The secret to becoming the world's greatest architect

Lessons shared over Legos.

We’ve been building a lot of things with Legos around here lately.

You see, when you’ve got young kids these days, there’s not much else to do. We can’t go to the library. We can’t go to the park. We can’t have a playdate with friends, go to school, go to a museum, go to… well, you get the idea. The options are limited.

In a masterful stroke of lucky timing, however, just a couple of months ago I was blessed with the motherlode. My parents came down from Ohio to visit, and my mother, a wonderful woman who has never thrown out a single thing, brought down several large boxes of my childhood Legos. These blocks sat in their basement for nearly three decades just waiting for this particular moment.

(If anyone was going to be prepared for this pandemic, it was my mom. You should see her wash her hands.)

I kept them tucked away on my basement workbench for several months, not quite ready to unleash the mess two preschoolers could make with them, let alone their inevitable nighttime foot-destroying power. After what seemed like seventeen rainy days in a row, though, out they came, a Hail Mary attempt to stop the merciless advances of Screen Time. (You can only watch so many episodes of Wild Kratts.)

Right now, my son is at the surely-fleeting stage where he thinks that whatever his father does is cool, and so he’s adamant: he’s going to be an architect. Now, I’m convinced there are two kinds of parents: those arrogant enough to want their kids to follow in their footsteps, and those self-aware enough to want anything but that. I count myself firmly in the latter camp, but he’s about 14 years away from declaring a major, so for the time being I’m just appreciating that someone thinks I’m cool. So we build. And build. And build. I don’t need an alarm clock any more; I have the sound of plastic blocks hitting the floor as my rooster at daybreak. The building begins at dawn.

Often, I’ll hear a crash from the other room, and he soon appears, fists balled in anger. A design has failed, and he’s frustrated.

“I’ll never be an architect like you!”, he despairs. 

First of all: I’m not that good of an architect. Ask my coworkers and clients.

Second, I want to explain that being an architect isn’t what he thinks it is, that like almost anything else in the adult world, it can be fulfilling and fun at times, and frustrating and dispiriting in others.

My first real-world project when I got out of school was a new subway station in New York City. I spent six months on the project before it was cancelled, and two more months after it was cancelled, because that’s how transit authority budgets work. I worked on a skyscraper that was completed six years after I was laid off from the job. I worked on an ambitious house where the client abruptly died in the middle of construction. I’ve had some projects built and twice as many not; big plans delayed, watered-down, shrunk in scope, value-engineered to a shadow of themselves, or outright abandoned.

He doesn’t need to know any of these things yet. Kids are finding out plenty of bad things about the world right now; there’s no sense in explaining more of them just yet.

So instead, I’ll sit him down and give my rules of architecture:

  • Columns are only there to look cool. Structural engineers will try to convince you that they actually hold the roof up, but that’s the roof’s job. The ancient Greeks understood this and people still travel to see their buildings even after the roofs fell off. Put them where you want.

Parthenon, East Facade
  • If you don’t put wings on your building, it’s not going to fly. It may not fly anyways, but it definitely don’t if you don’t put wings on it. Why limit yourself?

  • You should always have a cannon on your building, because pirates are everywhere and it’s best if you’re one of them.

  • Every building should have at least one secret room, preferably more.

    wait, when you disappear in the middle of the day—

    yes I am crying in the crawl space. next rule

  • Stairs: No one uses them, so they don’t have to go anywhere. Just make them look cool.

  • Can buildings have eyes? Yes. Look at the back of a dollar bill. (We’ll talk about treasure hunts next week.)

  • Part of old buildings can be reused for new buildings. This is true with the Hearst Tower, the Tate Modern, and the castle we’re building on the moon.

An historic facade forms the base of the Hearst Tower. (Simon King ...
  • Put wheels on the roof in case your building flips over. It will be embarrassed and want to get away quickly.

  • Almost no one succeeds on anything on the first try, and if they do it’s probably luck, and the second go-around will straighten out those odds for them. You have to believe in what you’re doing and be patient. Success will come.

  • Things will fall down; pick them up. (Seriously. Pick them up. I’m tired of stepping on them.)

  • You can’t control everything, and sometimes an idea just can’t be made to work; that doesn’t mean it was a failure. It means you need to stick with it long enough to learn why it didn’t work and use that knowledge on the next one.

  • Put another cannon on the wing. I think I saw some pirates hanging out around your sister’s room.

The best plans will fail, either before they’re built or a hundred years after; no one can design for everything and time is undefeated. Your job right now is to build in a better world, one where you don’t know this yet. The unpleasant realities of the world will be trying to catch up with you your whole life.

Build the best building you can before they do.

Scott Hines (@actioncookbook)