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School’s out: how are architecture students coping with coronavirus shutdowns?

Student graphic

Will Ing reports on how closing architecture schools at the most crucial part of the academic year is affecting students and what it could mean for their futures

Last month, the heads of architecture at the nearly 60 schools around the country received a letter from the ARB. 

With the country now in lockdown, the academics were already at home orchestrating online learning for the roughly 18,000 architecture students sent home as the coronavirus spread. 

The ARB was blunt: standards must not slip, not even a little bit, as a result of Covid-19. Any changes to courses would have to be justified later. 

Any gaps in learning caused by disruption would also have to be filled in. And the regulator would be asking for ‘information, assurances, and where appropriate, evidence’ that universities had complied with its instruction. 

Most architecture schools entered lockdown partially prepared, having spent a frenzied week readying themselves for pedagogic upheaval. 

Then buildings closed (though architecture workshops stayed open longer to allow models to be retrieved); students fled back to their parents; software companies doled out licenses for home working; and most people learned how to operate Microsoft Teams or Zoom. 

The new normal saw lecturers talking to webcams from their living rooms and tutors teaching via telephone or video link. 

But can schools really deliver the same quality of teaching without proper access to studios or to one another? 

My biggest issue is producing a portfolio of high-quality work that I can graduate with and be proud of when I am without resources

And how will students convey their true talents to examiners when their summer shows are cancelled and they’re barely allowed to leave the house? 

‘I don’t even have a proper table to work at,’ says Jessica Corelli, a third-year student at the University of East London. ‘I have to work on my living room floor to draw.

‘The biggest issue I am facing is my overwhelming worry about producing a portfolio of high-quality work that I can graduate with and be proud of, in a context where I am without resources such as workshops, libraries and face-to-face tutorials.’

Educators know the loss of workshops and studios is significant. The University of Bath’s head of architecture Alex Wright acknowledges that ‘studio teaching was a very big part of what students did, so remote working has thrown up all kinds of challenges – probably the main one is that we have had to close our 3D workshops.’ 

Empty studio

Empty studio

Studios go unused as students complete work on their bedroom floors

The Cass’s head of architecture, Christian Frost, agrees. ‘The biggest impact is the loss of the hands-on making side to architecture as a discipline,’ he says. ‘There is a lot of model-making that goes on in The Cass and it is a critical part of the design process.’ 

Pupils at both these universities and others the AJ spoke to are being encouraged to lean more heavily on CAD models to interrogate and represent their work.

But, as Wright acknowledges, ‘this is a different way of working to what some students are used to, which is quite heavily model based.’ 

Loss of studio space is not only about model-making. ‘I’m personally struggling with self-motivation,’ says Connie Latham, a Part 2 student at the University of Westminster. 

‘It’s a real struggle to keep the enthusiasm flowing, as you aren’t bouncing off your peers consistently. Working from home comes with a lot of distractions such as other family members or housemates struggling with their own anxieties.’ 

There hasn’t been any reduction in expected output – it’s difficult to maintain a workflow while spending 23 hours a day in a single room

Paul Daramola, a Part 2 student at the University of Cardiff, says peer reviewing is ‘far more challenging’ during a lockdown (see comment, below), adding that he now ‘mostly relies on individual judgement to progress work’.

He adds: ‘Talking through my models over a webcam doesn’t feel right, and sessions feel far less engaging in comparison to standing next to a meticulously curated pin-up wall.’ 

Some universities have implemented digital coffee breaks and hang-out periods to try and re-foster this cross-fertilisation. But though these might have pastoral value, they are an insipid imitation of studio interactions from a learning point of view. 

Other initiatives have emerged to try and get students talking about work again. The London Architecture Schools Collective (LASC) has set up a programme, which started last week, whereby students peer-review each other’s work. 

Groups of three or four, from different universities but with similar research interests, will meet from this week to talk about work. A chair from the LASC will also take part in the video calls ‘to help cut through any mild awkwardness in the online communications’.

Paul daramola desk

Paul daramola desk

Cardiff University student Paul Daramola is having to complete the year from his student flat

One shared frustration is how workloads have not changed in the face of the turmoil – meaning the quality of portfolios is likely to suffer. 

Given the ‘personal uncertainty’ caused by coronavirus, says Lucía Medina Uriarte, a second-year student at The Cass, ‘to be asked to keep performing as if nothing had happened is very challenging’. 

Tobias Pullen, a Part 2 at the University of Westminster, adds: ‘There hasn’t been any reduction in expected output, [and] it’s becoming difficult to maintain a workflow while spending 23 hours a day in a single room.’ 

Architecture schools, however, have limited power to move the goal posts for students.

The ARB has made it clear that any adjustments to architecture courses must meet six criteria, including being ‘demonstrably necessary because of the epidemic’, ‘proportionate’ and ‘made within the approval frameworks of existing institutional quality assurance processes’. 

One of the big worries students have is the end-of-year shows. They are a big motivator 

Frost at The Cass says students are being asked for the same work as before. ‘If we needed to change the criteria, [the changes] would have to go through emergency validation panels to makes sure they still meet ARB standards,’ he adds.

Universities are, however, able to move deadlines back to ease immediate pressures. For instance, Leeds Beckett University has given its students an extra four weeks on its original ‘submission and assessment deadlines’.

They can also moderate marks so that a similar number of students receive the top grade as in the year before – even if the collective quality of portfolios is worse. 

But the ARB is adamant that schools cannot moderate students over the line into a pass mark – even if they were on course for a pass before the disruption. 

It is understood that the RIBA, which validates the courses prescribed by the ARB, is supporting the regulator’s position – though it has not formally written to all the universities to say so.

For educators, mandatory home working is an experiment that could produce some interesting results for the future.

The University of Bath’s Wright believes there will ‘undoubtedly’ be ways in which the ‘big changes’ made in the past couple of weeks feed into normal practice in the future. 

This might be submitting work to tutors ahead of tutorials, or a focus on ‘blended learning’, with a mix of remote working and physical classes.

Virtual tutorial

Virtual tutorial

Lee Ivett of the University of Central Lancashire conducts an online tutorial

University of Plymouth senior lecturer Andy Humphreys also points out that as practice becomes more global and remote working becomes more normal, exposing students to collaborative work over video platforms will help them be more rounded. 

But Alan Dunlop, a visiting architecture professor at a handful of universities, believes ‘remote learning and teaching for architecture is unworkable, in the long term’.

Dunlop insists students work together in a studio ‘so they can spark off each other’ adding: ‘Only so much can be gathered from limited interaction and remote learning.’ 

Studio time is not the only thing students are missing out on. ‘One of the big worries students have is the end-of-year shows,’ says Frost. ‘They are a big motivator.’ He adds: ‘It’s a difficult one.We do not know how or when [the government’s restrictions] will end but we will do our utmost to make something physical, we just don’t know how yet.’ 

The Royal College of Art (RCA) has taken a different approach to other universities, deciding to continue with shows in virtual form – but has suffered a backlash with more than 4,500 people signing a petition that called for the programmes to be postponed. 

‘As students we take pride in showcasing our work,’ explains Shawn Adams, an RCA Part 2 architecture student. ‘To have the end-of-year show downgraded to a meagre virtual exhibition, as opposed to postponing it, has left many of us disgruntled.’

While the loss of a summer show is galling, looking beyond is even worse. Some students will be unable to finish their degrees until autumn at the earliest. 

‘We have no exams apart from Part 3,’ says Frost of The Cass, ‘but the next Part 3 exams scheduled in June will probably be delayed until September, when everyone is expecting things to be open again.’ 

It’s no secret that staff are being laid off, and if staff are being laid off there are fewer jobs out there

Even when students do finish, they face an industry in crisis. 

Westminster student Latham says she is worried about having to return to university in September to finish her degree. But she is equally worried that she ‘may struggle to find a job in the summer months within the architectural profession, or even in general due to the economy’.

Other students echoed her fear that a major recession would mean that just as they graduate after years of hard study, architecture practices will not be recruiting. 

Teachers can hardly reassure them. ‘It’s no secret that staff are being laid off, and if staff are being laid off there are fewer jobs out there,’ says Frost. 

Wright, at Bath, says his architecture school is ‘telling students to focus on their work because by the time graduation comes around, the situation might look different to what it is now.’

Meanwhile some students believe they should be compensated for their loss. 

‘It cannot be ignored that students did not pay tens of thousands of pounds to have an entire term taught remotely,’ says Adams.

‘We already pay extortionately high tuition fees, so if a university cannot provide the experience they promised, then students should be compensated.’

Other students say they have lost part-time table-waiting jobs or zero-hours contracts at university workshops as a result of lockdown but still have to pay the same rent. A small refund could make a lot of difference to these students. 

But others accept that Covid-19 is a freak incident, and that their tutors are still working full time to try and maintain the quality of education. 

Uriarte, at The Cass, says she does not expect fees back but ‘especially hopes a portion of [the fees] is being used to pay the staff members who keep the building running throughout the year.’ 

Whether or not students should be entitled to a partial refund, the money is ultimately incapable of compensating them for what they have lost. 

Students cannot spend their summer term working in the studio. Summer shows are gone. Portfolios, realistically, will suffer. And many students will have to return to finish degrees. 

But the biggest loss could be yet to come. Is the architecture industry big enough to absorb all the new graduates at a time when studios are slashing hours, laying off staff and getting used to a shortage of work?

Paul daramola bw

Part 2 view: Paul Daramola

Student at the University of Cardiff 

Moving away from family and friends in London to study a master’s in architecture at Cardiff has been tough in itself, but now the Covid-19 pandemic brings new physical and mental challenges. 

My university has closed, which means limited access to facilities. Peer review is far more challenging and I’m now mostly having to rely on my individual judgement to progress my work. 

Deadlines have been pushed forward and tutorials are now uncomfortably online. Group sessions have been reduced to one-to-one sessions over Skype due to internet connectivity issues. 

Talking through my models over a webcam doesn’t feel right; sessions feel far less engaging when compared to standing next to a meticulously curated pin-up wall. I think the biggest challenge will be how I present my work for the final examination.

The need to self-isolate makes me feel lonelier as my international friends have returned to their home countries

I’ve also been living a fairly isolated life. As a BAME student at a regional city university, one of the major difficulties I’ve faced is finding people who I can relate to. 

I was not used to the lack of diversity at Cardiff, so I naturally gravitated toward international students on my course. The city also seems a lot less multicultural; the BAME community feels very sparse, to say the least. The difference is staggering as I didn’t realise how much I had to rely on support as a minority student. Sadly, the Covid-19 pandemic and the need to self-isolate makes me feel lonelier – as my international friends have returned to their home countries.

I am, however, trying to see the positive in this situation. I will take every day as it comes and try to stay motivated even through these testing times. My new goal is to learn how to represent my work through other means, like animation and film, and working on an online drive could help me share my work easily and remotely.

Laura hill bw

Part 3 view: Laura Hill

Student at University of the West of England (UWE) 

Unfortunately, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the university took the decision to cancel my upcoming Part 3 submission and subsequent interview (in April and May respectively). 

Given the scale of the pandemic, I know this was the right thing to do. Although disappointing, it is a poignant reminder there are much more important things at this time of crisis, and those should be the focus for now. 

The university hopes we will be able to complete the final stages of the qualification process at the end of the year.

The university is, overall, managing the crisis well. The campus buildings are now closed to students, and the conference centre is to become a temporary hospital. 

My tutors were initially frustrated that the Part 3 course was temporarily halted, but it is beyond anyone’s control at this point and they have been incredibly supportive. The shutdown mostly impacts those in the final years of their Part 1 and Part 2 studies, whereas I am now almost at the end of the course, so I only need one further tutorial, which can be easily completed over the phone.

Similarly, my employer, Buckley Gray Yeoman, was quick to respond. At the practice’s Bath studio where I work, all my colleagues have the software and procedures in place to work from home using video calls to conduct meetings. 

I do feel for those on the Part 1 and Part 2 courses, who have lost out on much valuable academic contact time

We still have office-wide meetings such as Wednesday cake day and Friday drinks via a collective video call, which provides welcome social interaction with colleagues.

Financially, I’ve not yet been affected but I expect the economic impact of the lockdown to come later. I’m trying to prepare for this the best I can. I do not expect any fees back from the university for the Part 3 course as it will still go ahead – eventually. Again, I do feel for those on the Part 1 and Part 2 courses, who I can imagine have lost out on much valuable academic contact time.

By waiting to complete my Part 3 accreditation, I will formally qualify as an architect later than intended, which will affect my career progression in the medium term at least. 

I hope this delay will only last another eight months, though we have no way of knowing how long this will be. We can only remain hopeful that the situation resolves quickly with minimal disruption.

Lee ivett bw

Tutor’s view: Lee Ivett

Director of Baxendale Studio and leader of Part 1 architecture course at Grenfell-Baines Institute of Architecture, University of Central Lancashire  

The first challenge of moving to a virtual learning environment was addressing the lack of access to the shared resources and equipment. Some of our students don’t have their own computers or a Wi-Fi connection, so a huge effort was made by the University of Central Lancashire to purchase and allocate laptops, software and dongles to those who needed them. 

Once they were fully equipped, I have been encouraging our students to really connect with the joy that comes with being creative rather than feel anxious about what they can and cannot do. It’s not about producing lots of work because it is demanded; it’s about trying to find activities and moments when we can connect with ourself and with each other through the agency and artistry we can still enact. 

Making images and objects is truly delightful, and the ability and opportunity to do so is a privilege that, even in these strange and surreal times, we can still engage with. It is also an opportunity to develop the adaptability, initiative, agility and resilience that will be needed if architecture is to remain vital and relevant in the type of world that emerges post Covid-19.

The move to virtual teaching has made it easier to engage a diverse range of guest reviewers

The key event for us over the past week was our interim review. It would have been easy to have cancelled but, with it being the last day before Easter break, it was important to create a sense of occasion and an opportunity for the students to see and engage with each other’s work. 

It was also an opportunity to bring fresh voices into the discussion. In many ways, the move to virtual teaching has made it easier to engage a diverse range of guest reviewers; they don’t need to travel and their diaries have become more flexible. 

On Friday, myself and professor Adrian Friend were joined by students from our Part 2 programme as well as industry experts Zoë Berman, Eddie Blake, Will Gowland and Laura Mark for a day that also included a lunchtime talk and tour of Peter Salter’s Walmer Yard. 

Zoë and I have both been participating in Laura’s virtual unit, which is quickly becoming an essential time in my week to reach out beyond my own work and connect with others. One of the key areas of discussion from last week’s virtual unit was how to be useful in a situation of confinement. How could students help and contribute during the current crisis? 

I think rather than worrying about ‘saving the world’ we should all think deeply and creatively about what we have true and immediate agency over and what we can impact within our immediacy. 

Think about creating the best version of the space in which you’re being forced to occupy; think about who you can help within your own home and across the street; think about how you can still connect meaningfully with people whether there’s 2m between you or an entire continent. It might be that the most useful thing you can do today is make someone else in your house a cup of tea and remind someone you know that they’re not forgotten.


Readers' comments (5)

  • ARB & RIBA need to act on University course assessment criteria in response to the Covid19 crisis, as this seems irresponsible.

    It should be recognised that endeavouring to sustain the pre-determined fixed criteria in this context is likely untenable. The expectations being placed on students, staff and universities, driven by fixed assessment criteria, has many consequences. Universities have different student intakes, with some students better capable of addressing this hiatus than others, both materially and mentally, while course structures, their resourcing & capacity for online education are also likely different. Foreign students who have remained in the UK, may be particularly distressed while those with less access to digital resources will likely be disadvantaged, and courses emphasising material outputs will be disadvantaged.

    It might seem that, in this context, derogating responsibility to Schools of Architecture to determine the best possible outputs achievable in the context and to their estimations of timescale, could be the best way forward, on the basis of their own expertise.

    ARB & RIBA should respond constructively and flexibly to reduce the burden of current expectations, designed for a different world.

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  • Architecture has an unequivocal social aspect, it can't be taught by rote. The subject demands critical engagement, one to one tutor teaching, group and peer review and collective participation. That's how students in architecture learn and that's why I insist my students work together in the studio. Only so much can be gathered from limited interaction and through remote learning.

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  • One of the worries that students might be having at the moment and one that is not stated here is the foreign students' difficulty to find a job within the 3 months visa allowance after the graduation. Finding a job when the industry is in recession is a challenge for every graduate. But doing that with a time bomb ticking every minute is immensely stressful on another level. There is no time for foreign students to wait until the industry recovers because we need to pack everything and leave if the visa expires before that.

    Last September. the government has announced the 2-year visa extension for foreign students to help them start their career after graduation, but this starts only from next year. The graduates of this year are excluded from this opportunity. After spending 5 years of education completing Part 1 and Part 2, the time that I am given to decide whether I can continue Part 3 or not is 3 months, with the pandemic in mind.

    International students make up a large portion of student population in the UK. International school fees is still higher when the education has turned digital. But what we get after graduation is an uncertainty with a time bomb.

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  • This should spell the end of the profession in its current antiquated form, with Victorian competitions and Dickensian sweatshops exploiting young talent. The ARB review is welcome and long overdue. The crit system is subjective and allows megalomaniac and crusty old patricians to force their will on naive young minds. New models are imperative post-Grenfell, which requires a firmer explicit knowledge base, encompassing fire safety, law and sustainability. This could require splits between technical and aesthetic branches of the profession, as on the Continent.

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  • Angela Brady

    Students - we are thinking about you in these extraordinary times. This situation will pass and things will get better. Do lots of hand drawing and sketches for your portfolios it's good to build that up. ARB and RIBA as Walter mentions about, need to be very flexible and accept new ways of working assessing work. We are living in different times and must encourage you wonderful students. Do joint reviews on zoom with lots of your colleagues to encourage each other. Make sure all you students are in contact with each other as mental health issues are exacerbated in isolation. A friendly face or call on social media helps. Suggest new ways of working to your tutors and universities. Ask our profession for help with your reviews on line. You can postpone your end of year shows to suit yourselves and the times we are in - so if they are at Xmas then they will be celebrated well then.
    Keep up your enthusiasm for our great profession- you are all needed more than ever and with our laterial thinking and creative minds we can put them to good use now. Good luck with your projects.

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