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  • Shreya Shridhar

Precursors to Practice: To apprentice or architect?

Swarnavalli Natarajan

At the precipice of stepping out of architecture school, I find it curious how one considers themselves architect enough only when they have their own practice. Being an employee is hardly ever the goal. It is merely a necessary phase one must endure before being able to set up one’s own practice. But of course, not everyone can be the principal architect of a firm. Why, then, is it still the aspiration?

Dana Cuff explains this contradiction in her book Architecture: The Story of Practice. Architectural education, she says, is centred around the artist’s model. A result of this is how we ascribe works of architecture to the principal architect in most cases. This creates a false notion that the end product is the creative genius of an individual when almost always, there is a team involved. This friction between academia and practice is starkly felt when one transitions from being a student to a junior architect. Cuff uses the phrase ‘entry-level architect’ and not ‘apprentice’, as she says they are treated as architectural tools rather than architects. After a few years of working primarily as a draftsperson, one slowly moves up the ladder where they start acquiring responsibility for a project. Eventually, one starts out on their own to finally be considered a ‘full-fledged architect’. The current educational model encourages students to be the full-fledged architect, while in reality, the individual’s first job is expected to be as an apprentice. This begs the question of whether the goal of architectural education is to train one to be an apprentice or an architect.

If you intend to be Dana Cuff’s full-fledged architect, do you need to apprentice, or can you skip the long route from being an architectural-tool-to-architect to becoming the architect straightaway?

Of the 15 architectural offices visited in Ahmedabad, only five had directly started their practice without working in another firm. The other ten offices had either directly stated or suggested apprenticing. Khushboo Vyas, from Studio 4000 shared how she felt it was important to see a project through from start to end to understand the big picture of what the work entails. Brijesh Bhatha from Groundwork Architecture shared how working in HCP Design, Planning and Management for 10 years had made his transition into a practice a very smooth one. These practices spoke of how an apprenticeship provides one with a safety net to learn and make mistakes without putting oneself at stake. While the risk is indeed high when one directly starts practising out of architecture school, Vaissnavi Shukl would tell you that it is absolutely worth it. She started her own practice prior to a short period of freelancing, followed by a post-graduate degree in architecture. While she humbly admits that privilege was one of the reasons she could do so, she still recommends it as the learning curve is very steep. As she was in charge of everything, sure, she did have to hustle, but she learnt a lot more in a lesser span of time.

While certain offices recommend an apprenticeship to learn the job, some recommend it to learn how the practice works. For instance, Jayesh Hariyani from INI Design Studio shared how his time spent working in the United States influenced how he structured his practice. Through his time working in these large-scale offices, he realised how flat hierarchies help make an office thrive on its own, where the functioning of the office does not depend on the principals alone. On the other hand, many other practices spoke of how their mentors in their apprenticeship had heavily influenced their design processes. For instance, Jwalant Mahadevwala from AndBlack Design Studio shared how working with Zaha Hadid Architects helped him figure out his own style of parametric design. Similarly, Anand Sonecha, from SEAlab, shared how working with B.V. Doshi and Alvaro Siza has heavily influenced his design process. He spoke of how he learnt of slowness yet rigour in working from his two mentors. Along similar lines, Gurujith Singh Matharoo from Matharoo Associates highly recommended that one align themselves with someone they look up to early on. Having been extremely inspired by a sketch of Casa Kalman by Luigi Snozzi, Matharoo decided to work in his studio. Shortly after, he also worked with Giorgio Guscetti. He shared how his time there had helped him learn the craft of creating architecture as well as the functioning of an office. While starting his own practice, he only had to implement what he had already learnt. Bimal Patel, from HCP Design Planning and Management, also advocated to apprentice at any firm of one’s liking. As he put it, “ You learn how to be an apprentice, so be an apprentice.”

While the majority of the architects recommended apprenticeship, there are exceptions to this rule. Jagrut Patel from Jagrut and Partners started out on his own because he had a strong feeling that “everyone else was doing it wrong.” He did not like what many boutique practices seemed to be doing, serving a very small percentage of the population. He was keen on making an impact where most of the construction was currently happening - the real estate sector. Thus, he worked toward it.

Similarly, Compartment S4 also set out on its own as an 8-people partnership firm between friends fresh out of architecture school. They had worked on a few projects in the public sector as a student. After graduating, they realised their passion for continuing to do the same. More so because most architectural offices in Ahmedabad they felt were outdated. Thus, they took it upon themselves to strive to work with the government and rural areas, which many of the other practices were not doing.

While these two practices started out on their own to work toward a set goal, Apurva Amin candidly shared that he figured out early that he could not work for someone. When asked whether he would recommend the same to us, he simply said that it really depends on oneself. There is no one answer to the question of whether you should do an apprenticeship before you set out to become Dana Cuff’s ‘full-fledged architect’. One could reach that destination of becoming a full-fledged architect through many different paths. So fellow graduate, which one would you choose?

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