"Severus Snape on the set from HP6"
Image courtesy of  red_sunshinegirl
In architectural education, there is a culture of the CRITIQUE.  It starts out fairly mild each semester.  There is a professor over your course who lectures during the first class and perhaps even a little through the semester, but whose main job it is to wander among the drafting desks giving “crits” to each student, to spur them in their design.  (This can’t have changed much since I was in school, though the drafting is all the computer-based.)  

Ideally, these consist of timely questions, guidance, and perhaps even a quest for justifications for certain choices.  What it often was in my experience (and I have reason to believe this is fairly universal), was the equivalent of Professor Snape hovering and in his loudest whisper mocking students (except his favorites), one by one.


At the end of each semester (or each project, if less than the length of the semester), the students each stood in front of their class and a JURY (which consisted of their professor and other professors or professionals from the community or even visiting architects from the world at large who happened to be in town working on a project).  Ideally, these “juries” would be a hive of discussion as to appropriate responses to the site and program, more questions that hadn’t yet been put by the professor, and an additional quest for justifications. Yet they usually felt like this:

"The Pillory." Image courtesy of  Ephemeral Scraps via Flickr.

I’ve often wondered why!  I absolutely believe there should be justification for architectural choices, though what passed for “theory” (architecture’s version of philosophy) was laughable.  The justifications were so abstract as to be absurd, and their only qualification for acceptability was eloquence.  Though we often spoke of “how people would feel in a space,” these proposed feelings were riddled with angst as if the goal were high, incomprehensible art instead of PLACES of habitation.  
"I want visitors to feel pushed through the space as if squozen by a giant boa constrictor... and then released into the plaza as they realize they are going to live to see another day...."  
Okay, I made that one up, but it's not far-fetched.

Public Speaking & Teaching

This process has left me as an adult with a fairly healthy fear of public speaking that I am trying to battle.  I keep telling myself that most classes are not trying to pick apart everything the teacher says merely to look important themselves.  And I am finding that it’s true.  Most people actually go to classes to LEARN. What?!

The stunning contrast for me has been teaching Sunday School to a class of adults, many of whom are generations older than me.  Some are religious historians, some are lawyers with incredible insights on Biblical law, many have attended seminary and institutes of religion.  It is daunting to prepare a lesson for a group like that, knowing that many of them will see the multitude of errors I make at the outset.  But everyone is there to learn and to participate and teach one another. It's almost as if no one assumes they already know it all; as if every human being can learn from each other. 
As the teacher, I end up leading a respectful discussion with a variety of opinions and insights.  And everyone walks away feeling enriched, inspired, and bound together by the experience.  Wow. 

What if?

What if architecture school had been like that?  

Instead of promoting absurd, egocentric rhetoric under high pressure-- though I’m sure most architects end up needing that skill, too-- you might have collaboration, respect, and places that people actually want to be in.


Out of school, at my first job, we occasionally had what are called in the architecture world “charettes.”  These were fairly wonderful.  We would drop all of our other projects, refuse to answer calls for a few hours (or even a whole day) and brainstorm collaboratively on one project.  This was usually a new project, though it was occasionally a competition or even urban design.  It required focus and an ability to listen to varying viewpoints and ideas without shooting them down (at least, at first).  The results were rarely less than stunning.  

Unfortunately, few design budgets would allow for such manpower early on, and so the charettes went unpaid. 
A charette during the early schematic phase seemed to be the best guarantee that a client would get something wonderful in the end; yet, it was seen as an extra extravagance. In my mind, a charette is rather like trying a bit of diplomacy before going straight to war: ALWAYS a good idea.

Future Architects

So what is it we are teaching future generations of architects? I hope it's not just the ability to stand tall in the face of verbal abuse, but the ability to explain and expound our ideas and ideals. 


It’s not our job to toughen our children up to face a cruel and heartless world.  It’s our job to raise children who will make the world a little less cruel and heartless.”  -- L.R. Knost