How DO Architects Design? Choking & Dublin GAA

I’m currently reading a book about Choking, not the suffocating kind but the mistakes athletes, students and the like make at crucial moments and there was a part that I think was critical in understanding the process of how architects design.

I have frequently written about the skills that an architect has learnt over his/her education and subsequent experience (for those that are interested in why an architect’s education takes a minimum of 7 years check out Section 8 Article 46 of the European Directive on an Architects Training

I have often thought about the process I undertake when contemplating and initiating a new design; obviously I have undertaken the requisite training and practical experience to be an architect but what is strange is that when designs are going well, the ideas and subsequent modifications really flow from mind, to hand to paper and seem to just appear from nowhere. Where does each idea come from? How did that critical idea just appear?

Well, first we need to understand how the brain works:


The front bit (in red) is the Frontal Lobe, the middle bit (blue) is the Parietal lobe, the yellow bit is the Occipital Lobe and the green bit is the Temporal Lobe.

The prefrontal cortex is the very front part of the brain housed in the frontal lobe.

Now, your brain can remember things in two ways, using:

1. Procedural Memory: This is where you are doing something so intuitively that the memory is ‘implicit or unconscious’. Think of your procedural memory as the things you do that are outside of your conscious awareness, where you are doing it so well and so quickly that you are unable to monitor the skill consciously.

2. Explicit Memory: This type of memory allows you to reason or to recall conversations or events.

These two types of memories are housed in two distinct areas of the brain; Procedural in the Parietal Lobe and Explicit in the Temporal Lobe.

You can see the difference in the way the brain functions when a musicians brain is monitored via a MRI scanner and the procedural memory is ‘spinning outside their conscious awareness’.

My guess is that if the architects brain is monitored whilst designing (and the design is going well!) the procedural memory would also be working overtime in a very similar fashion to the musicians.

But how long does it take for the architectural skills to become so unconscious that the design just flows and Procedural Memory kicks in?

A possible answer could be (and this continues from the post on Serotonin and Dopamine) that it takes a minimum of 10,000 hours to transform from a beginner to a craftsman; this equates to approximately the same period of qualifying as an architect. Interestingly, it’s the multitude of years AFTER qualifying that the architect learns his trade. I am rapidly approaching my fiftieth year and I still feel that I am just warming up ‘architecturally’ and as discussed in the previous post on Grade III Conservation (which I’d just achieved) is seen as the ‘Junior Infants/Reception’ class of Architectural Conservation.

So, what am I getting at here? The education, practical experience and continuing professional development of the architect is arduous and it should be with such a person that you trust your most important physical possession (your house) in the same way that you would have trust in a doctor or surgeon with your body; which interestingly has the same level of education and practical experience.

I’m still reading the book on choking ( ‘Choke-The Secret to Performing under Pressure’ by Sian Beilock) and if any other interesting and relevant bits pop up I’ll let you know.

I have no idea whether he read the above book or not but the best example of NOT ‘choking’ under pressure was shown at the week end when Dublins goalkeeper (Stephen Cluxton) kicked the winning point in injury time at the recent Dublin vs Kerry GAA final.

Comments as always welcome…

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