‘crits’ – the mysterious architecture school critique

It’s that time of year, early October, when ambitious architecture students across the country will soon start pinning up their first round of design work for a jury of experts, professors and peers to critique – the dreaded architecture ‘crit’.

Pre-crit: Eager first year students will be bouncing around the corridors with a nervous energy and no clue of what to expect, trying to pump each other up with a faked sense of confidence.  The more seasoned students will be madly crushing out their final images and renderings at their studio desks, headphones on, oblivious to the frantic world swirling around them.

Post-crit:  Those same first year students will have a dazed look in their eyes, and maybe even the odd tear if you look close enough.  Their glossed-over faces mask the reeling brains struggling to comprehend what just took place in a futile attempt to connect the dots and make sense of it all.  Their egos melted away and the reason for their own existence being called into question.  The wily veterans will probably head out for a beer in small packs to lick their wounds and enjoy the few hours that are as far from a deadline as they will ever be, likely followed by a long sleep before starting the entire process over again.

Welcome to architecture school.

The critique is an integral part of an architectural education, and is incredibly difficult to properly explain to those who haven’t had the pleasure/pain of experiencing one first-hand.  Nothing else quite compares…

Imagine pouring your heart and soul into a building design for weeks and months on end, arduously working through the (literally) millions of decisions that must be made. Painstakingly balancing how the building is to be built, seen, used, experienced, touched, lived in, and so on.  It is truly your baby.  The building has become an extension of yourself, and you’re damn proud of it.  You’ve determined everything from the colour of the brick to the style of kitchen sink.  It is a masterpiece.  Hopefully. Probably not.

The truth is, you’re a student and you have no idea what you’re doing, but its a million times better than your last project, and you have put hundreds of hours into this thing that will never actually see the light of day, but you can walk through the entire building in your mind’s eye.  You know how it looks from every angle; how its lit at night as you approach by car on a rainy summer evening, how the space opens up and daylight streams in as you walk through the front doors, the echoes of your footsteps and the way the floor feels under your feet, how the texture of the wood panels feels at your fingertips as you glide past them.

You literally know this building better than anyone else, because most of it exists only in your mind.  In reality, you managed to draw some floorplans that are somehow missing a washroom (how the hell did you forget that?!), a dubious looking set of sections that expose some major structural flaws (it not actually being built, so it doesn’t really need to stand up), and a few renderings with strategically placed Photoshop trees that hide the gaping holes in your 3D-model (damn you, Sketchup).  If only you had more time!

Too late, pin it all up on the wall.  Don’t forget about your little wooden model with the roof that keeps falling off and all the sloppy glue-work.  Now imagine gathering all your classmates, distinguished professors and some leading architects from near and far and trying to explain this beautiful image of a building that exists in your head while on 2 hours of sleep over the past 3 days.  PS, your body is running on the caffeine fumes and half a bag of Cheetos that you had yesterday for breakfast.  Or what that 2 days ago?  Where am I again?

It’s tough and uncomfortable.  There will be flaws, and people will notice.  Design flaws, concept flaws, construction flaws, drawing convention flaws, presentation flaws. Somehow the members of the critique jury will notice things in 5 minutes that you somehow missed over the course of months, which will never cease to amaze you.  They will find issues with your building.  Your baby.  But that is the point – they will force you to think from different perspectives, bring up considerations that hadn’t occurred to you, ask you to explain things you didn’t realize needed explanation, offer solutions to problems you struggled with, materials and construction techniques that may be better suited, offer practical drawing tips and how to showcase the important stuff while downplaying the rest.  That is why it’s called a ‘critique’, and not a ‘pat-on-the-back’.  All the dirty laundry will be aired out, in public, with nowhere to hide.  But each mistake will give you an opportunity to learn.  Through their comments, the jury will teach you to how they think, and that is invaluable in the profession of architecture where experience is almost everything.  It may feel like they are tearing you and your ideas/skills/methods/drawings/life/etc to shreds, but in reality they are simply trying to teach you.  They are evaluating your imaginary building, not you or your potential.

But you know what else?  There will be something that they actually admire about your studio project, and that will fill your tattered shell of a being with hope.  A 30-minute barrage of criticism can easily be balanced out with a genuine compliment, and that will give you something to build on.  Pun intended.

After what seems like an eternity, you’ll finally get to sit down at the back of the room and feel the adrenaline slowly fade as your classmates take their own turns awkwardly spewing nonsense to the crowd.  You’ll smile to yourself and reflect on your own work, and ponder how you’ll do it better next time.

Finally, you’ll awake with a slight jolt in your chair, realizing that your body/mind both gave out simultaneously and you nodded off near the end.  Your prof is thanking everyone for their hard work and giving out the next design brief.  In 4 weeks you’ll get the insane pleasure of doing it all over again… better get cracking….

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