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Defending Your Life

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People say that love is the opposite of fear, but then, they’ve never been to architecture school. As the date of a final review approaches, we students throw ourselves into our work with an intensity that can be explained only by a mix of love for our projects and fear of public humiliation.

Days before my first advanced studio review in 2011 at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, our professor, Marion Weiss, gathered us up — beyond fatigue and on the edge of meltdown — and announced that these were the best moments of our lives. We scoffed, but in a way she was right. When your excuses, your bodily aches, and the activity around you fade, you are left with nothing but an intimate dialogue with your work. It’s a funny thing that we best sustain this rapt state under the external pressure of deadlines and a rivalry of the kind only siblings and the closest of peers can inspire.

At noon one day in early December, just before final reviews were to begin, several students in Wentworth Institute of Technology’s graduate architecture studios remained in this state of immersion, while others gathered up their work and made their way to the auditorium.

Stephen Akerblom, a final-year Master of Architecture student, was finishing up a video. “It was pretty much down to the wire,” Akerblom told me later, explaining that after a challenging series of conceptual exercises, his building design had come together just in the final week or two.

Call it a crit, jury, or review: Architecture students present their work to a panel of practitioners and professors, and then endure whatever verbal jousting unfolds. This rite of passage, lasting typically 20 minutes to an hour, has occupied the center of architectural education for decades. What justifies it is the notion that, beyond fluency with construction details and an intuition for the subtleties of inhabitation, architects need to be able to stand and deliver a proposal, even when they’re outnumbered and outclassed.

I always feel relief when I stop making things and start transporting them, and myself, to a review. Leaving behind the rancid studio atmosphere of solvents, stale coffee, and unwashed clothes, and heading toward an arena of judgment and intellectual exchange, the rush of adrenaline does wonders in washing away doubts and sharpening faculties. At Wentworth, this transition took the form of a literal breath of fresh air, since the auditorium where the reviews were scheduled was across the street from the studios.

In the auditorium, partitioned for rotating reviews, drawings were pinned up and models arranged with the help of friends and classmates. Akerblom was slated to present first, and he paused in front of his work — a block of mixed-use housing micro-units­—­reviewing his notes one last time. His studio, led by assistant professor Jennifer Lee Michaliszyn, was called Hong Kong Express, a play on the title of Wong Kar-wai’s film Chungking Express. In developing their architectural strategies, students started with his films and their own videos of their dense, bustling sites.

When it was time to present, Akerblom led with his video. “The movie was supposed to show the layered quality and how each one of these surfaces has a real depth to them,” he said. “Then this model tries to assign these materials a tectonic quality … the brick as the load-bearing party walls, the timber as the lower flooring, the blue paint as a building envelope. My project starts to expand this building envelope, essentially treating the interior space as a thickened façade.”

There’s a moment in every review when the momentum shifts. A critic interrupts with a question and stands up to scrutinize a drawing, or the student hands over a model and cedes the floor. The critic turns the model or holds it up to squint into its depths, and everyone waits for the verdict. From here, the review can go in any direction. The days when a critic could express dissatisfaction by smashing a model to bits or setting it on fire have almost entirely passed, but a critic’s words can still cut pretty deep.

This group of critics eased into things gently:

“Could you talk just briefly about this interpretive model that started everything; maybe explain it in a more linear fashion? Was there a set of rules?”

Akerblom answered the best he could: “I started by trying to represent the existing materials. . . . So you have the brick, which is this really heavy structure in the middle; and the blue is the wrapper. . . .”

But no question in a review is entirely innocent, and one critic picks up where the other left off: “What do you think of the mixed-use housing? Why is that a good program to test out your ideas related to surface, materials, and infill?”

Akerblom seemed eager to expand: “The micro-unit was a good program because the spaces are compacted, and each surface has to hold more depth and program within it. There is a kinetic element … like the Murphy bed. When it flips up into the wall, you’re essentially making a thickened wall — ”

“ — Where is that?” The cross-examination begins in earnest.

“ — I didn’t, I have them planned in here but I didn’t explore them at a detailed scale.”

The critics proceed, taking turns elaborating on one another’s critiques:

“ — An obvious choice, so I’m not sure what mileage you got out of that.”

“ — The blue is still a kind of keying, instead of a pushing…”

“ — If there was a sheet that diagrammed…”

“ — Is that Hong Kong, or is it LA? You don’t know.”

“ — There’s also a temporality to the architecture that I don’t see.”

At this point, the floor is no longer yours: You are by design outnumbered and outclassed. The reviewers enjoy holding forth. Each is eager to provide his or her advice, criticism, and praise, but in such a besieged state, it takes a fair amount of effort just to stay vertical and maintain eye contact. When the time is up, the professor makes appreciative comments about the work and conversation. Classmates offer their commiserations and congratulations.

In the hours after a review, it’s easy to feel off balance. Emotions loom larger than usual: relief, pride, disappointment, and an overwhelming fatigue. There will be time, later, to reflect. For now, a semester’s worth of work is carried back to the studio, each artifact bearing the weight of judgment while also suddenly light and insubstantial. Some items will be gladly tossed, while others will be treasured, like comrades returning from war. An architect’s love is a strange thing, indeed.