Let’s pretend that you are in architecture school – maybe you just started, maybe you’ve been there for a while – I’m not sure that it matters for today’s discussion. The “Architectural School Jury” is a process that exists in architecture schools the world over – it’s where the
victim student will pin their work up on the wall, and then try to explain what their project is trying to accomplish. The people who are listening to the presentation are typically composed of the other students from the class (you know, the other people working on the exact same project), the professor (the person who has your grade and future in the palm of their hand), and if the stress and pressure wasn’t high enough, there might even be a few outside guests (i.e. other architectural celebrities) sitting in the room as well.
Whenever I think of architecture school juries, I can easily recall just how nervous I was … I can also remember looking around at everybody else pinning their work up on the wall and doing comparisons between what they did do and what I didn’t do. 20+ years later, I can still painfully remember thinking that my drawings were the worst, my models were ridiculous, and that my designs were uninspired and boring …
Why was I even here? This was finally going to be the jury where everybody literally stopped, turned their eyes on me, and I was told that I should switch majors … Home Economics probably had some room for someone like me.
Turns out, none of that was true. Despite all those memories of panic, desperation, and thoughts that I hadn’t put on enough deodorant to mask my terror, I don’t remember ever being told to switch majors. All things considered, I did pretty well in school and in the time since I graduated from college, I’ve been a guest juror often enough to I think I’m in a position to actually dole out some advice that will substantially increase the likelihood that you will survive your juries relatively unscathed.
More or less, there might be some scathing. But that’s on you, not the 5 tips I’m about to share.
What’s Your Concept … The “Big Idea”
Every good project has a concept. Every. Single. One. If you look at your project and can’t recognize it, you need to keep working until you’ve developed one. This is the big idea that you will build your entire project around; it will guide all your ideas and will help you prioritize your work. When I sit on juries and I look at the work pinned up on the wall, it is easy to see if the student even realizes whether or not they have a big idea. All the information you choose to present should support the big idea. If you are limited on time, preparing drawings and models (whatever) that you develop that communicate your concept are the most important thing. I won’t lie and tell you that quality always trumps quantity, but believe me when I tell you that I’m not looking at the furniture placement in your student apartments when your big idea is a “Light Tower”.
Focus on the big idea and treat everything else for what they are – supporting characters.
Reasons versus Excuses
Let me start off by saying that if you are getting an architectural degree in a college program, everybody knows that you are pretty smart. You don’t have to prove it all the time by explaining everything when someone disagrees with your conclusion. Let me clarify two things up front:
I believe that you had a reason for doing what you did without you telling me that you had a reason for doing what you did.
If you didn’t have a reason for doing what you did, I believe that your smart enough to pretend that you had a reason for doing what you did.
From my perspective as a juror, neither of those two things matter. The entire point of a jury review process is to present your ideas and see if other people come to similar conclusions given the parameters of the problem weighed against your solution. If you present a design solution and describe it as “sheltered” and I look at it and think that your version of shelter looks like my version of a prison courtyard, we are not in the same place. You defending your solution by explaining why it doesn’t look like a prison courtyard is unlikely to change my mind from the belief that it does. Rather than try to explain that your logic and conclusions are sound (which can make you come off as defensive, stubborn, even argumentative) try to ask questions and have the juror take the lead and explain their comments in a context that you can internalize and build upon.
In other words, take the feedback and move on.
If it’s on the Wall, It’s Fair Game
Architecture students generate a lot of work as an output of the design process … drawings, sketches, renderings, and models (a lot of models). There is a natural temptation to pin it all up on the wall – almost as proof that they’re a good student – to demonstrate that they’ve put a lot of time and energy into the process to get to this point.
Clearly, a lot of work = awesome student
You must resist the urge to put all your work on display. Anything that you pin up on the wall is fair game for discussion and not everything that you create is worth discussing. This ties back into the “Big Idea” scenario where all of your work should support your main concept – either directly or as a supporting piece. Anything else is going to pull attention AND the conversation away from what you should be talking about … ideas.
You are Not Your Work
Most students pour their hearts and souls into their projects. They spend an exorbitant amount of time developing concepts, preparing drawings, building models, etc. Most of that time has come at the cost of some other aspect of their life in order to dedicate themselves to this endeavor. As a result, students frequently associate the work that they’ve pinned up on the wall with who they are as a person.
Don’t do that.
When I was in studio, I presented my work informally at my desk to someone almost every other day. This process tempered that review process somewhat and I learned to expect that almost everyone will have a different take on my project. Of course, while my friends were less likely to eviscerate me over a poorly executed concept than the professor or jury, the truth is this – the jurors who looked at your project won’t spend much time thinking about it (if at all) after they have left the room.
While this is much easier said than done, don’t spend so much time on your projects that you can no longer define yourself by some other measure. Have a hobby, try to develop a friend set not entirely made up of fellow architecture students … whatever you want.
The Juror isn’t Always Right
One obvious truth that an architecture student can count on is that they will know their project better than anyone else. The juror sitting in front of you that is undoubtedly freaking you out doesn’t know the tasks and issues with your project. Chances are better than good that they will focus on the big things and as a consequence, they will miss out on the nuances that – for you – take your project from amazing to sublime. Right?
Probably not … but I don’t know that it really matters. If you take 10 architects and give them all the exact same information and parameters, they will come up with 10 different solutions. Is there only 1 right solution and the rest are wrong? Obviously not, and that’s why it’s important to walk away from a less-than-stellar jury presentation with your self-worth still intact. Other than working on your presentation skills, the jury process is an opportunity to work on your active listening skills. Listen to what people are offering you in terms of objective criticism and mentally dump the subjective criticism.
When I started blocking out my mental notes for this post, the only parameters I used were: “What would I tell myself when I was a freshman in architecture school?” A fair amount of students (I would hope) will discover these tips through trial and error over time. I won’t lie when I say the people who might benefit from a list like this the most, probably won’t read it. It’s no secret that I struggled when I first entered architecture school – not because I didn’t have the mental brainpower to succeed, it was because I wasn’t very mature and did a poor job setting my priorities correctly. By the time I finished school, I had figured the process out and I’ll go so far as to say college became rather easy. The panic and scrambling I went through as an 18 and 19-year-old student were unrecognizable to me as a 5th-year student. I worked 10x harder as a freshman and 10x smarter as a senior and looking back, these are the tips I wish I had figured out in the beginning.
Best of luck,