What is Architecture…

Ever since last week’s #Architalks post I’ve been incessantly pestered with people telling me to talk about my first school project. “Brady, we know you hate decks, but PLEASE tell us about your first architecture school project!” 

OK. I lied. That was a completely fabricated conversation from my blogging fantasy land.|1| No one has commented or said anything to me, because talking about your first architecture school project is similar to people talking about their fantasy football team, or what their child did during preschool. Nobody really cares unless they also have a fantasy team, or their own child had a Play-Doh incident as well! And they only care long enough before they interject with their own story about said subject matter.

There were a few stellar #Architalks posts, especially Bob Borson’s hand-drafted eyeglass store, and Eric Wittman’s first critique. So here is my interjection about my first architecture project.

My First Project

Pencil sketch recreation with MS Paint media

Pencil sketch recreation with MS Paint media

My first day in Architecture school we were told “forget everything you learned in high school.” We were also given our first project. On an 11×14 sheet of Strathmore Hot-Pressed paper describe, draw, paint, or macaroni-noodle glue (use your creativity) “What is Architecture?” – using any media.

This first project may be the most valuable project in my entire education. Not only did it force me to “forget everything I learned prior.” But I continually re-address “What is Architecture?”

For this project I drew (with a pencil) an MC Escher-esque hand (holding a pencil) with the words What is Architecture… The drawn pencil appeared stalled on the (dot) (dot) (dot) – because I interpreted architecture to be broad and open to interpretation.

While praise was not instantly heaped upon me by my fellow wide-eyed peers – it was still a really good drawing. I received a few modest comments such as, “Brady, how long did that take you. That’s really good. I bet you’ll get an A.” Quietly down the hall someone was softly strumming a harp.

The next day in Studio, I beamingly placed my masterpiece on the wall for critique. Unlike other classmates who jammed X-acto knives into the corners of their Strathmore paper, I delicately inserted T-pins at astute angles to hold my magnum opus on the wall without unsightly pin-holes.

I anxiously awaited for the professor to approach my drawing. Yes! She’s pausing…
However, the words out of her mouth were not the fanfare I was anticipating. She, seemingly, interpreted my trailing (dot) (dot) (dot) to be more like (hmm) (hmm) (yawnnn). 

Years later I always thought I should have spent only 5 minutes on the project and nicely stenciled|2| the words What is Architecture… – Just those words on a an entirely blank sheet of paper.

However, now I realize that words on a piece of paper are equivalent to Color 13 AutoCAD Polylines on a computer screen. Albeit a beautiful color, they are not yet architecture. If you took the piece of paper and simply folded it – it’d be more like architecture – but still sculpture. I’m not sure if you can actually define architecture with a piece of paper.

Paul Shepheard’s book What is Architecture?: An Essay on Landscapes, Buildings, and Machines describes the basic form of architecture to encompass:

“…chimps, sit in the downpour [rain] trying to keep the ground dry with their bums… all because they haven’t figured out how to build umbrellas. Umbrellas? Umbrellas are a mutant form of the desire to stay dry; umbrellas are a part of architecture.”

-Paul Shepheard


Initially, architecture simply had to protect you from the elements. Now, architecture has evolved beyond shelter. While it still encompasses umbrellas, architecture is the improvement of one’s life through the experiences and interactions within the built environment.

Around the 15th century B.C., Vitruvius wrote the classical treatise on architecture – De architectura. This seminal book was divided into 10 sections (or books) with the breadth spanning almost all Roman architectural and engineering achievements. 

Vitruvius had much to say regarding buildings, but he also states (in books 8 through 10) that architecture is concerned with machines and sundials.|3| If Architecture is sundials, then architecture must also concern itself with the revolution of the Earth around the Sun. Therefore, architecture is light, shadow, time, and experience.

Architecture transcends the 2D piece of paper (graphic design) and even transcends the 3D fold of paper (sculpture). Architecture is the 4th dimension of experience, and great architecture incorporates the 5th dimension of time.




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1 My fantasy land contains late night swims with Le Corbusier, and then Frank Lloyd Wright giving me his cape to dry off.
2 Especially Neutraface font.
3 I am still holding out hope for Apple to produce an iSundial.


  1. Great post, Brady. Your writing style is fun and engaging. It’s an interesting moment when you realize something about your earlier education as you’ve described in the post.

    I remember a crit I had once where I focused all of my effort in plan. All of my project’s boundaries were perfectly in sync with the site context and the formal concept I had created. At the review, a guest asked, “your overall scheme is fascinating, but did you ever look up?”

    I realized after all of the care I had poured over the project that I had completely neglected section and elevation. Sure, I had them as drawings, but I didn’t really have a building – just a floor plan. I love these moments though because sometimes they’re the times when we learn the most.

    • brady ernst

      Thanks Michael,

      More and more I really think everyone should be required to take 1 architecture class – just for the critiques alone.

      But I’m glad you’re looking up now…

  2. José Daniel

    Hi brady, thanks for the post, in my case the first project was an abstract interpretation of the parthenon, it was hard to imagine what will you make in that first day, now that I think about it, it was a really good first lesson

    • brady ernst

      Thanks José.

      Now I’m curious what an abstracted Parthenon looks like.
      Perhaps Bernard Tschumi also was in your class – if not, it probably would’ve helped him design the New Acropolis Museum.

      • José Daniel

        Mine looked like a deconstructed version. I doubt it, I´m following you from Venezuela haha.

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