This article was originally written for the INVOLVED Special Issue on Architectural Education (March 2019) which followed the debate held at the Welsh School of Architecture, ‘Expectation Meets Reality: A Conversation on Education and Practice’. You can watch the full debate on our Youtube channel here.
There are few disciplines if any, more reliant on and duly receptive of critique than architecture. This is, of course, a rather bold claim, but I have yet to come across another subject (notwithstanding our good friends, art and design) whose final academic reviews have a name anywhere nearly as optimistic as the ‘crit’. Yet following every such review that peppers the life of a student of architecture, the question on every acquaintance’s lips – How was your crit? – remains ever-sanguine. How could it be that such a damning perpetual cycle of having work declared ‘wrong’ could leave us chomping at the bit for more? Are we all simply wired to be a little masochistic? Or, to throw a spanner into the investigative works – are we even actually enjoying ourselves?
According to a survey undertaken by the Architects’ Journal in 2018, a worryingly large percentage of students would say no. One in three architecture students reported work-related mental health problems, with a similar number claiming they had to work through the night on a regular basis in order to keep on top of the workload. Despite concern about these figures, when brought up at the recent ‘Expectation Meets Reality: A Conversation on Education and Practice’ debate hosted by the Welsh School of Architecture (see Jonathan Banasik’s overview on page 45 of the event for more details), panellist Dr Harriet Harriss of the Royal College of Art responded, “You’re not the only ones that do all-nighters. […] It’s not exclusive to architecture, the long hours and hard working and stress. And that’s the path that you choose, and you choose it willingly.” It is an age-old, and frankly quite poor, response to a nationwide mental health crisis; the notion that issues such as stress and overworking are cancelled out simply because they occur across multiple disciplines. This does not signify that there is not a problem – it merely signifies that the problem is much bigger than it initially seemed.
Though could it be that the issue is a self-inflicted one? An informal poll amongst Part I peers revealed that many (very honest) students had been forced to work late nights due to a tendency towards procrastination rather than a mountainous workload. In fact, the number of ditherers almost equalled the number who felt that their tutors had simply given them too much to do; and it is worth pointing out that there was a sizeable bridge between both situations for many. It could be suggested that chronic procrastination may at times be down to ‘creative exhaustion’ rather than plain laziness; it is unreasonable to assume that any student, of any discipline, could function at maximum efficiency every single day of the week. Arguably, for architects, whose right hemispheres cannot be allowed to rest for even a moment, the mental strain is felt yet more sharply. If mental health ‘off-days’ and space for non-academic pastimes are not considered in constructing a working timetable, is it not to be expected that students might be spread a little too thin?
Going back a step, I would also question Harriss’ implication that architecture students choose the lifestyle willingly. As one of the few courses for which there is no pre-university-level learning opportunity (save for seeking work experience at a practice), architecture degrees can often seem drastically different from students’ expectations; not just in regards to the content taught, but in the experience as a whole. As with many of my peers, it was a fascination with the built environment and its varying effects on inhabitants that led to my choice to read architecture at university, rather than an inane desire to develop acute insomnia and lack of time for basic social activities. But to place metaphoric value upon the system reveals a new dynamic, if for example we compare the study of architecture to the arrival of a new baby. Much as the parents may unconditionally adore their child, it is much more difficult to appreciate the midnight wake-ups and messy nappy changes; there is something to be said about the difference between love and enjoyment. We seek out an education in architecture because we crave the love that we have seen in the work of other architects, though we may be unaware of the true extent of the tribulations faced in order to nurture that love to its full potential.
The difficulty lies in how to ease these tribulations. An architecture degree is an educational experience unlike any other, and as such its complications require unique solutions. Whereas students in other fields may find it facile to relay the exact information learnt over the course of their degree but struggle to produce examples of any presentable physical work created during the process, the opposite can be said to be true of architects in training. We delight in producing beautiful drawings, but if asked how we were taught to formulate our ideas, we draw up a blank. I would argue that the actual points of contact in the system (tutorials, crits, lectures) are where much of students’ dismay stems from. Much as we may cherish our creations, the words ‘this is beautiful’ must taste like lemon pith in the mouths of tutors for the frequency with which they are uttered.
So at what point then can we expect to start enjoying the discipline we love? According to Gerard Evenden of Foster + Partners, enjoyment and employment do not go hand-in-hand. At the aforementioned WSA debate (and following a claim from Involved Magazine’s own Dolunay Dogahan that the struggles of young architects are often ignored by seniors), Evenden stated, “Actually, you don’t go into work to enjoy yourself. You actually go in there to create things and obviously to make money.” To give credit where it is due, there is truth to this claim. We do have to make money somehow and architects are creators by nature. But this societally stereotypical idea that we must all study tirelessly – to whatever end – for a career we loathe, but hold down simply because we need the paycheck? Architecture is classed by many as an art, and much art, though derived from pain, has a joyful and therapeutic creation process that is rewarding to both the artist and their audience. Should the same not be the goal for the architect? For the creative environment to be a positive and joyful space to work in, so that the spaces designed can be just as enjoyable? This was the question returned by our own Dolunay Dogahan to Gerard Evenden, and it is certainly a thought-provoking one. We know, or at the very least hope, that such spaces do exist in the field students strive for a place in. Those who already hold a stake in that field should believe in the necessity of these spaces too.
Though it is easy to dwell on the negatives, there are, of course, many more beautiful things about architecture both within education and profession that deserve writing of their own. The aim is not to dishearten or even simply diss the discipline. It is a reminder of why students remain in architecture school even despite the constant critique and unworkable hours. The number of times the words ‘I don’t want to be here’ have been uttered by a mentally and emotionally exhausted peer dragging themselves into the studio is worrying. But whilst we may not want to be here, we do want to be there – in practice, on-site, at work – this beacon that we have a desperate belief in, even if those who have reached it already have lost sight of. We want the discipline we have worked for, the one we deserve – even if we must be the ones to make it a reality.
For more articles related to the topic, purchase your copy of INVOLVED Special Issue: Architectural Education here.