As many of you know, I spent my undergraduate years at the University of Toronto, where I was enrolled in the Landscape Architecture Bachelors program. Five years of 36 hours of class per week, which included 15 hours of design studios and endless hours of preparation for the studio grind. Design projects are often frustrating and there is little guidance provided, but most students enjoy studio more than their other classes. Once students graduate and work in private practice, they thrive on design work. Within a few years, many become project managers so they can have more control over design projects. Some of my classmates from the Bachelors program are now associates in their firms.

However, studio is often taught in an adversarial way that doesn’t seem to benefit the students. It doesn’t accomplish much to hear, “Your design sucks!” Receiving daily criticism on your design work can be intimidating and, if it is not constructive, demoralizing. One of the most trying experiences in any design student’s life is the final ‘crit’, where critics from outside of the school are invited to comment on their work. This is a more formal than the ‘pin-up’, which happens throughout the semester at any given time, and usually just involves your teacher and classmates. Students may spend a night preparing for a pin-up, but they invest a week or more (including several all-nighters) preparing finished drawings for a final crit. Even the setting indicates a shift in formality: while the pin-up is usually held in studio wherever a suitable white wall can be found to pin trace paper drawings, the crit is often held in a larger, more public room on the main floor of the building. The critics are often local architects, urban designers, landscape architects, and occasionally urban writers or thinkers. Again, sometimes the criticism is useful, but it is often hurtful and demeaning: I remember one Chinese student whose crit included a vicious criticism of his English skills. Another student received a fifteen-minute harangue on her choice of paper for the final drawings, which the critic deemed substandard. In both cases, the critic never said a word about the actual design (click here for more typical crit comments).

You can see why, when I was asked to be a critic for a design studio last week, I warily approached the invitation. An architect friend of mine was going to be a critic at Emily Carr University of Art and Design, here on Granville Island in Vancouver, and the class needed more critics. The students were architecture students from the University of Oregon who were in Vancouver on a field studio. Their assignment was to design a new building for the end of Railspur Alley; two of the existing buildings are underused. Under the guidance of their teacher, Associate Professor Stephen Duff, they had met with Granville Island planners and local retailers to get a sense of what types of uses were most needed (more artist studios, performance spaces, and teaching kitchens) and what was lacking (nightlife). We were going to be giving them feedback on their projects at the mid-term point; there is still a month until their final crit.

As usual, the students pinned up their projects on the walls: their trace paper sections and plans, cardboard models, and flurry of last-minute activity were all too familiar. What differed was the crit process. There were about eight critics, most of us schooled in architecture or landscape architecture, and most working in private practice. We were each assigned a student for five 35-minute slots, and we rotated throughout the two small rooms. The student spent about half of the time presenting their work, and then we asked questions, we made suggestions, and got into discussions with the students about problems they were having. Occasionally we were paired, so the critic-to-student ratio was 2:1. I found the ratio, and the crit process, to be much more productive for the students: they were involved in a real dialogue about their projects, rather than meekly receiving commentary in front of an audience. The students also seemed fairly confident about their work, which shows they had been mentored more than cajoled (and says a lot about their teacher, an affable and open-minded sort). However, they weren’t stubborn or defensive about their designs; on the contrary, all of the students I worked with were interested in the critics’ opinions, and intended to use the new ideas to keep exploring their designs until the final crit in June. What we had, then, was an exercise in problem-solving rather than an adversarial “Defend your idea!” Of course, this wasn’t a final crit; the students had time to keep working and change their designs. But I have a hunch that their final crit would be pretty similar, even if they were required to present their ideas and receive criticism in front of the whole class.

This crit was so superior to the antagonistic crits I experienced that I wonder why they aren’t always done this way. I’m pretty sure that the harsh, and often personal, criticism that we received at school didn’t make us better designers (and I know for a fact that it debilitated many students). I can hear the murmurs of “too soft” and “not rigorous enough” already, but as someone who has crossed the disciplinary divide, I assure you that students don’t receive stinging critiques on a daily basis from their sociology or chemistry professors. Even PhD students, as aspiring professors, are taught to give their students constructive criticism  in the classroom setting and when grading assignments. Why aren’t more design studios integrating guest critics at the more informal mid-term crits, using a higher critic-to-student ratio, and spurring real dialogue about students’ designs?

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