Being an architect requires much more than just designing buildings. Being an architect involves understanding a vision, asking lots of questions, and turning all of that information into a reality. J Irons, the interim executive director at the American Institute of Architects in Seattle, does exactly this. He asks questions, evaluates each situation, and turns ideas into a reality. J’s road to architecture is unique, and it took a lot of hard work and soul searching for him to realize his passions. J’s advice and thoughts about what it means to be an architect in this day and age is remarkable and thoughtful, and those interested in architecture as a profession or a hobby can learn a lot from his insight. Read on to learn more about how J got to where he is today, the advice he would give to those who are interested in architecture, and what he would tell his 20-year-old self…
Name: J Irons
Education: Bachelor of Arts in Landscape Architecture from University of California, Berkeley; Master of Architecture degree from the University of Washington
Follow: AIA Seattle / Design in Public
How do you define ‘seizing your youth’?
Capitalize on inspiration. There are lots of opportunities to explore the world. There are always more questions than answers. What stops most young people from really exploring those opportunities are preconceptions they have about what friends or family might think. It’s really important to respond to an inner voice and drive and take some chances.
You attended University of California, Berkeley and majored in Landscape Architecture. How did you determine what to study?
The road to Landscape Architecture actually went through an engineering field. I thought I was going to design sailboats. Instead, I started to go down a different path. Landscape Architecture was the perfect cross-section of creativity, working with people, and being outside.
How did you become interested in architecture?
One of my professors pulled me aside and suggested I might try architecture, and he asked if I would consider switching to the architecture program. It’s really flattering to have a professor take an interest and to think that I had some aptitude. I didn’t end up taking him up on it during my undergraduate studies.
The longer backstory to becoming an architect is that in the time between undergraduate and graduate, I was doing some soul searching. I was a foreman on a small crew and I was asking myself bigger questions – questions that couldn’t be answered on a residential scale. I decided to revisit some of my undergraduate teachings and discovered co-housing. One of the founders of the American CoHousing movement, Kathryn McCamant, gave a lecture that I saw. I phoned her up and asked about the internship program, met with her husband, and he decided to take me on for an internship. However, he encouraged me to get a degree in architecture.
I went from their office to the Berkeley campus admissions and asked for an application packet. I sat down and filled one out. I realized through the course of that internship at the CoHousing Company that architecture represented the next obvious step in my development as a professional.
You studied architecture for your Masters degree at the University of Washington. Please tell us about that experience.
I started graduate school in 2001 after moving up from San Francisco. I started studying Architecture in the three-year program, which was for people with non-Architecture backgrounds. I knew already that I wanted to become an architect.
What does it mean to be an architect?
Helping connect people’s ideas to change in their environment. For most of my professional design career I’ve worked with individuals on behalf of organizations, which is a more complex challenge than helping individuals translate vision into reality. Being an architect is really about deep empathy. It’s about expansive creative thinking. It’s about iterative process. It’s about leaving your ego at the door.
Successful design is not about the architect, but instead it is about the process that is created around the challenge of architecture and design. For me, being an architect is about asking expansive questions. It’s not about relying on the tenets of architecture, but it is about relying on commonly held principles that span the fields of design. I am constantly searching for opportunities to help resolve issues which are inherently interdisciplinary in nature and require a collaborative team effort to achieve.
What does being an Interim Executive Director at AIA Seattle entail?
It entails running two organizations, AIA Seattle and Design in Public. AIA Seattle is a 501c6 and Design in Public is a 501c3 so they have slightly different implications based on their tax designation. There is one staff, two boards of directors, and two organizations with distinct missions. I am responsible for the finances of both organizations, working with the boards of directors to enhance revenue, managing expenses, and thinking strategically about current and future programming.
I am also responsible for enhancing membership, working with components outside of AIA Seattle, maintaining our relationship with our state component, and dealing with a whole range of various member issues. I’m where the buck stops when it comes to people who have problems with how the organization is being run or with their member services.
Lastly, I have the great pleasure of working with specific member committees that are charged with everything from public policy to diversity in our profession to honoring our Fellows and others through our various awards programs. I also maintain a relationship with the University of Washington.
Before becoming Interim Executive Director at AIA Seattle, you were a Senior Associate at Mithun. The types of projects you were involved with included K-12 Education, Environmental Education, and Adaptive Re-Use. How did you decide to focus on these projects and what were your roles and responsibilities?
I happen to gravitate towards education and other mission-driven project types. Within mission-driven you have everything from environmental education to community facilities to religious facilities to tribal facilities to K-12 and higher education. I gravitated towards those projects as a natural outgrowth of my desire to connect with others in an environment that was mission-focused. I make decisions based on that value set, and I felt it most rewarding to engage with others in that design conversation. Those are the client types that really resonated with me, and it just so happened that the folks I enjoy working with are also mission-driven. We tend to get along great.
What is one of the greatest lessons you have learned from being an architect?
I realized how little I know about the world and how it works. There is something amazingly humbling about talking with people about their experiences, their challenges, and how they express those through design conversations. I was asking what the role of the architect is in society from the very first class I had in design. Where does design fit in conversations that are held in society in general? When you start to elevate individuals to certain professional designations, what does that really mean? What conversations do they then serve as facilitators of, what results do they serve as authors to, and what is the course of their evolution in terms of becoming more effective at doing what their title says they do?
What I’ve learned about the role of the architect in society is that contrary to how architects saw themselves historically, architects today see themselves very much as an integral component and a steward of conversations around the built environment. We’re no longer in positions of chief authorship. We’re in a position of a more horizontal structure of a whole variety of disciplines from finance, building, engineering, ownership, and the sciences. In order to be successful, the role of the architect really needs to find the most advantageous ways of engaging those perspectives and leveraging them to bear on the challenge at hand.
What advice do you have for teenagers and young adults interested in being architects?
There are a couple of things and this changes as I go through my professional life. At this moment, I would seek out opportunities starting in junior high school which can put you in contact with any conversation about design. It’s not so much about to start practicing as it is to start learning how to ask questions and how to hone perception. Those are skills that really can’t be taught, but they can be learned and facilitated at an early age. Junior high school is a really great place to start. Students generally have the maturity and focus to be able to engage in complex issues, and adults see students of a certain age as being capable of absorbing new information and listening to stories.
The other thing that I would do is to really start to figure out what motivates you about the world. How do you engage with the world and how do you begin to find a voice for that? I’m painting architecture to be a very neutral discipline, floating in a sea of other disciplines. The talents of an architect are most effective when that person is aware of the difference between the inside and the outside, how the inner voice compares to and contradicts the outside voice.
Having a strong inside voice and a strong sense of self is something that if you can begin to consciously pay attention to earlier, it will naturally grow with you. It will also serve you incredibly well in any conversation around design because you’ll always be conscious of the voices telling you something in your head versus the voices around you that are informing what it is that you are doing in the world.
What advice would you give your 20-year-old self?
I was doing everything that I thought I should be doing at the time. I was exploring my world and challenging my perceptions. I was constantly experimenting. If anything, I might temper the creativity with an eye for the marketplace. I don’t mean that I wish I had created products for sale, but more to be conscious of the market dynamics in which I was starting to work. I was so heavily focused on design, materials, craft, culture, and history that I wasn’t able to really embrace business and the marketplace.
I think I might have started my own company and I’d be in a really different place right now. If anything, I’m offering that advice to my 20-year-old self as an experiment because I wonder how that person’s life would have turned out if there had been more of a balance between business and practice.