There is nothing architects like more than to grumble about the rarefied groves of academe. Architectural education is the punching bag of the profession, variously accused of being unfit for purpose, too whimsical, misaligned with practice etc. For the Architecture Foundation, this discourse is uninteresting, we believe British architectural education, while never perfect, gets a lot right and should be celebrated and criticised with generosity.
The crit, however, is an iconic moment of contention in the trajectory of all students and often a scene of high octane confrontations. It is architecture education at its rawest and least couched in wider university culture. When graduates recount their time as students, it is crits that seem to stick out for better, and often for worse.
In this small book we bring together six reflections on the crit as a format and phenomenon from veteran critics, current students, recent graduates and experienced teachers. We hope the mini polemics collected in Crit Critque will provide useful provocations, challenging our crit culture and its contested contribution to the discipline.
After traversing the emotional assault course of five years of student crits, the young architect is frequently more skilled in the art of advocacy than design. Jeremy Dixon once remarked on this imbalance with reference to Netherfield, the 1000-home estate in Milton Keynes, which he and a group of other recent AA graduates designed in the early seventies. Having battled the likes of Peter Cook and Cedric Price over years of AA juries, Dixon and his colleagues had developed Churchillian powers of persuasion and an adamantine carapace of self-belief. The only problem - as soon became clear once Netherfield was built - was that their design proved a technical and urbanistic calamity.
But if the skills that the aspiring architect acquires through subjecting their projects to public review are not without danger, the expectation that they should articulate and defend their work remains sound. As Adolf Loos wrote: “Good architecture can be described. It doesn’t have to be drawn. The Pantheon can be described. Secessionist buildings cannot.” The student’s readiness to abandon the comforts of the privately-nurtured drawing and engage others in dialogue represents a vital first step in situating their work within the collective project of the city.
Certain critics relish the public and adversarial nature of the exercise more than others. Isi Metzstein concluded one presentation at the University of Edinburgh with the words: “You’re crying? I’m the Head of School, I should be crying!” Kevin Rhowbotham secured a life-time ban from the Royal College of Art after reducing a fellow juror to tears. A Facebook site collates Valerio Olgiati’s withering put-downs. Many are blackly entertaining but one can’t help thinking about the young, and often female, person on the receiving end. Whatever other lessons a student crit imparts, one that seems inextricably bound up with the format is the injunction to “man up”.