Teaching Lessons

In architecture school, the jargon his professors used—”fenestration,” “trabeation”—seemed absurd to Matthew Frederick. So 13 years later, when it was his turn to lead, the Cambridge–based architect did his students a favor. He distilled architecture into 19 simple lessons, from how to draw a line to mastering color-theory basics. What started as a handout mushroomed into a collection of 101 tips, now a bestselling reference guide. The slim tome manages to be both a straightforward cheat sheet and a meditation on creativity. Today, Frederick is at work on a new book and his blog, Radical Urbanism.


We thought architects were supposed to be arrogant, so explain number 86, “Manage your ego.” When your name is on a project, it’s easy to get too invested. If you design what you want and ignore the client or the environment, the building won’t work for anyone. The best architects are Zen masters—they nurture the design process without dominating it.

What’s the book’s most important credo? There’s no single rule that’s meant to stand on its own. Instead, the point is the space between the lessons—how they inform each other and even cancel each other out. Just as in life, there are always exceptions, and I hope readers recognize and embrace both the certainties and uncertainties.

Why are most architects late bloomers? To be really good, we have to know something about everything: human behavior, sociology, physics, building codes, and so on. Twenty years can pass before an architect is ready to take all of this on professionally.

What would lesson 102 be? I went to, and now teach at, the Boston Architectural College, an evening school where students juggle day jobs. My next lesson would be: Perfectionism breeds trouble. Don’t do a few things perfectly; do everything that needs to be done well enough.

101 Things I Learned in Architecture School (MIT Press, 128 pages, $12.95), Harvard Book Store.