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 

Design Genius is not Design Leadership: Avoiding the cult of architectural design secrecy

Design Leadership requires the ability to be open and transparent about the way ideas and design knowledge is conceived, transmitted and fostered in the organisation. One thing that seems to hamper research across the field of architecture is a culture of secrecy. There are patches of this culture all across the topography of architecture. It manifests itself in a number of ways and at a number of levels. It might be the directors in a larger firm afraid of sharing information that is seen to have some competitive advantage. After all, if the cabal shares the premises of a firm’s competitive advantage that might mean exposing that knowledge as inconsequential. It could be the project architect who hangs on to project information and does not share it with others in the team. Better to keep them guessing or in the dark. It is easier not to explain anything. Or it could be the so-called design architect who refuses to reveal the sources or the inspiration of his conceptual ideas. After all, someone might steal those ideas and claim them as their own.

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All of these shenanigans of secret knowledge, tacit and unspoken communication and preciousness are corrosive to developing an architectural culture that maximises design knowledge. The covens of design managerialism and secrecy, the power tripping of withheld project information, and the egotistical horrors of pathetic design ideas made more important by being locked in the head of the design architect. All of these attitudes make it very difficult to conduct research within the profession.

I am not really sure where this culture begins. Of course, the curricula and studio systems of the architecture schools as usual, can be blamed. Few subjects are devoted to leadership and organisational governance in architecture school curricula. No wonder the profession is struggling to maintain itself.

In these systems, without the right studio leadership, individual competition can be vain, petty and subject to the vagaries and whims of favouritism. We have all been in studios where we will never make the favoured circle. Design Leadership is not about simply reinforcing and replicating your own theoretical position or the way you were taught architecture. Nor is Design Leadership is not about positioning a design within systems of parochial politics in order to gain influence. It is not about designing in a way that positions you for a commission or a peer award.

To reiterate, Design Leadership is about maximising design knowledge in the most efficient, effective and brutal way possible. After all when the rubber hits the road and the project is besieged by clients, value managers, and contractors the design ideas need to survive the journey.

The continued glorification of the design genius, which I have written about elsewhere, only leads to a situation where the profession is riven by localised mystery cults. Each genius, whatever their stature, surrounded by acolytes along with initiation ceremonies, encouraged rivalries, different circles of access and knowledge. It all starts to sound like Trump’s White House. Better to be an outsider than in the cult. So here a four principles to creating a culture of Design Leadership in your practice.

  1. Make design processes visible

Design leaders have clear processes in place. These processes are visible, transparent and communicable. Design leaders understand design processes and how these processes work through team environments. Design Leadership requires generating design knowledge and ideas through clearly communicated actions and gestures. By doing this everyone in the team can pursue, develop and contribute to the design.

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  1. Don’t hide design knowledge.

Hiding design information only creates islands of territorial power. The role of Design Leadership is to constantly posit design knowledge into the public sphere. Of course this sphere may the realm of the project team or it may be the consultant team. from different groups or individuals within the organisation It is not about hiding things away. If design are ideas are hidden they are not fully tested and may then crumble at the first sign of value management.

  1. Make designing inclusive.

Design Leadership does not require the trappings of a cult. It does not exclude or set boundaries around who can be in and out of the team. A collaborative team open to a range of design views is better than a team subservient to a single design view. Effective design leaders mentor and foster their team members. They do this is in order to make individual team members better designers.

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  1. Create space for design.

Good design leaders are bale to create safe havens for the most extreme and seemingly kookiest of design ideas. This is because, Design Leadership requires teams that ask questions rather than teams that simply reiterate like-minded principles. Excellence in Design Leadership nurtures and fosters this questioning. Everyone should feel safe to ask the dumb questions in the design team.

  1. Creates more ideas than can be used.

This is the measure of great Design Leadership. Having a cauldron of ideas constantly generated and replenished as the project proceeds. Design Leadership means both generating and then managing design ideas as they proceed. Design Leadership means having the luxury to pick, choose and give life to the best of architectural design knowledge.

Architects need to change the way they approach Design Leadership and their own organisational structures. Architects need to more effectively manage their own pool of talent. What architect wants to sit in front of a computer second guessing what needs to be done? Worse still, is sitting in front of a computer knowing whatever you do is never going to be quite right, because you weren’t initiated into the favoured circle.

Now back after a brief Easter Break ! 

 

Surviving the Design Studio: Don’t be a Lemming when choosing a design studio.

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 their final semester design studio.

This blog is a repeat of previous blog I did last year. In that blog I argued that the four worst reasons for choosing to be in a design studio are related to a cluster of common syndromes. But I have now added more syndromes to the original list. This is as a result of countless millenia watching architectural student lemmings jump off the cliff  and choose the wrong studios.

So here is the latest list of Lemming like syndromes:

1. Everyone passes this studio (Degree of badness 9  out of 10)

Choosing a studio or a design tutor because you think that everyone who takes that studio will pass. That’s great until you work out that it’s not exactly true and you fail the studio. Never take passing for granted.

2. My friends told me to do it (Degree of badness 10 out of 10)

Another bad reason and indicative of someone who can’t take responsibility for their own architectural education.

3. My friends are in it (Degree of badness 8 out of 10)

Time to cut the umbilical cord from the friends you met in the enrolment queue or at orientation. When you leave architecture school you will be working in teams, yes I am serious, actual teams with different people in them. A good idea to get used to it now.

4. It sounds too theoretical (Degree of badness 10 out of 10)

Sure that’s fine if you never want to think about architecture’s place in the world as a critical practice. that’s the path to CAD monkey and BIM monkey mania. If you want to be valued in a practice, when you graduate, then you need to have a handle on theoretical and conceptual ideas.

5. I already did that kind of project before (Degree of badness 7 out of 10)

Maybe. This is a legitimate excuse for not doing a studio. But it may also be a good reason to get really good at something by doing the same kinds of over and again. Going into greater depth might be good.

6. Running with the pack syndrome (Degree of badness 8 out of 10)

This is a variation on, “my friends told me to do it”. It’s great to get into a popular studio and “run with the pack s” at the beginning of the semester. But, 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 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.Popularity is the most misleading reason to choose a studio on. Don’t succumb to  peer group pressure or groupthink.

7. Charisma syndrome (Degree of badness 10 out of 10)

The seemingly charismatic tutor or architect may not be the tutor that you need to foster and build your design confidence. Charismatic architects, especially the alpha-male variety, 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.

8. Interesting project syndrome (Degree of badness 7 out of 10)

This is when students choose because it seems like an interesting project. What do you mean by “interesting” and how do you know it is actually interesting? Will the design outputs of the studio make a contribution to design knowledge.

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 choose.  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.

9. Sounds easy syndrome (Degree of badness 10 out of 10)

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 design 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.

10. Bogged down in research (Degree of badness 7 out of 10)

Of course, it’s not so great when you get into that “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. This is a common syndrome. Make sure that the tutors have a handle on the research component of the studio. A clear time schedule usually helps.

A few guidelines to help 

Choosing a studio for  a postgraduate architecture student is a personal one. It’s a personal decision. In choosing a studio students should firstly ask themselves the following questions:

  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? SHould I do something 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?

Finally

You cannot rely on Architecture school to learn what you need to learn. Learning and and 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 best architecture school’s, like the one I teach in, offer an impressive range of diverse studios and teaching approaches.  The best architects in the future will always be those architects who are self-taught. The ones who made the most of the diverse opportunities available to them at architecture school.

At the end of the day, the best and most employable graduates will be the ones who took the harder path at architecture school rather than the easier one.