Toxic Patterns in Architecture School That Need to Stop

This week is a bit of a different one. This blog post is the outcome of a drop-in audio event held over on our Discord channel. Similar to the recently popular app, Clubhouse, we were able to engage with members of the archi-community and talk about something close to everyone’s hearts – the architectural education system and toxic patterns we see often.

The following article has been edited to include the viewpoints and discussions from the audio event and where possible, we have highlighted and included the names of each speaker. The initial topic of discussion was ‘What is toxic behaviour?’ and ‘What kinds of toxic behaviours have you experienced at architecture school?’.

The participants had various experiences and backgrounds such as a Part 1 Architectural Assistant, a BArch student who is also working, an Architectural Apprentice and a Master’s student. We aimed to understand some of the commonalities and personal experiences from our distinct backgrounds and have an honest chat about how we think education is headed.

Thank you to Aimie Cheetham, Grant Morris, Varun Hariprakash and Deanna Seymour for their insights and time as well as our listeners present in the background.

Where does the cycle of toxicity originate from?

man covering face with both hands while sitting on bench

In some universities, we see how all-nighters and working incredibly late is just a common attitude to the point where some students feel as though it is a badge of honour or something to be proud about. Now, if you generally work better later at night and can manage your work routine well then it’s fine but if this is something you are being pressured to do by tutors or peers, it can result in poor mental health going forward.

The constant nagging feeling of not having done enough is something all architecture students can relate to. This mindset and work ethic then gets translated into practice where some larger firms also implement overtime and ridiculous hours ‘because that’s the way the industry is’. But realistically and surely, good standards of work can come from being well-rested and actually enjoying the work you are doing?

This could either come from the way tutors, course leaders and practice directors have been educated therefore continuing the toxic circle of this type of culture that starts off the moment we step foot into university. Or, it may be an internal, self-confidence issue that is a result of silent imitation where we feel as if we are not doing as enough as the person next to us.

Universities also try to implement a model to copy the culture of other, well-known universities like the Bartlett who have built up a reputation for incredible work and projects with the caveat of a huge amount of stress and ‘hard work’. Obviously, each student’s experience at university differs so there is no way of knowing whether this is the case across all schools. But idolising negative traits will only result in poor relationships with students.

There are some changes coming to architectural education, notably being more apprenticeships that allow students to train and get a taste of practice as well as Collaborative Practice courses and placement years in some universities. Hopefully, this can help graduates who are entering an already difficult market and although larger firms may seem like an obvious choice or goal, it is most often these very practices that promote an unhealthy work culture and are the culprits behind unpaid internships.

What is our time worth?

Architecture students have multiple things on their plate at one time alone and time-management or organisation ends up taking a back seat because if we aren’t working on our design project, we’re researching for our thesis or building a model or taking photographs – it’s a race of who can fit in the most in a term. Toxic, right?

Not only do we have to worry about managing all these things but there are external factors that we worry about too, financially and personally. Thinking about student debt or having a part-time job can make the university experience rather poor. By the end of my masters, I’ll have stress about paying off my debt and it stays in the back of my mind at all times. [Varun] It’s a common trope that architecture students only ever hang out with other architecture students – mainly because that’s who we spend all our time with!

But this issue of time-management is only heightened once we get into practice. There is a certain disconnect between the kind of work we do at university vs the ones we end up working on. THe starting salaries alone aren’t reflective of the long hours we put in or that we put in the equivalent amount of effort as an architect. But that is a discussion in itself. Something that we hope will change this attitude is the Open Letter by Future Architects Front to campaign for the end of unpaid work and to create a better dialogue between the next generation of architects and the governing bodies.

On the other hand, firms that invest in younger people whether they are apprenticeships or studying their Part 3 do understand your general workload and are sympathetic with what you can realistically achieve in practice. It seems as though younger practices are more flexible and are changing the way they work, giving priority to things outside of work. Hopefully, COVID can help people realise that you can work from home. [Aimie]

Competitive behaviour amongst peers

A competitive trait that often goes unnoticed is when you hear your friends say ‘I haven’t done anything at all this week’ and then go on to present in-depth research, a new prototype model and significant progress in their portfolio. This is eerily toxic. Maybe we all do it at some point, but it’s absolutely ridiculous that students end up being so cagey about their work or the kinds of resources they’ve used. Of course, this could be a result of not sharing your work with peers given the current circumstances where we have little to no contact with anyone apart from our tutors. Or it could even be an accidental or unintentional act from someone who may think their work is simply not good enough.

Perhaps this is the result of the lack of group working in some universities which is baffling, to say the least, because working in practice is all about teamwork and problem-solving with your peers. No one architect is solely responsible for their project so why is it that this way of working is not introduced to us at an earlier stage?

Unfortunately, we are also faced with some difficult areas to navigate such as with tutors. Particularly those who feel as if our projects are theirs and we aren’t able to have the final say because if we go against their recommendation we’d probably not be as popular as those who go with everything they tell us to do.

There is a dichotomy between finding your own style but I think your tutors push you in a certain direction. Struggling between finding the balance between what I want to do and what the tutors want to see. At the end of the day, the tutors are the ones marking it. [Grant] In some cases, there may also be silent discrimination or favouritism for international students who aren’t always able to build the same rapport and understanding as local ones due to language barriers creating a rather toxic environment.

Obviously a little bit of competition is great for all of us but these are communal learning environments. It has got to the point where studios don’t share tips or resources with other studios as they are pitted against each other. I even know of one guy who didn’t even tell his girlfriend of a resource (something like digimaps) because he wanted to keep it to himself. I believe education should be free and accessible to all, especially in the built environment. Knowledge is the way forward! I’ve definitely seen things differently at different universities and from bachelors to masters though. [Deanna Louise Seymour]

Takeaways

Although we have recognised these issues, there are many people out there who may feel that these are trivial and non-existent. But if we can call out toxic behaviour as it happens, start to pave our own way to becoming architects who are able to work together and design for the future, it’s better than nothing.

We obviously need to be working towards being more open and sharing the difficult aspects of the industry, keeping our mental health as the number one priority to creating a healthy life/work balance. This cycle of toxicity may be difficult to break but it can start with something as simple as saying no to all-nighters.

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