Spend any amount of time with Paul Neel, FAIA, and chances are you will become a better person. It’s that simple and happens that quickly, which is why he is a popular and beloved mentor to many architects and design professionals.
This knack for nurturing professionals has little to do with his position as the State Architect (1989-1991), or as Dean at California Polytechnic State University’s College of Architecture and Environmental Design (1991-1997). The curricula vitae of Neel is a prestigious and esteemed collection of seats and positions, but his philosophy on the mentorship process is humble and unassuming. It’s a relationship one will keep or remember throughout their entire life. And the philosophy and the nurturing and the connections Neel has made all started with the railroad supervisor who mentored him.
Imagine becoming the railroad’s newest employee. This could present a difficult terrain to navigate for a young man. As Neel fumbled and tripped along the path of learning the railroad ropes, his hand was held by someone showing him the way. There were issues to learn—the time card process, appropriate behavior, equipment management, etc. But Neel had a colleague willing to walk him through scenarios and situations and down off ledges if need be. He taught him how to do the job, how to think more critically, how to succeed in the relationships an employee has with his profession. “How can I ever repay you?” Neel asked one day. The wise railroad worker replied, “Someone in your life will need help in the same way. Make sure you do.” Neel has been paying it forward ever since.
From his students at the Cal Poly College of Architecture & Environmental Design, to his faculty, other architects, state workers, business persons, etc., Neel assisted and advised when needed. One former student, Stephan Castellanos, FAIA (who eventually became the State Architect himself) remembers fondly the help Neel provided him. “What I learned from him had a lot to do with compassion.” Castellanos learned early on that buildings were more than air conditioning units, lights and windows. Structures have the ability to do something to a person’s spirit and it’s not simply about the mechanics. “You must have a notion of compassion, and, as corny as it sounds, forgiveness,” he continued.
“If you have a question, go ask it.”
And yes, there may be an intimidation factor in seeking a mentor out, but Neel advises to get over it. “If you have a question, go ask it. The answer isn’t going to just simply float towards you. No one knows what you are thinking, or what you are struggling with if you don’t voice it.”
Neel has seen a lot of architects pass his way—from the classroom to the office and the state. He has been able to basically categorize those who learn from him as follows: 1. Leaders, 2. Followers, 3. Independent, and 4. Those who simply need a lot of help. He feels that any one in any of the above mentioned categories are worthy of his attention as long as they are eager to learn. He encourages asking questions. “Make the bosses problems yours,” he advises. “This advise is also sprinkled with various suggestions and case study examples in a book Neel co-authored with John E. Harrigan, Ph.D.
Published in 1996, “The Executive Architect: Transforming Designers into Leaders,” serves as a handbook to anyone interested in being a leader, architect or other. Pages are filled with strategy and methodology, but also with the value of the human experience, and how what one designs and plans is an experience more so than a concrete structure.
As with most things in life, the key to any design is about the relationship. It’s no different for the architect attempting to learn. “Be open. Search for more than whether or not your IDP form was signed off.” The mentor relationship is one that in theory, will last your entire lifetime, and both parties learn from one another. No form or signature creates that sort of support.
Luckily, he believes he has learned as much, if not more, from those he’s mentored. “As a teacher, your students always give you something.” The same goes for the mentor—a reward in itself.