Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Finishing Architecture School

And so, just like that it was over. Well not really. I can only vaguely mention the days that followed. A glitching myriad of drunken attempts at analysis, pock marked with triumphant night clubbing and dodgy dancing. High fives and a handful of jokes on repeat, it was all conducted under the duress of a strange sleep deprived cerebral state. I was architecturally battle hardened but made of putty. Well able to thrash out presentation standard double A0's in a matter of hours but unable to operate a pepper mill with any real conviction. I make light of it now but I would also admit to succumbing to a kind of dementia. For all of its cliches, studying architecture is all consuming. Relationships with loved ones suffer. Friendships from home, friends who were close friends pre architecture school, now opaque. I wandered the streets, slowly gearing my brain down to as palsied a state as I could manage. I craved an end to the chatter. To stop making spaces in my head, planning printing sessions and fretting about workshop access. No more bringing a toothbrush to the studio. It lasted about a week.

Most students use a similar tactic. Drinking your way through the comedown seems to be the avenue of choice for most. There are a series of organised events but no one is really there. Everyone has a "wtf just happened" look in their blood shot eyes. I have friends from other disciplines who pulled all nighters and had brutal hand-ins but nothing compared to architecture. It is a strange source of pride for us. As if doing the most all-nighters means something other than a tendency for this type of behaviour to spill into practice. A bad habit for life. I can't help but imagine what the final hand ups would be like with smaller briefs. And herein lies the problem with trying to digest an architectural education. The difficulties and failings of architecture school are hard to pin down. Especially where the fault might lie. Its Impossible to tell where my own failings end and the failings of my tutors/ university begin. Do they really know what is best for the future built environment or are they simply part of the status quo. Is there even a status quo any more?

I am told architecture school has changed drastically in the last decade. Some of it is obviously fantastic but other aspects are pretty worrying. I got a distinction but my final building doesn't stand up. It literally does not stand up to the forces of gravity. Amongst my peers there is a general concensus that we are now being taught a kind of architectural fine art. A quick look through the President's Medals gives an indication of the predominant style. A previous tutor described it as “designing in ether”. And who am I to say it is a good or bad thing? Some of the ideas are inspiring. The work on show blows all other disciplines in my art school out of the water. Better ideas, harder work and stronger presentation skills. Wandering through the fine art and sculpture on show is laughable. My own final project was applauded more for its wide scope in formulation than any genuine programmatic balance. I was not alone in submitting a non functioning building. A more mischievous student could very well produce a series of stunning drawings without ever drawing a single wall and pass with flying colours. Thats architecture school these days. Easily satisfy the learning criteria as handed down and interpreted by a team of academics but a master builder would struggle to lay the foundations. What foundations?. I worked hard on presentation and the initial idea but the filler, the actual building and how it works is starting to take a backseat. Maybe its a good thing? Architecture school becoming a more abstract place? Where ideas and aesthetics are all that matter? Sustainability and architectural technology felt like the tail that gets pinned onto the donkey's arse at the end. Albeit with a pair of glasses instead of a blindfold. But theres a danger in that. In it going too far. Its exciting to think the next generation will have a kind of appreciation and skill unimaginable 15 years ago. Able to dream up projects that are genuinely going to make a difference to people. Presenting works of art to clients as inspiration. Winning our own work! But I am also an architect of rubbing surfaces. Salivating at semi rendered brick. Always checking the details details details. The sheer joy in knowing how something was put together. Imagining where each material has come from and how it was manufactured. Craft. I fear a little of that is being clouded in academic talk. A kind of language acrobatics.

There was a lot of bitching in architecture school. Bitching about the tutors, about the school's organisation, about the briefs and the canteen food but I do believe most of us felt extremely privilaged. I like to portray myself as one of the more economically challenged students, paying his own way through a system designed for the wealthy but its bullshit. I was supported financially throughout. It was a real struggle and something that is never acknowledged. I was regularly in financial difficulty. Don't get me wrong. Architecture school still has that medicine level of bafflingly rich people but in general we are a privileged bunch and by the time you get to postgrad level, most of the people in your studio will be extremely passionate about what they do. I say "most" as there were several students throughout my studies who I genuinely couldn't believe were passing. This of course is another major bone of contention for a lot of students. "How did he/ she pass?". Architecture school has become difficult to do extremely well in without working yourself to the bone. Equally, failing is nigh on impossible. Of the 67 in my year, only one failed. There were about a half dozen deferrals but overall a very safe subject to study. Given the amount of graduates going for the few available jobs surely a little tough love wouldn't go astray? That's incredible selfish thinking born out of a kind of pseudo-awareness of the outside world that develops while studying. You become so detached from reality that you imagine a kind of post-apocalyptic landscape outside of school. Bands of homeless architects offering sexual favours for money. Everyone warns of how difficult it is to get a job. How the global economic situation is grave. And it turns students into competitive loons. What difference does it possibly make to me if someone passes or not? Architecture school is not simply a tool for the industry. There is a difference between training and an education. And thank the powers that be for that.

Its hard to know whether the changes are policy driven or are more down to how students are learning and teaching themselves nowadays. Take the ideas driven project for example. Its easier than ever to have ideas now. The "Eureka" myth has finally been put to bed and I think most people accept now, that great ideas are usually a continuation of a lot of other ideas. Probably someone elses. So, when we are tasked with designing a project to do with say... churches. Within a few minutes I can be watching a documentary and viewing hundreds of thousands of related articles on the subject. I can amalgamate folders of images and drawings of churches in minutes. That stuff took an age 10 years ago. Research is a cinch now. Getting into a particular frame of mind is so easy that there really is no excuse for not coming up with a killer idea. But making it something real. Coming up with a viable architectural language that fits the idea is still the big challenge. We are the generation of big ideas but I worry about practical execution.

So now I find myself in that weird limbo. Looking for a job and wondering how long I will wait until I start applying for work I am over qualified for. Wondering what will happen not just locally but globally with the construction industry. Feeling the pull of China and its massively ambitious attempt to urbanise 250 million farmers. But I will always remember the late nights. The inspiring people I met during my time in architecture school. The joy I felt in first year when I realised I would be rewarded for making cool models and drawings. The immense pressure that came with hand ins and the euphoria of a good crit. Doing competitions! Architecture school has changed me. Its made me who I now am. And I wouldn't trade what I have learned for anything in the world. If you are thinking about studying architecture do it! It is still all kinds of awesome. I feel enlightened and balanced now. Ready to change the world. Hopefully that was the point.

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