The Tutorial That Made Me Cry And What It Taught Me
18th November 2017Today marks the one year anniversary of my worst ever tutorial and lowest point during my time at architecture school. As the title suggests, this is an extremely personal article, however its morals are directed at you, the reader. If you are currently struggling through a tough project, I hope this account will reassure you that any setback can be overcome and that you still have plenty of time to achieve your aims. For those who feel they are in a hopeless situation, get in touch and I will do my best to help you. I don’t want anyone to feel the emotions I did one year ago. If you don’t study architecture, this article should provide some insight into how deeply architecture students care about their work. We are wonderfully dedicated individuals, however sometimes we become so wrapped up in our designs that when things go wrong it can feel like your world is crumbling down around you.
Before I start, a note for my architecture classmates and the staff at the University of Liverpool who know me. I chose not to reveal the intensity of this incident until now because it was my problem that I wanted to overcome myself. It occurred over just a couple of days and my mindset was back on track very quickly, hence I felt no need to confide in anyone. Please don’t feel that you should have somehow noticed.
Hilbre Island. Photo by Aero England My concept diagram. Image by Barney Sheppard
Setting The SceneThe date was Friday 18th November 2017, and my studio were having our first design tutorials of the academic year. The brief was to design a lighthouse, lifeboat station and ranger’s station on the rugged island of Hilbre, a small island at the mouth of the River Dee near Liverpool. Following four weeks of group investigation work to analyse the brief and site, we had been individually designing our own schemes for two weeks or so. My ideas centred around a concept of “external lightness and delicacy, and internal solidity and protection”, which reflected a number of characteristics of the island and the nature that called it home. I was going for a Renzo Piano-esque aesthetic, with an almost invisible, glazed box that would seem to hover above the rocky island. In contrast, the interior was to contain the existing historic lifeboat station to protect and celebrate it, with thick timber members and cosy pockets of space creating a reassuring and cosy atmosphere. Leaving for my tutorial I felt confident about what I had designed, maybe a little arrogant in hindsight; little did I know what would happen next.
The massing model I took to the tutorial. Photo by Barney Sheppard The tutor thought the massing model represented my desired aesthetic. Photo by Barney Sheppard The internal space planning model I took to the tutorial. Photo by Barney Sheppard
The TutorialI was presenting my work to two tutors, let’s call them Steve and Edward, alongside one of my fellow students in the main part of the architecture studio. I opted to go first, and explained my concept and scheme before showing the tutors the models above.
The first words to leave Steve’s mouth hit me like a punch in the gut, “this just looks like a B&Q warehouse”. I felt crushed, the two weeks of effort I had poured into my scheme felt like a waste, and I immediately started to stress that I was now two weeks behind in an already short and intense project. I tried to argue the design in order to change the opinion of Steve, but he was having none of it. He thought the design was weak and overly simplistic, and admittedly, he was right. Over the previous two weeks I’d foolishly built it up in my head, assuming I was pretty much finished and there was little to be improved. Granted, the models didn’t help. The white one above was only a massing model, however I think Steve assumed I wanted the building to have that aesthetic.
As the negative feedback from Steve and Edward continued I became more and more flustered and anxious. I took the critique personally, feeling increasingly hopeless with each comment that revealed something else I had done wrong. This was the first time at university I had worked on a design without tutor feedback for a number of weeks, and I saw myself as a failure. As I got increasingly worked up the horrible realisation that I was going to cry washed over me. I’m sure you know the feeling, when you are so stressed and emotional that tears are inevitable. My body was visibly shaking and no doubt my cheeks reddening as I tried to hold myself together. At this point, my attention shifted from trying to argue my scheme to finishing the tutorial as soon as possible so I could escape and burst into tears. Instead of discussing Steve and Edward’s comments, I answered with short murmured responses of agreement. I think Edward was the first to notice my internal collapse, as he started to ease off and subtly try to calm me down. Finally, it was decided that my section of the tutorial was complete, and without saying a word or gathering up my work I stood up and rushed out of the room towards the toilets.
The AftermathAs soon I reached the privacy of a toilet cubicle I burst into tears. Negative future scenarios ran through my mind as I tried to regain some control. After 45 minutes the redness of my eyes and nose had faded sufficiently for me to shuffle back into the studio and grab my things before hurrying to my flat. Arrival at home brought more tears. The feedback I had received caused me to lose trust in my own process and decision making, hence I was at a complete loss as to what to do. It was during this moment that for the only time during my degree I questioned my ability to become an architect. It was my lowest point.
As many do during times of crisis, I turned to my parents. They helped immeasurably, and following a phone call with them I outlined some possible directions I could take with the project, and emailed my studio head to organise an emergency meeting the next day on Saturday morning. Having been told how tough I’d found the tutorial, my studio head reassured me that I still had plenty of time and was capable of producing a successful scheme. This lift and the knowledge that things could not be as bad as the previous day gave me the impetus to develop a plan for the rest of the project.
By the start of the next week my head was back in the right place. I felt calm and focused and had overcome the jolt provided by Friday’s tutorial. On the Monday morning Steve came and found me for a chat. He explained his comments and my more composed state allowed me to realise their truth and weight. One line from that discussion has stuck with me ever since, motivating me during the rest of that semester and beyond.
"We'll make an architect of you yet."The care, attention and belief in me shown by my parents and the University of Liverpool staff spurred me on. I didn’t want to let them down and was determined to prove I could develop a creative, successful and thoughtful design. Wanting to be true to myself, I decided to maintain my original concept and alter the building design in response to the tutorial feedback instead of starting from scratch. As outlined in my Ten Tips for Success in Architecture School, you should always stick to your guns.
The following week I was critiqued by Steve and Edward again, this time in the form of a pin up. The lasting impact of the tutorial caused Steve to ask me if I would prefer him and Edward or two different tutors. I decided to take the opportunity to explain the alterations I had made to the former, after all, they knew my scheme and were fully aware of how much the project meant to me. Due to my more receptive and measured mental state, the pin up went well. I received some useful feedback, including an alteration which went on to define the form of the building, as well as some positive comments regarding my project as a whole.
In the space of just over a week, I had shifted from ignorant arrogance, to questioning my potential to even be an architect, to a composed and measured sense of determination, and all in the hands of the same pair of tutors. Architecture can be a rollercoaster sometimes.
My final pin-up at the end of the project. Photo by Barney Sheppard One of my final renders, no longer a B&Q shed. Image by Barney Sheppard Floor plan. Image by Barney Sheppard
The Final Outcome And What I LearntFor the remainder of the semester following my wobble I threw myself into my work, and thankfully it paid off. I went on to achieve my second best studio mark, only narrowly bettered by my final project in third year. Perhaps more importantly though, the experience changed my approach to architecture and how I respond to criticism.
The humbling experience of the tutorial taught me to always be genuine and pragmatic with my architecture. Before the semester had even begun I had decided to design a simple building in response to the short project timescale and a very complex and challenging design I had realised in the previous semester. My “pursuit of efficiency” manifested itself as laziness, and hence my scheme was under-developed and over-simplistic. I had tried to take the easy option, and whether Steve and Edward realised this or not, their tutorial brought it to light. My approach in the next project was completely different. Receiving the brief with no pre-defined ideas allowed me total freedom of thought, which resulted in a more creative scheme that was 100% responsive to the brief and site instead of my own hidden motives. I will continue to use this pragmatic way of working throughout my career, because in my opinion the ideals of an architect should never take precedence over the context surrounding a project. I am very glad I learnt this lesson early, because it facilitates the creation of better architecture.
The most important shift in my thinking caused by the tutorial relates to criticism response. Whilst reflecting on the semester after receiving my mark, I realised that after I had overcome the shock of the heavy criticism, it acted like a springboard, catapulting me into action. Although my expectations were greatly reduced following the feedback, I was determined to squeeze every possible bit of potential from the scheme. I worked harder than ever before to try and turn things around in an effort to prove to myself that I could be successful. Alongside my motivation was a calm acceptance that maybe this project would not be as good as my others. This realisation made me feel more at ease and less stressed about my work. I felt as though I had come through the worst of it and was gaining momentum in the right direction. As always the end of the project was intense, however alongside the whirlwind of stress I felt content because I knew I had done all I could.
Now, I try to reframe setbacks as opportunities and a springboard for me to make positive changes. Whilst I still principally trust my own instinct, I try to be open to sensible criticism without taking it too personally. I think this skill will be invaluable in the working world where I will likely face many opposing points of view to my own.
Architecture school can be extremely tough, and whilst crying in the toilets after the tutorial I wished I hadn't gone. However, it is raw and emotional experiences such as these that define our character and help shape us into better people. That tutorial taught me a number of lessons that I will never forget, and it has improved me as an architect in some fundamental ways. Setbacks are only negatives in the long run if you allow them to be, use them to get help, develop, and bring to life the best version of yourself.