Alan G. Roberts, AIA, is the founder of “So You Want to Be an Architect,” a Facebook page dedicated to exploring the realities of a career in architecture. Roberts received his bachelor’s degree in architecture from the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa in 1982. An American citizen since 2002, he has worked on many projects in Northeast Texas, specializing in educational, religious, medical, and commercial work. He is now semi-retired.
Where did you grow up?
I was born in Africa in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, and, depending upon how old you are, you may remember the name “Rhodesia” as well. My earliest ancestor to arrive in Africa did so in 1688. I served in the Rhodesian Army Infantry 40 years ago during a terrorist war, immediately after high school. I had some unique experiences during my service, such as being charged by a rhino, and walking into a buffalo, elephant, lion, and hyena, and just about every other wild African animal and snake. I was also blown up by an anti-tank landmine, and fortunately, except for some hearing damage, escaped unscathed.
I’m at left in the photograph below. This was toward the end of my service in January 1977, and we had just gotten back from a four-day patrol in the operational area. This was in mid-1976 and was the first landmine incident I saw in person. --Image courtesy Alan Roberts
After my military service, I went to South Africa, where I did my architecture degree. At the end of my second year, I was one of two students chosen by a large company to be given a fully paid scholarship. Upon graduating, I went to work for the company, which was the second biggest practice in the country. I quickly became the computer and CAD system expert and oversaw the initial introduction of CAD into the company, established standards, and trained staff in its use. The system back then cost $250,000 per seat.
In 1987, I came to the U.S. to do a second degree, and upon graduation in 1991, I was offered a job in Texas as an architect. I ended up as a principal and owning partner in what was, for many years, the biggest practice by volume of work in Northeast Texas. I retired in January 2016 and am now doing part-time work as an independent architectural and CAD/technology consultant.
I became a U.S. citizen in 2002 and am very happy to be living here, especially in Texas.
Pen, pencil, or computer?
All of the above. When I started architecture in 1977, CAD did not exist and only began to emerge later during my time as a student. I did a research paper on the use of CAD by architects during my fourth year of study (I was in a six-year program) and, for my dissertation, was the first architectural student at my university to use CAD. I used the “Surface II” terrain modeling system in the Civil Engineering Department at the university to model the site for my dissertation project. I was very interested to see that most of the architectural faculty were completely disinterested in my use of CAD, but the practicing architects, who were external examiners for our dissertations, were very interested and wanted to know what I used and how I did it. (That was way back in 1982).
Even though I am an avid and skilled technology user, it is my opinion that too many architects I encounter today seem to have poor three-dimensional visualization skills and use CAD and modeling systems as a crutch to make up for a lack of artistic and creative thinking. So many buildings today look like extruded CAD models and are, in my opinion, quite unappealing. The technology gives us amazing abilities, but I think some allow it to destroy the “art” in architecture.
Show us a page from your sketchbook. Describe what you’ve drawn. When do you prefer to sketch?
Tours, France -- Sketch by Alan Roberts
I sketch anytime I feel the urge. When I travel, I usually carry a small sketchbook, and I prefer sketching live, on-site. I don’t take photographs, then sit at home sketching. I like doing small, quick sketches directly in ink. I did the first one in Tours, France, a few years ago.
What is the biggest misconception people have about your job?
So many people seem to think that architects just sit around sketching and doing little else, and thus, they think the job is easy. I’ve been introduced as, “This is Alan, he drew the plans…” and I think to myself yes, that’s all I did. Some people seem to think that because they can pick up a pen or pencil and sketch a rudimentary plan, they can design a building. They end up having a false concept of architecture and of what carrying out the profession actually involves. That’s why I created my “So You Want to Be an Architect” Facebook page, as an attempt to help anyone interested in the career, and to show what I, as a typical architect, actually do at work.
Are there other forms of art you participate in? How do they affect your process or work as an architect?
I sketch and draw and do a little painting. In my opinion, sketching is an essential skill for an architect to have. I don’t believe for one second that you can be as spontaneous and intuitive when you are designing, clutching a mouse, and staring at a screen, as you can be when thinking and sketching quickly, having tactile contact with a piece of paper. I like to sketch to keep up my skill in doing so.
Photography is one of my passions as, for me, it is a beautiful combination of art and technology. You have to understand composition, form, texture, harmony, juxtaposition, color, and light, as well as the technology, and you have to see what others do not. In my opinion, these are all essential qualities for any architect, and photography hones these.