Its all About The Money: What makes a great Architecture School?

So what makes a great architecture school? Or maybe a better question might be how would you design an architecture school for this day and age. I was prompted to think this because in Australia the ERA research excellence rankings have just come out. These rankings indicate that few of our Archi schools in Australia are “well” above world standard.

The rankings measure research outputs in these terms.

  • 5 Well above world standard
  • 4 Above world standard
  • 3 At world standard
  • 2 Below world standard
  • 1 Well below world standard

In this ERA round, 5 Archi schools got 4 (Above world standard), 8 Archi schools got 3 (At world standard) and 1 school got 2 (Below world standard).

But on that basis I think Australian architecture schools are doing pretty well giving the universities have been ripping them off for the past 10 years or so, pumping them full of students, exploiting their full-time and sessional academics and giving next to nothing back for research or research training (sorry to sound so strident this week but its easier when I am writing in a hurry).

Yes, no one school in Australia got 5 (Well above world standard). So we all know how much I love metrics but hey WTF? ERA is kind of saying that of 22 Architecture schools in Australia none are well above world standard? Are we all “above world standard” and no higher and WTF is “world standard” for an architecture school anyway? I think all that ERA does is point to the poverty and the managerial disgrace of these kinds of metrics and ranking systems. Not to mention the time and resources spent, by academics, preparing an ERA application.

I would also argue that our ERA rankings in the discipline would be better if our architecture schools were better managed by university executives (I might even develop my own ranking survey around this). Most don’t have a clue what design studio is. Yes, let’s repeat that: most managerial types—across the different schools I know of–have no idea what a design studio is. Nor, do they really seem to care.

Its all about the research numbers or the money.

I reckon I could even do a Get Krackin style of TV comedy about design studios in architecture schools.

 

So my ideas for a world class plus architecture school would be:

Design Studios

Design studios are the core of any architecture school. They are highly sensitive to changes in the external environment supporting them. Such as class sizes or contact hours. You can’t learn architecture in 3 contact hours. Nor can you teach a studio with 18 students. Or spoil a studio with clueless teaching, cronyism, bias or worse still a paucity of prudent, decent and insightful design criticism, there goes your architecture school down the drain. But most managerial types—across different schools I know have no idea what a design studio is. Nor, do they really seem to care (there is that theme again).

Culture

I have written about this elsewhere. The best way to build a culture and a sense of community around an architecture school might be to have year cohort system (and an active studio system). You can’t create an architecture school culture through managerialism–sorry if this is starting to sound like a bit of theme. You won’t do it with a checklist, or a policy, nor will you do it with school prizes, nor lots of overseas studios and nor those MOFO male twerking celebrity architects coming to visit when the provincials do all the bowing and ring kissing. I have ruined my own career by never being interested in all the fawning over the celebrities. (last week we had a few visiting dignitaries, and it was like watching fawning flies on a meat carcass).

download.jpg

Safety Zone Debates 

Yup, we need to do more than the above, and that is the mix where practitioners, academics and actual students can mix and in engage in the same milieu. Lots of panels are great, lots of questions, debates and discussions are even better. Debates and discussions about real issues. Debates where every voice is heard, and this is so important for the culture of an architecture school. Debates where it’s not just a macho title bout. We need to make safe spaces to have these conversations.

Of course, if the academics are too busy with their so-called “careers” and gaming their research metrics ( don’t get me started on this subject), then they will never engage in the culture of an architecture school. Even if some academics can’t design teach their way out of a wet paper bag, then it would be nice to see them at the debates, exhibitions and talks.

Diversity

Need I say more than merely using the D word. Or do I have to spell it out? I have written a bit about it here. If you want an excellent Architecture school the more diverse its constituents, the better. Homogeneous and monocultural schools just lead to the most appalling power asymmetries within their confines and then later on in the profession.

09-Fergus_Greer_Leigh_Bowery_Session_III_Look_11__August_1990__From_the_series_Leigh_Bowery_Looks

Curricula

I have observed three different approaches across all the Archi schools in Australia.

The diverse curriculum school — as distinct from a school with diversity– the “design” school, and the focused curriculum school (oh so boring). The diverse school can be great as it will allow different lines of design research and approaches to emerge. It might even enable synergies to happen between different domains of design knowledge. Which is all ok provide the school with the diverse curriculum is structured well. But it is not great if it is usually managed in an ad-hoc fashion, all the bits of curricular just kicking around in a rubbish bin. To be great schools, these types of schools need active, attentive and balanced leadership.

Then there are the Archi Schools focused on a single-digit idiocy, of a technical trick, brand attribute or singular focus: sustainability, materials science, fab-labbing, urban design and of course parametrics. I am not actually sure these types of archi schools are actually schools of architecture. I am sorry, but I am too much of a generalist to stomach these types of schools.

images-1

Of course, in some schools, everyone is a designer or aspires to be one. Committed to the concept and the holy idea or “process.” This tendency doesn’t really help dismantle the celebrity cult. And this sensibility always ends up sounding like the contrary argument. It’s a philosophy or approach that might have been current 20 years ago. But increasingly, design as an autonomous field to be protected, is a head-in-the-sand issue. It’s appallingly apolitical because it is a viewpoint that continually fends off anything from outside the discipline: politics, management, technology, and of course any kind of theory. With a little bit of intellectual generosity, rather than the old hokey-pokey designer smoke and mirrors, these schools can be great.

So that’s it, and I am always amazed how different schools fall into some of the various traps mentioned up. But the real point I am trying to make is that: architecture schools are a microcosm of the profession, and if we really want to change Architecture going into the future then we really need to change the schools as well. This is so important.

Bring on the revolution then we can all get fives in the ERA rankings.

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?

img_8253.jpg

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

giphy

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

images-1.jpg

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.

img_8267.jpg

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.

img_8270.jpg

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 

Surviving the Design Studio: 6 hacks to develop your crap design quickly.

The all too familiar scenario

For many students, even in the most prestigious architecture schools it is easy to be seduced by the computer: The lure of the computer with the shimmering screen, often means you can easily convince yourself that what you are creating is Architecture; that your design is more developed and refined than what it actually is.

In fact a computer can help you think your design is actually fabulous.

Crisis

Then suddenly you realise your time has run out. The jury crit is looming, or the client is coming, and you haven’t done enough to develop the design. You were too busy researching, or procrastination, or kididng yourslef you were great, or bogged down in admin, or suffering under the hands of a capricious tutor or client. Crisis time !!!

The problem with having a capricious tutor is that they will quickly cut you lose, and wont defend you when the jurors start drilling down into the details of your design; actually, jurors don’t actually care that much about function; they are usually more interested in discussing, those things known as ideas. Holy Rissole Batman !!! Do you you mean actual ideas !?!?

 The Danger

A primary danger is this: allowing the computer to fool you that you had done more design development than what you have actually done. In fact, if you haven’t done enough design development, all you have really done is a functional diagram at best. At worst a conceptual diagram simplistically mapped onto the site. It is awful to see people fashion these diagrams in order to make them seem like architecture.

Knee jerk reaction

The common response to time pressures of the jury session combined with a lack of design development detail is to develop the design through an obsessive and irrational focus on the brief or program, function and functional elements. Yes, it is easy to lapse into form follows function when you are in a desperate panic to get that conceptual and schematic design finished in time.

Certainly, The first thought of most people in this situation is the old keen jerk reaction of developing the design further through, an even further and intense consideration of function. But probably over-thinking the functions is what got you in this mess in the first place.

The worst thing you can do

For a start it is too easy. Secondly, architecture is not about just solving functional problems. Sorry, to have to tell you but it is about more than this and it is also about Ideas. As a socio-material practice architecture concerns itself with embodying ideas in space. I will even stick my neck out and say, architecture actually has nothing to do with function. In the hierarchy of elements a designer should be concerned about function is really a very, very, very, low level concern.

A bit of theory

Yes, in modern architecture, some architects in the past have been to develop radical notions of “pure” functionalism that manages to escape the prosaic. Hannes Meyer, Ernst May, and the Neue Sachlichkeit in Weimar Germany spring to mind. Maybe even Hilberseimer. In the late twentieth century Kazuo Shinohara springs to mind. There are glimmers of this functional realism and objectivity in the work of OMA and Bjarke Ingels. But all of these architects are able to evoke a functional realism resulting in a highly refined and abstract ambiguity (let’s argue about that point later).

Architecture can’t escape being read, or perceived, in ambiguous and uncertain ways. Just solving a design for “function” won’t allow you to control or even apprehend the pathways of ambiguity.  Hence, over-thinking function is really, really, really boring. Developing a design by over-thinking function will not actually allow you to develop the design in a way that accounts for all the other factors architects need to consider.

So here are the 6 so-called hacks:

In no particular order, that might help you get out of the function rut and save your career as a capital D designer.

1.Develop the spatial experience

Develop the spatial experience. What is it like to walk through it. What will people see? Box-like rooms with no windows maybe? What kind of light is in each of the rooms and at what time of day?

2. Develop from the context

What is physically around the design?  How does your design respond to this? Take an element or idea from the context and integrate it with your design or use it to develop your design. Or is your design just an isolated object with no relationship to the  surrounding context. A box, or a industrial product on a blank site.

3.Develop the materiality

What are the materials?Is there materiality or texture? What is your functional diagram like as a physical entity? Or is it just lines in a computer?It won’t look good if it’s just a functional series of boxes. It’s your your pick, is it concrete, parametric plastic or inflammable metal cladding? How do these materials look? How are the materials joined together? Are there floor or wall patterns?

4.Develop the façade treatment (and technology).

How do things look on the façade. Is there a pattern? How is the facade constructed? Are the facades layered or just one material? Will the facade get hot or cold, or mitigate sun, and or carbon emissions? How do the openings look like on the facades?

5.Develop the Public and Private

How are the public and private spaces gradate? Which rooms or spaces in the functional arrangement are more public, or more private. What can you do to emphasise and reinforce this?

6.Develop the car-circulation

Cars can seem like a really functional kind of consideration. But not really. The car is a site where the future will be a contested area; as the AI revolution and the data analytics cult kicks in.

But if you can do this with elegance and actually design the way the parking works and how this is linked to overall concept that helps. Slamming the carpark next to your building or sticking it underground and showing this only in the section is really ordinary. The more, you can think through how people drive to your building, the better.

In other words: Develop the design through playing

Exit the computer and play. Get the design out of the of the computer and print it. Ask yourself how does it look? Then draw on the prints. Draw on the plans, draw on the renders, draw on the elevations. Draw on yourself.

Yes, if you are looking at something in the computer and have yet to translate it to the real world or to the layout sheets. How, the on earth (I will refrain from using profanities this week), do you know what it is you have is actually designed and developed?

The point is, to play with and explore a design, in order to create and even better developed design. Yes, I mean play, like getting into a sandpit and making a sandcastle. After all when was a sandcastle made as a result of strict functional requirements? But some sandcastles l are really cool.

Finally

Everyone can tell, especially jurors,  if it’s a uni-dimensional overthought-in-function design. A better rule to be guided by when developing a design is: If it looks good it is good.