Why I Quit Architecture School

Just hold on for a few more months and get the masters, they said.

As December dwindles into the abyss of 2017, it is hard not to reflect on the many challenges and glories we have had to face before the year ends. For me, this impulse towards self-observation goes all the way back to January this year when I decided to stop my Masters program in Architecture.

For those of you who do not know, architecture school consists of a mess of paper and lines and endless drawings and redrawings, all while surviving on an unhealthy dose of black coffee and 4 hours of sleep on days when we do not have to pull a full all-nighter.

Unlike students from other faculties, architecture students do not have exams with correct answers or clearly-defined rubrics. If we are unable to solve the design problem according to our beliefs and the requirements of the brief, we are basically stuck. A lot of the time we are doodling and trying to figure out the best spatial configurations, how to do it and whether or not it fulfifils the BCA requirements. We go through many many trials – there are probably at least 10 mutations during the design stage.

Every waking moment is spent preparing our design projects for critiques by which our tutors judge us on some criteria that is entirely subjective and sometimes even nebulous.

Well, the initial plan was to complete Masters and move on, but thesis turned out to be excessively emotionally draining, especially when I had to keep my act together while my mind was in a total mess. There were times where half my studio collectively wished that a car would crash into each of us so that we would not have to face the next day. We would laugh about it, but we all know that we were serious to a certain extent. I never knew I had the capacity to be this suicidal.

So after four architorturous years, I submitted my course withdrawal form, left my tutor an email and gave myself two weeks to get over the guilt of disappointing all the people who had guided me.

With the gift of time, I indulged myself in a period of deep self-reflection and realised that I have always just been focusing on the outcome – graduating Masters with a thesis project I could be proud of – such that I was too caught up to take a pulse check of what I really want.

For one, I simply could not imagine myself working in an architecture firm in the long run. As much as I embrace the complexity of architectural design, I came to realise that I did not have the passion that I see in my fellow studio mates. I struggle to justify spending seven years to obtain my architecture license, followed by a lifetime of work (with minimum work life balance), doing something I did not enjoy.

While I derive the most satisfaction from creating something which is adaptive, experiential and emotionally resonant, I felt that it is next to impossible for architects to fully understand their audience and respond to their needs and wants. Architects may try their best to design according to how people ‘use space’, but there is simply no time (and money) to do an in-depth ethnographic research. Unlike tech startups, architects are unable to design a building, have it constructed and make iterations afterwards. Architecture is too permanent for that. There was too much at stake, and only one chance to get it right.

Then what happens when someone is unhappy with the spaces designed? Nothing, they just have to deal with it.

Some days, I would question myself if I have given up too easily. Some days, I would wonder if I ever was good enough for architecture. On hindsight, I think it is this struggle that puts me in such a love hate relationship with architecture. Each new project begins with an eagerness to know if I can do better; and with the learnedness of exploring and discovering with even more depth. The strife for meaningful design also sparks a kind of constant personal revolution in me. While it can be mentally challenging, it is also a beautiful process. Sometimes, it does feel regrettable that I was unable to complete my final project. But the skills that I have learnt, the amazing minds I have gotten to know and all the friendships I have forged made me grateful enough for the way architecture had graced my life.

When I look back at the decision I have made now, I realise that I was not ‘quitting’ school; 

Instead, I am embarking on a new, better-for-myself path, taking what I have learnt and experienced and applying it in a context that is more suitable to who I am, how I work best and where I want to go. Having to adapt to a new culture, one unfamiliar and often strange to me, I am now staring down a path that scares and excites me at the same time – one where I seek to justify the heavy decision I had made – as a Brand Management Executive at Providend.

In the most powerful parallel that I can describe, I feel the same feelings on my freshman year, but in an entirely new context.

This is an original article written in 2017 by Nataly Ong, now Lead of Brand Management at Providend, Singapore’s First Fee-Only Wealth Advisory Firm.

Our CEO Chris’s note: When I first interviewed Nataly, I witnessed how she was visibly emotional when I asked how she felt giving up her course of study when she was so near to completion. I believe it must have been a very difficult decision to make at her young age, and especially so when she has to account to her parents. So I respected her for her courage, her decisiveness and although she has no background, no training as a brand person, I saw in her that passion that represented what Providend is about. Since then, Nataly has been great for us. We are so glad to have her in our family.

For more related resources, check out:
1. Story of Mei Kuen: Balancing a Career and Her Extraordinary Motherhood Journey
2. Getting a Job One Year After Graduation
3. The Reason Why I Left the Insurance Agency

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