November 19, 2013

Architecture School Shopping - Part II: The Student Experience

On  the last entry on school shopping, I focused on issues concerning practicality and career readiness. In this post, I finish off with issues concerning the architecture student experience as a factor when you look for the architecture school you want to get into.  You probably would not be considering these issues when looking for a college as a senior high school student, These are my views based on looking back at my college experience. Architecture School is demanding and requires a lot of time: the architecture building on campus can be in use 24/7 during an academic year, especially near deadlines. 

You want to ensure you invest in a second home away from home/dorm that is comfortable and enjoyable to be in. Being an architecture school demands dedication and passion and you will be spending time in the studio for hours on end. I’m going to cover the issues catered to architecture students than the general issues any senior student must think about when preparing for college.

You want to know the types of facilities the school offers. Do they offer a student lounge? How is their wood workshop and even their digital fabrication facilities?  How is there computer lab? Are they sized right to accommodate most of the architecture student body? How about plotter/printers? Can you print in house or do you have to go to a nearby printing house? Schools will not necessarily have everything but it is good to know what your prospective school has. (I know one school in offers a mini weight room...and my school actually had a shower stall in one of the washrooms. Some schools close their design studios after midnight.) 
WHY IT'S IMPORTANT: You want to ensure that you are in a decent architecture building. Believe me the physical appearance and even the heating and cooling systems of a building will be annoying when you work all-night or all-day in studio. 

A prospective student should take a look at the quality of work students do at the schools they are interested in. Last entry I mentioned how schools differ in agenda and pedagogy, the work will convey that. weather it is looking at the gallery part of the school website or looking at graduate portfolios on issuu by students who graduated, it can reflect the quality of work the school upholds as well as reflects what type of work the school does. 
WHY IT'S IMPORTANT: You want to know which schools do the work that will keep you inspired, and the work that you are interested in pursuing and those schools may have that focus you want. I think the quality of student work does reflect on the teaching of the professors. I believe an architecture program is as good as its weakest architecture student.  

I think this is important because without a good studio culture, it makes the school less inviting. Architecture Schools operate typically 24/7 – meaning that the workload demands a lot of time in the design studio to finish your work. You want to be in a welcoming and nurturing environment that makes the late nights and all-nights at school comfortable especially when you have to be in school for a longer period of time. A measure of good studio culture means that students are willing to work there on evenings and weekends, enjoy working on projects with their friends to bounce ideas in the studio, and the competition is friendly and not douchey (I’ve been in school for quite some time, and I’ve seen the spectrum of years which treated their peers as family and years that saw their peers as foes), I have seen studios where all the students worked together all night to students who just worked from home. You also want to know if that school has student groups dedicated to helping students academically as well as fostering community. (I was heavily involved in the American Institute of Architecture Students and they have done a great job giving me opportunities to enhance my architectural education) 
WHY IT’S IMPORTANT: You want to ask students how they like studio. How often are they working there often? Is it 24/7 or do the studios close by midnight (some schools do that, unfortunately) Do they treat it like a second home with friends and family? How is the studio course delivered – are they benefiting and enjoying it? Are there architecture student groups that provide programming that engages the student body and foster community in the school.  You learn so much in architecture school by staying in the studio – you want to make sure that they place you’ll be spending a lot of time in will be something you can consider...your second home that’s on campus. 

Ask the students, when you visit, if they do like the program – not just the heavily praised students that the program will present you with during information sessions. I say, talk to the architecture students you might know, or even those randomly see when you tour a school. Seek out the mature students in their senior years who got a handle of the program in it’s entirety. (note: do not get freaked out by students that will try and scare you about being “Architortured” – they’ll exaggerate it quite a bit...but let’s be honest here, Architectural Education is quite intensive. ) 
WHY IT’S IMPORTANT: You want to know the relationship of faculty to students and see if a program can deliver quality education consistently. I had a bad experience studying in a school shifting to a new curriculum and that can lead to inconsistency in course delivery and transitioning should you fall behind or have to take a year break from study for whatever reason. You want to get a sense of student morale. You want to know if a school just favours a select few of gifted students and ignore the rest. The way one school presents their program, another way it is really delivered.  Be discerning, but realize no school is perfect and every architecture students does get a bit dissatisfied with their school. It’s a love-hate kinda thing.   

Architecture is not solely learned within the isolated confines of Academia. You learn a lot more in the working world and some schools believe in the traditional way an architect is built - through apprenticeship. Check if your school offers co-op or internship programs that are available to you or a compulsory component to graduate. Banking on work experience will make you more marketable after graduation – especially if others are graduating from programs with no co-op system in place.  Some universities may select the cream of the crop and only the top percentile of a class to do co-op, but for design education I believe this can lead to a greater inequality and tougher job competition for those without the experience.

WHY IT’S IMPORTANT: Design is subjective and thus grades in Architecture School are subjective and I have seen many students that struggle actually kick ass in the workforce. You learn so much from the workplace that school cannot teach even if they tried. The thinking and process is quite jarring and you want to garnish what you learn in school with a bit of work experience to see the links and disconnects between academia and practice.  Also, working in the field can help you become more confident as a student of architecture.

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