What’s It Really Like to Study an Architecture Degree?

            Since embarking on the professional route to becoming a qualified architect in the United Kingdom, one of the things I have frequently noticed whilst discussing my intended career choice is how little most people actully know about either the architectural profession or the education process one must go through in order to enter it. More pressing still, I have come to appreciate the extent of my own ignorance in the matter before embarking on my own undergraduate degree in architecture and the subsequent risk of many intelligent, talented and enthusiastic 18-21 year olds entering the field without any real idea of what they’re actually getting themselves into. I’ve written this post in order to describe my experience so far of the route to becoming an architect in the UK, specifically the RIBA Part I undergraduate degree in architecture, and to hopefully impart some wisdom upon those who may be considering a career in architecture.

“7 years”

 One the first misconceptions people seem to have about an architecture degree is that it is “7 years long”. This isn’t the full story: the traditional route to becoming professionally qualified as an architect in the UK consists of a 3 year undergraduate degree (known as RIBA Part I) followed by a minimum of a year in professional practice. This is then followed by a two year diploma or “masters” course (known as RIBA Part II), beyond this, Part IIs (as they are known) are required to work another minimum of one year in architectural practice before becoming eligible to take a professional practice exam and qualify as an architect. There are some variations on this model: Bath University combines Part I and the year out in practice into a 4 year sandwich course whereas the Welsh School of Architecture substitutes 2 years in university for one studying, one more in practice at Part II, but the basic model remains the same.

The professional route to becoming an architect in the United Kingdom

The professional route to becoming an architect in the United Kingdom

Based on these details, a more accurate assertion than “7 years to become an architect” would be “minimum 7 years to become eligible to become an architect”. Most people don’t qualify after just 7 years due to simply not having enough practical experience from just 2 years in the workplace (not to mention the fees one must pay to take the exam). From I’ve heard from others in the field, it might in fact be better to say: “it takes 8-10 years to actually become an architect”. The point here is that by just beginning to train as an architect after leaving school, you’re potentially dedicating a rather substantial proportion of your young adult life to the programme and it pays to take some time to research the implications of doing so.

The undergraduate degree

            The three year Part I undergraduate course in architecture isn’t like other degrees: whereas most “traditional” degrees are largely based on series of lectures and seminars with learning assessed via coursework and exams, an architecture degree tends to be split down two halves. The first half consists of traditional “lecture based” learning on various academic aspects of architecture including theory, history and technology. The second half, virtually unheard of outside of creative courses, consists of a strange, unruly beast that is known as the “studio”. Here, students design architectural projects to briefs set by tutors to be ultimately assessed in the form of a design portfolio at the end of the year. It is this second half of studio-based learning that deserves special attention and what I am going to focus a lot of my writing here on. The studio seems to be the one thing that catches a lot of unsuspecting first year students out from simply not being informed of the true nature of the course and what it will demand of them before embarking on it.

Never enough time

The first thing to understand is that studio work is extremely time consuming. I really can’t emphasise this enough. Unless you are a time-management virtuoso, you are going to lose a few nights sleep on this course. There seem to be a few reasons for this. First of all, you have to assimilate an extremely broad range of skills to succeed in architecture: you must be creative yet logical, convicted yet open-minded, aesthetically sensitive yet technical and very good with your hands. Many of the basic skills you must learn in order to survive on the course include: drawing, computer literacy (particularly on CAD programs such as AutoCAD and SketchUp), creative thinking, the ability to present and pitch your ideas, ability to respond appropriately to criticism of your ideas (more on that one later) and the ability to take your own initiative. You will also need to have a basic understanding of how people psychologically perceive buildings and space, how buildings are physically put together, how the general creative process works and the social, political, cultural and environmental impact of the built environment. This is a lot to take in and no-one can expect to become an expect in any of it from three years of coasting in university. In fact, you’re not going to become an expert after three years of a grafting like mad but just to even grasp the basics, that is often what you will find yourself having to do.

Burnt_OutWhen I attended an open day at one university before beginning my degree, I remember one lecturer saying to me: “there are two university courses in which your secondary school grades are a poor indication of whether you’ll actually be any good at them, medicine and architecture”. This seems broadly true and in my experience even the best and the brightest at secondary school will have to work hard on this course. A possible reason for this may be that the modern world tends to demand that we become compartmentalised in our talents: “this person is a creative person”, “this person is a technical person” and so on. An architecture degree demands that you be all of these things at once. For example, I’ve seen highly aesthetically and spatially sensitive people struggle with the abstract academic theory and long essays demanded by the degree’s lecture based modules whereas highly technical people tend to struggle with the lateral and creative thinking demanded by studio work. Whatever your weaknesses are, this degree will find them out and will beat you down for them.

The next reason why an architecture course will eat up so much of your time is that of the physical objects that you will have to produce for assessment. Models and drawings of your design proposals simply take a long time to produce. The RIBA’s President’s Medals website is a good illustration of some of the sheer quality of craft in the drawings that architecture students produce and these simply can’t all be accomplished in one night before a deadline. I’ve literally spent a solid week working on a single drawing and at least 2 weeks figuring out how to build a 1:50 scale model, though as implied above, this is as much about lack of experience in these tasks as it is about the tasks themselves. You’ll need to be proficient in a good range of drawing and modelling techniques from rough, conceptual pieces at the beginning of a project to pristine, detailed scaled drawings and models at the end to illustrate concrete resolution and deep, atmospheric renders to convey experiential feel. Furthermore, with lots of big drawings and models comes lots of logistics. In addition to actually working on them, expect a lot of time to be given away to carrying around and setting up workspaces for your creations. We all know of that one student who has spent days on a beautiful model only for it to be destroyed by the wind/lift/cleaners before submission. Take control of how your stuff gets moved around and life will become a fair bit easier.

Big logistics

Big logistics

The third issue I have identified is the alien nature of the teaching and learning process within architecture to students straight from secondary education. I personally think that this is a shortcoming of compulsory primary and secondary education systems and not of the architecture degree itself. Throughout most of our schooling, we are taught that there are definite “right” and “wrong” answers, and that these answers generally come from a specific authority, e.g. a teacher. Design studio is not like this at all, no one is there to hand you the “right” solution to a project on a plate. The purpose of tutors is to act as guides, not absolute authorities and in my experience this is a difficult thing for those whose intellectual experience is limited to the compulsory schooling system to come to terms with. Architecture is not as much about finding the right answers as it is about asking the right questions. In design projects, questions come in the form of what your project is choosing to respond to: the physical composition of the site you propose to build on, the social context of the neighbourhood in which it’s situated, some kind of manufacturing process that takes place within the building, these are just a few examples of an innumerable number of agendas that you can pursue within a project. The best projects don’t find definite right answers, because they don’t exist in architecture, they find the most appropriate answers within the context and situation at hand. It’s not enough though to just have an appropriate design, you must be able to communicate this design to other people visually and that’s where the craft and graft previously mentioned comes together here.

Rendered perspective of my final undergraduate project 'Activism and Awareness Hub', this project sought to respond to the social activity and spatial from of its urban surroundings along with the political context of the wider City of Sheffield.

Rendered perspective of my final undergraduate project ‘Activism and Awareness Hub’. This project sought to respond to the social activity and spatial form of its urban surroundings along with the political context of the wider City of Sheffield

A possible fourth reason for the architecture degree’s special difficulties is its placement amongst the broader tests and rituals of university. With its long hours and irregular learning processes, architecture is largely at odds with the stereotypical partying filled nights and hangover filled days of university life. If you’re after the stereotypical “uni experience”, then this course is probably not for you. Furthermore, most students will be juggling living away from home and managing cooking, cleaning and finances (or not) for themselves for the first time ever. For the uninitiated, these can be difficult and stressful things to deal with even without the often strenuous demands of the architecture programme.

Money talks

Beyond the sheer amount of time demanded for studying an undergraduate degree in architecture, there are a few more caveats that should be addressed. Many students will be managing their own finances for the first time ever, often in the form of the paltry student loan (it isn’t enough to live off) and this once again tends to be anathema to the demands of the degree itself. You will be expected to spend hundreds of pounds on printing costs, modelling materials, field trips (to foreign countries in some universities) and administration costs for work placements on top of the normal student expenses of rent, takeaways and vodka. In fact, Sheffield School of Architecture project Pavilion of Protest has estimated that, with new tuition fees now in force, it could cost up to £89,000 to qualify as an architect in the UK, that’s both the undergraduate and diploma degrees, Part III professional exams, accommodation costs, basically everything. Given that this is a field where the average salaries are actually wildly different to what the general public believes them to be, you should think long and hard about whether the potential personal and social rewards of becoming an architect are worth the financial hardship you will more likely than not experience.

A CRITical point

            An aspect of studio culture that must be mentioned, and is particularly special to architectural education, is what is known as the “crit” or “review”. Before the final submission of your design project in the form of a portfolio, you will be expected to pitch your project to an audience of your peers and tutors. This consists of a verbal presentation of the project accompanied by a visual presentation of the beautiful drawings and models you have created to portray your proposal. After this pitch, the audience will give comments and questions based on your project, the point being that debate and challenge of your ideas will build you up as a designer and teach you how to pitch your design proposals to potential stakeholders in your future. For many entering architectural education, this may be the single most frightening aspect of the entire course, a lot of people don’t like giving public presentations of their ideas in the first place, never mind having those ideas challenged and debated. Out of all the ways architecture drops you in the deep end, I think that first review is probably the deepest of all and something that seems to really catch the naïve first year off guard.

Although crits are intended to provide helpful feedback and develop your ability to sell your projects to others, they often feel much more like an ordeal than a benefit. Crits are often oppositional in nature and reviewers are quick to pounce on any shortcomings and inconsistencies in your project. You must be prepared to take often harsh criticism of something that you have spent months painstakingly working on. It’s important to remember that there is a distinct line between harsh but valid criticism of a project and just being plain insulting but it is difficult for the inexperienced to perceive this line. In fact, it’s probably difficult for both experienced students and tutors to perceive it too out of the simple virtue of being human. One of the greatest frustrations of architectural academia is that although a successful project is one that eloquently displays an appropriate response to a formulated design problem, it is extremely difficult to pin these criteria down in concrete terms and it often feels more like a good project is one that actually plays into one tutor’s preconceived biases than any real objective evaluation. Although I’ve had tutors at my own university insist that there are specific criteria for what constitutes a good project, what these actually are in concrete terms largely remains a mystery. Sometimes, you just won’t get the mark you thought you deserved for a project, in this case it’s important to remember that getting the most out of an architecture degree does not mean getting high grades, it means making sure you’ve always learnt from your project. Every failure is a life lesson and if you recognise this, they will become less frequent.

Some of the different types of drawings and models produced for my project Activism and Awareness Hub including a rough sketch section, a series of development models and a final section showing construction and experiential qualities.

Some of the different types of drawings and models produced for my project Activism and Awareness Hub including a rough sketch section, a series of development models and a final section showing construction and experiential qualities

Studio CULTure

Given the long hours and unique learning processes of an architecture degree, the discipline seems to be particularly susceptible to academic Ivory Tower Syndrome. In the design studio, students are often pushed into designing fantastic and outlandish projects that actually bare little resemblance to the day to day realities of architectural practice, with some schools more notorious for this than others. Although the argument can be made that such projects are intended to encourage students’ creativity and that some universities are now introducing measures to reconnect architecture’s 150 year old educational model with an ever more rapidly changing world, the often solipsistic, self-absorbed nature of an architecture degree is largely cultural and cultural habits are difficult and take a long time to break. Any young person hoping to enter architectural education and later practice will to do well to take heed of the often strange cultural norms of the architectural profession and try to understand when it is appropriate to conform to them, and when it is not.

Cultural norms of outlandish, fantastical projects, disconnect from the real world and perpetual one-upmanship within architectural education are all too easily perpetuated by tutors wrapped up within their own academic fetishes and bolstered by students all too eager to play up to their school’s expectations, but for the astute student they do not have to be completely inevitable. Within in architecture degree, and indeed within architectural practice, it is important to always be able to keep sight of the bigger picture. To prevent yourself from becoming trapped in the academic bubble, keep interests and contacts outside of the studio and even if you struggle to find the time to make serious commitment to these, don’t abandon old friends and hobbies completely. Architecture degrees tend to cram a lot of work into relatively short term times (my own university always finished at least 2 weeks before other courses) so you often have long Summers to pursue things such as part time jobs and committed hobbies. It is possible to hold these things down in term time, but again, you must be really good with your time management. Finally, real world experience does not just keep you sane within architecture school, when you get out into practicing in the real world, it actually makes you a better designer. Architecture is about understanding how the built environment works for people, people whom architectural students and tutors only represent of an extremely small proportion of.

So, why bother?

            Given the caveats presented above, it’s probably worth discussing why anyone would ever want to study an architecture degree in the first place! An architecture degree gives a fantastic and diverse range of skills that do not necessarily have to be applied strictly within the world of architecture. Creative and holistic solving of complex problems and three-dimensional, spatial intelligence are the principle ones, but there is also the ability to communicate your ideas, both verbally and visually, the ability to debate and defend ideas, time management and organisation and the ability to learn from your experiences quickly and continuously. The course content itself is genuinely fascinating and immersive, which may also contribute to the long hours culture and the sense of personal accomplishment when you hand in your completed portfolio of beautiful drawings and models after 9 months of back breaking work is unrivalled. Of course, on a prosaic level, the ultimate goal of the RIBA Part I and II university courses is to be legally able to call yourself an architect in the UK, but in an ever more competitive and turbulent job market within the profession, the other things the degree offers outside of this should be seen as just as valuable within themselves.

If you are considering enrolling on an RIBA Part I undergraduate degree in architecture, question your motives for doing so. Don’t do it for the “uni experience”, don’t do it because “it looks kind of interesting and I can’t think of anything else” and please, please, please, don’t do it for the money. Do it because you’re genuinely passionate about the subject and hopefully, becoming an architect. Even if after 3 years of undergraduate study, you decide you don’t want to continue your professional training, you will have a broad and unusual range of skills that can serve you well both in and out of the workplace.

If you do decide to take this challenging but fascinating academic path, here are a few of my own words of advice:

1) Get skills – Particularly drawing and computer skills. Learn CAD and creative software like AutoCAD, SketchUp, Photoshop and Illustrator. Practice model making, it’s something you will only get good at by doing it again and again.

2) Treat it like a job – If you can work hard and smart 8 or 9 hours a day, everyday, this will minimise all-nighters and panics as deadlines approach.

3) Get stuck in – Don’t procrastinate, a lot of difficulty in the creative process comes from getting over the initial inertia you will face at the start of a project. You are given several weeks to work on a single project for a reason.

4) Get a hobby – Have something to take you mind off architecture every now and again such as a musical instrument or a sport, even if only a few times a week.

5) Set up a workspace – Be disciplined about where you do your work, have a space for model making, a space for sketching, a space for computer work and make sure you can easily switch between these. Architecture is meant to develop your spatial intelligence so apply it in your day to day work.

6) Get informed  – Read architecture journals and books, read non-architecture, journals and books, watch TED talks and RSA Animates, attend lectures outside of your prescribed timetable. Always challenge your established worldviews and patterns of thinking. Ignorance is a dangerous thing.

7) Don’t chase marks – The more you do, the more difficult they will come. Instead, focus on making your project the best it can be within its own terms.

8) Eat, sleep well and exercise – The mind and the body are one, if you abuse the body, the mind will suffer too. So many students struggle on architecture courses from getting stuck in a negative cycle of not looking after themselves because they have too much work and not having the energy to work well because they haven’t looked after themselves.

9) Manage your finances – You will spend a lot of money on printing, modelling materials and portfolios. If you can get smart with your budget and minimise and reuse things where necessary, you’ll be able to feed yourself and pay rent as well.

10) Talk to people, listen to what they say and, if necessary, completely disregard it – No two people will have the same point of view on a project, if you talk to others about your work they will raise issues and suggest ideas that you never thought about before. That being said, there’s also the chance that they don’t have the slightest clue what they’re actually talking about as well.

11) Don’t get stuck in the academic bubble – Pursue interests outside of architecture, keep in touch with old friends, get out of the city every now and again. Experience of the real world makes you a better designer.

12) Pursue projects that personally interest you – Sometimes you will feel like your tutors are trying to push your projects in a certain direction. Although their opinions are generally well informed, it’s your project and you will find the work infinitely more enjoyable if it aligns with your own passions.

13) Everything is a potential inspiration – Keep your eyes and mind open.

14) Learn to juggle – Don’t work sequentially, switch between things. If you’re struggling with one aspect of a project, try something different or take a step back and look at the bigger picture. As a lecturer of mine once said: “architecture is like spinning plates and gradually you’ll begin to add more and more.”

15) Anticipate that the working world is very different to the degree – A figure I’ve heard thrown about a couple of times is that practicing architects only spend about 5% of their time doing what is actually done in the school studio. With university projects, you are afforded the luxury of being able to pursue outlandish design concepts without having to worry about pesky things such as procurement, budgeting, planning law or health and safety. This can be construed as either a good thing or a bad thing, but that’s a debate for another time and place.

Phew! That’s an awful lot to take in isn’t it? By writing this post, I’ve been able to put down a few things I’ve wanted to say for a while now and I hope that I’ve imparted some insight onto anyone who has taken to the time to read it. I particularly hope that this is of use to anyone who is hoping to or is about to start an RIBA Part I degree in the future and has more likely than not not been given a clear impression of what the course actually entails from their school careers advisors. Hopefully, sometime in the future, I’ll be able to come back and write a similar post on the architectural profession itself.

Further reading:

Mo Zell’s the Architectural Drawing Course provides an easy to read guide of the more specific type of work produced within the studio, great for beginners.

Matthew Frederick’s 101 Things I learnt in Architecture School is another great reference book that is useful to both the complete novice and more experienced architecture student.

More relevant to Americans, but Bob Borson’s blog Life of an Architect contains some pretty comprehensive descriptions of the architectural training process as well as life within the actual profession.

Architecture Apple is a website made by architecture students for architecture students, essential reading is Alastair Parvin’s How to Be a Good Architecture Student? Be Bad which takes a critical look at the architectural education process and highlights many of the issues in relation to school culture that I have only slightly touched upon here.


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