No downturn in mentoring, say architects

The slow recovery hasn't dampened interest in mentoring tomorrow's generation of architects, as SmartPlanet's C.C. Sullivan reports.
Written by C.C. Sullivan, Columnist (Architecture)

Throughout history, aspiring architects have always worked with a "master architect." Today we call them mentors, the professionals who help the newbies and interns learn by doing.

While the economic roller-coaster has savaged design firms around the country, the tradition of mentoring has expanded during the recession, say architects.

The MAGIC girls in construction program, a national success story. (NAWIC)

This is good news. A few years ago, the group ArchVoices warned that with more computers and larger firms, "this mentoring relationship so crucial to the development of the profession is in crisis." The design education think-tank advocated adding peer mentoring to the traditional "old-and-young" style of mentoring.

It seems that the pairing of veterans with interns, architecture grads and even grade-school students is gaining ever-greater traction.

A boost for girls

One of the most heartening changes is the growth in early childhood and pre-university mentoring. New programs are seen all around the country, with more kids attending "architecture camp" and building sites that serve as a window into a possible future career.

MAGIC Camp is one of the best. It stands for Mentoring a Girl in Construction, created and nurtured by the National Association of Women in Construction.

This summer, at the Architecture Construction & Engineering Charter High School in Camarillo, Calif., more than 30 high school girls enrolled, receiving tool bags with pink hard hats and tools ergonomically designed for women.

Beneficiaries of the Department of State's TechGirls program.

According to Laurie Bennett, a member of the MAGIC Camp Committee, there are six mentors in Camarillo, all women: an architect, a carpenter journeyman, a pipe fitter, and a construction manager among them.

A similar program that is indirectly supporting emerging female architects is TechGirls, a brainchild of the State Department mentored by Secretary of State Hilary Clinton herself.

It's a part of Clinton's "21st Century Statecraft" agenda, which promotes democracy and economic growth in the Middle East and North Africa by helping teenage girls pursue dream careers, including engineering and architecture. In Fast Company, the Astute Architect read about the Jordanian TechGirl Sura Mubarak, a 17-year-old who wants to do both, so she can help design and construct green buildings one day.

Cradle to grave

The professional path starts young -- and it last a long time in the architecture profession. That's why many groups including the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) are quickly expanding their mentoring programs.

At the AIA's New York Chapter, the architect Joe Aliotta, a principal at the venerable firm Swanke Hayden Connell, has made it his personal mission to expand education and career development.

Aliotta is a first-generation New Yorker and the first in his family to attend college, so he faced huge obstacles to becoming an architect. His volunteer work for the ACE Mentor Program, his college alumni association and now as president of the AIA chapter focus on the future of the profession, from grade-school students and grads to pre-professional types and employed architectural interns.

ACE Mentoring in action, courtesy FXFowle.

"In today's uncertain times, now more than ever, we must envision the future of our profession and the health of our building environment by addressing its most profound challenges," says Aliotta, whose umbrella theme for several new programs is of FutureNOW!, including competitions and exhibits of work by emerging architects and practices established within the last five years.

It's a "cradle-to-grave approach" that the profession needs, says the architect.

Starting young

The key is to support the aspiring architect as much as possible -- but wherever possible to start young, says Aliotta. Early intervention will increase a kid's chances to succeed.

There's plenty of proof.

For a longitudinal study that proves that mentoring works, look to East Cleveland, where nine years of the Step Up program are bearing fruit. Funded by an anonymous couple, the program offered future scholarships to first-graders that they would receive on graduating from high school.

Super-mentor: Joe Aliotta of New York advocates lifelong mentoring.

Today many of them are off to their next phase of life. Beneficiaries include Rose Parker, one of the original Step Up students almost a decade ago. She is now a promising enrollee at the Cleveland School of Architecture and Design.

According to College Now CEO Lee Friedman, the students participating in Step Up "are performing better than their peers by many measures," including on college entrance exams.

Beyond school, it's important to start early in the career phase. That's why mentoring has been so important during a time when careers begin in fits and starts.

Some companies are getting in the mix, too. I like the "Programme Rolex" of artistic mentoring, based in Geneva, which identifies and supports exceptional up-and-coming artist. The protégés are selected by symbolic mentors who spent a year investigating budding talents all over the world, and they receive a large stipend of 25,000 Swiss francs.

This year, the future stars include Mateo López of Colombia, a 33-year-old visual artist who obtained a diploma in fine arts at the University of the Andes, after having studied architecture for a year at Javieriana University.

Will a U.S. company start a similar jump-start program? I hope so.

Starting with early childhood direction and brought along by career boosts like this, mentoring is a way to keep American architecture strong.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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