Surviving the Design Studio: When you choose the wrong design studio and you realise you are just not that into your design tutors, and they aren’t into you.

The title of this blog was my life in every design studio. Anyway, I thought it was time to write something a little more positive and less cynical than in recent weeks. It’s been Design Week in Melbourne this week, and there have been lots of great events, and I would encourage all of you to go along to some of these before it finishes. I will be at this one on Sunday, and it should be an excellent opportunity to have a collaborative discussion about how architects can improve their working conditions and begin to think about labour practices in the profession.

But hey, let’s take it easy this week and talk a bit about design studios and design studio  teaching. Specifically, what should you do if you get that sinking feeling you are in the wrong design studio.

The Wrong Archi-School?

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Image: Simona Castricum 

So, you think you are in the wrong studio. And firstly, and you need to check this, you may actually be at the wrong graduate school of architecture, and if that is the case, it could be worth looking at the latest QS ranking list and seeing where your school falls. Some schools are better than others, and yes arguably the rating methodology is flawed. To say the least.

The ethos and the culture of your current school may not suit you. Especially, if you are different in some way and this clashes with the two extremes of Archi-school’s. These extremes are those with a prevailing cult mentality or those with a lacklustre culture of design mediocrity. I know of one new school of architecture where everyone has been narrowly recruited in the image of the head of school (cult). I think it is relatively predictable that without diversity in the academic cohort the school is doomed from the start (IMHO).

Another friend of mine is teaching at another Archi-school where the students seem to be so lacking in motivation; they are always late for class, and they never turn up on time for studio (lacklustre). Something is seriously wrong with that.

Ok, so let’s assume you are in the right architecture school for you but for whatever reason a few weeks into the semester you realise you are in the WRONG studio.

The Wrong Studio?

This may sound strange, but the best thing you can do when you are in this situation is to stay in the studio. I will try and explain why I think this is the case in more detail below. Firstly, there may be different reasons for thinking that you are in the wrong studio, and some of these reasons require more substantive actions than others.

Dud studio project

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Firstly, despite the lustre and appearance of the studio at the beginning or at the studio presentation, you might realise that it’s a not very interesting project. The site is banal, the brief is simplistic or the tutors love to dampen everything down with prosaic pragmatism.

If the project seems more comfortable than what you have done before, then that is obviously an excellent opportunity to think of ways to make it more complicated and to engage with your tutors at a deeper level. Try and understand the project and understand where your tutor wants to take it. Most tutors will have expectations about what they want from the studio. They don’t expect every student project to be super great, in the sense of looking fabulous at the end of the studio. Most tutors know that there will be people with a range of skills in their studios. But if you can understand what your tutors are passionate about and what ideas they might particularly want to develop in the studio then you can certainly use these to develop your project further. In tandem with your tutors you can help your them explore, to the max, the best ideas for the project even if the studio project seems dull.

Studio project beyond your skill set

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Of course, if you think the project is too hard for you and that’s the reason why you are in the wrong studio. A legitimate reason for this will be if your skills are not up to scratch or they are undeveloped (The bad reason is that you are just lazy). An excellent way to deal with this is to be very analytical about what skills you have and what skills you need going forward (some ideas on how to do this here).

A good design tutor will help you develop your skills and confidence. They will give you the space to do this. Having done your own skills analysis you will then need to figure out which skills you want to work on. Don’t be a dumbass and say: I just want to learn Revit or Rhino. You need to think about the range of skills you need. A good idea is to let your tutor know what it is you think you want to learn. Don’t make your tutors second guess what that is. Too often tutors don’t ask or just try and figure it as the studio proceeds. It’s not until the end of the semester that they actually work out what it is you needed to learn. Another related issue to this is your learning style, and it’s always good to figure this out and let your tutor know how you like to learn.

You realise that your tutor or tutors are a little bit crazy

Yep, this can happen, and it’s more likely to occur in schools where there is a cult mentality or a lack of oversight when tutors are chosen. Ok, don’t panic. Try and look on the humorous side of the situation. Take it easy, as the bad thing about this is that you probably are going to get contradictory messages from the tutors. And they will probably be inconsistent in either the value they put on your work, the advice they give you and even worse the respect they have for you. If you get caught up in the craziness you will end up being on an emotional roller coaster.

I think the best you can do in this situation is to gather around you a group of support critics and friends who can provide you with consistent design advice as you negotiate your way through this. If you can do that and you can gather enough support around yourself, then you should be all right. But it’s a bit like doing two studios at once, as you will need to meet with your friends each week and tell them what your crazy tutors have told you and try and work out your own design priorities. Two studios are better than one and if you survive you will be better off. Best not to worry too much about your marks in that situation.

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No studio friends?

You might find your friends aren’t in the studio. Really? My advice is to find some new friends and quick. Having no friends in the studio is an opportunity to make new friends and especially if the studio involves group work. Too often architecture students are crap at group work, and too often design tutors, even those tutors who insist on group work don’t give students any hints or ideas about how to do the group work.

There are a few fundamental rules of group work that everyone should know. Like assigning roles at the start and understanding everyone’s different working styles and maybe even working out common methods of contact. I guess I worry that architects and Archi students are hopeless at organising teams and teamwork.

The research syndrome.

Most studio participants don’t mind this. Hey, procrastination can’t be all bad. You can put off the hard stuff (actually designing) and talk and drink filtered coffee almost all semester. But it is essential not to go down this path at Archi-School. This used to drive me crazy, and it has a couple of different variants. Basically, it’s when the studio spends like 80% of the time talking and researching and talking and researching and talking and researching and never any ACTUAL designing. If you get stuck in this kind of studio vortex, don’t be sucked in. The sooner you start developing and generating your own design propositions the better. The idea that you have to wait for all available information and ruminate over it before you design the best way to never learn anything about design.

You realise you just not that into your design tutors, and they aren’t into you

Look you don’t have to be. And sometimes it’s hard when your tutors are vainglorious, discriminatory or they excessively foster others through obvious and not so obvious favouritism. But hey that’s architecture, and it’s something we all need to negotiate. But these things are also what we all really need to call out: the self-serving ambition, petty rivalries, profiling, bias and cronyism that is endemic in architecture schools and studios. If you feel bullied or discriminated against get help to call it out.

But again, getting yourself through this morass means you need lots of support, especially if you’re the only intersectional person in the studio and you feel like you have to hide in a corner when everyone else in there seems like they are in some kind of club or a clique. But shit who wants to be in that club anyway.

Make your own club as this is always better.

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In the global architectural system, architecture as a domain of knowledge practice is continuously being eroded, and so many architects have blindly accepted the celebritization (is that a word?) of our discourse. The elite clubs, the secret meetings, and unspoken smarmy clubby masculinities and handshakes. The few stars and the many. Why do we swallow it so readily? Why do our architecture schools mirror that stuff?

For me, celebratory and absurdist vitriol is one way to dismantle all of that. Someone asked me after I told them I was in the process of writing a book if it would be as vitriolic as the blog? I thought that was hilarious (I am just waiting for someone in my small village to say I am flaming down in a bitter and twisted way). However, for regular readers I am sure you will appreciate that the vitriolic tone has been pretty consistent over time. I like to describe this tone and voice as one of celebratory vitriol. After all what else can you do?

Finding your place 

If you get really desperate, you can find your voice in the studio via design tactics of irony, collage, mimicry and absurdity. Take a look at PJ’s work. Is it critique or homage to corporate capitalism. As soon you stop thinking that your mediocre tutors, in their many little mini-celebrity club guises, no longer have power over your design you will actually begin to design. For some of us we are never going to be in the club, we are never going to win the awards or the Archi-School prizes, or hang out with the celebrity architects. We will never have that Archi-pedigree. The architectural celebrities aren’t as fun as the real celebrities and they will only wipe their feet on you anyway, and the pedigreed types will never change the profession. After all, why would they?

Don’t Panic

Above all, and firstly, when you don’t like the design studio, you are in don’t panic. In architecture we don’t always like our clients or the projects we get dealt with and learning how to deal with these things as result of these factors is something we can learn when we hate our design studio.

But more importantly, the best tutors are the ones that will respect you regardless of how you look or your background. The best tutors are the ones who will not have favourites, and they will help you find your voice. These are the design tutors who have respect not only for you but for the future of architecture as well.

Updated March 21