I am Jorge Fontan an architect in New York and owner of Fontan Architecture. I have been blogging for a few years now on architectural issues, mostly technical or project-specific posts, to offer information to my readers. This time I would like to write a more personal post on how and why I became an architect. Lets get started.
I always had a tendency towards creativity and making things. As a child I would make my own comic books although the drawings were terrible. Anyone who knows me knows I cannot draw by hand and I only draw with computer programs. I also grew up playing Legos. My grandmother told me even at a young age she thought I would be an architect because while my siblings and cousins where running around I would sit in the corner playing with blocks. I guess she called it.
I grew up immersed in the construction industry as my father was a general contractor who worked on home renovations and small commercial projects. He would always have me help in some way or another. I learned how to work with my hands at a very young age and could operate power tools by the time I was 12.
When I started high school, I joined the Drama Club building sets for the school plays. I was always driven to making things, and this suited me. Also I went to an all boys prep school and the drama club was the only program that brought girls in from the nearby all girls schools. So I stuck with the drama club for the next few years for multiple reasons.
Working In Construction
Shortly after finishing high school I helped a friend build a dog house. This was an incredibly fun experience where I realized how much I wanted to make things for a living. I then asked my father if I could work with him and thought that one day I would become a Construction General Contractor. I started working in construction and began to learn about building. We worked on lots of apartment renovations in Manhattan and Riverdale as well as houses in Riverdale, Westchester, and Connecticut. We eventually started a project to renovate a community room at the local Church in The Bronx where I grew up. This was the project that would begin my path to becoming an architect.
By the way I believe every architect should work in construction at some point in their life. It really is such a beneficial experience.
Exposure to an Architect and Plans
On the community room project I first saw a set of Architectural Plans prepared by a real architect. I saw the drawings and thought to myself … I have no idea what any of this means … but I want to learn how to do it. At the time I was about 18 at the time and had been working in construction for a year. I abandoned the thought of being a contractor one day and started looking into Architecture Schools.
Applying to Architecture School
Architecture School was a very scary thought for me because I had hated school my entire life. I always was one of the worst students in the class. This was not because I wasn’t able, but just because I didn’t see the point of caring. In high school I skipped class constantly and spent all my time in detention.
I always wanted to take the advanced classes and was never allowed. I had to take the remedial courses usually. Even in math which was one of my better subjects. I asked my eighth grade teacher to let me take advanced math and he said it was not for me. Well I still got into an Ivy League Grad School and started my own architecture firm so fuck him. Although lets be realistic I went to City College and Columbia University there isn’t much difference in the education. Columbia was 10 times more money but not 10 times more education.
At the age of 19 I applied to one architecture school at The City College of New York and got in solely based on my SAT scores. They literally told my my grades in high school were too low but they had a policy of admitting students with a certain SAT score despite poor grades.
So in Fall of 1999 I was officially an architecture student. And my first semester could not have gone worse. I got a D in my first Architecture Studio, this would be my last D in studio. In Architecture school Studio is the core class. It is a project based class taken every semester where the student must design a hypothetical building. I was not off to a good start but I knew I was not taking it seriously. So I figured I would do better the next semester.
That was winter of 2000 a new millennium and a new attitude. I turned 20 years old on January 1st, 2000, yup I am a new years baby. On this birthday I started the new millennium with a promise to myself. I would try harder at school and if it was not for me I would drop out. By the way I was still working with my father in construction part time.
For my second semester studio of my first year in architecture school I was in a class with Professors and Architects Paola Iacucci and Yahuda Safran who covered for her for a period of time as she needed a month leave in the middle of the semester. I also took an architecture history course with professor Jerrilynn Dodds. This semester was a real turnaround for me. I loved seeing the Modern buildings in architecture history. My studio professors promoted a more independent and creative atmosphere in contrast to what was a relatively rigid program the semester before. My first year of architecture school allowed me to see that this was the right choice for me even though it was a slow start.
Thanks To those Who Taught Me
Anyone who I name in this post is listed for no other purpose other than to recognize and give credit to those who have inspired me on my path to becoming an architect.
Over the next few years I became a much better student once I realized my deep love for architecture and the process of design. In my second year of architecture school I had a great professor Brad Horn. He was one of the most inspirational professors possible and a really tough one too. A few weeks into class during a pinup he saw my drawings and told the entire class to come close to look at my drawings. He said “I want everyone to see how not to do drawings”. I went home and redid all my drawings, at the next class he congratulated me on the improvement and I never came to class with a low quality presentation like that again. My second year of architecture school was inspirational and I had the opportunity to explore a more creative abstract perspective on architecture.
Finding My Path
In my third year I had another really good professor Douglas Gauthier who introduced me to 3D digital design. I learned also a more analytic aspect to architecture that would help inform me in the future. I also began to intern for his firm at the time. This was my first steps into a practical aspect of architecture, and a great basis for my future learning and development.
The image below is a rendering from a student project of mine from when I did a summer semester in Barcelona.
In my fourth year I had a professor Joe Tanney who would be a real inspiration to me and was the one professor who most prepared me for professional practice. My love for architecture had grown by this time and I was certain that although I had been a terrible student earlier in my life I was a great student of architecture and I was planning to go to Columbia University for a Master Degree, and eventually start my own firm.
A Bachelor of Architecture is 5 years long and in my fifth year I applied to one graduate school: Columbia University. I was accepted and had a great experience there continuing my education and exploring new aspects of my design sensibilities.
Below is a video of a building I designed in Grad school.
Working For Architects
After architecture school I worked for three firms. The first was not a good experience and I quit after a few months. The office was poorly managed and generally a mess. After that I worked for a 20 something person firm for a couple years. There I worked on a few different projects and started to get some real experience in making architecture a reality. I eventually left the firm to work for a larger firm working on larger and higher profile projects. We also worked very long hours with no extra pay and little or no thanks. This office turned out to not be the best learning experience either.
I do not believe working at a large firm will help prepare you for starting your own firm as much as working for a small or medium sized firm may. But that is just my experience. By the time the recession hit, I was working 60 – 70 hours a week and then the day after a high profile meeting I got laid off along with a hundred other people at the office.
The Great Recession
The recession was pretty scary, but I got lucky and a friend of mine invited me to work on a little diner renovation with her. This was super exciting but we did not have much design freedom to be honest. Over the next few years during the recession, I studied for the 7 licensing exams and became a registered architect. I also did a few little projects here and there with my friend and then on my own after I got my license. But mostly I was working as a consultant for a small developer who was both an architect and contractor.
I also worked on a few architecture competitions but I never won any. The image below is a rendering of an architecture competition that I entered during the recession. Side Note: I was on a date with a girl once who asked me to show her my website. So I took out my phone and showed her. She came across this project and asked what it was. I said “It’s a building I designed for a competition … I didn’t win though” She replied “How is that possible”. So yeah I really liked her!
Starting My Own Architecture Firm: Fontan Architecture
By the time the economy picked up, I had a few independent projects and would eventually launch my own firm. Working at my own firm, Fontan Architecture, has actually been the longest job I have ever had. It is also by far the most fulfilling. This was the best choice of my life. Although it seemed like a long road, I am so happy I took it.
This post was written by Jorge Fontan AIA a Registered Architect and owner of New York City architecture firm Fontan Architecture. Jorge Fontan has earned 3 degrees in the study of architecture including two degrees from the City University of New York and a Masters Degree in Advanced Architectural Design from Columbia University. Jorge has a background in construction and has been practicing architecture for 20 years where he has designed renovations and new developments of various building types.