Wednesday, October 14, 2009

63. What is important in STARchitecture school (part 1)

Star⋅chi⋅tec⋅ture School stär'kĭ-těk'chər skool


  1. Architecture schools that build their attractiveness, competitiveness or status on the accomplishments & reputation of their starcitecture faculty.

  2. architecture schools that grooms students to become "starchitects"

  3. architecture schools that mimics the teaching practices of starchitecture schools.
When I found myself subtracting or adding columns because it made my rendering look better, then I knew I was in a starchitecture school.

Below are samplings of diploma projects selected from two different schools. As you look at them consider the following questions:

Which ones would you rather live or work in?
Which ones would you choose as the location for an exciting movie or video game?



SAMPLE SET A is from Diploma Unit 20 run by Professors Shaun Murray and Marjan Colletti at The Bartlett School in London. One can safely describe this studio if not the entire Bartlett as an architecture school that mimics the teaching practices of starchitecture schools.

SAMPLE SET B is from a Thesis Course run by Professor Lance J. Brown at The City College of New York. Opposed to The Bartlett, The City Collage does not seem to fit the profile of a starchitecture school.

The projects in both sets lack to varying degrees some credibility as a project that is possible to realize. Obviously one much more than the other.

The is because most architecture schools are not set up to teach you how to design a building.
In fact, The point of architecture school is NOT to teach you how to design a building.
Let me say that again.

The point of architecture school is NOT to teach you how to design a building.

Take a moment and meditate on that.

If you want to learn how to design a building you should go and apprentice for an architect or a builder under no false pretense.

Then what's the point of architecture school you ask?

The short answer is that it has many points depending on the school that you go to.

For example most schools share some of these objectives:

  • How to challenge the boundaries of conventional practice

  • How to communicate ideas through drawing, model making, writing and speaking

  • To be socially and ethically engaged in society (a few will do this)

  • To expose students to the creative and technical aspects of architecture

  • To equip you with the knowledge required for making architecture

  • How to be critical of current practice

  • To bring you abreast with the prevailing issues in current practice

  • To give you the scholarship to define architecture on your own terms

  • To give you a rough understanding of building construction and design

and if you are lucky, you might also learn

  • How to understand & appreciate good craftsmanship in building

  • or something about building construction methods

You will find some of these same objectives in starchitecture schools but what makes them stand apart from other architecture schools is that they prioritize one objective over all others:

  • How to create projects that have high entertainment value.
That is, projects that are entertaining to look at (as the images from Bartlett studio above) or entertaining to discuss (because of the ideas that they investigate), or a mixture of the two. These projects aim to stimulate us in a certain way, to make us curious, or interested, because it is new or we have never seen something like that before.


Because of this emphasis, there is little time left to actually learn about designing a building. Creating entertaining images takes enormous amounts of time and energy, time taken away from seriously engaging in an investigation of your building's craftsmanship, construction methods, or its social or economic viability. God forbid any talk about end-user satisfaction, even plain old common sense is sent to the side lines. These are not so important in the big picture as far as starchitecture schools are concerned. Projects in such schools only need to demonstrate the remote possibility of being credible in the real world that you and I live in. The possibility that just maybe it can withstand the force of gravity, that maybe there is some kind of material on this planet that can do the things you show it doing in your project or perhaps it might be able to keep us relatively dry and warm in tumultuous weather. The term "suspension of disbelief" comes to mind.

I have seen many students walk through the doors of starchitecture school with earnest minds wanting to learn how to design a building. Their attempts at rigor by questioning the viability of their high entertainment value projects in the real world are met with explanations that are lacking in reason, smoothly buttered in archispeak and delicately glazed in the finest snake oil possible.

The ones who quickly realizes that it is not about learning to design buildings and that it is about creating an entertaining project wins the cake. And when I say they win the cake, I mean they win the cake with a capital C. You will get extended one-on-one desk crits with the starchitect or star-minded professor(s) who will design your project with or for you. They will have you make your project based on their own pre-formulated theory and convince you that it really came from you. They will tell you which projects to "reference" and which magazines to find them in. They will help you pick out a sky for your rendering and show you how to tweak the elements in the foreground and background to create depth in your image. They will even advise you on which font to use on your poster. When your project is done, you will get the VIP spot on the wall to hang their/your work and a hearty pat on the back for a job well done. The ones who don't get it are sent packing like a fired Donald Trump apprentice.

Starchitecture teaching methodology focuses on having students create projects based on said professors latest theories that he/she is very excited about. If it seam rolls your education in the process, well so be it. If you demonstrate independent thinking or fail to fall in line behind such theories, prepare to be ignored, disowned or snubbed. Remember your job is to provide fantastic images in the form of a project that celebrates your professors latest theories. How well your project flies is directly connected to starchitect-professor's ego and self worth. It can be extremely stressful, not to mention embarrassing for him/her to invite his colleagues over for a jury to show off his latest ideas....ahem... I mean your project, and have you make a mockery of it.

A major point of STARchitecture school is
to make your professor look good when he/she
brings their coleagues over to see their/your work.

If you are a very successful starchitecture student, not only will you have learned to fall in line, you will have learned to research all your professors projects before-hand. You will not only know what kind of rendering style he likes, you will know how to mimic them as well. When your starchitecture professor brings over his black cloaked star-minded friends for a crit, he will proudly point to your project on the wall and say "Isn't it amazing?" and they will say "yeaaas that's very interesteeeeng" and then another will say "its rear to see a work with such originality and passion". They also love to say stuff like "oh, you have captured the essence of ....bla, bla, bla." At this point try to remain humble. Your clueless classmates are probably scratching their heads and foaming at the mouth at how they managed to look past the gaping holes in your projects plausibility (especially when they were grilled on every undotted "i" and uncrossed "t" in their crits). Don't get me wrong, these guys are capable of criticizing the project of the starchitect's prodigy. They might say "Oh just one minor thing though, I would have liked to see some more orange from the sunset peaking out from behind the building in that image." "yeaaas, yeaaas, that would have nailed it" the others might confirm.

By the time you finish starchitecture school, you should have a portfolio of very interesting and entertaining looking projects thats kind of credible. Don't worry about credibility, a good starchitecture firm will overlook this "hey this is a school project you don't have to worry so much about reality, it is about communicating your vision"

When you bring this to a starchitectre firm, it will remind him of himself as a young man. He will say "wow this kid has passion, he has got imagination, he can render, he has a good eye, he works with photoshop well, he knows about graphic design, he can put a compelling image together. You are hired!"

So why did he hire you when he knows very well that you don't know how to design a building?

Because you are not hired to design buildings stupid! you are hired to provide fantastic images that celebrates your employer's projects, to make good images for the media. You are the office's latest graphics plug-in.

Inside the starchitecture firm you will meet some architects who think about issues like rain, and light, and circulation, and fire safety, and how the components of the building fit together, and such. No it gets even crazier... are you ready for this? They love this stuff. They find it very exciting. They can talk for hours on end about building joints and details. They don't care about poster fonts, or archispeak or what kind of sky, or foreground or background is used in an image. They understand architecture through the notations of plans, sections & elevations. They can imagine how a building looks without the aid of a rendering. Thats right! no renderings. Imagine that. They have no other agenda but to design a functioning building that is well made and pleasant to be in. You will find a few of them in Starchitecture firms.

Say hello to these dullards, they are the people who will teach you how to design a building and make an architect out of you. If they are like any other architects I know in this position (resigned to teaching architecture 101 while trying to deliver a project), they are grumpy as all hell. They will snap at you for not knowing what V.I.F. means on a construction document or for not knowing something that they deem "basic-shit-that-every-dumb-ass-should-know" (what ever that is for them that morning). But never mind, just suck it up, what does he know? He is just an architect. He is no star. He respects plumbing diagrams and toilet bowl specifications, not magazine covers. He will never be famous for anything. Who ever gets famous for designing a building that is just good to live or work in. Ever heard of a reporter asking to publish your building because it performed well under fire. He will never even raise his head from the murky depth of obscurity, not even for 15 minutes. You've got your priorities straight and you are on your way to becoming a Star.

Conrad Newel

Liberating Minds Since August 2007

64. What is important in STARchitecture school (part 2)


Frank Murray said...

Dear Conrad,

Nice one. See this article on the Bartlett on Times Online. It resonates with some of what you are saying here.

Enoch said...

Awesome...! You nailed it! :)

Anonymous said...

You know, not everyone from the Bartlett can be so easily categorized. It really just comes across as a little bigoted. There really are some who know how to design great buildings, which are not only attractive but also truly function, because they know how to do the typical Bartlett beautiful shit but combine it with intelligent design, merging all the things you claim only "architects" can do. I think its those guys that your mediocrity should be afraid of.

Anonymous said...

I think that it should be made clear that most Bartlett students can do all the rudimentary tasks that you speak of "architects" doing. They are not difficult. Rather than writing an intelligent comparison or analysis, you seem to have only written an article illustrating, perhaps, the mild inferiority you feel. I have not even studied at the Bartlett, and I can clearly see that. Perhaps you should just accept that architecture schools do things differently. Some are creative, others not. Why is the creativity of the Bartlett such a problem for you, you dont have to go and study there. What I find interesting however is that you never find Bartlett or other "creative" students attacking the more plain and normal design schools. I'd be suprised if you even allow this to be shown on your blog, as i know you have to approve this.

Don said...

Dear Anonymous-defender(s)-of-the-Bartlett,

Thanks for being a good sport and commenting here. Please see my reply in the next post



Anonymous said...

I have had so much fun reading your 2 posts for Starchitecture School. Everything you have said, you have captured the essence of studying process in almost every architectural school for this past 10years. I can’t stop laughing. BRAVOO!!!

Unknown said...

The sad part is that this is becoming more prevalent and is the way that EVERY NAAB accredited architecture School that I know of does things. No real knowledge is pursued and when I got to my first architecture job in a real architecture firm designing down to earth practical, functional and affordable designs the Architects said, "well we like you but we both know you know nothing about designing a real building." Then they showed me a plan set and specification manual and I I have never seen these things before. I felt betrayed by my school. The WORST thing about it is that I found out I only had a BS degree and had to go back to that shit to pay 75 grand for grad school. We NEED Architecture school reform!!!

Anonymous said...

I like this article. If I might make a comparison between Bartlet and Our Department of Architecture in a College down here in Africa, Your professors are pushing the limit, in design maybe, not architecture whilst ours just dont know how to teach Africa. If i can look for a famous African architect, i can barely name any...But the best advice i ever got was Blooms Taxonomy. Architecture is Process.

james said...

I have read your blog on “STARchitecture” Schools with great amusement (as I like your blog in general). I have studied at the Bartlett myself more than 10 years ago. I have to say, that you are right in many parts but I also know that now, 10 years down the line, many of my former classmates and also myself made quite a career for ourselves and many of us build functional and working buildings that are as innovative as they are well constructed. I guess that for all of us, the Bartlett was one of many hard reached stepping stone to our careers and even though our projects were extremely fantastic and completely speculative at the time, we all emerged into buildable architecture (which is actually much more difficult than any flashy project -> @ Anonymous), because among other things, we all have learned to think as architects. Among the many architecture schools I have seen from inside during the last twenty years, I have to say that especially the Bartlett is more about architecture than most conventional schools, even though it does not look like it at first glance. So I am not sure how to rate the so called "STARchitecture" schools as there is surely tons of bullshit and a lot of ridiculous stuff going on - not only at the Bartlett. I have to say I am very thankful that I have been there at the time, I did not like everything about the school, I even hated some of it and I never bought into the bullshit (as most people there did not). But in retrospect, it has done more good for me than bad. It maybe even had more that a profound impact on how I think about architecture, its philosophy, its detailing materiality and functionality. Looking at many of my former classmates from a so called "regular architecture school" (which I have left to go to the Bartlett) I think I took the right pick, as many of them struggle to make a living as "regular" architects employed in big "regular" firms with relatively small salary (if they do not work as waitresses or taxi drivers - yes some of them really do.) while I have my own practice (with some build work for "regular" clients that are quite enthusiastic about more innovative projects especially when they come cheaper) and make a relatively good living while I also teach. The Bartlett education was surely a door opener for me and I consider myself very lucky. On the other hand schools like these are no guarantee that you will become happy and/or successful in life only your own eagerness, hard work, vision, talent and mainly a lot of luck will assure that. A student can become a good architect at any school if he has the right head on his shoulders, the right heart in his chest and the will to work hard – schools do not matter it’s the people that matter.

Conrad Newel said...

Thank you James for the thoughtful commentary. It is much appreciated here on this blog.

Although it may not seem like it, I am in agreement with you. Although I criticize the Bartlett (or to be more specific Unit 20- since I actually talked with the students there, and don't know that much about the Bartlett personally beyond that) I admire in principle what the school in general is attempting to do. This is why I criticize it. If it were all bad then I think I would have just dismissed it as crap. However I see a lot of potential and lots of wasted potential as well. The wasted potential part irritates the hell out of me.

As I mentioned in my last post in this series, I don't believe for one second that students will come out of the school and make blown up car wrecks. Or for that matter, have a difficult time making a career for themselves when they get out. It all depends on the individual student and his/her mind set, upbringing, determination, etc. In fact just the mere dexterity of getting through the program is a measure of devotion: that is the student's capacity to undergo necessary and unnecessary brutality for the love of architecture.

The ideal school in my view would value vision, experimentation, imagination and exploring the broader understanding of Architecture as the Bartlett does. This should be the founding principle from which the rest of the program is built on. However it should not stop there, it would also value creativity by also introducing basic parameters on projects that would challenge students to forcefully confront concrete issues of structures, habitation, sustainability, etc in a practical manner. Not to the extreme that they need to have super worked out details. But it should at least acknowledge the presence of gravity and to give a sense of materiality and scale.

But perhaps most importantly, it would have teachers that are more interested in the development of the student rather than the proliferation of their own ideas. Not the kind that tends to dismiss an entire class to focus exclusively on a hand full of prodigy students who can best proliferate their ideas so that they can point to them and say "that's my students work aren't I great?"

But that is an ideal world and I am pipe dreaming.

The challenge at least for unite 20 is how do you throw out the bath water with out throwing out the baby?

James said...

Thank you so much for your reply Conrad. I have to say, that you are very right with some of your comments about starchitecture schools, the Bartlett and Unit20. I sometimes see more recent work from the Unit and I am quite disappointed about the naivety of some students coming out of there. Most of the work is not much different from what it was more than 10 years ago and it looks to me like yesterdays news – quite boring with few exceptions to the rule. Also starchitecture schools teach you lots of valuable stuff but they usually do not teach you how to build a building and I honestly hope, that most of the projects in these schools never materialize as buildings as the world is a better place with them staying on paper. Within the last ten years or so, a lot of students came to the Unit (and in respect other STARCHITECTURE Schools as well) in anticipation of becoming the next big star architect. Guys, think for a second, there are 233 thousand architects in the US alone for example ( ) and how many living American star-architects do you know? Do the math! You might as well start a rock band and try to get famous this way or follow a career as a professional surfer. I mean, I am the last to say bury your dreams, but please be realistic and leave an option in your life to become happy, when the starchitect dream does not work out, because for the most it will not. Most of the teachers at those schools are not really famous (at least not at the Bartlett) and most students never will be - even (or especially) at schools where the faculty actually is famous. Although, the media is giving the impression (like “study at Harvard” or “work for Rem Koolhaas” etc.) there is no recipe in becoming successful if there was, everybody would be successful. Having said that, I also have to say (without really contradicting myself), that it was very good to have been there for me and also right for me at the time and right for the background I had. So my advice to any student who is planning on going there is to realistically reflect on what you are, what your abilities are and what you really like to become in order to be a happy human being in life and don’t just go there, because you have heard, that you have to go there to become somebody. If you believe that, you will most certainly fail - if not at the school, than later. What you will become is already in you, the secret is to discover it, if a school helps you to do so, it is a good school for you.