Mentors: An Essential Part of an Architect’s Training

By Lance Bird, FAIA
Principal, LCDG

I had a mentor. I had many, but one stands out. I went to work for him 18 months out of school. He was director of design in a large A-E firm, leading a group of 6-8 designers. 

I learned there are many good solutions to a design problem. I learned to first understand what the “dumb” solution was. The dumb solution solved the essential challenges of the problem. Good design went beyond the obvious.   

In our design department we were inspired to do our best.  We worked long days and nights. He did not. He was our critic. Through questions and suggestions, he guided us to creative solutions. I learned solutions to problems are often found in unexpected places. By having rested eyes and distance from the office, my mentor often discovered solutions we hadn’t thought of. 

I learned that gaining a client’s trust requires exceptional communication. While English was his second language, he often explained his intentions with metaphors. He spoke in plain talk, not above our clients. With simple examples, he communicated. 

He didn’t gossip or reveal confidences, so we learned to trust him with our own personal problems. As he earned our trust, he gained commitment and loyalty from each of us. 

He let us grow in our own way. As we grew, our responsibilities also grew. Gradually, each of us became mentors as well. 

My mentor loved his family, his wife and two sons. He spent evenings and weekends with them. And he cared about each of our families. I learned the importance of family. 

My mentor was Cesar Pelli. My mentor, in turn, also had a mentor, Eero Saarinen.

To “mentees” in our profession: Finding the right mentor for you depends on a thoughtful search and some luck. Early in my career I interviewed with many architects. While I was looking for a ‘star’ firm, I also looked for leaders in sync with my own aspirations. It’s unlikely your mentor will be a highly published star. By that time, most likely they have built a team of lieutenants that intercede on his/her behalf. Ideally your mentor will have time for you, to teach and inspire you along the path uniquely suited for you.   

Epilogue: NCARB’s Intern Development Program (IDP) depends on mentors and supervisors to grow interns. If you are a licensed architect, volunteer to be an intern’s mentor or supervisor. See NCARB’s website for more information.  

IDP supervisors and mentors play crucial roles throughout the internship process. Their knowledge, guidance, and support are invaluable to the development of an intern and add to the long-term quality of the profession.