October 2020 will remain a remarkable date in the life of British-Ghanaian architect Sir David Adjaye. He was announced as the 2021 recipient of the Royal Gold Medal, and this came a week after his 54th birthday. The announcement was followed by a touching ceremony on Wednesday 26th May 2021 in Accra, Ghana. His body of works spanning more than 25 years is an outstanding contribution to architecture. Having followed his work for close to a decade, I may have to be forgiven for sounding more excited than the recipient himself. Most architectural historians and practising architects will bear witness or at least understand the difficulties people of colour have experienced and continue to face in the profession of architecture globally. They work extremely hard but the recognition is usually not forthcoming. In Sir David Adjaye’s own words “a glass ceiling has definitely been shattered”. I have no doubt that the Pritzker award is now within reach for him and I anxiously await it. His success will serve as an inspiration to the next generation of African architects.
Sir David Adjaye’s story and that of many other accomplished architects gives credence to the fact that people need to follow their dreams and persevere no matter the obstacles. The names of renowned architects both past and present are plentiful and it is almost impossible for an aspiring architect to follow the works of these architects without being overly motivated. Leon Battista Alberti, Gordon Bunshaft, Santiago Calatrava, Odile Decq, Peter Eisenmann, Norman Foster, Frank Gehry, Hans Hollein, Toyo Ito, Thomas Jefferson, Louis Kahn, Daniel Libeskind, Shelley McNamara, Oscar Niemeyer, Frei Otto, Renzo Piano, Giacomo Quarenghi, Richard Rogers, Wang Shu, Kenzo Tange, Yoshikazu Uchida, Robert Venturi, Frank Lloyd Wright, Li Xinggang, Minoru Yamasaki, Peter Zumthor, all serve as a source of inspiration to emerging architects.
However, some young architects sometimes fail to pay attention to the struggles that accompany the successes of these household names, in terms of how they overcame obstacles along the way which is of equal importance to their awards and recognition. The varying paths to success are proof that there cannot be a single definition of success within the architecture field. In this regard, measuring success is subjective. The underlying theme in all their success stories is that the path to achieving one’s goal may not always be smooth or straightforward but perseverance conquers all. A review of their experiences clearly identifies architects who were self-taught, architects who received the established formal training, architects who came into architecture after success in other professions, as well as those with highly unusual paths to architecture. Young and future architects must therefore not be distracted or dissuaded in the pursuit of their goals to become successful.
The Self Taught / Informal Training / No Degree
Tadao Ando was a boxer before transitioning to architecture. After discovering a book about Le Corbusier in a Second Hand book store, he saved up some money and bought it. He started visiting temples and shrines in Japan when he was 18 years old. He began his architectural training through these visits as well as reading a lot of books about architecture. Tadao attended night classes to learn drawing and took correspondent courses in interior design. In the 1960’s he travelled widely through Africa, Europe and the United States. He set up the firm Tadao Ando Associates in 1970. He received the Pritzker in 1995 and the RIBA Gold Medal in 1997.
Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe had no formal education in architecture. He moved to Berlin in 1905 at the age of 20, as an apprentice of Bruno Paul. From 1908 to 1912 he worked at the office of Peter Behrens and opened his own studio in 1912. He became the last director of the Bauhaus in 1930. His skyscraper designs made use of exterior walls made of glass to achieve effects of luminosity and transparency. He emigrated to the United States in 1937 and took up the position of head of architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology. He received the RIBA Gold medal in 1959 and the AIA Gold medal in 1960.
Charles Edouard Jeanneret (Le Corbusier) did not have an architecture degree but travelled to different countries from the age of 18 as a way of educating himself on architecture. Even though he had an endless thirst for knowledge, he did not fancy the school experience of learning architecture. He frequented libraries to read about architecture and visited museums and many other buildings. From 1908 -1910 he worked as a draftsman in the studio of August Perret. He set up an architecture studio in his hometown of La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland at the age of 25 but moved to Paris at the age of 30 because of the difficulty in receiving commissions. There were periods in France where he was unemployed, impoverished and depressed. He received the AIA Gold Medal in 1961.
Formal Education / Elite Schools
Rem Koolhaas worked as a journalist at the age of 19 for the Haas Postin and the Hague before starting his architecture studies. He became famous for his writing in architecture even before completing his first building. He graduated from the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London in 1972, and studied at Cornell University before founding the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) in 1975. He published his first book Delirious New York in 1978. He won the Pritzker Prize in 2000.
Ieoh Ming Pei was born in China but moved to the United States in 1935 at the age of 17. He enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania to study architecture, but surprised at the nature of the program, he transferred to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) with the hope of studying architectural engineering. He was convinced to study architecture at MIT by the dean of architecture school, and graduated in 1939. From 1945 to 1948 he worked as an assistant professor at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard, where he received a master’s degree in 1946. In 1948, he accepted the newly created role of Director of Architecture at Webb & Knapp Inc., the real estate development firm owned by William Zeckendorf. It was through this partnership that he received his first major commissions. In 1955, he set up his firm in New York at the age of 38. He completed the Louvre Project in 1983 at the age of 63. He received AIA Gold medal in 1979 and the Pritzker architecture prize in1983. In 2010 he received the RIBA Royal Gold medal.
Richard Meier graduated from Cornell Architecture School in 1957. After graduating, Meier travelled to many European cities to network with foreign architects. He apprenticed with the firms Davis, Brody & Wisniewski, Skidmore Owings & Merrill and Marcel Breuer before establishing his own practice. His apartment served as his first office space and received his first commission from his parents. His design of the Getty Center in Los Angeles, California brought him widespread recognition. He was awarded the Pritzker Prize in 1984 and the AIA Gold Medal in 1997.
Second Profession / Career Change
Philip Johnson studied Philosophy, Philology, Greek and History at Harvard University and graduated in 1927. He travelled to Europe to visit land marks of Classical and Gothic architecture. In 1930 he commenced work at the architecture department of the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), New York. He left in 1936 to have a stint in politics and journalism. In 1941 he quit to enroll at the Harvard Graduate school of Design at the age of 35 and designed his first building at the age of 36. He enlisted in the Army and completed his military service in 1946. Afterwards, he worked as a writer and curator at MOMA. He founded a partnership with John Burgee in 1967. In 1978 and 1979 he was awarded the AIA Gold Medal and the first Pritzker Architecture Prize respectively.
Michelangelo Buonarroti began his architecture practice when he was 40 years old after having excelled in painting and sculpture. Though not gifted with the power of writing, his executed works are known to communicate well. At the age of 74, in 1546, he succeeded Antonio da Sangallo the Younger as the architect of St. Peter’s Basilica.
Christopher Wren studied Latin and Aristotelian physics (1649) for his Bachelor of Art at Wadham College, Oxford and graduated in 1651. He received his Master of Arts in science and mathematics at the University of Oxford in 1653. In 1657 he became a professor of astronomy in Gresham College, London. In 1665, Wren’s interest in architecture was aroused through his interaction with the Italian architect and sculptor Bernini, on his visit to Paris. He studied Bernini’s drawings during his stay in Paris. He made his first design of St. Paul’s after this trip and was involved with the design and building of 52 churches in the city of London after the Great Fire of 1666. Even though he was a professor of astronomy and mathematics before pursuing architecture as a primary profession, he became one of the most important English Baroque architects.
The Female Lead
Zaha Hadid studied mathematics at the American University of Beirut before moving to London to study at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in 1972. She worked at the Office of Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) after graduating in 1977. In 1980, she began her own practice and in 1983 at the age of 33 won the prestigious competition for the Hong Kong Peak Club, a leisure and recreational center. It was ten years after winning this competition that she was able to complete her first built project, the Vitra Fire Station (1993). She received the Pritzker Prize in 2004.
Denise Scott Brown is a principal at the firm Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates in Philadelphia, USA. At a tender age of 5, she had the vision to become an architect. She therefore spent her summers holidays working with architects. She had her undergraduate education at the University of Witwatersrand (1948-1952) and post graduate education at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London, UK in 1955. She received a Master’s Degree in City Planning (1960) and a Master’s degree in Architecture (1965) from the University of Pennsylvania. She has taught at University of California Lose Angeles, Yale University, Harvard University and University of Pennsylvania.
Leslie Naa Norle Lokko is a Scottish-Ghanaian architect and writer. She studied architecture at the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London, earning a Bachelor of Architecture in 1992 and a Master of Architecture in 1995. In 2007 she completed a doctorate in Architecture at the University of London. In 2014/2015 she established the Graduate School of Architecture at the University of Johannesburg. She served as Dean of Bernard and Anne Spitzer School of Architecture from 2019 -2020.
A Unique Purpose
Francis Kéré is a Burkinabè architect who studied architecture at the Technical University of Berlin. He built a school in his home town of Gando whilst a student. He graduated in 2004 and set up his firm Kéré Architecture in 2005. He was a carpenter before he won a scholarship to undertake apprenticeship in Germany. He took evening classes to get a high school diploma in Germany. He pursued his studies in architecture after the apprenticeship. He has also been a visiting professor at Harvard University and Yale University.
Shigeru Ban had an interest in becoming a carpenter as a child. The positive reviews he received from the design of a model of a house in the 9th grade summer holiday, made him decide to pursue architecture. He studied at the Tokyo University of Arts. In 1977, he began his studies in architecture at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, he transferred to Cooper Union School of Architecture in 1980. He received his Bachelor of Architecture in 1984 and founded his firm in 1985 in Tokyo without any work experience. He is celebrated for his innovation in the use of materials especially paper/cardboard. After the 1995 Kobe Earthquake in Japan, he established the NGO Voluntary Architects Network (VAN) to start disaster relief activities. He received the Pritzker Award in 2014.
Alejandro Aravena is a Chilean architect, renowned for his socially conscious building projects and incremental housing. He studied architecture at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, graduating in 1992. He established Alejandro Aravena Architects in 1994. From 2000-2005 he was a Professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. In 2001 he partnered Andrès Iacobelli to establish ELEMENTAL, a for profit company focusing on projects of public interest and social impact. ELEMENTAL worked on the reconstruction on Constitucion, a Chilean city which was ravaged by an earthquake and tsunami in 2010. He won the Pritzker Award in 2016.
The Need To Embrace Your Path And Uniqueness
A common characteristic of these architects is their love for travel and their eagerness to learn and network with other architects. For some, talent is all it takes to succeed and for others, attending an elite architecture school is an assured way to success. Some are of the opinion that the architectural studio you work with has a vital role to play and many others believe that the policies of a government may determine how successful an architect of a specific country will become, yet others are of the view that success is a gift from God and cannot be attained if it is not God’s will. For the rest, it is sheer luck. No matter what you believe, there are enough examples to support your belief and perspective in the midst of all others.
History makes it obvious that hard work, resilience, willingness to learn and passion are key ingredients to the success of any architect. Race, nationality, religion, gender, educational background and social class may sometimes benefit some architects but it should not prevent or be an impediment to the dream of anyone who aspires to become an architect. Notwithstanding the circumstances, people have navigated their path to success against all odds. Though the journey may be difficult, it is worthwhile. Do not give up your dream of becoming an architect. Pursue your dream and leave a legacy.
Bussagli, Marco. Understanding Architecture: Styles and structures from the pyramids to post modernism. London: I. B. Tauris & Co. Ltd, 2005.
Curl, James Stevens. A Dictionary of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, Second Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Field, F. M. The World’s Greatest Architecture: Past and Present. London: Hermes House, 2010.
Lee Palmer, Allison. Historical Dictionary of Architecture. Plymouth: The Scarecrow Press, 2008.