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October 13, 2014 | by  | in Online Only |
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Where Are Your Toilets? Or, Everything Wrong With Architecture School

“action is…the refuge of people who have nothing whatsover to do…its basis is the lack of imagination. It is the last resource of those who know not how to dream…action is limited and relative. Unlimited and absolute is the vision of him who sits at ease and watched, who walks in loneliness and dreams…”

– Oscar Wilde, the Artist as Critic

As a student who left medical school to pursue something more creatively inspired, nothing is more saddening at the end of a busy semester to see a homogenous parade of lifeless “designs”. Now reaching the end of my third year studying architecture at Victoria, I’ve come to see that the reason for this is the way our course is administered, completely unproductive and suffocating.

This may seem ironic, considering that the architecture student stereotype is connoted with productivity, to pulling all-nighters and perpetual work. And it is true, action, or hard work, is highly recognised at Victoria’s architecture school. If you have a good work ethic and dedicate yourself to your assignments, you will do well in architecture school. However, working hard is worth little.

Like the rest of the university, grades still remain the main form of academic validation at Te Aro. The A+ is still sought after, the path towards it paved with check boxes. Are your drawings at the right scale. Do you have a fire escape. Do you have enough toilets. If answered yes, yes and yes, then congratulations, you have worked hard to do what you needed to do, here’s a good grade.

Come to any exhibition of our work, full of these ‘A’ grades, and you will see the results of this system – functional buildings, one after the other, all able to be built immediately. If you would actually enjoy having any of them built is another question. Although fulfilling technical requirements, you would be hard pressed to find any whimsy, any creativity, any sign that the student has had any speck of enjoyment in their design process. This is sad, as there should be joy in creating something that fuses technology and creativity, which is what differentiates architecture from mere construction – a continuum that at Victoria seems to be weighted on

the construction end, all because hard work is the only thing that is formally recognised.

So where is the creative validation? In short, there is none. Not only is there no formal appreciation for creativity, there is no room nor time for creativity. Our assignments are tightly spaced, the workload heavy, and the briefs all scrupulously technical. The student becomes so caught up in these technicalities that there is no time to think, no time to imagine. As there is no formal validation for imaginative efforts anyway, few students even consider being creative – what would be the point? No-one would care!

While the “real world” is full of legal requirements and technicalities, I believe a valuable architectural education during university needs to inspire creativity and imagination. Architecture needs to be taught as something that can truly affect lives, which it does, and to design compassionately there must be imagination – and this imagination needs to be both encouraged and recognised at university level.

If we are to move away from producing a body of work that is currently so homogenous, so boring, there needs to be a reconsideration of marking criteria and project requirements. Perhaps the reason why creativity is missing in current academic recognition is its subjectivity and inability to be constrained to check boxes. But if paperwork and fear are the reasons why architectural education has to suffer, then we have already lost.

While architecture is a commonly misunderstood discipline, it quietly affects each and every one of us every day. We can all benefit from good design, and if we are to see this happen at all, we must begin with changing the way it is being taught. Less emphasis on hard work and technicalities – for these are things that anyone can achieve. More emphasis on time and room to truly create, and be recognised for these efforts. Rather than asking students to design a building that needs x number of accessible toilets, why not ask them to design a building inspired by a toilet? I truly believe that the creative lessons learnt and the joy that would arise from the latter would produce a better architect. After all, an architectural education should foster in the graduate a belief that their creativity will be appreciated and that there is a place for joy in buildings.

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