The Four Syndromes: How not to choose your design studio at architecture school

Yes, it is almost that time of year (at least in the Southern Hemisphere) when architecture students begin class and go about the business of choosing a design studio. This short blog is specifically aimed at that curious class of human beings known as architecture students.  I think in some ways it would be better if the studio leaders interviewed and then selected the students rather than the other way around. I am told that this is the case at some school’s of architecture and I think it avoids the popularity contests that seems to characterise the studio teaching systems in many architecture schools.

The four worst reasons for choosing to be in a design studio are related to a cluster of syndromes: “running with the pack” syndrome, “charisma” syndrome,  “interesting project” syndrome and worst of all the “sounds easy” syndrome.

Running with the pack syndrome. 

Popularity is the most misleading reason to choose a studio on. Don’t succumb to  peer group pressure or groupthink. All because a potential studio seems popular amongst your friends that doesn’t in any way guarantee that the studio will be right for you. A studio which is popular at the beginning of semester may or may not achieve good outcomes at the end of semester. Besides who really wants to be in a studio full of your friends? It might make you feel safe and warm and fuzzy but the studio, its tutors, the project and the skills you will learn may not match your own educational needs as an aspiring architect. Being in a studio with your friends doesn’t really foster what I like call design resilience.

Its great to get into a popular studio and “run with the pack with your friends” at the beginning for the semester. It is not so great at the end of the semester when you realise how unsuited that studio was for you. It’s even worse when the studio outcomes of the most popular studio at the beginning of the semester end up being the most mediocre at the end of semester.All because it is popular doesn’t mean the studio will be good.

Charisma sydnrome

Charismatic architects do not necessarily make good studio leaders or teachers. Of course they looked great at the studio presentation, they have been published a lot, won a few awards and have a great website. But, that charismatic architect or the person who gives a great presentation to students about the studio may in fact be one of those woefully inadequate studio teachers. Woeful studio teachers are the ones that are potentially narcissistic, lack the humility needed to teach, mismanage your criticism time, develop favorites in the class and give contrary and contradictory advice to students from week to week. The seemingly charismatic tutor or architect may not be the tutor that you need to foster and build your design confidence.

Interesting project syndrome. 

This is when students choose because it seems like an interesting project. It might be a museum in a far flung and exotic corner of the world, it might seem like a real project with real life clients, it might seem funky because part of the project is to use the robots to fabricate one of those domey things; worse still, it seems interesting because you have always wanted to design a pop-up barista coffee cart.

What architectural or studio project isn’t potentially interesting? Good architects are the people who  make mundane and ordinary programs and problems into something cogent and culturally powerful. So just choosing a studio because it sounds like an interesting project is a really unthinking way to chose.  I learnt the most from the worst and least interesting projects that I did at architecture school. The bourgeois house, the outer suburban primary school, the kindergarten the social housing on the large site. You don’t need an exotic landscape, location or intricate program to learn in a studio.

Of course, its not so great when you get into the “interesting project” studio and find there is no established brief and you spend so many weeks researching the project that you don’t get enough time to design it at the end.

Sounds easy syndrome 

The sounds easy syndrome is usually the choice where the design studio student feels they don’t have to work that hard. The brief is established, the typological complexity of the building is something the student has done before, they know the tutor and they know they are not a hard arse. The student knows other students who have previously taken the studio and they all know that it is not terribly challenging. You can easily tick the box.

Unfortunately, it is easy for students to think they are learning something when they are having a great time in a design studio. In fact the converse is probably true. When the student is challenged by a tutor or a design problem that is probably when they are actually learning something. By doing studios that are personally challenging an aspiring architect is able to learn resilience, not just in the face of critical indifference or negative criticism, but also learn how to pursue a design proposal from start finish with all the various steps and missteps that this normally involves.

After all, once outside of architecture school, the aspiring architect must rely on their own reserves in the face of trenchant indifference to architecture.


A great post graduate, or Masters level, architecture school will present to its students a range of studios. The portfolio of the studios offered in the school should be diverse. It should not be centred around any particular fashion or ideological cause. A range of contexts, projects as well as a range of design teaching styles should be presented to students. Thats pretty much what is on offer each semester at the architecture school where I work at MSD. A school which is only devoted to parametric studios, or is aligned with the particular outlook of the school’s professors I think is a very conservative school. It goes without saying that diversity in both teaching staff and projects on offer is extremely important (I still know of architecture schools where the  design tutors each semester are predominantly male).

Choosing a studio for  a postgraduate architecture student is a personal one. In choosing a studio students should firstly ask themselves the following questions. The primary aim of these questions is to help you figure out what your learning objectives are.

  1. What technical skills do I have and what skills do I still need? Which studio or studio leader help me develop those skills.
  2. What am I yet to do at architecture school? What projects or types or scales of problem should I get experience in?
  3. What do I need to learn about in relation to design processes. Do I have the confidence to experiment? Should I do a studio that allows me to do this and is right outside of my comfort zone?
  4. What do I need to learn or in what kind of studio do I need to be in to grow in confidence as an aspiring architect?

Of course all these questions, or variants thereof, should also be asked by practicing architects with their own studios as well. If as a student you can answer these questions you are half way there. All you need to do then is find out as much as you can about the studios on offer that you think best match your learning objectives. That may mean asking around regarding the tutors teaching abilities and design expertise, and maybe, just maybe, actually talking to the tutors running the studio and asking them questions. If you can it is also good to see what was produced by the studio leaders in their studios in previous semesters.

You cannot rely on Architecture school to learn what you need to learn. Learning and then becoming an architect is kind of like any race in many respects. Preparation is important, practicing on different types of tracks, constantly refining your own training regime and above all taking responsibility for your own education is vital. The global trends that have led to the academicisation and privatisation of architecture education now leaves a lot to be desired. The best architects in the future will always be those architects who are self taught.





Schumacher vs Aravena’s Pritzker: Slugging it out in Monterrey Mexico.

Now that Aravena has won the 2015 Pritzker prize it might be worth discussing the current fault lines in architecture that run between the technologists and what Patrik Schumacher declaims as a “safe and comforting validation of humanitarian concern”. To do this I want to briefly analyse two projects by these very different architects in Monterrey Mexico. Just after Aravena won the prize there was an unusual outburst via Facebook and across social media from Schumacher:

“The PC takeover of architecture is complete: Pritzker Prize mutates into a prize for humanitarian work. The role of the architect is now “to serve greater social and humanitarian needs” and the new Laureate is hailed for “tackling the global housing crisis” and for his concern for the underprivileged. Architecture loses its specific societal task and responsibility, architectural innovation is replaced by the demonstration of noble intentions and the discipline’s criteria of success and excellence dissolve in the vague do-good-feel-good pursuit of ‘social justice’. 

When I read proclamations about political correctness I instantly associate this with a neoliberal and regressive politics. A politics intent on discounting social difference. Please forgive my skepticism but I am an academic after all. But an architecture focused on “specific societal tasks” might just mean: important big projects. For “responsibility” the cynical might read: more big projects designed by Patrik and Zaha and “architectural innovation” could refer to an architecture driven by all of the new technologies: drones, 3D scanning, 3D printing, AI and above all parametrics; and all of this innovation is promulgated through the new digital media: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TED talks and Linked-in-Profiles (I should talk) and maybe even Snapchat. Social media is nowadays the new collective imagination of architecture.

A more clear sighted and less cynical analysis might ask if Schumacher is correct in his stance and is Aravena’s position any more worthy? Is it any more innovative and to what extent does it lose any sense of societal tasking and responsibility? Does the work of Elemental, Aravena’s firm, posit itself as a credible and alternative architecture?Schumacher goes on to directly criticise Aravena suggesting that it is a kind of comforting opiate for the “humanitarian” set. Perhaps he might just be right?

I respect was Alejandro Aravena is doing and his “half a good house” developments are an intelligent response. However, this is not the frontier where architecture and urban design participate in advancing the next stage of our global high density urban civilisation. I would not object to this year’s choice half as much if this safe and comforting validation of humanitarian concern was not part of a wider trend in contemporary architecture that in my view signals an unfortunate confusion, bad conscience, lack of confidence, vitality and courage about the discipline’s own unique contribution to the world.”

Reading this I was intrigued by what Schumacher meant by the terms “frontier” and  “our global high density civilisation.” It starts to conjure up images of John Ford’s film The Searchers.  Interestingly, I found that both architects have produced schemes in Monterrey Mexico which in its own way is a frontier city. A city where narcotics, capital and America’s free trade agreement with Mexico collide. I know Monterrey reasonably well having visited a few times with post graduate MSD students in 2010 and 2012.

Monterrey is a city that has little planning regulation, has grown in a adhoc manner and contains extremely rich suburbs along side informal settlements.  It is a city full of contradictions it is a large industrial city with many factories supplying the United States whose border is only 3 or so hours away by truck. The total amount of Nuevo Leon’s exports, the state in which Monterrey sits, in 2012 were 35 Billion USD, 11% of Mexico’s total exports.  The city is home to one of the most important universities in Mexico and Latin America: Tecnológico de Monterrey (ITESM). It is even home to a large Lego factory. It contains both the richest and poorest suburbs in Latin America. It is where   Narco-Mansions are sited near informal settlements with no sewerage or drainage exist within close proximity of each other.

Don’t get me wrong I love Monterrey and would go back anytime. But it is an example of what happens to a city when global capital is allowed to run wild. It is in many respects a test bed of free market urbanism

Aravena’s and his firm Elemental’s 2009 project in Monterrey Mexico sums up a lot about their approach to affordable housing. The housing is designed to be incremental, in the sense that the inhabitants can add to the housing themselves as personal economics allow. It is an open ended approach and adhoc approach. A relinquishment of architectural agency in a sense. The final form of the housing appears to respect the surrounding grid pattern and typology of Monterrey. I don’t want to impose a european reading on this work but the project arguably sits formally in a European canon. The flat roof and form of the housing seems to have its precedents in Corbusier’s Pessac project and even seems to evoke the urban morphologies of a Rob Krier or a Latin American version of  Taut’s housing in Weimar. In other words it is affordable housing with an aesthetic and tectonic edge. It is an effort, I think, to forge a frontier in the gap between ordinary lives and high architecture.

In contrast Hadid and Schumacher’s scheme for Monterrey there is nothing adhoc about this project; there is not doubt that it has been designed with a capital D; nothing has been left to the residents to design; its hive like cells and sinuous and curvilinear forms are at odds with the cities surrounding typology. The central landscaped space is full of nice people enjoying the sun. The renders have a lot of gym action and treadmills in them. This is another Monterrey development that proclaims its wealth. A project made to take advantage of Monterrey’s low cost wage structure and labour intensive concrete technologies. Complete with 981 units that look like they could be anywhere in the global and urbanised civilisation that Schumacher aspires to cover the earth with.

I remember as a young naive architecture student, in the dinosaur age, Eisenman coming to visit my architecture school. Replete with Brooks brothers button down shirt and braces he proclaimed that architecture was “autonomous” and in no way political. Architecture could only do what it could do. Schumacher’s position is not dissimilar but it is perhaps more dangerous because it is driven by the new technologies, with scant regard to the politics of the neoliberal frontier. The contradiction, of course is that Hadid’s early work seemed to claim a political position via the use and reference in it to the Russian Constructivists. It has morphed into something else now.

In contrast Aravena’s work speaks of the small architect. Aravena’s work clearly positions itself on the margins and in the cracks of cities. After all when everything is said and done we are all small architects trying to fill the gap between high architecture and ordinary lives.