Advice for student architects
Imagine you were a history student, and instead of a written exam you had to pin your essays and research up on the wall – and then defend what you’d written. That’s the critique (critique): an emotional and theatrical assault course all architecture students have to get through. Other design-based courses also have critiques, but it’s the architecture studio where the adversarial exam rules supreme.
critiques, also called reviews, are held during and at the end of a design project. Students display their drawings, present their solutions and defend them in front of tutors, visiting critics (jurors) and classmates. Feedback is instant and public.
For some students, critiques can feel like nothing more than a volley of abuse after weeks of hard work. But this needn’t be the case. Qualified architects often have to explain their schemes to customers, planners and hostile locals – and university critiques can make for good practice.
Here, tutors and students explain how to get the most out of these reviews and use them as a valuable source of feedback.
What is a critiques actually for?
It’s a question architecture students will ask themselves, typically the night before: why are we even doing this? But as Phin Harper, deputy director of the Architecture Foundation, says: “It’s vital to understand the process if you want to make the most of it as an active participant, rather than feeling it’s being done to you.”
critiques are claimed to be the quickest way of educating architectural students, speeding up decision making and preparing them for professional life. They’re also necessary because jurors need to hear about your scheme, as well as seeing your drawings, to understand your approach. Harper is adamant about the benefits. “Apart from medicine, no other subject gives students so much one-to-one tuition,” he says. “Architecture students get direct help from professionals with years of experience.”
How to prepare
Getting the best out of critiques is about preparation, presentation and learning lessons. But a fairly typical approach is to do nothing on your project for half of your time, work frantically at the last minute, stay up for several nights in a row, pin up any drawings no matter how bad and disappear as soon as it’s over. In short, critiques become terrifying and you learn nothing.
Most students, according to fifth-year Nick Rose, spend too much time thinking and not enough time drawing, leaving them in a panic at the end. So start work as soon as you have your design brief. Second-year Matilda Barratt says: “It’s inevitable that your tutor will suggest changes even in the last week, but focus on clever work, rather than unproductive all-nighters. Make a timetable and three days before your critiques set your priorities about what you really want to put on the wall.”
“Presentation skills are really important,” says external critiques Ros Diamond. “The smartest people who work on complex ideas learn to explain them simply to non-specialists.” She also emphasises the need to talk about concepts rather than unnecessary detail. It’s concepts that drive your design.
The critiques shouldn’t be a passive experience. Harper advises students to “steer the debate by presenting confidently, and presenting your best and most relevant drawings.” Make the jurors really think about your scheme so they ask better questions.
Barratt suggests thinking of the five main points about your scheme and pinning a list up with your drawings. Display fewer drawings that support your design rather than displaying irrelevant, or worse, bad work, since that will always draw negative attention.
Final-year student Emma Quigley says that “there’s lots of focus on being scared of critiques, but it’s more helpful to think about what you want out of them.” Question the jury, and note down what they say to you, or get a friend to do this. If you don’t agree with a critic then argue for your scheme, backing it with evidence. Rose says it’s more helpful to see the critiques as more of a discussion than a critique.
Once the critiques is over, most students see it as a welcome end to the project. But make sure to spend some time revising your drawings based on your feedback. And don’t disappear once your critiques is done. Stay and watch your classmates, ask questions and find out how they approached the brief.
Learning from the critiques
Some schools invite jurors to the pub after a critiques is over. If yours doesn’t, it’s worth doing so – you could end up learning more about your project over a drink.
Keep a project timetable.
Have informal reviews with your classmates.
Practise your presentation with a friend, preferably not an architect.
Be active: ask the jury questions about your concept, drawings, models and presentation.
List the five most important aspects of your scheme and refer to them.
Get a friend to make notes during the critiques, or record it.
Stay for all the critiques and join in: don’t leave all the questioning to the jury.