Seniority is infamously important in the field of architecture. Despite occasionally being on the butt end of wage jokes, the field can actually pay relatively well—assuming that you’ve been working for a couple of decades. Even Bjarke Ingels, the tech-savvy, video-producing, Netflix-documentary-starring provocateur and founder of the ultra-contemporary BIG isn’t a millennial; at 42 the Dane is a full nine years older than Mark Zuckerberg.
As a result of this, it’s common to lead a rich and complex life before finding architectural fame, and many of the world’s most successful architects started their careers off in an entirely different field. If you haven’t landed your dream job yet, you may find the following list of famous architects’ first gigs reassuring.
The Finnish mastermind started his architecture education in 1916 at the Helsinki University of Technology. Before he could graduate, his degree was put on hold by the Finnish Civil War. Aalto joined the White Army and fought in the decisive battle of the war at Tampere. After completing his education he didn’t immediately go into design; in 1922 he officially joined the military, training at the Hamina reserve officer camp. Aalto’s first project out of the military was his parent’s house.
The self-taught Japanese architect slogged through his adolescence first as a truck driver and then as a professional boxer. By the age of 17, the seeds of architectural interest were planted as he and his brother traveled the world fighting internationally. Ando credits Frank Lloyd Wright’s Imperial Hotel in Tokyo with finally convincing him to stop boxing and start designing, two years after graduating high school.
Born in Poland to Jewish Holocaust survivors, Daniel Libeskind was a performing artist for most of his youth. An accomplished accordion player by his teens, Libeskind performed on Polish television in 1953. His family moved to New York in 1959—where he’d move into architecture.
Pei emigrating from China to the United States in 1935 to work towards a degree in architecture. However, just after receiving his BArch from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1940, Pei joined the National Defense Research Committee to help the United States develop weapons technology in the midst of the second World War. Pei spent over two years with the government organization before returning to design. Although little has been revealed about Pei’s time served with the NDRC, it’s rumored that one of the committee members tried to coax Pei into joining by telling him “If you know how to build you should also know how to destroy.”
In 1947 Frank Gehry’s family emigrated from Canada to Los Angeles, California. In order to make ends meet, a young Gehry drove a delivery truck while studying at Los Angeles City College. After earning enough money for Bachelor’s degree Gehry lamented his life’s direction: “I tried radio announcing, which I wasn’t very good at. I tried chemical engineering, which I wasn’t very good at and didn’t like… and just on a hunch, I tried some architecture classes.” In 1954 he graduated from the University of Southern California with a BArch.
Koolhaas is equal parts practicing architect and theorist. And, before starting his architecture education at both the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London, Koolhaas was a budding writer. After a journalistic stint at the Haagse Post, Koolhaas co-wrote a Dutch film noir The White Slave. He then went on to pen, alongside Rene Daalder, a (never made) raunchy flick titled Hollywood Tower for the infamous American pornography director Russ Meyer. By 1975, Koolhaas had founded the Office for Metropolitan Architecture and had begun writing Delirious New York.
Foster spent much of his youth in Manchester. After leaving primary school at the age of 16, he worked in Manchester City Treasurer’s office, then enlisted in the National Service and served in the Royal Air Force until he was discharged. He completed all of this by age 21, when Foster enrolled in the University of Manchester’s School of Architecture and City Planning from 1956 to 1961. After graduation Foster won the Henry Fellowship to study at Yale, where he would go onto study alongside Richard Rogers and earn a graduate degree.
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