March 2, 2013
Architecture school critique sessions, or “crits” as they’re lovingly known — love ’em or hate ’em, they were always a learning experience . I found that there was something incredibly engaging and accessible about throwing all of your ideas and work up on a wall and having colleagues and mentors offer feedback. It was a win/win: the presenters got got to practice their presentation skills and received fresh insights into their work, and the critics got to practice verbally articulating their constructive criticisms. While nerve-wracking at times, I always came out of them with notebook pages full of interesting and exciting new ideas.
The challenge of crits wasn’t usually the presentation, though; it was the actual “critique” session, which, as the word implies, wasn’t meant to be a smile-and-a-pat-on-the-back affair. No, architecture school crits are notorious for making stressed, overtired, vulnerable students bawl uncontrollably by their conclusion. But that wasn’t the point. Not even close to it, actually. The goal wasn’t to trash a student’s hard work or to embarrass them in front of their peers — we weren’t filming a reality show or anything. The goal was to produce healthy and productive debate and discussion about the project, not the project’s owner. It’s a tricky distinction to make, especially when standing in front of a room full of people who are publicly analyzing your work, but it was one of the most valuable distinctions I learned in architecture school: the difference between what’s good for a project and what’s good for your ego. I learned that during a crit, you have to analyze your work objectively, as if it were someone else’s work entirely; once your ego is taken out of the equation you will stop worrying about how you appear in front of others, and you can truly focus on making improvements that are best for the project, which is really the ultimate goal of the crit experience. It was a simple but eye-opening lesson that significantly improved the quality of my work, as well as my performance in future crit sessions.
Now, I try to apply this lesson to every project I work on. When discussing or debating new ideas on a project, I remind myself that it’s important to debate ideas based on what is best for the project or the client, not on how those ideas will make me look in front of my colleagues. After all, we’re all on the same team, trying to reach the same goal: a better-designed human environment. Five, ten, or twenty-five years from now, it’s not going to matter to the client (or someone else who experiences the environments we design) who first came up with this idea or that idea. All that matters is that we design the best version of a project we can, and that our ideas contribute in a positive way to the improvement of the human environment around us. The only way we can do that is by keeping a level head, having healthy, productive debates about our work, and choosing the best solution for the project and the client. After all, it’s really no use crying over bad lighting, unless you’re the one stuck living with it. Then, it’s perfectly acceptable. (Hey, I live in the best/worst lit city in the world – hand me the tissues!)