The Ghost of Architecture

“The Ghost of Architecture I” — an image generated by the AI art app Dream. (Image credit: Dream AI)

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away (to be precise, up until three years ago here in London), I used to be an architect.

As my readers have surely noticed, I am no longer one; the raison d’être for this blog is to document my journey to pastures new.

Yet, the strange reverence of my past profession continues to follow me around and (if anything) is more apparent now than ever. It’s as if the ghost of architecture is looming over my shoulder, refusing to leave me.

“Architecture is impressive

I recently met up with a new team within my company to discuss my potential involvement in their project. They were based in Amsterdam but were visiting London for a few days, so we met up for an informal chat.

Over lunch, in response to the team’s friendly question about my professional journey, I uttered the phrase, “I used to be an architect.”

“Oh wow!” they all gasped in perfect unison.

Curious, I asked them why they reacted this way. “But… architecture is so… impressive,” came one reply.

I did not quiz them whether they thought UX was just as impressive, and we swiftly changed the subject.

“What exactly is a UX designer?”

Last weekend, I attended an event to commemorate 100 years of my original alma mater, the Faculty of Architecture in Cambridge. I was ambivalent about attending. Why go if I was not an architect anymore? Even my undergraduate and Part II education were no longer listed in my LinkedIn profile, deemed a detractor from my newest goals and ambitions. But in hindsight, I’m glad I went. The event was lovely, with many familiar faces and great conversations.

Long time no see… Me last weekend, visiting the old library at the Architecture Faculty. (Image credit: my own)

And there was a surprise waiting for me.

One of my notable past achievements, the James Dyson Building, is located right next door to the Faculty. Its original occupant, the Department of Engineering, is moving out of the city centre site to West Cambridge. Instead, the entrepreneurial Architecture Faculty is taking over the area. So, to my astonishment and delight, six years after its completion, one of the students gave me a tour of my own building, which is now being assimilated into the Architecture Faculty’s own arsenal — kitted out with a computer lab, laser cutters and sundry workshop equipment.

The James Dyson Building during my last visit, including the new architecture workshop. (Image credit: my own)

During the tour, I yelled out loud repeatedly in front of my very polite and patient student guide: “Whoa, the concrete still looks half decent!” “The bloody reception desk! I spent hours arguing with Mike about that freaking desk!” “Crikes, those taps are still working! They were EXPENSIVE!” Afterwards, having recovered from a flood of memories and swelling with pride, I retired to the Faculty garden for post-event drinks.

Armed with a glass of champagne with a strawberry floating in it, I began working the proverbial room. Here, I faced something of a mirror experience to the one I had with the Amsterdam team. Everyone in the crowd was an architect — except me. They were happy to chat about any architectural topics and the expansion of the Faculty, but as soon as I told them that I had left the profession, confusion would arise, “What exactly is a UX designer?”

I blurted out, “It’s like an architect for digital products.”

I still don’t have a good elevator pitch for that question, so I blurted out, “It’s like an architect for digital products.”

“Oh, do you mean a software architect?”

“Er, no, not really, no.”

“Oh, so you design sets for computer games, then?”

“Err, no.”

“So… Is it about artificial intelligence?”

“Errr, it can be, but not for me personally…”

Next time, I might just print a better answer on a card and bring that with me to read out from…

UX designer is… (Image credit: my own)

Cultural baggage

Afterwards, I wondered why I felt the urge to loop in the word “architect” into the description of my new role. As if I was trying to justify to my audience that I was still important, yet implying with my choice of wording that an architect was somehow more “impressive” or “important” than a UX designer. Cue that earlier comment by the Amsterdam team…

Architecture is an established domain with its own deeply ingrained cultural baggage; whereas UX is a new concept that has not yet penetrated the cultural psyche.

Architecture is an established domain with its own deeply ingrained cultural baggage; whereas UX is a new concept that has not yet penetrated the cultural psyche (but thanks, Don Norman, Jared Spool et al., for your valiant efforts to get it noticed).

I suppose, therein lies the origin of my strange ghost — one that is so persistent that even friends and family still say, “Tania used to be an architect, you know,” when introducing me to people. The ghost of architecture readily feeds on the cultural space that I exist in, whereas there is no such a thing as the ghost of UX (yet).

“The Ghost of Architecture II” — an image generated by the AI art app Dream. (Image credit: Dream AI)

15 (minutes) months of fame

As an architect, I kept my head down, worked hard, and managed to deliver some projects that I was proud of; a handful even received recognition in the form of awards and news articles.

Having made a leap into a new industry, I merely assumed that once I’d land, I would just get quietly absorbed into the belly of tech, just as I had been quietly invisible in architecture for over a decade and a half.

Instead, something entirely unexpected happened. My leap was noticed.

While my efforts at self-promotion are patchy at best, it doesn’t seem to matter; I stick out like a sore thumb without even trying. Over the last few months, I appeared in a podcast and accepted an invite to be a judge in an architectural competition (in the UX section). Every week, I get approached by strangers for career switching advice. Most of those seeking to connect are architects or architectural assistants and students in the UK and abroad. I’ve been doing my best to respond to every single one.

Being recognised by others as a career switcher with a voice, has helped my self-validation.

I’m deeply humbled by this attention. But, of course, I am also smug. Pretty. damned. smug. Being recognised by others as a career switcher with a voice, has helped my self-validation; it has shown me that by making that leap, I have ended up at the forefront of the zeitgeist.

From architecture to user experience. (Image credit: my own)

Bidding the ghost farewell

I left architecture three years ago and, via a Masters in HCID, started my first UX gig one-and-a-half years ago. I’m happy with where I’ve landed.

I had good times working in architecture. To this day, it is still nice to point at a building and say, “This was me.” It is much harder to point at “B2B subscription based digital products for legal professionals” or even to explain what a UX designer actually does in a single, punchy sentence.

I suppose that past professions are like past relationships; it takes time to get over them. While I have no regrets about leaving architecture, I will need to process and accept what I have lost when I ended that relationship.

Perhaps only then will this ghost finally bid me farewell. For now, it remains my strange, looming companion.

Me back in my days as an architect, circa 2010. (Image credit: a colleague whose name I cannot recall)

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