The Main Points of Mentoring

Posted Apr 25th, 2022 in Design, Business of Architecture, Architectural Education


This article originally appeared in the Spring 2013 issue of OAA Perspectives

Ian Ellingham, PhD, FRAIC

In the education of an architect, mentoring plays an extremely important role, and that was evident from the beginning. I recall that first day at the school of architecture. I had been told about university: classes with hundreds of students, instructed by formidable begowned individuals who would not know who you were and certainly would have no interest in your fate. I slunk into the appointed room, and found seven or eight other new students. Eventually an instructor appeared - and it was immediately apparent that the relationships involved in the education of an architect were very different.

In the small world of architecture, past mentors may be encountered repeatedly. Over time, the mentor-mentee relationship may change, with the influence increasingly flowing both ways. I was fortunate to have had a number of mentors, some of whom have had a profound effect on my development. Glen Milne is one.

Last summer my wife and I were invited up to Glen Milne’s lakeside cottage for a few days. I was obviously expected to offer some thoughts on the new guesthouse in which we were to stay, probably something to be expected from any architect-guest. But my mind was on a more significant matter: what exactly had I received from this particular mentor, and whatever it is, why do I value it so highly?

Why Might Mentoring be Important?

Obviously, mentoring involves special relationships. A mentor is different from a teacher or coach, because mentorship seems to create a sort of collegial relationship. This is quite understandable when the mentee is likely to become a full member of the club sooner or later. In this respect, it might be regarded as community-building within the discipline. Perhaps the best mentors do not determine marks or conditions of employment. Mentee-mentor conversation may work best as a flowing low-risk proposition (for both parties) - one that allows ideas to be sorted out.

This sort of relationship is perhaps especially important where buildings are concerned, because many aspects of buildings are difficult to quantify and evaluate using analysis methods common in other fields. Every building is different, data is usually either unavailable or suspect, and detailed analysis is not warranted for many of the small design generated and selections made in a mysterious experience-based manner.

In other fields, there are many anecdotes about this: a naked Archimedes running down the street shouting “eureka”, or Crick and Watson spending hours in The Eagle, their local pub, musing on the possible structure of DNA. It is readily apparent that the human brain is capable of dealing with exceedingly complex problems, integrating both quantified and unquantified information, confronting uncertainty, and, most importantly, contending with missing information, to come up with solutions, sometimes at the most unexpected times.

But acquiring the capability to do this can be a lengthy process. Many experienced architects will recognize the route by which people move to become capable decision-makers - a path explored by numbers of theorists. One model offers five stages: novice, advanced beginner, competent, proficient, and expert. In the earlier stages people learn and apply fundamentals in an explicit manner, following sets of rules. As the individual moves through the stages, the full complexity of tasks becomes recognized and unconscious processes become more important. Ultimately, the expert practitioner will have a multi-dimensional understanding of the field.

Good mentor-mentee relationships will push along this process. While some of us may recall some mentor carefully explaining some calculation or method, perhaps it is in the progress towards the higher levels of thought, analysis and resolution that he/she can make the greatest contribution.

What I learned:

While many - perhaps most - architects, have had one or more mentors, it is sometimes difficult to answer the question “What exactly did I get out of the relationship with this particular mentor?” One can readily identify some things one learns - many of us will recall learning how to design steel beams, calculate building areas, interpret the building code or understand architectural insurance. But other, probably less tangible, but possibly more important, things are transferred from mentors.

Milne sees himself as a facilitator, and reflecting on my own activities, I see this is also how I tend to undertake things. Facilitation involves listening to a diversity of opinion, encouraging ideas to appear, assembling them into feasible alternatives, and supporting their implementation. This approach recognizes the capabilities of project teams. My own approach has been to ensure that clients are fully involved, and know how and why the decisions have been made. After the development process is complete, they should be able to respond to any criticism of the results with the knowledge that they were full participants. Thinking back over numerous projects, better results occur when the insights and capabilities of a diversity of people are recognized and utilized. Sometimes people, who are not usually part of the project process, such as janitors, salespeople or nurses, have very relevant experience and opinions.

Hence, in most projects, I have found this management role becomes exceedingly important. Within that function, comes recognition of numbers of important factors. For example, different people have different backgrounds and resultant areas of expertise. Then there is the need to understand both what happens through the project creation process and after the project is operating. Another factor is that existing buildings and systems have to be considered, so the best features can be reflected in new projects, and the worst problems not repeated. Feedback throughout processes is important.

The Milne cottage reflects this ideal. Being a small building of only 550 square feet, the project team consisted of Glen, his wife Janet, the builder, past influences, and others who had an interest in the project - the local building inspector being one - and one might suspect any number of past students and colleagues. Milne collected ideas and synthesized them. In keeping with his interest in Finnish culture, he sees the entire property as a cottage campus, following the precedent of a collection of buildings built around a central focus, in this case a large table built atop the stump of a large tree. As well as the main building, there is also a studio of 108 square feet.

Understanding buildings as processes to be managed before, during, and after construction, and using a facilitation approach, reduces risk. All of this is in distinct contrast to the Howard Roark approach, where the product is seen to be the creation of one superhuman, who, following his own personal values and visions, will control every detail to come up with a masterpiece. The professions, perhaps especially architecture, seem to be especially susceptible to this sort of attitude, perhaps being flattered into this illusion by the wider public.

As a student I was drawn to people who challenged me, but who also extracted my own ideas, listened to them, and built on them. My own teaching methods have reflected this. I attempt to respond to the students’ thoughts, needs, and ways of learning. At a Christmas party, one of my own past students (now graduated) told me that in the sea of things he was trying to learn, I was the one who challenged him to think. Within a profession it is necessary to pass things on.

The Cottage Itself

The guesthouse is a fascinating example of Milne’s approach to design (and mentoring). While he sees the building primarily in terms of its Finnish precedents, combined with ideas gained from working with Louis Kahn, it can also be interpreted as a continuation of Ontario cottage tradition.

Two features are immediately obvious. Synthesizing the ideas of his design team, Milne was able to connect the design with the future users. One nice feature is that the design allows the occupants of the guesthouse to retreat from the activities of their hosts. The entrance is located away from the other buildings, and there is a progression through the building: one enters into a small screened porch (kicking off sandy or snowy shoes), past a convenient kitchenette and toilet area, to the bedroom, and then, surprise, to a delightful screened room, with a work surface, overlooking the central table area and the lake. Imagine, one can set up the computer, or take out a book, and read in privacy, yet see what is going on. You can see people coming and going, and hail a passer-by and actually engage in conversation. Discussion can occur for a few minutes before the people decide if they want to come together.

After considering the overall structure, there is the detail. The building reflects Ontario cottage vernacular. It expresses itself as something that might have been built by an able do-it-yourselfer over the course of a summer, or perhaps by an unsophisticated local builder, using materials from the local Beaver Lumber. It is dark green with white trim. There must be a reason why cottages were historically painted those colours. Did our predecessors pick that (or dark brown) to fit into the forest settings - or were those colours simply cheaper? The admission has to be made that this version is covered in vinyl siding, but it is pointed out that it is simply a way of applying all those future layers of paint all at once.

Inside too, tradition meets the twenty-first century. There is indoor plumbing. Today, most people expect comfort - few really cherish the experience of stumbling down a path looking for the outhouse in the middle of the night, wary lest some skunk is out on its own mission. There is also a kitchenette, so guests can make an early breakfast without disturbing the main cottage or vice-versa. And there are actually interior finishes, not just the two by four framing and the inside of the outside sheathing, that one often encounters in cottage country. But the floor is plywood, and I hope it stays that way, as if waiting for some final flooring that is never going to come.

Every crit has to offer criticism, but how exactly do you criticize the work of a mentor? Are there failings? Even the best thought-out building inevitably has strengths and weaknesses: Glen can look forward to many evenings on his porch with his friends, drinks in hand, watch the sunset, and happily debate the nature of architecture and meaning.

Mentorship may never end. True mentorship is a special relationship that can survive decades, and actually strengthen as the participants grow and evolve. Even decades later, I am learning things from my mentors. Ask yourself the question: what exactly did you get from your mentors? The answers might be revealing. So, my mentor, did I let you off too easily? Probably, but we do want to be invited back.

Milne mentors yet another generation.  


Ian Ellingham is chair of the Niagara Society of Architects and was the chair of the OAA Perspectives Editorial Committee.

Glen Milne was one of the founders of the School of Architecture at Carleton University in Ottawa, taught there for a number of years, and currently consults in the area of process design, policy development, and facilitation.