Architecture School: Crits and Criticism

crits

If studio is the heart of architectural education, then the review (a.k.a. the ‘critique’, ‘crit’ or ‘jury’) is the heart of the studio learning process.  There are desk crits, informal crits, interim crits, group crits and final reviews, and these can range in size from two people to over a hundred in attendance.  A crit is essentially a discussion between the designer(s) and a critic, and is used to evaluate designs or works in progress.  In the profession of architecture, the idea of criticism is both a positive and negative one; on one hand, it allows the designer to question their methods as they refine the project, on the other, it is a constant re-evaluation process that can be very frustrating for students.

The crit is not unique to architecture, and versions of it can be found in all design education and sometimes in other fields entirely.  In the education of doctors, “medical students are presented with a patient, asked to diagnose the illness and suggest appropriate treatment.  Students are then expected to justify their decisions to a reviewing panel.”  Crits in architecture echo some of the situations that architects face in practice (such as making presentations to clients), and “reinforce the importance of meeting deadlines, provide a forum for students to see each other’s work, …encourag[ing] graphic quality, …discussion, …[and] new thinking.”  The crit can also represent the “ceremonial culmination of each studio design project.”

The crit has long been a part of architectural education, and as far back as the Middle Ages, master-builders completed their education with the presentation of their ‘master work’. Presentation is a major part of architectural practice, and the ability to present complex design projects in a simple and brief fashion is an important skill for all architects to learn.  The review process is also integral to the evaluation of student work, as commentary is one of the only ways that students can get a grasp on the marks they receive.  If final projects were only handed-in and a number grade was given, there would be no understanding of why marks were lost, and no improvements could be made to the student’s design process in future projects.  The open debate of projects that takes place as part of the review process is essential to the growth of students as designers, as it lets them both defend their actions, and learn how to better their technique from a variety of opinions.

Of course, this same variety of opinions can also lead to some of the misunderstandings that come out of the critique experience.  As students are presented with a wide range of advice and commentary throughout the design process, they may be unsure which to follow, or what to make of contradicting items mentioned by different professors or guest critics.  In the final review, with information coming from so many respected sources, the student could also begin to lose confidence in their own opinions of their work.

I would concur that at present the crit …might even ultimately influence the underlying lack of confidence and negativity within the profession itself.  The review of student work should be a positive event, recognizing endeavor rather than a criticism of missed opportunities.”- from ‘Letter: Mutual Respect’ 

The crit process is both an objective and a subjective one.  In its most objective analysis, it is usually a presentation where the student places his or her design work on a wall before which a panel of critics is sitting.  The student explains the work, and the panel takes turns offering comments or encouraging the student to explain areas further.  The student and the panel go back and forth, explaining and questioning, sometimes applying basic judgments and sometimes defending responses for a period of time, then closing remarks are made and the review is over, leaving the student to record the more striking comments as items to keep in mind for the next design.  Throughout this process, other students or members of the school can sit and observe, pass by and glimpse, or add their own comments to the presentation.  This description seems tame enough, but on the subjective side, the interpretations of the crit can be very different from what is actually happening.  For the student, the crit is often a nervous experience, where their work is evaluated in a public place before their teachers and peers.

 “The first time I saw a jury [crit panel] was when I experienced it myself.  My own performance aside, I truly felt as if I had arrived from another planet.  Never had I witnessed teachers hurling out such vicious words across the room – except perhaps in the movies or on TV.  Never had I seen students so publicly embarrassed and humiliated – except perhaps in second grade.  Never had I sensed such an aftermath of confusion, powerlessness, anger and rage in a classroom setting.  It was as if a tornado had just roared through the building.” – from ‘Design Juries on Trial’

But why is the analysis of the crit so polarized?  From an educational standpoint, it is a useful and important tool for teaching students how to present their work and gain the verbal and graphic representation skills they will need for the future.  From the student’s point of view during the crit, it is often interpreted as a negative personal event.  Despite this drastic difference of opinion (and not all students share this view) there is a basic reason why crits are sometimes viewed in so negative a light.  Criticism received during the review process can sometimes be “too personal, too vague and too destructive,” and the overall experience is at times one-sided, and for the student it can become “endless, [as the critics] say the same thing again and again.”    All these values reflect a general tendency for students to ‘take it personally’ and view the ‘ordeal’ as an emotionally distressing experience.

However, the negative connotation of the crit as a ‘waste of time’ is one that can be easily rectified with a little preparation on the part of both the review panel and the student.  Preparing for the crit is a step that is sometimes mentioned but not strictly enforced in the schools, and if the student takes the time to plan out their presentation, their design may be easier explained, and the opportunity for increasingly constructive criticism can be created.  On the side of the reviewing panel, by discussing the overall goals of the studio and agreeing upon themes for commentary before the crit process begins, commentary can be focused on areas that will directly affect the student’s future work, and more time can be spent directly addressing the issues of the studio instead of providing useful, but not always targeted suggestions.

As well, a major misunderstanding that occurs between students and professors is the misconception that the crit is going to be used for grading purposes.  Students often assume that the comments in their crit make up the entirety of the marking process, and as a result, are often discouraged when all elements of their project are not addressed during the crit.  From the panel’s point of view, an attempt is made to speak to the more important aspects of the project during the short time allotted, while simultaneously speaking to some of the larger issues in the class (that may be of interest to the students in the audience).  Topics are often discussed in their relation to other projects seen, and discussion of the individual’s work may continue into the following reviews.  Students should be aware that the crit is a useful process, but it does not represent the entire marking consideration, and that they can also learn from watching the crits of their classmates.

Another important lesson that all designers eventually learn is that there is never an end to design, and there is always some aspect that could be further improved.  Crits can be frustrating because they tend to emphasize the ‘could-have-beens’ long after anything can be done to improve them.  In the schools as well as the profession, designs must eventually be ‘finished’ or nothing would ever be built, and it is on this note that the most detrimental part of this culture of criticism can be found.  If architects persist in becoming their own worst critics, and continual evaluation and re-evaluation of work is encouraged, how does this fit within a profession that is expected (and paid) to eventually stop designing and actually ‘build things’?  The process of designing is one that needs to be encouraged to create good work, but careful adherence to schedules, and the creation of good designs in a limited time allotted, are two skills that should have greater emphasis to prepare students for successful practice.

“Because of this constant desire to receive criticism and change, projects are always held to the last minute, and that causes a cascade of budgets in the professional world, and in the academic world, all nighters.  … Architecture students and practitioners [need to] learn that there should be a time for design and a time for production and execution.” -Architecture Professor

An essential skill for students to develop as they experience the various types of crits is the ability to assume an objective viewpoint of their own work.  By ‘taking a step back’ from their projects they can reflect on the commentary and separate the emotional colouring of the experience from what can be learned.  Lessons remembered from previous projects can often apply to future designs, and the ability to ‘keep one’s cool’ under the pressure of a presentation is a valuable skill for a future in architecture.  Students and practitioners alike should pay careful attention to the fact that it is “Your work, not you, [that is] judged,” and that ‘good’ projects and ‘bad’ projects are created by everyone as they learn to design and work to find their own style.  If a bit of perspective can be gained on the project, then criticism, good or bad, will be taken and stored away in its proper context, where it can be accessed for future work.

“Devastating moments always occur when one’s work is not appreciated.  I tend to be one of those people who accepts a certain degree of failure or rejection as being not necessarily healthy and not even necessarily well intentioned, but often, in the cool reflection afterwards, as being appropriate.  It’s hurtful for someone not to like your work, but it’s also a part of life.” – from ‘Design Juries on Trial’

Students learn to design through a combination of technique instruction and trial and error experimentation, but when it comes to crits, there is minimal instruction given, and students are mainly left to find their own way.  There are no classes or workshops given on how to best present verbally, and despite “students …repeatedly point[ing] out this deficiency on survey after survey, …[as well as practitioners] stress[ing] the same point, the emphasis is [still] almost exclusively on communicating visually.”  If instruction were given at the start, much of the negative anticipation of the event could be avoided through awareness, and tips like those mentioned above (taking time to prepare, separating from the work, recording commentary, how to respond to comments, etc.) could let students hone their presentation skills throughout their education.  These tools (workshops, informal discussions) could be used to help students better understand the process and their role in it, but careful observation and practice are still key – the student needs to actively take responsibility for being aware of the experience, so that they can apply the lessons they learn about presenting and discussion to future reviews.

“Despite its centrality, this ‘vital learning vehicle’ [the crit] (if you believe professors) or ‘boring waste of time, ego-trip for staff’ (if you believe students) appears to take place without the benefit of a student guide.  Students are expected to learn the rules of the game without a rule-book and initiation into this ritual can be a painful rite of passage.” – from ‘Crit: An Architecture Student’s Handbook’

Professors and students alike need to be aware of the tools that are available for the improvement of the crit process, and students need to take an active role in improving their own experience instead of just ‘going with the flow’ or letting the experience pass by without learning anything.  If a bit more technique instruction is given, and a more objective viewpoint is established, changes can be easily made to improve the entire process for both parties.

“I do have memories of reviews that went well, but I have to admit that I don’t remember ever learning much from the experience.  I certainly never asked myself what reviews were for, or what I wanted to get out of them (other than praise, praise, praise!)” – from ‘Crit: An Architecture Student’s Handbook’

 

 

 

References:

Angus, Michael.  “Letter: Mutual Respect.” Building Design (pp.10, Jun 18, 2004): 10

Anthony, Kathryn H. Design Juries on Trial: The Renaissance of the Design Studio. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1991.

Boyer, Ernest L. and Lee D. Mitgang. Building Community : A New Future for Architecture Education and Practice : A Special Report. Princeton, N.J.: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 1996.

Doidge, Charles, Rachel Sara, and Rosie Parnell. Crit : An Architecture Student’s HandbookSeriously Useful Guides. Oxford ; Boston, MA: Architectural Press, 2000.

Kostof, Spiro.  The Architect: Chapters in the History of the Profession. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Lewis, Roger K. Architect? A Candid Guide to the Profession. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1985

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