At architecture school, it is easy to take criticism to heart. For any dedicated student, their project is essentially their whole world for weeks or even months on end, so it is entirely understandable that any word of doubt cast over it has the potential to cause a great deal of anxiety, or worse, outrage (where do you think I got the “Angry Architect” moniker from?).
It follows then, that architecture professors are often cast as the harbingers of woe, endlessly challenging your design principles, questioning your theoretical positions and judging your exhibition work every step of the way. You can’t blame them: It’s their job, after all. However, understanding their cryptic opinions and esoteric instructions is an essential skill to master for those who wish to survive mid-project tutorials and end-of-term crits. This is no mean feat: It took me six long years, and I remain quite perplexed by some of the archispeak that emanates from the more academic proponents of architecture.
With this in mind, here is a guide to decoding some of what your architecture professor might say over the course of the next few years. While some of these might be a little tongue-in-cheek, make no mistake, students — these are words worth memorizing.
What they say: “Be careful with your line weights.”
What they really mean: “If your drawings are illegible, I will not be able to criticize them properly, let alone praise your design intent. Give me line weights that really show the hierarchy of importance within the drawing (walls = thick, furniture = thin), give your sections and perspectives a greater sense of depth, and illustrate your attention to architectural detail.”
Kahn Visiting Professor Frank Gehry with students at a year-end review at Yale; via Yale School of Architecture
What they say: “Consider the context more.”
What they really mean: “It looks like you have designed an architectural novelty act that doesn’t respond to its site conditions in any way whatsoever. You’re no Starchitect, and you don’t want to be: Google ‘critical regionalism’ and then come back to me with a design that has a real relationship with the place it inhabits.”
What they say: “Do not concern yourself simply with form; focus on the experiential qualities of space.”
What they really mean: “I want you think about what it would be like to stand within the space you are designing. Consider what atmosphere you are trying to create. Beyond the physical form, how does light and shadow change the way in which the space makes you feel? How might your mood be affected if the walls were concrete rather than wood? What would happen if you were with a crowd of people or on your own within this place? Conducting a light study on your model with a lamp or creating a series of models from different materials may help you go some way to answering these questions.”
What they say: “You could do this … ”
What they really mean: “You should definitely do this. I’m not supposed to tell you what to do, so my suggestions are the strongest hints possible."
Visiting critic Zaha Hadid at Yale; via Yale School of Architecture
What they say: “Draw it in section.”
What they really mean: “The dozens of plans you have drawn are not telling me anything about the spatial quality of your project and it is driving me crazy. Use sections, perspectives, models … anything that helps to communicate how your building really works in three dimensions.”
What they say: “I think your project should be rectilinear.”
What they say (the following week): “I think your project should be curvilinear.”
What they really mean: “I am being contradictory because I don’t remember what I said last week, or — more significantly — my reasoning for saying it. This could be partly due to my own scatterbrain tendencies — I have a whole lot of students’ projects to assess each day — but it could also have something to do with a lack of clarity in your concept.
Question the fundamentals of your project. What is the overarching goal of your design? What is the primary program, and how does your building facilitate that? What are the key contextual constraints affecting your project? If you can clearly communicate how your design decisions respond to these core questions, I will have less opportunity to confuse you with my own ever-changing ideas.”
What they do: Pick up your model, peer inside it and then break a piece off and examine it with a squinty expression on their face.
What they really mean: “Exploratory models are not supposed to be pristine objects on a plinth in the exhibition space — they are meant to be pulled apart, manipulated and dissected in the search for the best solution. It may also be that if I can pull apart your project that easily, then your model-making craftsmanship needs to be taken up a level.”
An architecture professor and student discusses a design at Kent State University; via Kent State University
What they say: “Explain your project to me in 30 seconds.”
What they really mean: “If you can’t explain your project to me in 30 seconds, your concept is simply not succinct enough. That, and I desperately need to head out for another coffee before I fall asleep.”
What they say: “Are you feeling OK?”
What they really mean: “You look like you haven’t slept in days, and it is probably going to have a negative impact on the quality of your work if you continue in this manner. I believe that the best projects come from those who work efficiently within a 9-to-6 schedule, not for endless hours through the night. Quit competing with your peers to see who can stay in the studio the longest, and start planning your work strategically instead.”
What they say: “Your project is very interesting.”
What they really mean: “I completely love your project but I can’t say that for fear of boosting your confidence too high, so I’m going to stick with … interesting.”
Did I forget any? Let me know in the comments below, and for more on life in architecture school, behold the seven most common types of architecture student.