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The Diary of an Anonymous Academic # 9

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The ninth in a series about the unreported trials and tribulations from the frontline of architectural education. This week: the unit system

“I don’t know which one to choose” – student A

“Go for this unit, I heard his students always get the best grades.” – student B


I would like to welcome the newest member of our anonymous family, the anonymous student. The year has just begun and s/he is already dumbfounded by the organisation of the school and in particular ‘market day’. I can only sympathise.

Clearly the writer’s frustrations emanate towards a typical dysfunctional academic setting. You will have to take my word for it, but not all schools are like this.

Our anonymous friend does attempt to reflect on the motives for such an elitist pedagogic strategy such as market day; “What if it’s their perfectly well-thought-out plan to test us and push our boundaries, with a hope of making us more likely to succeed in large practices full of egotistical creatures?”

The unit system is the single most influential element of architectural education

The writer may not realise it, but s/he is closer to the truth than the sarcasm might suggest. The Unit system (and the selection process for it) is the single most influential element of architectural education that affects our profession today – perhaps even more so than the criteria set out by RIBA/ARB.

Charles Walker provides a usefully succinct account on the history of studio-units in his essay Phenomenal Pedagogyin Making Pavilions (ed. C. Walker, M.Self, 2010, AA Press).

The unit system owes itself to the legacy of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts model of architectural pedagogy where design competitions (concours) would run alongside public lectures. Students would coordinate their efforts into ateliers to give themselves the best chance to progress to the more established concours – leading all the way up to the Prix de Rome.

Iterations of this teaching model eventually morphed to the establishment of the unit studios at the AA in the 1970s by Alvin Boyarsky. This evolved pedagogic strategy required an informal agreement between the student and tutor to follow the latter’s particular approach to a unique design problem (Walker, 2010).

Coincidently, Walker was also at the centre of a student rebellion as he took up his new post at the RCA. Even though it made the headlines quite a few months ago, I felt for him. Students were not happy with his suggestion to remove the unit-studio system (and that theory is dead). When asked why, apparently, students claimed  ‘he couldn’t back up what he was saying’.

My feeling as a fellow academic is that he probably felt like he didn’t need to answer to such criticism. He answers these questions quite convincingly in the aforementioned essay. Perhaps students should read up on these things before making such accusatory statements.

So what are the issues with a unit system? Firstly, it has to be pointed out that units often gets the most creative, dynamic work from the students. The system manages this by getting tutors to act competitively between units in a similar manner to the Beaux-Art ateliers. However, the tutors transfer this competitiveness to students as fear – fear of failure, fear of moving away from the doctrine set out by the tutor.

Tutors transfer this competitiveness to students as fear

Students are aware the tutors will be marking their work and so therefore are cornered to follow the unit’s philosophy even if they begin to question it after an initial period of inquiry. For example, there are some stories of tutors insisting on a specific paper stock to print final drawings on. God forbid, if say, students decide to think for themselves and chooses another type of paper.

This leads to one of the major concerns of the unit system. Students are more often placed in the hands of tutors - and not academics. There is a difference.

I am conscious not to generalise all visiting tutors but many do not fully appreciate (or follow) a fair marking procedure, assessment criteria or pedagogic strategy to enhance a student’s learning. Mainly because they may not be aware of what such strategies may be. Even the most experienced tutor can use bad pedagogic practice without realising it.

Without proper monitoring, unit tutors can be left to set their own assessment methods. Hence the students must respond to the tutor’s approach – or else.

Even before the year starts, voting for your unit forces students to make an informed choice but one based on perhaps the location of their site visit or some other banal factor.

Just like any other election system, it can be vulnerable to interference. Then there is the social engineering that inevitably follows after all the votes have been collected and favouritism between tutors on student selection occurs often. The belief students have a ‘choice’ is somewhat misconceived.

The belief students have a ‘choice’ is somewhat misconceived

Moderating grades between units is always a revealing experience too. Competitiveness between unit tutors often turns into blindness; inflating marks so as not to seem they have failed themselves. Then it turns to arguments as they try to justify their student’s final grade.

The culture generated by the unit system remains with students beyond their education and leaves a traceable impact. It exceeds a healthy dose of competitiveness harbouring resentment and grudges which spills over into practice, contributing to the persistent egoism of architects thinking they are better than one another.

This is a cyclical process as once graduates return to tutor they adopt a teaching approach they once received themselves. Arrogance breeds arrogance.

One of the positives of a unit system is the ‘vertical’ mode where cohorts from two separate years are joined to work on similar projects. However, the emphasis of mentoring is not fully established as each cohort has different criteria to meet and therefore must achieve different outcomes. Rarely do the cohorts actually learn from each other in studio with any depth, it is more about just being there at the same time.

In fact, it just indoctrinates the younger cohort’s behavior further to follow their tutor’s doctrine as they see their peers doing the same.

Students tend to be isolated from other units – enforcing a sense of competitiveness (and fear) between them. The lack of cross-feeding means their work becomes acutely focused on one specific area – normally allegorical because they become immersed in their own constructed fictions.

This can only reinforce designs which are susceptible to iconism rather than a more open discussion

This can only reinforce designs, which are more geared towards individualism, and therefore susceptible to iconism rather than a more open discussion on the possibilities of what architecture as a discipline can achieve.

So what alternatives to the unit-studio system are there?

The most notable is a year-group structure, where academics and tutors work (and share) teaching responsibilities across an entire year cohort.

While they may all be working on a similar goal, the larger mass of students emphasise a common ground between all of them to embrace a collective and collaborative approach to learning and therefore design. One may argue creativity can be limited with a lack of varied project briefs.

From experience, the opposite occurs. Each student develops their own approach while maintaining an element of shared knowledge with their peers. Students are exposed to many more of their peers’ method of working, much more so than just containing them with their units.

In the year-group structure, assessment is more comparative between groups

As all students in the year follow the same criteria, assessment is more comparative between groups so tutors spend more time providing useful feedback rather than trying to over-intellectualise each other.

The biggest impact should be seen beyond graduation. Learning must consider the student’s attitude as well as their knowledge and design skill. Competitiveness is still present, but hopefully does not overstate the student’s achievements which can lead to egoism. Imagine what a design team meeting could be like if everybody liked us!

The generation of fear and individualism of the vertical unit system is the very same reason it creates such dynamic, fantastical and creative work

What we might find is that if we become too nice, people still might not take us seriously - but for very different reasons.

Alas, the success of the vertical unit system (even with all its failures) remains because the generation of fear and individualism is the very same reason it creates such dynamic, fantastical and creative work. This makes it far more exciting for tutors to teach, and for students to learn.

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