The corona virus crisis has exposed the systematic inequalities of architecture school. Inequalities exacerbated by the pandemic are likely to widen the achievement gap between the privileged and those in minority student groups.
The architecture studio, in theory, seeks to level the playing field: the same desk space for all students, the same tutorial times and, hopefully, the same quality of teaching. The struggles which students face in ordinary times, in these environments, are not to be overlooked, but to a certain extent the physical space and the contact with tutors seeks to create a certain level of equity.
However, coronavirus sees many international students locked in student halls, some with no flatmates, thousands of miles from home. Some students are perched on the end of the bed in mouldy student houses, trying to replicate the studio culture but looking at months of solitary work. Others have had to return home to their parents’ house, where perhaps there is no space or quiet to work, no garden to retreat to and no other students to talk to.
Those with caring responsibilities see these challenges increase: students who are parents are now juggling full time care of children with school closures and completing an already very demanding degree. Others will have compromised immune systems and will need to protect themselves.
Although some will have printing facilities, architect parents, space for model making, access to appropriate software, they will still face challenges.
In addition, this does not take into account the toll which bereavement and grief will have on our society. Thousands of people will be directly affected by the crisis and architecture education must allow for these tolerances.
This is all said with the deepest respect for university tutors and lecturers who are also tackling lock down and caring duties themselves, while often juggling teaching, practice and research.
The work of students will suffer, and it should, because what matters more than a series of pristine portfolios is that we have a physically and mentally healthy workforce to face the challenges once this is over. It is unfair to expect the same amount of time and energy from all students during this pandemic. Coronavirus has intensified inequalities in wider society and this demands positive change. If we stand by the belief that the profession should reflect our communities, then our educational institutions must react similarly.
Students living through this time will inevitably become better architects for it. It is obvious that we will rethink the way we build homes, demanding accessible green space for all and adequately sized rooms not based on minimal specifications.
This is an unprecedented situation for the whole world, and architecture schools should learn from the challenges faced during this crisis. It is now more than ever evident that we cannot shy away from tackling the inequalities of architecture school. Once this is over, we need to understand that the way we are working, demanding overtime and weekends, does not allow for any tolerance in our lives outside the studio. It is unlikely that a student who is studying for 7 years does not have to overcome grief, financial difficulty or illness during that time – and yet our traditions do not allow for any wavering from that 7-year path, it demands your whole attention. Coronavirus has shown that we can no longer work in this way. It is no longer good enough to expect students to live in a bubble where tragedy cannot strike, especially if we are striving for a less elitist profession.
The crisis shows that we need a systematic change in architecture education and is uncovering its unrealistic culture. Expecting such an all-encompassing education is naïve and unsustainable. Let’s agree to never say ‘we had it worse when we were in final year,’ but let’s constructively adapt to a better working culture.
In the meantime, I call for educators to be kind and empathetic to students as output will not be as vast and they need your support more than ever. I then ask for students to be patient with themselves and their teaching staff. This is a horrible way to conclude your degree, but you will be better, more conscientious, more compassionate architects for it.