Intern of the Month: In the American Architectural Industry, Hierarchy Matters

Alina Plyusnina, а Rice University student, told Strelka Magazine how it felt to be the only woman at an architectural practice and how much experience a graduate has to gain to be called an architect.

Photo: personal archive

Background

Alina graduated from MArchi in 2014. While still a student, she first worked at the P.ROM architecture practice, then at Atrium in Moscow. In 2015, Alina got accepted to Rice University and moved to Houston. In the summer of 2016, Alina decided to do an internship and applied to Munoz + Albin Architecture & Planning, where she interned for three months.


Internship terms

Jorge Muñoz and Enrique Albin first met each other during their work on a mutual project in Barcelona and founded Munoz + Albin Architecture & Planning in Houston in 2000. Their practice develops designer solutions and is renowned for its multi-step design process. Initially, the company only worked with projects in Europe but has recently started picking up US contracts as well. Today, buildings designed by Munoz + Albin can be found in nine countries around the world. M+A designed Museum Tower in Houston, Texas; the Green Park residence in the Middle East; and the Golf Tower building complex in Lima, Peru.

Internship duration: 3 months+
Application deadline: open all year round
Internship compensation: 12-18 USD per hour
Additional benefits: free overtime meals


INSIDE THE OFFICE

At the practice, partners Enrique and Jorge direct all processes. During my time at M+A, there were four other architects and two interns working at the studio. My position was temporary, so I was constantly switching between projects, depending on which one required additional resources. Everyone knew who was handling what, as the practice was an open, wall-free office. We all worked next to each other, and the partners sat in the same room with the rest of the team. A glass-walled meeting room and a small kitchen were the only two divided spaces in the office.

At that time, the team was working on four projects simultaneously. Enrique and Jorge were supervising every process and provided help where needed. I or anyone else was free to ask them for advice. We developed all the designer solutions at team meetings, and the final product versions were born in collaboration. The partners always had the final say.

I was a student from another country, so my weekly work time could not exceed 40 hours. The contract obliged me to work 36 hours per week, and the practice made sure to follow the contract, so I didn’t have to stay overtime. My workdays started at 9, but sometimes I got to the office later. I started my days by completing unfinished tasks left over from the previous day and later discussing them with one of the partners or the other architects. My colleagues and I often went to lunch together, and on Fridays, Jorge and Enrique joined us too. Lunchtime was a time to discuss design, architecture, and our ongoing projects. The partners often shared their insights and observations. As a newcomer to the industry, I found these discussions invaluable. Sometimes, I found the office almost empty before or after lunch. That usually meant that the partners, together with the lead architects, had left for a meeting with clients, or had designer supervision to do. I usually stopped working at 6-7pm, so I had enough time to enjoy myself, meet friends, and hit the gym.

ON M+A TRADITIONS

While I was applying, I learned that I would be the youngest person at M+A and the only female working there, so I had certain concerns. However, these concerns disappeared after my first day at the studio. I never felt like I was treated with condescension or disdain; even my internship interview was held by both partners.

At M+A, they treat employees with attention and respect and show interest in their lives. The partners say that a happy worker is more productive than one who constantly works overtime. They meticulously plan everything, so that everyone is able to complete their tasks in time. Deadlines never force anyone to work on the weekend or spend evenings at the office. During my entire internship, I only had to go in on the weekend once, and I was given a day off after. Great planning keeps the employees constantly busy and allows a relatively small practice to take on large-scale projects.

Photo: personal archive

The practice is mainly engaged in experimental, multi-optional design. Each project gets a number of alternative solutions. For instance, the practice developed 15 façade choices for a single building complex. At M+A, the ability to adapt is critical, because during the development process the final design often changes – sometimes quite radically. One should be able to cross off the previous work with no regrets and start anew without losing motivation. Experimental design and the search for a form are accomplished through modelling and spatial solutions. This gives the M+A designs an impression of sculptural art. M+A does not use template projects but does have favourite colour schemes, sets of materials, façade styles, and design tricks.

PROJECTS I WORKED ON

I spent my first days at the practice studying the materials library and ordering samples. This simple task is necessary to get newcomers acquainted with the US finishing materials market. The first project I was a part of was the  Cherrywood Town Center in Dublin. When I joined M+A, the project had already been in the works for half a year. The apartment and general layouts were constantly being adjusted. In this project, I worked on the landscape design, and the adjacent territory and inner yard design.

Cherrywood Town Center / Image by munozalbin.com

The project was quite challenging. First, European standards differ both from the US standards that my colleagues were used to, and from the Russian standards that I learned during my studies and work in Moscow. In Ireland, residential building requirements are very strict: each project must include a certain number of subsidised apartments, and each of the apartments has to have its own street access. The complex natural landscape was another challenge. The third floor of the northern part of the complex connects to the first floor of the eastern part, and perfectly calculating the exact heights was a crucial task. We also tried to find local suppliers. Even my colleagues, native English speakers, had a hard time understanding the Irish accents. Our phone conversations were a sight to behold.

I was engaged in several other projects at the same time. I spent several weeks designing social housing for a project in Ecuador and studying contemporary experiences and similar projects in other countries. I also worked on designing residential complexes in Arizona, put together albums for clients, and took part in designing facades, developing design options, and selecting materials.

During my internship, I had to sort out certain details that were linked to notation standards. For instance, I had to transition from the metric system to the imperial system. At the beginning, it was hard to think and draw using another system, but now I can easily operate and think using both of them.

ON DIFFERENCES BETWEEN US AND RUSSIAN ARCHITECTS

When I took a good look at the practice and the structure of its internal processes, I discovered a number of differences in how architecture studios function in Russia and the US. It felt a bit awkward to work as an intern at M+A after I had experienced a whole different level of responsibility and workload back in Moscow. Everything was upside down: I was treated like an intern rather than an architect with some experience. This is a peculiarity of the US architectural industry: hierarchy seems to matter more. In Russia, you are considered an architect when you graduate with an architecture degree. In the US, a recognised architect needs to pass tests for a license and have 3,700 hours of work experience on top of that. Unless you have done all of that, you are only allowed to label yourself an intern or a designer. These rules are strict and exist to prevent inexperienced professionals from deceiving clients.

RE_union project / photo: personal archive
RE_culture project / photo: personal archive
RE_culture project / photo: personal archive
RE_minder project / photo: personal archive
RE_union project / photo: personal archive

Small practices in the US are not too willing to hire foreigners, as it entails a tonne of paperwork. My student visa allowed me to work in the US, and that helped me a lot.

ON LIFE IN HOUSTON

By the time I started my internship I had already been living in Houston for a year, and I had friends and classmates there. So, unlike most foreign interns, I felt no pressure to see the city in a short time span. During my internship, my husband visited me over one of the weekends: he had gotten accepted into the University of Houston. Together, we made a trip to Dallas.

Summer in Houston is very hot, but it’s always 17 degrees Celsius inside. I was surprised that people were carrying pullovers and jackets around at 35 degrees – right until the unexpected cold got me shivering.

During my internship, I had trouble with moving around the city, as I didn’t have a car. Houston is a large city, but its layout is confusing. City zoning and district lines are vague, except for Downtown Houston. So I took Uber to work. My commute usually took 15 minutes. If I used public transport, I would have had to leave home an hour and a half early, as bus schedules in Houston are utterly unpredictable.

I live near a park in the Museum District and ride a bicycle to the university and back. As day changes into night, curious things start to happen there: rabbits, possums, and nutrias come out in the middle of a busy city. Nighttime Houston is fascinating.

Author: Aleksandra Sivtsova
Translation: Philipp Kachalin