Architectural Critiques

My past few articles have covered things such as personal branding, entering competitions, putting together compelling boards, and personal branding. When this has all been balled up into a project you are excited about, there is just one more hurdle: surviving the architectural critique.

Now, most competitions don’t typically have a live critique in front of jurors (fortunately?), but if you are reading this, you are obviously no stranger to them having done them many times in architectural studios. Whether you are in still in school, have planning board meetings, propose designs to your colleagues, etc., presenting your project to a group of people is something that will always be synonymous with architectural design. Hopefully, sharing some of my thoughts from past successes and failures will help out my fellow emerging professionals on how to get through any sort of architectural presentation.

Know your audience. Like I said above, presenting to a group of people can take on many forms. Is it a school studio? A design idea at work? A variance approval in front of a city board? Not only should your drawings speak to a certain audience, but your architectural narrative should too. Many architects fall into the trap of using overly complex language in an attempt to describe a project. There is a great quote in 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School (Matthew Frederick, 2007): “If you can’t explain your ideas to your grandmother in terms that she understands, you don’t know your subject well enough.” That line always stuck with me, and I think should be remembered before you describe your design as “the by-product of repetitive space articulation, imposing smothering constraints upon the fenestration….” You get the point.

What is the concept/idea? This one is seemingly obvious and should go hand in hand with knowing your audience. A presentation to a planning board will be drastically different than a midterm studio critique, and the material you present should support your main idea. In a studio critique, your main concept will need visual and verbal communication to support your overall building design. Quality is always better than quantity in this regard. If the main idea is a building that has a central core that controls light and circulation, one high quality and informative section might be much more revealing than four different floor plans and an exterior rendering. On the other hand, if you are presenting to a board to approve a zoning variance, while your plans and renderings should be very clear, more importantly, your reasoning should be strong.

Editing. We have all been in the situation in which a lack of time has pressured us to present any little sketch or diagram we have done on a project. While it may seem like a good idea because it is more “work” to show, it welcomes dialogue from jurors, often unwanted or unwarranted. Is that little plan sketch you did with an arrow pointing to the main entrance worth discussing? Does it support your main concept in some way? Self-editing is a skill that takes time to perfect, especially in the architecture world. And while it may be tempting to show all the ‘stuff’ you have come up with, it is always beneficial to edit out anything you cannot definitively explain. This will also help you stay on the track to support your concept, and limit ammunition for jurors on getting you to explain something that really isn’t a main idea of your project.

Public Presentation. They say that the number one fear people have is public speaking, and death is number two. I haven’t always been the best public speaker, but one thing I do know always helped me, is being prepared. By being prepared, I don’t mean sitting in front of a mirror practicing your speech on how great your design is. The most prepared you can be is knowing your subject matter, having a reason  for the drawings you are presenting, and having valid counter arguments for anything that might be questioned. I have found that if I concentrated more on that aspect, the presentation went much more smoothly. Confidence goes a long way.

Accepting Criticism. This one is always a tough pill to swallow. You just spent 20 hours over the weekend on awesome renderings, diagrams, and the best model you’ve ever made, only to have all your design intents questioned. There were many times early in my architectural schooling, where I left a crit thinking, “Well screw them, what do they know”? Turned out, they knew a lot. And it wasn’t just them knowing a lot, it was my lack of acknowledging they weren’t bashing my ideas for the hell of it, they we’re trying to make me rethink my ideas, and hopefully reach a more refined design. Jurors don’t show up just so they can ridicule students or competition designs; they show up to try and help improve young aspiring architects. BUT, this doesn’t always mean the juror is right, or will always offer the best advice. Just like editing your own project, there is only so much information you can retain from your peers and jurors. Know how to differentiate constructive criticism from subjective criticism, and edit those ideas, not to please the jurors, but to help you look at your project in a different light.

Architectural critiques and public presentations are the Achilles heel of the architecture world. Presenting, in itself, is a skill set not everyone has, which might be tough when you want to show an audience your great design. When you add in the intangibles such as a design not being well received, showing work you were unable to really finish, not fully understanding the subject matter, stage fright, etc., presenting in an architectural critique can (and will) make for an anxious situation. The main point is, critiques and presentations are what you make them. If you don’t know your own ideas, or haven’t done enough drawings to portray an idea, or get defensive when you are questioned on a design move, a critique can go south very fast. As a random last thought, Steve Jobs, who is partially famous for the unveiling of new Apple products, wouldn’t have had nearly the same impact if he came out with a half-finished product, talked about what it “could be” and didn’t know how it worked. He knew his audience, he knew his product, and he knew how to talk about his product. Everything else fell into place.

© AIA New Hampshire