Surviving the Design Studio: Coping with the 10 worst design critics

My Instagram feed has been full of my best ex-students and favourite colleagues having a great time in Venice and Northern Italy. Some have even taken their smaller kids. There were lots of images of Scarpa, and many of the glittering ruins built on the mud flats of the lagoon plus the dreary architectural follies of the Biennale.

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All washed up 

Then I thought of these ex-students and thought of the old comic times of the Raisbeck studio teaching days. I got a bit nostalgic. It got me thinking how much I miss design studios and the end of semester crits. No one wants the washed-up self-deprecating professional practice lecturer in a crit these days. Probably best to leave those crits to the shoppy fabricators, grasshopper gropers, history aesthetes, save the world (but never protest) sustainability types, robot boys and anyone with a pedigreed north American or pedigreed degree. Have I offended anyone?

Everything is now so fragmented and specialised. There is nothing wrong with getting the specialists in providing the architects are there as well. But I worry this approach is breeding the end of the design studio. The university managers and money men would love that. Thank god we can still have actual architects from small practices teaching and involved in our schools. Small practitioners can think across, and into the fragmented fields of specialisation.

Of course, I am actually more nostalgic than bitter about the old Raisbeck studio days. Maybe I should put together my all-time best studio team in another blog.

Design crit anxiety

The juries and design crits at my graduate school are coming up, So I thought some of you might need some help. But first a warning: Don’t read this if you are already anxious about standing in front if a design jury.

Architecture students are by and large terrified of design juries. They have every right to be afraid. For an architecture student, the power balance is unequal. Perhaps it is this unequal power balance embedded in studio culture that permeates through the profession’s culture. For the most part, this fear is a result of the emotional investment and work that an individual invests in the project before the presentation. Also, the investment in a project is often individual and unique and it is also easy to think the worst is about to happen. That the jury members will, in the presentation, focus on the weakest points in your design or worse still find faults in your design that you did not even know existed.

English as your second language 

English tends to be the international language of juries. So, if English is not your first language, then it is more difficult. It can feel daunting. Most jurors, but not all, will be sympathetic to your language skills. After all, if you have designed your project well and presented your work effectively it will be ok. Everything will be there on the wall or the screen, and you don’t have to say that much.

Most jurors will genuinely want to explore your thinking. They will want to know about your design ideas, how you responded to the design brief, the context and the ideas set by the studio tutors. Regardless of your language skills they will want to engage in a two-way conversation with you. They will suggest things that you might have done or done differently. Use it as an opportunity to learn.

Good advice

Good jurors will listen to what you and the other jury members say, and help to promote the conversation. The depth and range of this conversation will enable the juror to understand your project and where you are positioned in your journey towards being an architect. Better jurors will gently shape this narrative to get to the point of considering if your project contributes to new design knowledge or not.

But jury presentations require practice and if you haven’t had much practice then, of course, its a worry. To overcome this you should practice your talk beforehand. You really need to do this, and the jurors will appreciate your care and thoughtfulness if you do this. The above approach presumes there is an equal balance of power, or at least approaching it, between the design juror and the person presenting.

Some jurors and design critics are not nice at all 

But you need to be aware that not all jurors are nice. Jury standards across the schools and the profession vary. Architecture in the past has been a professional cultural built on a legacy of discrimination, racism and taste-making snobbery. There are still pockets of these practices in architecture. The design jury can sometimes be the place where these things come to the fore. So below is a heads up on some of the jury types you might find when you present. Plus a few tips on how to deal with them.

Ten types of jurors and design critic (in no particular order).

1. The Peacock: Very common. Sadly some design jurors like to be smarty pants and love to use deficiencies in a project to promote their own specialist knowledge, interests and architectural fetishes. This one is quite common. You often get the impression that these jurors jurysplain. This is the equivalent of mansplaining, and in their vanity, they just want to impress you with their superior knowledge (usually flawed or incomplete), architectural or star status or latest awfull project they may have just finished.

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Photo by Juhasz Imre on Pexels.com

Counter: Tell them and stick to what you know about your project. Smile and nod and agree. Try and find the connections between your project and their interests. Under no circumstances pretend to be an expert in their peacock areas of knowledge.

2. The contrary dickheads: Common. These are the jurors who love nothing more than being contrary. Think Tony Abbott. To them the logic of your design thought and how it contributes new design knowledge means nothing. These jurors will use an opposite argument at every step of the way to counter what you or other jurors might say. Usually, they are playing to an audience. For example, if the other jurors like something this type will say the opposite. If you say something, they will say make an opposite and opposing claim. The Contrary dickhead usually leads to a discussion between jury members with you on the sidelines. Counter: If you are confident counter with contrary positions on there contrary. That usually confuses them. Or try and ask a few questions and ask them what they really think.

3.The plansplainer: Common. I hated doing plans when I was an architecture student. I was more interested in ideas, volumes and theories of architectural meaning (on reflection I really had no idea what I was doing when it came to plans. The plansplainer will start looking at your plans and picking them apart. Door swings, toilets, bathrooms, kitchens bedrooms, storage areas and of course those big slabs of space you stupidly filled with tables and chairs from the CAD library. They will often go onto question your pragmatics.

Counter: Get right into the plan detail with them. Pray you actually have some detail there talk to them about sizes and measurements of the spaces in your plan. Don’t worry you will never get it right with the plansplainers. For the most part, they are pedants who have no real interest in architectural ideas.

4.The rock and roller: Endangered. A few isolated individuals exist. Think Woflie P and the recently departed Will Alsop. These are a variant on the self-confident star architect. These types are becoming increasingly rare as they get older. They just want to be entertained. They have no discernible ideology to pursue except “let’s all get down and party.”

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Counter: Go with the flow. Talk about your design as if it’s going to be the best drug-fuelled disco party space ever. Tell them something about contemporary popular culture they are unlikely to know about. Mention rappers or the latest Insta influencer.

5.The Big Picture Critic (BPC): Common enough. These types will usually attack the logic of your conceptual approach. It is typically posed by those who have had a more “academic” training in the pedigreed schools. This attack typically will come in two forms. Firstly, the way you have conceptualised your design in a way that is too limited. Your design’s frame of reference, its big picture, is not quite right. Basically, you have forgotten something, or you have not had the right frame of reference, or the logic of concept is flawed. In other words and typically, you did not address a broader urban context. Secondly, there is some fundamental flaw in the conceptual framing of your concept that means your entire concept should be reconfigured.

Counter: this is a tough attack to counter. Especially if you have spent the design process on the computer or rushed together a basic brief and spatial program and never considered anything outside of the boundaries of your site. This attack ends badly if your design does not have conceptual apparatus built into it. Best to consider what you would say about these kinds of questions before the design crit. One way out is to talk about the ideas you embedded into the design. Let us hope you have more than two. This will appease the BPC even if they continue to argue about conceptual configuration.

6.The Headkicker: Rare and increasingly becoming an endangered species. As our former Prime Minister Paul Keating used to say “see a head” kick it. This is the one that is hardest to defend against. It is usually a disaster when one of these types appear in the jury room. Probably best to stay calm and go along with it. Don’t panic as soon as this type smells panic they go for the jugular even more. Thanks to lousy role modelling via the people who taught me I have been witness to the darker arts of this style of jury criticism. These darker jury and design crit arts and tactics should never be used by anyone. This is why I am not going to give you an exact list of what they are.

Counter: There is not a lot you can do. If you can cry. Or seem like you are about to cry that can work. Or at the least just look crestfallen. This only works if your studio leaders have some sympathy for you and they understand that when someone cries in the public space of the design crit something has gone seriously wrong with their teaching.

7.The Silent Head-Kicker: Relatively Common. Still a common occurrence I am afraid. These jurors will never tell what they really think. You will get the feeling that whatever you have done is not quite right. Some architects run their design studios like this (both within and outside of the schools). The crit itself can be painfully long without anyone saying anything. The design critics won’t say much, but your natural tendency will be to say too much to fill the gap of the silence. Don’t try and fill a silence with unnecessary words you might end up saying something that sabotages your design argument (if you have one). In talking to fill a void, you may dig your own grave. If there is a silence just go with it. After all, it is burning up time, and no one is attacking you.

Counter: Respond to their questions but also try and draw them out as to want they really think. Also, direct your remarks to the entire jury even if one of them is silent. This doesn’t necessarily mean their opinion won’t hold some weight later. I hate it when I am on a jury, and a student directs there remarks to the person (like the local starchitect) they think has the most power in the room. When I see that happening I think is one of the few occasions that I will go for the jugular. Remember you need to involve all jurors in the conversation.

8.The Koala: Relatively common these days. I kind of like the Koalas. But they can be unpredictable and a tad pedantic. Sleepy with not much to say. Mostly dopey. So they just assert things. Usually, warm and fuzzy things. But sometimes they will assert incorrect and stupid interpretations. Mostly the questions are superficial. But poke the bear too much, and they can turn nasty. Or show them something intellectually challenging and they will come out with statements that will really drive you crazy because they are out of their depth and don’t really get it.

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Counter: Listen and be patient. Try and affirm their questions to get tot here warm and fuzzy core. This juror is never the brightest. Address their pathetic concerns in detail. If they say anything to presumptive or outrageous, you will have to call them out on it. But be warned you may not have enough time to counter their lack of knowledge.

9.The love-your-work-critic: Rare. Just go with the flow with it lap it up and don’t believe all of it. The more you tell them how you thought about your work, the more they will love it. It’s often hard to know what prompts this response from a juror. Sometimes it might be set-up, e.g. a good cop-bad cop situation. Again there are some things about the darker arts of jury criticism I cannot reveal.

Counter: Self-effacement and modesty is always good. Thank the juror or juries for their encouragement and try and figure out what they like about it. Tell them what you would do differently next time. When they jury loves your work, and you tell them that they will want to give you more marks for being insightful. Communication self-reflection and insight into your project and processes will always get you more marks. But, make sure the love-your-work jurors are not just saying it because of how you look or has anything to do with your fashion sense. Check in you with your tutor later and see what they say about it. Afteerwards avoid any #metoo situations.

10. The Mind Messing Psycho (MMP). Extremely rare but not yet endangered. As with the general population a small number of jurors fall into this category. This type will want to get into your head and mess with it. To do this they will ask you all sorts of questions about how you think? These questions will not just be about how you thought about the work. But things like how do you feel when you walk down the street……? Or do you like ice cream….? In other words they will ask you questions that elicit answers bordering on personal emotions.

The MMP then uses this information against you. For example, “you say you like ice cream but there is no ice cream vendor in your scheme?” They might even ask you questions like, “have you been happy in the studio” or makes statements like “you look like a nice person.” In short the line of questions blurs the line between the personal and the public narrative around your project. In some cases, the MMP is asking these questions in order to assert the repower over you within the jury room and perhaps even outside of it. These types thrive on unequal power exchanges. In no circumstances talk or make contact with these juror types after the crit

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Counter: Block their questions and don’t give too much away about your personal life or individual feelings. Keep your answers, and the project focused on the situation.

Humility 

The design crit conversation should foremostly be about ideas and bringing those ideas into the light of day. Even though you may feel powerless or that others have power over you this is the kind of conversation you should strive for. A conversation about ideas and the best design jurors will seek out and want to hear about your best ideas. In fact, I would go so far to say that the best critics are the ones who will listen to your ideas with a sense of humility. Humility is probably an attribute we could do with more of in the profession.

And as I write my plane is diving into Sydney and I can blame that. Put me on a trip and you get an over-oxygenated plane blog.