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If my fourteen year old son came to me and asked: “Father, I want to be an architect. What should I do to become one?”, I would be faced with a conundrum. Stroking my graying beard, sitting in a full squatting position on a carpet, like an old marabout, I would have to answer this question by asking him and myself several other questions - Jakub Szczęsny, who teaches at SWPS University’s School of Form, spins a fascinating tale about architects and architecture.

I could begin with the following query: “Do you really need this pressure, son? Don’t you know that stress is one of the major killers of people in the Western world?” Or instead, I could bombard him with the whole series of questions, such as: “What is architecture? What does it mean to be an architect? Are there any prerequisites to becoming an architect?”. And finally: “What is the best way to become an architect?” Taking on the role of the “local marabout”, I wouldn’t pretend that I was sure of my answers, that I was impervious to doubts and that for years, every morning in the shower, I hadn’t been trying to find answers to many questions, unfortunately often with meager results. So I would begin, ensuring first that my progeny was not in a hurry and that the carpet was not slipping away from the spot under my behind making me uncomfortable, which could impact the flow of my oration.

Architect is like...an Octopus

And so it begins: In an ocean lives a creature, called an octopus. As you probably know, an octopus has eight arms, but what’s more important, the octopus is a very intelligent invertebrate that constantly hunts and flees from other sea beasts that are on the hunt for the octopus. The octopus has been evolving since the Carboniferous Period. It is a very old animal that not only has had enough time to evolve and develop a whole range of traits, which allow it to survive in the jungle of the ocean, but it is also an animal that learns very fast. If you place an octopus in a labyrinth, it will for sure find the way out, after just a few mistakes and wrong turns. If you give an octopus a closed jar with a crab inside, it will immediately figure out whether the jar is a twist-off or whether it is an old-fashioned canning jar with a metal lid fastener.

The enemies of the octopus, including people, highly value its flesh, so the octopus has developed a range of surviving skills, such as fleeing and hiding, which make the octopus the most flexible animal that has ever lived in the ocean. The octopus can change color to match its surroundings. It can change its shape to mimic the shape of another animal. It can eject water through a funnel to propel itself like a jet plane, which allows it to speed up and suddenly change its trajectory while escaping a predator. It can hide in surprisingly small places, and finally, when it has no other choice, the octopus can fight to the death, excreting toxins, ejecting ink, entwining the enemy with its tentacles and biting the opponent with its beak, which is hidden among its arms and is capable of crashing coconuts.

The octopus is curious, sometimes friendly and playful and sometimes it is hermit-like and skittish. To sum it up, an octopus can become anything, but it ALWAYS remains an octopus. Why am I telling you all this? Because an octopus is the best metaphor for what being an architect means and for what the work of an architect can look like. 

Designing Architecture is Like Surviving in the Ocean

“So designing architecture is like surviving in the ocean?”, the youngster would ask.

Yes it is. Architecture is the answer to the complexity of the world. It is the answer that changes over time and is shaped by many different factors. Architecture is influenced by the architect and by the community the architect is working for, but also by the habits, culture, wealth and openness of this community. Moreover, architecture is strongly impacted by politics, climate, and by the physical expressions of the surrounding culture or the lack of it. It is affected by art, by people urinating on the walls in public washrooms, and finally it is influenced by other architectural elements in the neighborhood.

Architecture changes shapes and sizes. Usually, architecture takes on the form of buildings, but these buildings come in many forms and sizes, for example overbearing and massive buildings of the Western world, arrogant skyscrapers that devour tons of fossil fuels or Indian villages made of sun dried bricks or dwellings carved out in a Loess rock in China or moss-covered wooden huts in Scandinavia.

Moreover, all these physical shells may change hands and their purpose may also change. For example, factories – the monuments to the 19th century’s profit and exploitation are being transformed into fashionable lofts for the affluent. The glass skyscrapers, once filled with rich tenants, are occupied by hundreds of villagers who move to the city in search of work, after an economic collapse as it happened in Sao Paulo. Impoverished aristocrats are selling off their properties to move into gardeners’ cottages, while sons and daughters of Chinese coolies are buying residences situated on the hills of San Francisco, fit for governors. Churches are being transformed into pubs, cinemas are being turned into churches, and so on and so forth.

In most of these cases, architects are involved in the transformations. They not only design, but they also oversee the build and often roll up their sleeves to help with construction. They also advise other people who know nothing about construction or about transformation of buildings and who are willing to trust an architect, which is not as obvious as it may seem, because money and big life decisions are involved. Therefore, the architect often becomes a confidant, a therapist, a spin-doctor, a guarantor, sometimes a sectarian visionary and often an ordinary pushover or a barking dog on a leash of his/her clients.

Additionally, the scope of the discipline that we call architecture is expanding all the time. Architects plan complicated projects. They consciously design unreal dwellings in virtual reality. They construct ephemeral installations and spaces that aim to encourage people to think and work together and they often program the functionality and usability of buildings, public spaces and whole districts. Many of them never build. They don’t even design, but they write, discuss, critique, and inspire people to act. And they can still call themselves architects!

Highlights and Lowlights of Being an Architect

“O father, then it is a magnificent job!”, the young man would exclaim most likely, but then I would answer that unfortunately the stress related to the responsibility for the large sums of money and for the lives of other people and the inability to overcome some challenges that occur during the building process as well as the challenge of fulfilling one’s own ambitions and the reality of growing competition are the reasons why many architects give up, compromise despite their better judgement, turn into domestic monsters who terrorize their families or drink too much or go crazy or commit seppuku. Finally, I would ask him: “Would you want all that stress, my son?”

“If it’s so hard, then what is the reward?”, the confused teenager would mumble and I, rolling my eyes in my head to scan all the options, including immortality, would answer: “Favor of the opposite sex. Just like in case of the octopus”.




Jakub Szczęsny - architect, lecturer at SWPS University’s School of Form, owner of a design studio SZCZ. He rose to fame in 2012, when he designed and built the so-called Keret House, regarded as the narrowest house in the world, situated between a block of flats and an old tenement building, at the corner of Chłodna and Żelazna Streets in Warsaw.