learning architecture


a PhD in live projects and architectural education

Reading: 101 Things I Learned at Architecture School


Not an essential item on my reading list, but an entertaining distraction that caught my eye while browsing the library a few weeks ago, is Matthew Frederick’s 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School. In the introduction, Frederick invites ‘you to leave this book open on your desktop as you work in the studio, to keep in your coat pocket to read on public transit, and to peruse randomly when in need of a jump-start in solving an architectural design problem.’ Unfortunately, I followed his advice too closely, and have just been advised by automatic missive that its a week overdue for return to the library, so I will shortly be skidaddling back to town with it.

Sadly, of all the words on the cover of 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School, the most important word is also the shortest. Or, to put it another it another way, perhaps it should be sub-titled 101 Things Matthew Frederick Learned in Architecture School. The trouble with this book (and I’ll be brief, because I’m writing under the pressure of accruing an ever greater library fine) is that it somewhat rashly assumes – or more importantly fails to deny – that architectural education is a universal experience, and that these 101 lessons are applicable for every student.

The book is beautifully designed and made. Two rough boards imprinted in red and black with a red cloth spine frame the book, which is made up of beautifully clear facing pages: diagram or cartoon on the left, lesson on the right. These include:

  • 1) How to draw a line
  • 28) A good designer isn’t afraid to throw away a good idea
  • 42) Those tedious first-year studio exercises in “spots and dots” and “lumps and bumps” really do have something to do with architecture
  • 85) Gently suggest material qualities rather than draw them in a literal manner
  • 98) The Chinese symbol for crisis is comprised of two characters: one indicating “danger,” the other, “opportunity”
  • 101) Architects are late bloomers


All very pithy, closely observed and no doubt true to many architectural students’ experiences. But time and time again (such as in the cartoon illustrating number 42 above) are revelations that Frederick’s book is conceived from and targeted towards the standpoint of an utterly normative master-apprentice style of learning architectural design.


And such background details as a frustrated student of architecture preparing a noose in a studio is not funny, appropriate, or at all sensitive to the unsustainable working practices that architecture schools have been shown to inculcate in their students.

Likewise, lessons 20 and 21 are gallingly insulting, narrow-minded and unhelpful in their attitude towards those who are frequently our most important collaborators. They’re also just plain wrong in so many instances.

  • 20) Engineers tend to be concerned with physical things in and of themselves. Architects are more directly concerned with the human interface with physical things.
  • 21) An architect knows something about everything. An engineer knows everything about one thing.

Should this book even be in a school of architecture library? Yes, but I’d argue for a health warning. Should it be on any school’s reading list? Definitely not.

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One Response

  1. O. says:

    I came across this book a little while ago in a museum shop in Antwerp and thought it was wonderful, although probably aimed at interested outsiders rather than actual architects. I think a lot of the lessons are true outside the world of architecture as much as inside – 61: Less is More.

    But if the book gets more people interested and thinking about the built world around them, surely that’s a good thing?

    For some reason I particularly liked lesson 96: “Summer people are 22 inches wide. Winter people are 24 inches wide” – it made me realise how easy it is for an architect to get something simple wrong. Build a house for summer and it doesn’t work in winter.

    Had to laugh at lesson 63 about avoiding the “Dick Van Dyke step” that’s still all too common.

    I hadn’t spotted the background detail of the noose, but I guess that eye for detail is why you’re an architect and I’m not!

    Love the blog by the way.

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