Today, our guest essay is from Marcus Cross.  As a principal at Alliance Architecture, he manages the DC and Annapolis Studios. In addition to his design and leadership at Alliance, Marcus also serves as a Lecturer at the University of Maryland, School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation.  He holds his Master of Architecture from University of Maryland and his undergraduate degree from the University of Illinois.

Price Modern – Interview with Marcus Cross

In Fall 2000, I sat in the second-floor architecture studio in Flagg Hall at the University of Illinois when my first studio professor addressed us and told us to write the following down in our sketchbooks: “I am responsible for my own education.” In his design studio and future courses, this maxim proved to be true.  Architectural education is not a passive pursuit; instead, it is an interactive endeavor. The most successful students proactively engage in the world around them and bring those questions and ideas back to the studio to incorporate them into their work.

This same tenet is true for your career: you are responsible for your own career.  One of the smartest things I did as a young person was developing an open career plan and then evaluating myself against it periodically. The first step in this process is both easy and hard – dream.  Dream BIG!  Dream about your future.   About what kind of spaces you want to create. About what you wish your personal life to look like. About the impact you want on our society, and what legacy you want to leave behind (I know it seems wild to think about these things before you even get your first position, but you will be amazed at how fast time will pass by).

Dream Big! You are responsible for your own career.

As I progressed through school and internships and learned more about both the profession and different types of architectural practices, the dream became very clear to me; by the age of 40, I wanted to be my own boss, teach, and play in a jazz band one night a week.  This may seem whimsical, but the logic was sound.  I realized that I loved the world of academia, and I wanted to be a part of it, but I also loved practicing architecture.  Given the time commitments of being an architecture professor, it occurred to me that the easiest way to get to do both was to become the one who was in control of my time, meaning be my own boss.  The jazz band part was also crucial as I did not want my life to be 100% consumed by architecture – I wanted to maintain some balance that would enable me to pursue other endeavors. (Truth in advertising: I have not picked up my trombone in over a decade now, but I have continued to make time and space in my life for other deeply affirming activities such as serving as an elder in my church, without letting architecture completely take over my life).

While this goal of being my own boss was specific, it also had at least three ways of being met.  I could pursue becoming a sole practitioner, I could join up with a friend and form a partnership, or I could rise through the ranks of an established practice and eventually become a principal.  The last route ended up being my path, but that was far from clear when I dreamed all this up.

Once you have established a dream or a goal, the next step is to break down what needs to happen for you to reach that goal.  For me, it was clear:

  1. Get my license as soon as possible (I set a goal to be licensed before 30).
  2. Go to grad school since that was the fastest route to getting my license, and a Master of Architecture would be needed if I wanted to teach.
  3. Decide early on what type of architect I wanted to practice – and become good at it. (I eventually realized I love adaptive-reuse projects and commercial interiors).
  4. Do a couple of small projects on my own as soon as I was licensed to get a taste for being my own boss. (I was able to design a small home addition and a wine bar for a couple of friends).

Having this big goal and a series of action items has been handy more often than I can recall.  It helped me narrow down what jobs I should pursue after school, realize when it has been time to leave a job and assured me at critical career junctures where I needed to take a risk, and that if the gamble paid off, I would be one step closer to something that I really wanted.

Thanks, Marcus.  Now, what will be your dream big goal?

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