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Architecture Students: read this

By December 12, 20093 Comments

Who would want to be an architecture student?
For the full article, click here.
A grim story, with selected passages taken from The Times, England, October 15, 2009. Better to stay here this summer, than go abroad…

“Bad pay, few jobs and an uncertain future? Who’d want to be an architecture student in the current climate?
….This new bunch of architecture students, though, has added reasons to be worried. The recession has decimated the construction industry. Unemployment among architects has risen more than in any other profession. Architectural firms are in the red. Even Norman Foster’s fêted company has had its losses double in a year, from £8.5 million to £16.1 million — and that after laying off 400 staff. Fifteen years ago I graduated from the Bartlett during another recession. That was bad enough. This one, though, is a lot worse.

To cap it all, Britain is producing more architecture graduates than ever — more, some say, than the construction industry actually needs. A decade ago Britain’s universities were churning out 1,000 a year. Now it’s 1,400. The Bartlett alone attracts 1,800 applicants for 90 places. Five new architectural schools have opened in the past decade. And, after seven years of training and tens of thousands of pounds in debt, the average graduate is competing with hundreds of others for not many jobs. “What I find most insulting,” says Tubbs, a fourth-year student, “is that after all that training I’ve got friends who are starting on salaries of under 20 grand.”

David Melia, queueing next to her, joins the chorus of disapproval. “You go to parties and people say, ‘Oh, you’re an architect, you must earn loads of money.’ Er, no.”

Average salaries for architects are about £40,000 — £70,000 less than doctors or dentists. “You don’t go into architecture for money, stability and a job for life,” Tubbs says cheerily. Laura Allen, who runs the bachelor course, puts it another way: “Architecture’s still dominated by the well-off, the privately educated.”

So, what do you go into architecture for? Iain Borden, the head at Bartlett, puts much of the rise down to the Grand Designs factor. “Architecture is much more visible nowadays,” he says. “It’s on the TV. Icon projects are a factor. Students see them on adverts or on holiday. People such as Norman Foster are household names.”

Allen agrees. “We get students at 18 who all like Foster and the Guggenheim in Bilbao and Santiago Calatrava. Architecture is a bit cool. But it’s also a career, so the parents like it too. Everyone’s happy.”

The students I meet prove the point. Thanks to a more box-ticking, exam-orientated system — and the prospect of debt — they’re far more focused than my generation was. Even 18-year-olds here talk about the “edge” a Bartlett degree will give them in the jobs market. “I enjoyed art at school, but I wouldn’t want to be an artist,” says Alexander Holloway, a confident third-year. “The art market is flooded. Here you get to see a tutor every week. Some places you see them once a term. After all, we’re paying for the education.”

“Architecture students aren’t like other students,” Allen says. “They’ve always worked a damned sight harder. You won’t find them living up to the student stereotype. “Hundred-hour weeks are quite normal,” Allen says. “Flatmates never get to see them. They’re strangers in their own home because they’re here working till dawn day after day.”

It has to be like that, she adds. “Architecture is an immensely broad subject. It straddles arts and sciences. You have to learn the past 200 years of knowledge about building, cities, landscapes, sociology. And you have to have designed — and come up with the brief and the site for — five or six buildings by the time you leave, right down to the smallest detail. And then you’ve got to learn actually how to be an architect — the law, the business, the contracts, running a team. You just can’t do it in less than seven intense years.”
On the plus side it fosters resilience. On the minus, architects live in a world hermetically sealed from the rest of us.

“Architects marry other architects,” Allen says. Arrogance — as with the medical profession — is all about. What gets them through it, the students say, is the camaraderie of the unit system — the whole point of this week’s hustings. The system, by which students are divided into “units” of 15 or so, run by a couple of architects, was introduced in the early 1970s by the private Architectural Association school, in part to mimic the centuries-old atelier apprenticeship system. The reason hustings are so feverish is because which tutor, and student, you end up with matters. “Your unit will be your life for the next few years,” Clear says. “You work with them, you go drinking with them, you stay up designing night after night with them and, when you graduate, you’ll often end up in a job with them.”

“Units are a bit like football teams,” Borden explains. “They’re all playing the same game — but each plays it differently. And you can be on only one side. Loyalty matters. It’s intensely competitive.”

Each unit has a different take on architecture, just as each architecture school has a different ethos. Some schools, such as the one at the University of Bath, are big on engineering and practical skills. Others, such as the one at the University of Cambridge, are sticklers for architectural history. And the Bartlett? “They do the crazy stuff,” says David Melia, a fourth-year student. “But that’s why people like me come here. For the creativity.” Clear puts it more diplomatically: “We like to encourage students to go off at tangents, to question things.”

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  • tomek says:

    Long hours they say. 100 hours per week! That’s ridiculous. Anyone who is doing this voluntarily is either insane or has very poor time management skills and/or just doesn’t know when to stop. I believe in working smart, not hard. That’s not to say that I don’t work hard when I have to. I just don’t believe that we need to work such long hours. I’m not a lazy person; I’m not a masochist either. I want to graduate and still like architecture.

    Also, the mythical “they” keep telling us how we have to work so hard in preparation for the so called “real world” because the “real world” is infinitely harder than school. Bah, I don’t’ buy it. I’ve been in the so called real world in a bunch of high pressure jobs and it was never as bad as studying architecture. For one, when you have a job you can go home at the end of a day and just relax a bit. At school there seems to prevail the attitude that there is no such thing as private time and every waking hour should be spent doing project work. Way to go towards a nervous breakdown.

    As for no work for architects, I’ve got another 3 years till I graduate. Things will change by then. Also, I believe that everyone makes their own fortune. There is always a way to make the best of the conditions in which you find yourself.

    cheers,
    -tomek

  • Guy says:

    Good on you Tomek. You’re possibly finding it easier than others, if, as you say, the others have poor time management skills. I’m not sure why it is that arch students have such bad time skills – gross generalisation obviously, doesn’t include you, but really, some people really don’t know when to stop.

    I’m glad you’ve learnt how to relax.

    Perhaps it is something to do with that funky hat of yours?

  • stephanie says:

    absolutely Tomek – this is the time to be an architecture student … poor architects I say …