – but I ponder the use I have had for the A-levels gained in physics and maths.

Perhaps it is time for architecture to embrace students who don’t take the conventional route to qualification but nonetheless have the skills required. To encourage a profession that is more inclusive and reflective of society, we need to accept into the architects club simply those who have the pig-headed determination to join it.