Melbourne School of Death

19 July 2016

The Melbourne School of Design (MSD) building may be an undeniably beautiful edifice, yet it is also full of mystery. It is home to the latest technology – 3D printers, robot arms and hanging rooms – but what is it like being an Architecture student? What is endured by students in their quest to obtain a degree?

You may have noticed students walking around ‘zombie-like’, carrying intricate, weird and wonderful models and rolls of paper under their arms. Or you may have ventured inside for a gallery opening or exhibition.

As an Architecture student, I’ve seen what lies beyond the perforated screens and sliding glass doors. Students dedicate every waking second to their design projects – creating not just a piece of work but more so their identity as designers.

Students work around the clock, barely getting any sleep for weeks or months as they attempt to keep up with their final submissions and simultaneously produce work they are proud to put their name to.

At the end of the semester, students present their final designs. The culmination of hundreds of hours of work and sleepless nights is presented in five-to-ten minutes to faculty staff, a panel of guest critics and their peers. What happens in this short but significant examination forms a large part of the student’s professional identity. It is also where contentions within the architecture teaching environment lie.

During the feedback session, students may be put down as designers, insulted for their work and personally attacked. On a given day, a student might be told by a guest critic “you will never be an architect” or “this is not even good enough for first year let alone fourth year work”.

Ask any Architecture student and they will be able to tell you these stories. If it hasn’t happened to them personally, they have definitely seen it happen to their friends. Melbourne graduate Petar Petrov believes guest critics have little to offer students because of their lack of involvement in the project over the course of the semester. He says “they spend time trying to derive why and how design decisions were made, when the tutor who has been involved with the project can really provide insight in what to improve”.

Architecture graduate Eliza Tieman agrees, observing that despite their experience, industry professionals face enormous pressures to quickly understand and respond to the project. She says critics “struggled to engage with the presentations, not really understanding the objectives of the studio”.

As a result, a long standing pedagogical culture pervades worldwide; a ‘toughen up’ teaching approach. It is for this reason that final presentations have been described by students as ‘attacks on prey’, ‘funeral parades’ or anything in between.

Despite a world class building, the teaching environment needs to transform. The faculty should educate their guests and teachers on how to give effective feedback that is focused, helpful and not damaging.

Current student Bhargav Sridhar sees the occurrences as representative of an overly critical design community where all built works are scrutinised from within the industry. Nevertheless, he believes “humiliation is not the answer… the culture of ‘weeding out the weak’ is not one that shows architecture and architects in the best light”.

I spoke to MSD faculty member Professor Donald Bates to talk about the critics. He understands students’ experiences are not always positive but concedes most feedback they receive is.

“Final presentations are an opportunity for students to actively engage with the critics. It is much more involved and participatory than an exam,” he says.  

The faculty says the final presentations are an integral part of the student learning experience but at this stage they do not have a method for receiving formal feedback, as Student Experience Surveys (SES) occur prior to the final presentations.

While Bates believes excluding presentations from the SES is an issue, he doesn’t want to overregulate the system as “architectural education operates in a fluid manner”. He says ultimately the responsibility falls on the individual studio leaders.

“It is the role of the studio leader to decide who is on the panel, clarify what the focus of the studio was… and [if a negative situation arises] pull them aside and speak to them.”

The experience of being a design student can be daunting yet also highly rewarding. In my experience, presenting to a panel of external experts can be invaluable; most of the staff provide an environment that encourages learning and empowers students with skills and professional identities.

Student growth needs to underpin the purpose of the presentations. As students in the faculty seek to develop skills for improving the built environment, teachers and industry professionals should provide feedback to actively facilitate this goal.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *