crit(icism), what is it good for?

6 June 2012

War, huh, yeah What is it good for Absolutely nothing

Uh-huh War, huh, yeah What is it good for Absolutely nothing

Say it again, y’all **

Can we say this about architectural criticism? You’re wondering how I made a leap from war to criticism. And why is he singing that 60’s song too? For some unknown reason I started thinking about architectural criticism and what is it good for? The original thought came from critiques in the architectural education setting, but I’ve expanded my thinking to the office, the public and the media. In the past few years I’ve heard and read students and young designers shifting the blame for what’s wrong with the educational system and the profession. It’s like the deck is already stacked against them and their lack of focus and commitment has no play in their success in this profession. If you want the credit, you must take the blame too.

Criticism can be a valuable tool to the architect as architecture is crafted and made through an iterative process and the more input from a variety of stakeholders the better. Feedback isn’t intended to be incorporated verbatim, but more of a catalyst to critical thinking. As people contribute to the conversation, the project ideally evolves into a more sophisticated solution. Fresh eyes bring a broader look at the solution at hand and can ask probing questions into the nature of the design. On the other hand, too many cooks can spoil the soup.

The other side of this issue is the architect being independent. To succeed, the architect (or architectural student) needs to be self-starting and self-motivated, able to research and seek out the necessary feedback when possible, but also facile at resolving projects on their own. In my own experience of architectural education in the late 80’s and early 90’s as well as working in small offices following that, there were many times feedback occurred more sporadically so necessity taught me how to keep projects moving and examine my work critically on my own. Many times I sought out feedback from peers, other instructors as well as co-workers. I found a balance between the benefits of feedback and being self-critical to independently develop good work. Perhaps I fooled myself.

Education – For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of experiencing architectural school, each semester offers a design studio course where students learn to design. Besides being rigorous, tiring and unlike any early experience, the studio environment is not easy to describe and much gets lost in trying to explain it. Nevertheless, students begin a process to design and they receive feedback and criticism on their design projects in various formats. Most notably is the one-on-one teacher to student format called a “crit.” However, it can also take the form of small or large groups as well. Consider it a dialogue of opposing and parallel thoughts with a purpose to edit and “tease out” something better. At the conclusion of a project there is typically a formal review of work with invited guests where the student presents to a larger audience and a lively dialog hopefully ensues. Differing opinions often surface and the fledgling student must decipher the comments and store them away for ongoing thought and future projects. Sometimes students just pee themselves.

In the past twenty-five years, I have observed a vast difference in the culture of the studio environment. I can accept that my conclusions are narrow and limited in their observation, but students of today’s generation are used to instant gratification and instant success. That doesn’t happen with architecture. Without contradicting my thesis that architecture is improved by more and diverse feedback, designers must also be self-starting and self-motivated to develop a means of improving the work on their own. They must think critically of their own work and find ways to test it against various metrics to judge its merits. My concern is students often depend too heavily on their instructor’s feedback and struggle to move their project forward without ongoing and continual instructor feedback. At times they can shift the blame for their project’s weaknesses. These habits need to be weeded out if they wish to succeed in an office environment. Again balance is always in order.

Work – Perhaps the same can be said about the office environment as the school studio, but now the accountability is higher. Critiques don’t end once one starts to work for an office, but they can feel a bit less personal since the design team or individual members are receiving feedback from other team members, or the partners in the firm. It can still be a one-on-one situation that lasts a few minutes or it can be longer with more participants. Depending on the size of the firm, it can mimic the atmosphere of the university setting. That isn’t to say there isn’t internal competition but the nature of the crit is a function of the atmosphere and leadership of the firm. As mentioned before, I had to learn to work on my own so I could sufficiently advance projects waiting for the boss to return. I believe that’s an important skill and it should be developed early in the educational process.

Media – This type of criticism is different from education and work related feedback. It typically occurs after a project is built and put on display. Occasionally it may occur with bigger projects that are announced after a design concept is released to the press. However, if the media is commenting in any way on your work, be glad. Any PR is good PR. Nevertheless, it’s sometimes refreshing to read a journalist willing to make critical statements about work from the stars. When only praise is being lauded on the work of the big names, I think we need to be discerning and not necessarily agree with everything we read. We are allowed to form our own opinions about architecture, especially if we have actually visited the projects in person. Yet as with all criticism, it is healthy to take whatever is written about our work and consider it carefully as we move on to the next project.

 

Public – As with the media, this is a source that may always mystify us. The public can be fickle at times, but they are a source we must contend with as designers. Since we design spaces and environments for the public, we must listen to them and respond appropriately. It is an important skill to know how to present our work in a way the public can understand, but also embrace. This could be a topic on its own. Regardless, I suppose I’d rather have a strong negative reaction than ambivalence. One of my biggest fears is doing work that goes unnoticed. My work was recently criticized on a well-known Facebook page for a well-known residential website. I posted a question to the person making the criticism asking more about their reaction and response inviting a dialog open to diverse opinions. Unfortunately there was no return response. I wasn’t looking for consensus, but when a critical statement is made, the author should be willing to defend it.

It’s no secret I get very emotionally attached to my work and my job. I feel the ups and downs of this profession and I “wear my heart on my sleeve.” Just like all architects, I like continual affirmation. Some days I feel no one appreciates what we do and I may be as guilty as the young professionals mentioned earlier. Criticism is part of architecture since it is a public form of art. It can be useful and healthy, but it can sometimes be nothing more than hot air. Architects must be confident enough to keep moving forward in our school work or our jobs regardless. If I’m having a bad day and you hear me complaining and contradicting myself, sing me the War song.

** War, written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong for the Motown label in 1969, performed by Edwin Starr.

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8 Responses to “crit(icism), what is it good for?”

  1. Tara Imani Says:

    Hi Lee,

    I wasn’t sure where you were headed with this post. I was hoping you were going to talk more critically of the architectural education process and how you think it can be improved– but that is another topic.

    Your point about teaching ourselves the ability to critique ourselves is well- taken.

    I was just talking about the architectural studio project and critique process with my husband last night over dinner (poor him, I know). What my biggest frustration was- in hindsight- was the lack of a meaty program to work with. One particular project stands out: we were given a huge treeless, endless piece of land that had very little change in topo and we were asked to design a visitor’s center.

    My solutions were all over the place and after several completely different iterations, I ended up creating an outdoor amphitheatre adjoining a rectangular ballet studio (at 3am, one’s thinking is less than logical I guess). Other schemes were a grotto that grew into a huge tower to he seen from miles around that I eventually shrunk into a Mario Botta style cylindrical brick form 3-1/2 story building to be attached to be situated on the lowest point at the bottom of a slope so could build a really cool bridge that people would have to cross to enter the building. I ran out of time building my bridge so for the final crit, my model consisted of an endless bridge and the base of the small round tower. The main criticism I received from one instructor was that I should have not built the foundation and would have done better to focus on the actual building. The other, lead professor joked that had I been given more time, he’s sure my bridge would have extended to High Street- the main road from downtown to OSU. Everyone laughed, including me.

    Sorry this is so long. I recount this story to illustrate how traumatic the critiquing process can be. It all begins with the program. In hindsight, I guess the lesson we were being taught was to prepare us to create programs for clients who come to us with a piece of land and no clue what to do with it….

    • leecalisti Says:

      I wrote and rewrote this post many times. It had a harsher tone before and I had to back off my sharper criticism of students who blame their professors for everything. There is fair criticism to be given to architectural curriculum, but I chose to be careful about that since I do still teach. Crits can be harsh and students can lack confidence especially if some maverick critic spouts off harsh statements just to make themselves appear intellectual. Nevertheless, one still must produce work for studio and they have to find a way to get “unstuck.”

      I don’t know your age, but I’m guessing you’ve been out long enough to establish a practice and be licensed. So your generation is different than today’s generation of students. When I went to school (B.Arch 1991), we may have said what we said about professors and the program, but I don’t recall blaming anyone for a lack of production on my part. If someone didn’t like my work, so be it. In fact one of my harshest critics one year (who I argued with at a final crit) hand picked me the next year to be part of an international competition where we won 2nd place. I laugh about the whole thing now.

      • Tara Imani Says:

        I find it ironic how some/most architectural design professors are so loathe to criticize the architectural education process. Who needs to learn to be more objective and self- critical? The student or the educator? At this point in time, given what our profession has been and is facing, I think architecture educators need to take a step back and rethink the education model in its entirety.

      • leecalisti Says:

        Well maybe that’s fodder for another post. If I write it I hope it doesn’t get me fired!

      • Tara Imani Says:

        Lee,
        Yes, to your point, it is definitely incumbent upon the student to.produce the work and not rely on the professors to “design the project” for them.

        I did attend school eons ago in the mid
        80’s during a time of hyper- criticism and a ton of theory. I only had one desk crit where a visiting professor actually took the time to pick up a scale, grab some trace, and show me by doing how to test my concept by putting it to scale- what a novel idea! ;). I recall him mumbling under his breath “these kids are making me old.”

        To Liz’s post below– wow, what a luxury to have a good night’s sleep before a final crit. I’m glad that part of studio life has improved. :D

      • leecalisti Says:

        Tara, your point is equally valid and deserves some attention. I need to think about it because even if I write about it, I can only respond based on my school experience eons ago and my teaching experience at one school. It’s hard to fairly represent architectural education in a single article.


  2. The experience of final crits in architecture school was the only thing that really told me that I was on the right track as an architecture major. My own project final crits were generally really bland – I was middle of the road in studio – not too good, not too bad. There wasn’t usually a lot for critics to respond to. So it’s not really my own crits that I’m thinking of, but the whole experience.

    Everyone in my class worked so hard and so much, developing those initial thoughts and ideas that we’d had weeks before into designs and drawings. We’d have projects due at 8 am, with crits that afternoon or the next day so that we could get some sleep and shower, and THEN, refreshed and clean and rested (and having taken a step back from the emotional work of trying to complete our projects) we’d present and defend…

    After I was finished, and relieved, the experience of sitting through other crits, and digesting my own, is when I’d have soaring affirmative feelings that I didn’t get from any other academic pursuits. Those moments are when I really knew that being an architect was what I wanted to do with my career.

    • leecalisti Says:

      Final crits are a unique experience on their own and need to be taken within the context of what they are. We try to make them useful and not harsh; that serves no purpose.

      The day to day crits in studio are the ones that are valuable but at the same time can’t happen every class time. Students need to push through those days and produce work regardless. This is something I’m observing many students struggling with these days. Many of them want us to “move their arm” to get the right answer. I have no patience for that. It doesn’t do them any good for when the get out of school and have to work for an office.


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