Architecture Crit’s 101: How to survive your review

This moment of reckoning, where your designs meet the scrutiny of experienced eyes...
Survive an Architecture Crit

Stepping into the world of architecture is like venturing into an ancient labyrinth, a maze filled with intricate details, complex ideas, and challenging obstacles. One such daunting hurdle that every aspiring architect must face is the dreaded ‘architecture crit,’ or critique.

This moment of reckoning, where your designs meet the scrutiny of the experienced eyes of professors, peers, or professionals, can be both nerve-wracking and transformative.

This critique process, however, is not a random trial-by-fire designed to torment you, but an essential part of the creative process. It’s where your ideas are tested and sharpened, where your understanding of architecture deepens, and where you learn to communicate your vision effectively.

In this article, we will illuminate the path to not just surviving an architecture crit, but flourishing within its challenging landscape. We will share tips, strategies, and practical advice culled from seasoned architects, successful students, and wise educators.

We believe there are several key tips, principles and actions you can take to help ensure it goes as well as it possibly could.

…and in short these are:

  • Learn to handle and accept criticism 
  • Don’t take negative feedback personally
  • Filter your work 
  • Don’t read your presentation 
  • Identity the 5 main points of your project
  • Explain your design concept 
  • Identify what you want the outcome to be 
  • Time your presentation
  • Don’t stand still
  • Dress appropriately 
  • Do not dwell on your final grade

Bur firstly it helps to fully understand the process…

What is an architecture crit?

For those that do not know, “crit” stands for critique but is also known as a review and/or pin up. Traditionally it is held at the end of a design project where the student will publicly pin up and present their work to their peers, tutors and guest critiques.

…The feedback process is almost instant and in front of the attending audience.

Few people look forward to these events, and if you fail to grasp the project or produce the work required they can be brutally honest. They do however also provide valuable training for life as a qualified architect, where you may find yourself presenting projects to directors, clients and investors on a frequent basis.

Here we spoke about how to prepare for an architecture crit, which is arguably more important that the crit itself, as to quote Benjamin Franklin who famously said “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail”. So the first step towards surviving the dreaded architecture crit and to help ensure it is successful is to prepare.

Following this, it’s time to get your game face on, and present the project you have spent the whole of last semester pulling together. 

Architecture Crit

How does a crit work?

The structure of an architectural critique, or crit, can significantly vary based on the project, the educational institution, or even the geographical region. It’s important to acknowledge that my personal encounters with crits may not mirror the entire spectrum of critique practices present in architectural education.

Broadly speaking, crits can be divided into two main types:

  1. The Casual Crit: This form is often employed during the midway phase of a project. It involves gathering around a table to discuss and evaluate your designs, which can range from comprehensive drawings to rough sketches. This laid-back environment often facilitates a group discussion and preliminary understanding of how your final presentation may proceed. In such instances, it is quite common for instructors to encourage feedback exchange among peers and fellow students.
  2. The Formal Crit: Contrary to the informal approach, the formal crit typically involves a comprehensive presentation. You’d ‘pin up’ your visuals and present your project before an audience of seated guests, which is followed by a Q&A and dialogue with the invited ‘critics’.

Despite the differences in the crit formats, there are several common elements. You would generally:

  • Be assigned a specific presentation time;
  • Use visual aids for presentation (like drawings, physical models, screen displays, or interactive walkthroughs);
  • Give an oral presentation (explaining your project, your work process, and your thought process);
  • Receive feedback (your audience might ask questions, share observations, and suggest alternate viewpoints or methodologies).

It’s not always necessary that you’ll be graded during the review. The grading practices can differ across architectural schools. From my experience, the perceived success of your crit doesn’t necessarily correlate with your final grade, as there are other influential factors at play, including the mood of your critics!

Why do we do them?

Critiques, or “crits,” stand as an integral component of most architectural courses, playing an invaluable role that has solidified over time within the culture of architecture. The evolution of crits has led to a refined understanding of their worth and the reasons they are administered.

Let’s delve into the top three reasons that make crits an essential part of the architectural journey:

  1. Crits serve as an instrumental learning and development tool: Among the most effective strategies to hone your future design skills lies in the realms of critique and introspection. Crits present an excellent platform for learning, as design is a gradual process, often leaving us in the lurch about the value of a decision until it manifests at the end of the project.

Regardless of innate talent, every design journey is marked by a layer of ambiguity. Accepting the critique and feedback from others introduces diverse perspectives, serving as a robust framework to refine your design skills. Personally, even as a professional, criticism remains a driving force for my continued growth.

Rather than inducing stress, engaging in daily critical dialogues about design has become an enjoyable routine. Offering and receiving criticism has significantly contributed to my evolution as a designer and the enhancement of individual projects.

  1. Crits establish essential deadlines and foster accountability: The ‘final crit’ signifies a critical milestone, marking the culmination of a project. It provides a sense of completion and holds students accountable for their work, preventing procrastination and the submission of mediocre projects.

Furthermore, crits often serve as communal events at the end of a project or semester, inducing a celebratory atmosphere. It allows students to showcase their work and offers a glimpse into the work of their peers and other courses.

The public exhibition associated with crits is a key aspect in architecture, a field inherently public and multifaceted. Acquiring the confidence to publicly present your work and being accountable for it is a critical, yet often overlooked skill.

  1. Crits enhance your presentation skills, both visual and verbal: Crits are commonly viewed as simulations of real-world scenarios where architects present designs to clients and handle their feedback. In essence, this viewpoint holds true. Conveying a semester’s worth of ideas succinctly without skipping important details is crucial. Mastering the art of generating professional drawings and images that effectively communicate your design intent requires practice. Similarly, creating a compelling narrative and sequencing your arguments in a manner that engages your audience is a skill that proves beneficial when dealing with clients.

However, crits are not designed as sales pitches. Your aim is not to persuade or secure approval for a particular decision. Instead, you seek valuable insights, comments, and innovative ideas and strategies that can be applied to future endeavors.

Architecture Crit
Image via The Kent School of Architecture

When will you it?

Critiques, often simply referred to as ‘crits’, are a fundamental part of any architectural design course or ‘studio’ at an architecture school. They generally occur intermittently throughout a project and often signal its conclusion. Those conducted during the project’s progression can be known as ‘interim crits’, ‘mid-semester crits’, or ‘design crits’. Conversely, those that signify the culmination of a project are typically termed as ‘final crits’ or ‘juries’.

Final crits often spark significant discussions. Their definitive nature contributes to increased pressure, causing a rather stressful period of project finalization for many students. The high-stress environment often leads students to focus merely on enduring the crit rather than optimizing their learning experience. It’s not uncommon for students to feel drained and distanced from their projects, compromising their learning opportunities.

On the other hand, interim crits, including midterm reviews, generally provide a more casual environment. These critiques present an opportunity for contemplation and implementation of the feedback received on your project, making them particularly beneficial.

Indeed, receiving and providing feedback should not be confined to the crit sessions alone. It’s beneficial to consistently seek feedback throughout the project’s duration – more feedback usually translates to better results.

Engage in discussions with peers, present your work to your tutor (particularly when you’re uncertain about it), and seek innovative ways to expose your work to broader audiences for varied feedback. By doing so, you’ll be better equipped to handle the final crit, viewing the feedback received as a part of the larger discourse around your project.

Who will be there?

A successful architecture critique, evaluation, or presentation necessitates the presence of two distinctive yet interdependent roles:

  1. The Presenter
  2. The Audience

As the Presenter, it falls upon you to display your work, experiments, and ideas. You might take on this role solo or partake in a group scenario.

Undoubtedly, this role is the most demanding and high-pressure element in a critique, emphasizing the need to foster an environment that helps the presenter feel acknowledged, engrossed, and supported in any critique context.

The Audience, on the other hand, can range from a cozy gathering of 3-4 individuals to a sizeable assembly. Typically, in your early stages, you’ll find yourself presenting in comfortable settings among familiar faces. As your skills and self-assurance blossom, you may gradually start to expose your work to larger, more knowledgeable crowds.

Your audience may comprise:

  • Your classmates and wider school community,
  • Your mentor, other tutors, lecturers, and professors,
  • Architects and other professionals,
  • Clients and user groups.

For a critique to be genuinely beneficial, an interactive discourse between the presenter and the audience is essential. This brings a crucial subgroup of the audience into focus: the critics.

At the end of the day, critics serve the fundamental purpose of helping you evolve as a better designer. Their contributions may involve suggesting improvements to your project, aiding you in expressing your ideas more lucidly, or even challenging you to ponder deeper about your own concepts and confront some hard realities.

Remember, these are individuals from whom you can draw valuable lessons, and often, they are equally eager to glean insights from you!

How to Survive an Architecture Crit

We believe there are approximately 11 key tips, principles and actions you can take to ensuring a successful outcome:

Handle criticism 

This is a key skill that will follow you everywhere you go in the architecture world, but one that is often developed during architecture school. If you haven’t realized already, architecture is an extremely subjective subject that by its very nature is constantly open to debate, praise and criticism. 

It’s the criticism part of this that at times can be can be difficult to except, especially after you have slaved over your design project, made models, spent a small fortune on printing, and hours arranging and pinning up your presentation.

…Unfortunately, the only answer is to get used to it, and in the end it’s what you do with it that counts.

You need to remember that architecture is presented to and used by the public (it is dependent on it), and the more opinions you can gather and take on board, the better your design process will become.

Don’t take it personally

Following this, it’s extremely easy to take negative opinions and feedback (if you get them of course) personally.

As when presenting your work, it’s very common for students to find themselves in a mind-set of also presenting them (personally).

This is not unusual and in fact very common, as most students become emotionally invested in their project, having spent numerous hours, days and weeks developing it.

However you must learn to leave any personal feelings and emotions to one side, and think of your work as an object and representation of your current ability and thought process at just that one precise time.

As next semester you will be tasked with a new project and must quickly move on, and so use what you have learnt to evolve and develop your overall body of work, rather than its singular projects.  

Show your best and most relevant work 

You should only present your best and most relevant pieces of work, don’t show items that are half finished or that have been replaced and redeveloped elsewhere.

This should be organized and planned during your preparation phase, as by only presenting the key elements of you work limits the level of scrutiny you may be subjected to, and there is nothing a guest critique likes more than an unresolved drawing!

Don’t read your presentation 

Your presentation should be free flowing and be able to bounce back and forth to adapt to comments and questions. A lot of people like to make notes to remind them of key items to talk about, and that’s fine, but don’t rely too heavily on them.

A presentation presented from a piece of paper can be extremely dry, hard to follow and quite frankly boring.

A good method is to use your presentation layout as a large set of cue cards, and this can be done by arranging your sheets in a narrative format that runs from beginning to end, enabling you to simply follow the structure and rhyme that they are presented in.

Doing this keeps you engaged with your audience, maintains the order, and provides flexibility, all at the same time as appearing to be confident and relaxed.

Think of 5 main points 

Identifying the primary points and aspects that have led to your projects outcome, is key in presenting and essentially selling your scheme to its audience. 

Write them down and using them as cue cards and reminders during your presentation, they should include the influences, turning points, inspirations and restrictions that led to your design proposal.

Remember that your audience needs to feel convinced that your proposal is one of the only solutions for your site.

Explain the concept 

Your concept is the foundation and backbone of your project, and if used correctly will be the driver throughout the whole process.

We explain exactly what is meant by this here

A strong and solid concept will help you to answer questions from your critiques and provide justification to your decisions, and so clearly explaining this from the outset, will provide your audience with an early understanding of your project and may limit initial annoying questions.

This will also allow you to maintain your flow and help in delivering a smooth and concise presentation.

Identify what you want the outcome to be 

The critique process is in place to benefit you and so should be viewed as an opportunity to develop skills and gain invaluable feedback from not just your tutors but also external visiting architects and designers. 

If you can get yourself in this mind set and view the process positively whilst keeping the nerves at bay, then it becomes less like a test and more like an abstract tutorial. So taking this approach, you now need to consider what you want from your presentation and how it can best develop your project. 

Listing five key outcomes to discuss should provide you with enough useful information, whilst still staying within the presentations time frame. 

Don’t over talk 

Each presentation will have a time slot allocated to it, and you should aim to always keep within this. As presenting for too long will firstly cause all of the other presentations to follow to fall behind, but more importantly your audience will start to lose interest.

You must ensure that your presentation is relevant.

Architecture Crit's 101
Image via The Kent School of Architecture

Don’t stand still  

Try to be slightly animated when you present, move about within your presentation space and physically address and point to the drawings and/or models you are discussing.

This is again about showing confidence and being relaxed, which will in turn make your advance feel the same.

Dress to impress 

We have covered dress codes here, but reiterate that first impressions are extremely important and do count. The first impression of your project that the people viewing your presentation will have is you, and if you are not looking prepared then the presentation itself is perceived in this way also.

A crit is a formal examination of a whole semesters work, and so dress appropriately to give yourself the best chance possible.  

Don’t dwell on your final grade

To finish, try to go into your presentation without worrying about your final grade. If you achieve a high result then great, but if you don’t, there will be another chance on the next project.

…don’t put unnecessary pressure onto yourself, as there is always another project

This is about making you as relaxed as possible and removing the worry of the outcome before it has happened. On the day there is nothing more you can do other than present your work in the best possible way you can, so concentrate on the presentation and don’t dwell of what may or not happen. 

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