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Ten Tips For Success In Architecture School
Architecture schools are wonderfully diverse and creative places. They are a hotbed of talent and a demonstration of the beautiful individuality of humans. On marking day one of the highlights is wandering around looking at the work of other people; it’s especially enjoyable due to the foggy yet content state brought on by no sleep in 28 hours and a realisation that you no longer have any work to do for the first time in months. Amongst the mountains of models and walls plastered with spectacular drawings, you may ask yourself “how can I stand out amongst all this and achieve a decent mark?”. In my experience this was an anxiety inducing question, so as your architectural guardian angel I have thought of ten pieces of advice that will help any architecture student maximise their marks. If you are questioning my authority to give you these tips, I used all of them throughout my degree and came out with a first despite my complete lack of drawing ability and some of the messiest handwriting you will ever see. Even if you don’t have the conventional skills of an architect you can still achieve a high mark, and if you do, I’m extremely jealous. Let’s begin the list…
1. Choose a simple yet novel concept
Developing an effective concept is vital to the success of your project. It should act as the springboard for all your decisions and ideas, and be clearly prevalent throughout your presentation. It is often the case that students lose their concept as their project progresses, or it is overly complex to the point that it becomes confusing. For this reason, using a simple concept that can be encapsulated in a sentence, or even a few words, is advisable. It will make your scheme more legible to tutors, and allow you to play with the design more whilst retaining a strong, confident foundation idea. However, simplicity is no excuse for unoriginality. The amount of times you will see concepts such as “darkness to light”, “solidity” and “reflecting nature” becomes tiresome. Start considering concepts as soon as you receive the brief, and allow yourself at least a few weeks to finalise it fully. Keep it simple, but allow your creativity and personality to show through.
2. Develop your own recognisable style
My first project at architecture school was to produce 20 sketches of a street in Liverpool in one week. Having not studied art at GCSE or A-level, this task stressed me out, especially as I had never really drawn intensively. My set of drawings were wild, containing a vast array of media, colours and viewpoints. From that messy starting point, over the course of my degree I honed my own distinct presentation style that accentuates my talents and hides my flaws. Having a style that people recognise makes your work stand out to both students and tutors, and in general memorable work tends to be viewed as stronger and more accomplished, resulting in a higher mark. Plus, if you’re like me you’ll get a buzz when people say they like your style. It’s pleasing to discover that your work has personality and character.
3. Stick to your guns
In architecture school you will inevitably face criticism, it happens to everyone. For whatever reason some tutors will dislike your scheme, or a part of it, and question your decisions. You should know your project better than anyone else, and hence know the root of each decision you have made. With this in mind, you should be able to respond to any critique with thoughtful reasoning. Whilst you won’t always change the tutor’s mind, they will at least respect that you have considered their critique and come to your own resolution. Unless a tutor highlights something you have not considered, or you agree wholeheartedly with a suggested improvement, you should not change your scheme. Often changes will muddle your design and cause more problems, or cause deviation from your concept which will weaken the whole project. In my opinion it is also fine to completely disregard some tutors if you don’t agree with their advice or ideals. I know of two tutors in particular at Liverpool School of Architecture that almost no one listens to because their egos get in the way of providing helpful and suitable tutelage. Trust your gut instinct and ability, after all, you were chosen to attend university due to your talent and personality.
4. Show up and engage
One of the simplest ways to boost your marks is to show staff how dedicated you are to your degree through attendance and enthusiasm. Whilst marking should be completely neutral, I don’t believe it can be. Throughout education I have always been under the impression that if you build a positive relationship with your teachers they will naturally want to see you do well. This is especially relevant in architecture schools since several tutors mark your project together, so if you have one on your side they will defend your work. Whilst you will learn more by working in the studio and attending tutorials, site visits and the odd extra lecture, you will also become known to the staff as someone who works hard. This can only reflect positively on you during marking, as the tutors will be more confident in, and trusting of, the claims in your scheme.
5. Simple building, done well
This tip could be seen as controversial as it is possible to get high marks with a scheme of any complexity. However, in my opinion using a simple form that is executed exquisitely is the most time efficient method of achieving high marks. With a simple design, drawings and especially models take significantly less time to create, maybe by a factor of two or even three. This opens up more time to improve the project as a whole with more thorough development work, more design iterations, or more detailed explanations of the elements of your scheme. On the other hand, I would advise against deciding from the offset to limit yourself to a simple form. At the end of the day, as I suggested above you should trust your gut instinct. If you are very enthusiastic about a complex form and it feels right, you should run with it as your enthusiasm will likely boost your productivity and the quality of your output. However, if you want a social life, go with simple forms and absolutely nail the detailing and development work.
6. Steal presentation techniques without shame
Architecture schools are overflowing with creativity, and the way that ideas are shared around is inspiring. Often trends develop after a particular style or element wows the school during a crit or pin up. Countless times you will see presentation techniques that appeal to you personally, or suit your own style or the theme of your work. When something grabs your attention, I would urge you to speak to its creator about it. Of course, directly copying someone’s whole style is pointless and often your attempt will be less successful than theirs. However, incorporating appropriate techniques and elements of other students will only supplement the variety in your own work and expand your skill set. Some people complain of copying, however this negative view can be reframed with the quote “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”. If someone “copies” your work, take it as a compliment. In my final project alone I incorporated the techniques of at least four other students into my own presentation.
7. Use presentation add-ons
In architecture school in the interests of fairness everyone is given an equal space to pin up their work for marking. In general, everyone uses the whole space and has to cut out some work, which is extremely frustrating, but that’s the way it is. At the end of second year I had a realisation whilst considering ways to maximise my display: models and booklets are the answer. Whilst the wall is only so big, there is no limit on how much of the floor you can use. Therefore, fill the floor with models! Concept models, development models, detail models, facade models, sectional models, material samples, final models… As well as being a valuable design tool, their presence is a general indicator of how much thought and work has gone into your project. In booklets you can outline anything that you have not had space for on the wall, and they can be as many pages as you desire. A thick, well made booklet gives the subconscious impression that you have done lots of extra work, but still had the time management skills to organise and create the display piece. Over my final year I produced booklets regarding design elements, design development, models and sustainability. Tutors seem to love them, so if you have time take advantage of the chance to show off more of your brilliant work.
8. Work a little harder than everyone else
A brilliant piece of advice that has stuck with me is “to be successful you don’t need to work much harder than everyone else, you just need to work a little harder than your competitors”. Approximately 15% of my year group got a first, so that’s 33 out of 220 students. Whilst some people have more natural talent than others, I would like to think that those 33 pushed themselves a little harder than the other 187. If your aspiration is to achieve a first, work an extra half hour before or after most of the other students are in the studio, stay in university for a couple of days at the start of a holiday, or work through the night before hand in to gain a couple of extra marks. Hard work pays off, it’s a simple as that.
9. Be efficient with your down time
Think of architecture school as a way of life, it’s likely that it will consume you anyway. In order to maximise your time, you should be efficient with everything, from your model making to your weekly shop. Down time is important in order to maintain a healthy frame of mind, socialise and be reminded that life exists outside your architecture bubble. When you’re relaxing, question if you’re REALLY enjoying yourself, and if you’re not, start making good use of that precious down time. Committing to weekly activities or clubs is a good way to ensure you will stop working and relax. For example, playing football at university was the highlight of my week, and because I worked hard I allowed myself to play without guilt or anxiety about the “working time” I was missing out on. Socialising is also vital for wellbeing, speaking with your friends in architecture school or outside will boost your mood and likely reassure you if you’re feeling stressed. Achieving a decent mark is important, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of your long term health and happiness.
10. Take pride in your work
Your reward for reaching the last tip is that this is the most important one. I was recently shocked to discover that a friend of mine didn’t like the majority of his projects. His work is to a very high standard, and I admire a lot of his schemes, so I was stunned that he wasn’t a fan of his own projects. I would argue that most of an architecture degree is self motivated, so it is vital that you’re enthusiastic about what you’re creating. Otherwise, you won’t be willing to input so much of your precious time and energy into your work. Since you essentially own your project, you have the power to design something that you love. For me, this was the most enjoyable aspect of studying architecture. I worked for almost nine hours per day, every day, cultivating an idea that I was constantly improving and nurturing to become something that I would be extremely proud of come the end of the semester. You have the freedom and talent to design architecture that you find wonderful, creative, unique and beautiful. Your enthusiasm will enthuse your tutors, critics and other students about your work, helping them to understand your ideas and improve your scheme even further. Taking pride in your work will inject the necessary motivation and courage to push yourself and your creativity to new limits, and result in marks that reflect the blood, sweat and tears you have shed for one of the most respected degrees in the world.