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The Diary of an Anonymous Academic #5

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The fifth in a series about the unreported trials and tribulations from the frontline of architectural education. This week: Summer Shows

Student: ‘Do you know where my work is exhibited?’

Tutor: ‘It wasn’t selected.’

Student: “So why the hell am I here?”

- a conversation on the opening night of the summer show.

The studios still have a selection of work on show but it’s not pretty. After all the end of year excitement, nobody comes in to take the work down. Gravity and the summer heat play its part in reducing the hung work to scrappy piles of paper and plywood on the floor.

It remains like this for most of the summer as a reminder of the event. To me, it illustrates the absurdity of how much time, effort and money is spent on what is just one night of celebration.

With such effort, you often ask yourself ‘Is it worth it?

An end of year show seems like a natural occurrence since the majority of schools of architecture are located within faculties of art and design. The shows owe this annual ritual to the legacy of fine art exhibition that played a part in the assessment for graduating students.

To them, the work on show represents art as a discipline that has a constant relationship with the gallery it is exhibited in. The work does not necessarily reflect the quality of space but is more about the introverted process they undertake within the same exhibition environment.

This cannot be applied to the subject of architecture. It would be a disservice to the discipline to assess students on their final exhibition since, by the very nature of the work, the final outcome is responsive to a multitude of complex artistic, technological and cultural layers. The assessment needs more rigour than a show piece – meaning the exhibition at the end of year stands as an isolated event that is not part of the learning process. Therefore, it overlooks the need to follow fundamental curatorial principles that any professional exhibition should follow.

Having said that, it doesn’t take much to put on a good one; less is more, shock and awe (to the eyes), ad-hoc rather than high craft, clear and consistent typefaces, and lots and lots of alcohol. No matter how good the work is, running out of alcohol can ruin the mood of the night. Such a small detail can bring on bad gossip the following day.

The quality of what’s on show seems insignificant

In fact, if you know how to put on a good party, then the generated hype takes care of everything else – the quality of what’s on show seems insignificant. I have spent many a show with my beer-goggles on, dramatically improving the work on display.

You do get a thrill in the build-up to the opening night. Part of your job is to give students a feeling of self-worth. This is a perfect opportunity to do so. The end of year show is projected as an important event, even if nothing much rests on it.

But its purpose is confused by different tutor/student perspectives; tutors are determined to make sure their area looks the best; students are aware of the imminent need to find work. But a recruitment fair it is not and it should not be treated as such.

In the context of a show, the upper hand lies with the scouts, able to haggle for the best (salary) deal as the student feels the pressure of getting something out of the degree – a job. This year a student came running to me during the opening night, asking what he should do after receiving two job offers. Another student was upset because the director was disinterested. I question whether the fruits of a student’s (three year) labour need to bloom so immediately.

A job interview must have a bilateral dynamic with the interviewee able to decide, based on mutual agreement, whether it is right role for them as much as for the company.

Even in difficult times, I persist in advising students to take their time to find the right job – as much as their financial stability allows.

Lucky for those who do find a job there and then, but for the majority of students it is an illusion. But we don’t want to burst their bubble. We let them maintain hope to provide us with some leverage because you would be surprised how much apathy there is amongst students – even for something as important as the end of year show. It is difficult enough to get them to hang their work with care. We need to use all the incentives we can get to get them to do it right.

In the face of such apathy, you still need to put your frustrations to one side and step in to make sure it is done right. Everyone reaps the rewards of a good show – job or no job – because all the journals in subsequent weeks will have review after review, and so it does have an impact on reputation. You want to create and maintain one that speaks of creativity, progression and confidence. 

General impressions on the state of education are made, at a whim, on the basis of such reputations. Even the most experienced of editors make naive assumptions – partly because we can only comprehend academia at face value - the pedagogic process of an education in architecture just does not make an interesting news story. 

But there is something more concerning than a bad review… even with all that effort involved, it doesn’t guarantee your school will get featured. There is a tendency to focus the annual reviews on the same schools every year, schools that have a recognisable dynamism presented in a viscerally engaging way. There’s nothing wrong with this, but there are several other schools with equally valid and interesting philosophies that do not get noticed and, in this world, no news is really worse than bad news.

Scoping around some of these ‘hidden’ schools may provide a fairer depiction of the (educational) landscape. So, this summer, I will be searching for some journalists while my students will be searching for jobs.

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