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Diary of a Part 1: The medium practice

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Jessie Hu found herself challenging her previous notions of professional life at Simpson Haugh & Partners

As part of the AJ’s series of diaries from Part 1 students’ Birmingham School of Architecture student Jessie Hu spent 18 months at Simpson Haugh where she found herself challenged on her previous notions of what it working in the professional world would be like

These 18 months at SimpsonHaugh and Partners have been both challenging and rewarding, to say the least. My time here has taught me that, working in a professional architectural office, the ability to talk and to act rises above the importance of being able to draw and write. I went into the practice with a preconceived notion of the professional world, believing a string of compromises would have to be made to achieve the final product.

Being given the opportunity to be part of a delivery team has been the highlight of my experience here, as I had felt, leaving university, that this area was my weakest point.

Under a tight deadline I was given the task of producing drawings to be used as part of the facade package at tender stage, which therefore needed to be concise but informative. I’d say every task within the delivery team meant providing the right level of information for the different types of requirement and it became evident to me that the shift between university and practice was more than ever about communicating expediently and comprehensively.

Prior to graduating, every design had been branded with individual ownership, yet being in a collective, I take more pride in the drawings we do as a team and I’m more than ever my own harshest critic. Just ticking off the to-do list simply isn’t going to cut it; I am steadily realising it’s not all about being able to produce the work, but often involves coordinating with others and the challenges the group dynamic presents.

With the benefit of hindsight, I wouldn’t change anything about my three years at architectural school because it has made me appreciate that I’m not prepared for everything. Instead I just face the facts, am more flexible and trust that I am good at what I do. Taking all this into consideration, I act upon what the curriculum has taught me on how to solve a particular problem or perform a certain task in the hope that I will learn to solve new problems.

Jessie Hu, SimpsonHaugh and Partners

Mentor: Matthew Ayres, partner, SimpsonHaugh and Partners

I really enjoy having a Part 1 in my team but maybe I have been lucky as the last three have all been exceptional and a real asset for me and the practice. The same would be true for any staff member, but enthusiasm, willingness and commitment need to be seen in spades. Possibly the difference is the eagerness you get from a Part 1, and their general excitement that each day could see a new experience.

I think the pace of practice can be a shock to students; that and the flexibility needed to juggle multiple projects at different stages. Integrating a new member of staff in a team is disruptive at the best of times but more so with a Part 1. Time and patience are required. It’s all too easy to forget that they are only a Part 1; you can’t expect them to have the same knowledge as a Part 2 even if they can craft a drawing and input into the design to a similar level.

They need to learn the balance of what, how and when to communicate in terms of the drawn work. It can be tempting for the students to copy the last drawing issued and not give enough thought to how it is going to be used and why we are issuing it.

I am a little cynical about the teaching of architecture being too removed from practice, however my experience of working with Jessie has been positive. The process of becoming an architect needs to be flexible with more exposure to practice life.

As a practice, it’s been very beneficial to have Part 1 students returning post-Part 2. We know what we are getting and they know what we want. They can hit the ground running.     


Tutor: Alessandro Columbano, head of third year at Birmingham School of Architecture

It is important that students receive a broad, but rigorous overview, of architectural design, and begin to suggest the impacts of the real world on the decisions we make as architects – perhaps not directly in the specifics of the design project but in their general awareness of the external factors that affect the chosen subject matter by a student. In this way, even the most conceptual of ideas can be tested, and students can interrogate situations more succinctly, starting to ask the right questions, whether they be about what contextual references to look at, or something more straightforward such as: should I use timber to clad this structure?

It is difficult to prepare students for all eventualities, particularly for those who are uncertain about carrying on with their architectural careers. So we’d rather instill a way of thinking – a frame of mind if you like. One where creativity is of the utmost importance but can be transferred to many aspects in life – in aesthetics, in redefining conventions, in marketing strategies – essentially applying creativity to different business essentials.

Jessie clearly had an artistic sensibility, and I encouraged her to pursue her natural ability so she could express herself independently. At first it was a challenge to integrate these methods of representation to communicate architectural ideas and strategies. But we needed to reassure her that I, as a tutor and part of an institution, could provide an environment to take risks and to reflect on the successes and failures without physical or economic consequences. She did take risks and it paid off!

It wasn’t until I asked her to combine her artistic drawing skills, overlayed on modeling materials, that Jessie could start to articulate architectural characteristics through her own technique and process; the model. In doing so, we could then discuss the relevance of these spatial characteristics and how they could relate to the specific building programme, thus allowing her to think laterally and understand how the actions of one task affect another.

By the end of the year, Jessie developed a final proposal that was easily identifiable as hers. The mistakes were down to decisions she made; the architectural success down to her aptitude in applying all that she learnt. She had begun to realise her own ambitions as to what she wanted to achieve, and now she could take it forward in a professional environment. It was important she realised the placement would test her ability and skills under different circumstances. No student is the finished article at this stage. Students like Jessie need to know what they are there for. For themselves it is to carry on developing; for the practice it is to know how the students’ experience can benefit their employer.




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