Positives And Negatives Of The Architecture School Critique
24th April 2015The critique(crit)/review is an event that is unique to architecture schools. It is a process in which students pin up and present their work before being questioned and receiving feedback from tutors and other students. In my architecture school we have an interim crit that falls in the middle of a project and a final crit that takes place at the end. Most reviews take about half an hour, with a ten minute presentation followed by 20 minutes or so of feedback and comments. It is a daunting and potentially embarrassing experience if your work is not very impressive, whereas other students thrive on the chance to sell their ideas with an engaging presentation. I am going to explore the reasons why crits divide opinion so much, before deciding on my own stance.
A critique in progress. Photo by Barney SheppardFirstly I will review the negative aspects, of which the most commonly mentioned is the stress involved in presenting your work. When you’ve put weeks or even months of effort into developing an idea, the opportunity for an authority figure to verbally or even physically tear it apart is terrifying. Speaking to an audience is scary enough on its own, let alone when you’re under pressure to sell your own work. I know of at least three occasions this year when students have burst into tears during or after their crits, showing how the stress and anxiety of the event can tip students over the edge. Another negative point relating to stress is that some students have an advantage over others before the review has even begun. Since some students are more naturally confident and gifted at presenting than others, sometimes fantastic ideas and work may be lost in the student’s timid presentation.
Another frequently mentioned gripe about crits is that each tutor has a wildly different opinion. Often changes that a particular tutor suggests in a review will not be popular with another. At my university, Liverpool, the tutors come from a wide variety of backgrounds, so whilst some are enthused by very artistic and wacky ideas others favour more grounded and realistic designs. Since we only find out which tutor is in our crit the day before it occurs, it is a lottery as to whether your work will suit their preferences or not.
Along with these two main reasons, I have also come across some personal annoyances about reviews that I expect are shared by other students. The first is the balance between words and pictures on each page. When creating work as an architecture student, the same pages must serve as a visual backdrop in crits as well as a completely justified and explained scheme in a portfolio. As a result, in my own reviews tutors have often told me to cut down on the number of words on the page, however without that text my scheme would not seem as fully considered when marked in my portfolio. Diagrams are supposed to suffice for 90% of your explanation, however in many cases words do a better job of making points in explicit detail.
Another personal frustration of crits is that sometimes tutors set impossible goals. Especially in final reviews, tutors will sometimes suggest a handful of major changes that basically rework the whole scheme. Since they are the knowledgeable authority figure students will want to make all the suggested changes before final hand in. Often this is unachievable due to time constraints, and the work will end up being disjointed with a clear linear path for most of the project, followed by a huge change around the time of final crit with little considered justification. A tutor once said to me that all architecture students work harder when approaching deadlines so the timeline of each project is catered to that. Essentially this means that students gain approval to start final models and drawings later in projects as that’s when they’re expected to be doing all nighters etc. I think this is absurd, because some students are capable of managing their time effectively enough so that they don’t need to pull all nighters when approaching deadlines.
Despite the above negative aspects, reviews are a useful tool that can develop the skills of an architecture student significantly. Personally, crits have been beneficial to my confidence. When I think back to my first and compare it to the interim review I had yesterday, I have come on leaps and bounds in terms of how I conduct myself in just seven months. I still get nervous before crits, however I have learnt to control that to an extent and speak clearly and confidently about my work. I see reviews as a chance to show off my work and obtain feedback from the tutors that I may use or disregard depending on my opinion of it and the time remaining on the project. Whereas in the past I saw the comments from tutors as right and my contrasting responses as wrong, I now tend to challenge the tutors if I feel that my point of view is justified, especially when my extra knowledge about the site or my theme is relevant. This increase in confidence has come from the education I have received in first year, and previous crits.
Despite sometimes challenging the tutors, most of their feedback is correct and useful. As a result, reviews are advantageous in improving the work of the whole year group. Not turning up to crits is a stupid decision, since even with little work on the wall tutors can help streamline and improve your scheme. Also, pinning up and speaking about your own work often makes flaws obvious, allowing them to be resolved.
Crits set solid deadlines that can help architecture students keep on track during long projects that often last months. In each brief required outcomes are listed for the interim and final review. Having a mid and end point helps me to organise my time effectively, allowing me to normally complete 95% of the work before the final crit. As a result I can stay relatively calm towards the end of a project, so none of my work looks rushed or messy.
When reviews are taking place, hundreds of comments and opinions are being thrown around. These differing points of view can provide different solutions to problems, surface creative and original ideas and teach new techniques and styles. When all the work is pinned up, I wander round the room looking at other people’s presentations. From this I learn a lot. In the past I have picked up on facts or information that I mention in my own presentation, come across design and layout styles that I have used in my future work, and even gained (stolen) ideas for detailing in my own building. The creativity that is on show on crit day is staggering, and I would recommend anyone, whether they are involved in architecture or not, to visit.
My personal opinion of reviews is that they are a necessarily evil. Beforehand I am nervous and stressed with how they will go, however whilst presenting and receiving feedback I settle into the situation and appreciate the comments from tutors and observing students. I know that presenting is a tool that is paramount in the architecture industry, so I recognise the importance of learning how to engage people and am happy to be learning it in university, which is low pressure environment when compared to industry. At the end of the day, if I have worked hard, have confidence in my idea and am able to justify each decision I have made, barring a complete disaster I know the crit will go well.