We are fast approaching crit season in our architecture schools (not to mention all the other design disciplines). Some 10,000 students across the 18 Australian architecture schools will present their end of year schemes to a panel of assessors, academics and practitioners. As I head off for my 40th year participating in this crit process I would like to share a couple of things I have learnt along the way.
First and foremost, it’s about student education, about learning not teaching. The primary purpose is to improve the individual’s understanding of what they are doing, their thinking, their creativity and their process. To improve an individual understanding of architecture. The crit should be about what the student has done and not what the critique would have preferred them to do. Improving the project is necessary but secondary. Often the focus on the student gets lost in the crit’s hot-house atmosphere where the critic seeks to leave a mark, often by concentrating on marks.
Secondly, the crit set-up is vital. It’s not a jury, although far too often it’s called that. It’s not a competition; not about the guilty and punishment; not about prizes; all of which are extremely unhelpful in the learning process. The heat is so intense that the student is just trying to survive, and learning is lost. A buddy system where a friend takes notes or films the crit for later review can avoid the blurred vision during the crit’s heat.
Students often go missing from panic or fall asleep from exhaustion during others’ presentations, reducing vital learning possibilities. It is always advisable to provide some space and time between the submission of the project and the critique. I had one legendary session where a student actually fell asleep during his own critique. Maybe it was the quality of our advice.
But mostly here I want to talk about the best way to give a crit. Not long after graduating I discovered The Universal Traveller, a book by Don Koberg and Douglas Bagnall, which set out a very elegant method for offering criticism, in four steps. I adapted it, often posting it before final crits, as both advice for visiting critics as well as raising the level of expectation for students. It goes:
One, at the end of the presentation repeat back to the student your understanding of the concepts and ideas in their scheme. This has two effects: it ensures you've understood what's being presented and it ensures that the student has confidence that you are addressing their scheme. It engages the student.
Two, praise the scheme. Find something, in the process or the product, that is laudable, to set the critique on a positive note. If a student has invested a huge amount of time, thought and effort it should be rewarded before the criticism begins. Not always easy, but essential to further engage the student.
Three, insert criticism of a major issue in the scheme. This can be about the thinking or the outcome, but it needs to be kept to one key issue for the next step.
Four, and finally, show how the good work identified in step two can be used to remedy the faults noted in step three.
Sounds simple to do, but in practice it often gets jumbled as the critic becomes enthusiastic about some aspect and a desire to improve what's in front of them. Criticism tumbles out, it may well be incisive and valid, but will the student receive it?
I first saw this approach up close during my first teaching post at Canberra CAE (now University). Canberra in the early 1980’s had a very small local architectural community, and the school an even smaller number of teaching staff. As desirable as it is to always have an external critic that wasn’t always possible since most practices were local offices of interstate firms, without a key principal.
For third year students at the end of their degree I decided to invite Enrico Taglietti to give the crit. Enrico's designs are highly distinguished and distinctive, strongly themed and stylised. They display both his Italian modernist training and his love of the site relationships in his adopted city. Because his architecture had such powerful singular forms the teaching staff had been reluctant to ask him to crit, fearing he would have equally strong and singular views. Students were also aware of Enrico's reputation and his work and were also fearful that their schemes would only be seen through that lens.
Nothing could be further from the actuality. His first crit was to a ‘Miesian’ gridded scheme. At the end of the presentation, Enrico said, "This has a strong and very powerful idea, and when you're working in this way it's important to see a hierarchy". He highlighted the good and bad parts of a scheme that in no way seemed to relate to any of his buildings or ideas. The next student had something of a bricolage that might have come from Bruce Goff. Enrico and said, "if you're doing collage, then you need to adhere to the ideas of collage. This is done well here, but what do you think you should have done over there?"
And so it went. Each scheme was addressed on its merits as he climbed inside the head of each student, absorbed the way the student saw the world and this particular project. He summarised that view, then demonstrated the logical outcome if you held that view. The students became quite animated, wanting to be critiqued, because they knew that Enrico was talking to them, about them and for them, and not for himself.
It was a masterclass in critiquing. Enrico became a favourite visitor at the school, every time offering the insight of taking the student's position as your starting point in the critique rather than that of the teacher.
The ability to think, and crit, beyond one’s own ‘style’ seems to be the hallmark of truly great designers and architects. The jury that chose Piano and Rogers scheme for the Pompidou Centre in Paris ostensibly had nothing in common with their scheme. The ‘name’ architects were Jean Prouvé (presiding), Phillip Johnson and Oscar Niemeyer: a rationalist, a post-modernist, and a concrete curvalinearist. The winning submission was nothing like any of those architects' work, and yet the jury chose its high-tech cartesian steelwork geometry of to give inside-out space, as well as its civic gesture of an open piazza. Dazzling innovation in a whole new architecture and the best solution for the site.
I hope all critics maintain that generosity of spirit in the upcoming crits, setting aside their personal preferences. And for me I hope to atone for past lapses by adhering to the idea of a four-step process to improve the quality of the crits, and to have less stressful and better outcomes.
The views expressed are solely those of the author and are not held or endorsed by A+D.