by Akshata Atre
Most of the work I do for my architecture classes is essentially just a very extra version of arts and crafts: a plan or a section? Literally a more technical drawing. A model? More like paper and cardboard.
Drawing and crafting are two things I love to do. But why is it so much more painful when it’s for an architecture studio?
At first, I thought the dread and stress was a result of being graded on the things I produced. After all, as one of my GSIs wisely stated the other day in office hours: “everything would be more fun if there were no stakes.” But then I thought back to high school (a period of time that I have blocked out most memories from) and remembered the four years of art classes I took, which were the least stressful classes I ever took in those four hellish years. And sure, sometimes I was worried about what my teachers thought of my work and whether that work merited a coveted “A.” But the majority of the feelings I associate with these art classes are positive and very relaxed-- laughing with friends, experimenting with different media, listening to music, getting messy. I was getting to make things that I enjoyed making, where the end result was the result of a creative exploration that wasn’t stifled by a barrage of technical requirements and critiqued into a jargon-laden oblivion. I was creating, not producing.
The idea of production in architecture, the way I understand it, voids the creation of architectural work-- which is basically a form of art-- of any actual creativity. Designers in an architecture firm are literally part of a department called “production.” You’re resigned to drawing the same things over and over again: insulation, floor finishes, concrete slabs, glazing units. But somehow in the workplace it’s still more tolerable than it is in academia. Because in architecture school even mastering those details is not enough. You have to have an argument for everything, a technical aesthetic rationale behind every stroke and lineweight on your drawing or piece of paper in your model. You are hardly ever allowed to say you designed something because it “just looks better” (unless, of course, you have a moderately empathetic professor.)
And, look, I get it. The study of architecture can no longer be the early Bauhaus pre-hippie trip into expressionism and radical thought. It has a reputation to maintain. But why must that reputation come at the cost of any creativity in the study of architecture? Why is every creative idea critiqued into oblivion? (And if it hasn’t been yet, it will be, so much so that you’ll never want to try anything radical again.) Assignments are given under the guise of freedom, yet when you try to take advantage of that freedom, a critic will find something wrong with what you’ve done. Because unlike in art, the designs you produce as an architecture student must comply with the laws of physics and construction, most of which, frankly, you have little to no real knowledge of.* And because of that, it becomes incredibly difficult to produce any work without strict guidelines, because the fear of being criticized, of the unknown is utterly crippling. Fear doesn’t breed creativity.
*I’m not saying that art school is easy either, folks. The comparison is based on my own personal experience having taken art classes for over ten years before college.
So what exactly am I looking for instead? It seems unlikely that the pedagogy of architecture school (or the study of any other subject in which “learning” is pretty transparently fear-based) is going to change anytime soon, especially since most architecture teachers subscribe to the “well that’s the way I learned it, so now you have to suffer through it too” philosophy. Maybe this is just part of the process of pursuing something you thought you always wanted to do (I’ve wanted to become an architect since I was eight). But I also feel like there’s a point at which academics really need to step back and question whether or not their methods are actually working. Is forcing students to work 18-hour days on little sleep without time to properly feed themselves really fostering an environment in which students are actually producing good work and learning? Based on how the quality of my work has declined since I started junior year, I think not. And if someone comes at me with the classic “well, they’re just preparing you for the real world” nonsense-- well, maybe the “real world” doesn’t need to be based on fear and workaholism.
I don’t know. Just a thought.