Sean Joyner on Writing as a Way of Building

Alumnus Sean Joyner believes that great design extends to everything from building to writing. After earning a Bachelor of Architecture degree in 2016, Sean worked for NAC Architecture in Downtown LA and Architecture for Education in Pasadena. Today, Sean is a contributing writer for Archinect. We recently caught up with Sean to discuss his interests in philosophy and writing, as well as how he’s using his latest career move as an opportunity to help future generations of architects.

Interview with Sean Joyner

Q: Why did you choose to study architecture?

I was initially on a career path to be a professional musician in high school, but I had wide-ranging interests. Psychology, philosophy, science, and engineering were just a couple of the things I had read about and wanted to explore further. I quickly realized that while I loved music, it wouldn’t fulfill those other areas of my curiosity, at least in terms of something to pursue in higher education.

One evening my wife (then girlfriend), and I were talking on the phone trying to figure out what I might select to major in. I vaguely remembered reading some books about architecture and researching it online in a career class that I took two years prior and so I just thought I’d try it out. Things kind of aligned because that same week an architect from our local community college came to my high school to talk about the program and his experience in architecture. I attended his presentation and I was sold! He later became my mentor and instructor at that local college before I transferred to Woodbury.

Q: You have experience across architecture, writing and philosophy. How did these different interests arise, and how do they manifest in your current work?

Writing has been a lifelong passion of mine. From a very young age, my mother instilled a love of reading in both my younger brother and I. Our reward for doing something well wasn’t a toy or candy, but it was to go to the library and pick out a new book. She would also make us do book reports for her on our summer breaks from school.

I think from my love of books I naturally developed a love of writing. I started writing in the 4th grade and I’d share my short (handwritten) stories with my classmates. I’ve been writing ever since then.

My love of philosophy really came once I started attending Woodbury. Rossen Ventzislavov was my instructor for an ethics class, and I totally fell in love with the subject. I had taken critical thinking and argumentation classes in community college, but Rossen helped me to think more fluidly and make connections to architecture and other topics. I had a knack for the ideas we’d discuss and often sought to study them further in my free time. I ended up taking his philosophy of architecture class which also had a significant impact on me. That class and Gerard Smulevich’s Contemporary Issues class I think should be part of the core curriculum at the School of Architecture or at least recommended before thesis year.

Q: What made you want to transition from architectural practice to writing?

Early on in my education, I started to sense that the traditional path in architecture might not be for me. While I think I developed formidable skills in design and have done well professionally, I have always been better with communicating concepts and ideas through writing. I enjoy taking complex issues and figuring out a way to present them simply for an audience.

Throughout my time in professional practice, I found myself counting the hours until I could leave the office to research and work on my ideas. This year I finally decided to embrace the direction I knew I was meant to go. In July I’ll be starting full time at Archinect as a Writer/Editor.

Q: Architects often face questions of narrowing project scopes. With changes to climate, technologies, and construction techniques, how do you think architects and designers will adapt ways of practicing to advance the profession?

I’ve had this discussion with many colleagues over the years. Today we live in a DIY culture, and many people do not see the value in the architect-as-designer. We can either be irritated by that or embrace it as a part of our times (think how photographers had to respond to Instagram, Web Designers to Squarespace, and Taxi drivers to Uber). I think architects need to focus on communicating their value to their clients — Anthony Laney does this well.

Looking further into the future it is hard not to consider a setting where an architect in the traditional sense might become obsolete (I realize this is an unpopular position). Large public projects aside (Skyscrapers, Google Campuses, and Government Facilities), I wonder what the role of the architect will be when software is able to analyze code, approve plan sets, and optimize the structural characteristics of a building. Companies like Cover are already using algorithms to design Accessory Dwelling Units for their clients.

We ultimately need to begin to foresee our place in this future landscape.

Q: What type of projects have you enjoyed working on most while in practice? What kind of writing do you enjoy working on the most?

During my time in traditional practice, I worked at firms that specialized primarily in education work. In that setting, I enjoyed working with School Districts that were open-minded and allowed the design team to run with ideas. Projects where there were more in-depth opportunities for research particularly resonated with me.

In writing, I enjoy tackling issues that relevantly impact my audience. I like looking for ways to introduce cultural anecdotes, history, and philosophical ideas into the concept I’m addressing. For example, in a recent piece I wrote on interviewing, I try to introduce a Socratic dialogue to inform the reader on one of the principles I discuss.

Typically, I will give the reader the tools to think for themselves more so than providing a specific answer on an issue. In pieces where I take a stronger position, I use the same approach but instead a bit more direct in my conclusions. At the moment, I am exploring different styles of writing, allowing myself to discover my unique voice over time. I’m still young and learning the craft.

Q: If you could make one significant change in the architecture profession, from office culture to construction, what would it be and why?

My biggest issue with the architecture profession is the office culture. Too many firms over-work and under-appreciate their staff. It’s all about “getting the job done at all costs.” When those costs begin to be a team member’s health, personal life, and overall sense of fulfillment, things get a little out of hand. Yes, we should strive to be excellent in our work, but not at the price of the rest of our lives. There is more to life than work.

Q: What advice would you give to students and young designers who aspire to follow a similar career path?

I would say to be patient and enjoy the process. It’s essential to gain some experience, even if it is a couple of years, before one develops strong opinions about the profession. My internships and experience after school significantly aided me in my decision making and understanding of architecture. And it also helped me to build a lot of relationships. In my generation, we typically want to run before we’ve learned to walk.

I talk about this a bit in my article, What to Expect After Graduating From Architecture School.

In his book Mastery (read this book), Robert Greene, one of my favorite authors, has a quote: “When it comes to mastering any skill, time is the magic ingredient.” I try to remind myself of this when I become frustrated with where I am in my journey.

Q: What three words would you use to describe Woodbury?

Diverse. Progressive. Facilitating.


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