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What is culture? Where is it cultured?

As a “culture” — a nourishing medium for ideas — architecture school can be among the most progressive of environments: a well-cultivated microbiome that incubates the future of our discipline. However, as a “culture” — a shared set of values and behavioral norms — architecture and its schools remain among the most regressive: founded on deep-seated power structures that encourage inequity and discourage access to the profession.

When we say the culture must change, we mean we must change the culture that cultures the culture. In the case of architecture and its schools, we mean the culture of the critique. 

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“Many have been saying, ‘the culture must change,’ but what does that actually mean?”

- Susan Surface, “How the ‘Shitty Architecture Men’ List Can Address Abuse in Architecture,” The Architect’s Newspaper, March 30, 2018

The very construct of the “jury” suggests a process that is adversarial and punitive. To reinvent this, we can start by renaming it. We can stop referring to the people who participate in the final review of design work as a jury and stop referring to the process as a “review” altogether. We need other words to better describe and foster a horizontal exchange between students and faculty. 

By isolating students, we teach them not to rely on their peers. We must encourage students to join critique panels and to comment on their peers’ work. This will not only build trust in the process, but might also help students receive and respond to critique positively. Because student cohorts are often more diverse than faculty, student participation helps diversify the voices in critique. It also helps hold faculty and guest critics accountable to students.

Critique as performance is a theater of cruelty. But there is more than one format possible. We could instead have students sit and share their work across a table with one or two guests at a time (which is also good practice for job interviews). We, as teachers, could present and defend students’ work, or students could present other students’ work. We could try a “cold read” in which the student doesn’t speak about their work until the critics have looked it over and made comments.

When we privilege the voices of critics, we diminish the voices of students. What changes when students present their own goals for their work? Instead of measuring the student against a critic’s goals or standards, perhaps the critic can consider how well the student’s work meets the student’s goals and then offer guidance on that.

Our reliance on disciplinary language diminishes the agency of students. Making critiques public encourages students to communicate outside the discipline. Architecture serves a public constituency, and engaging more of the public in the critique process might help students communicate their work and its value at the same time that it breaks down disciplinary boundaries. Public critiques also help hold critique panels to broader cultural norms for behavior and interaction.

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