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Friday18 August 2017

On the art of surviving degree shows

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It’s that time of year again – like Christmas, really – a season of obligatory half-drunkenness and compulsory celebration. A time to share with families.

Or not. Our degree show was last Friday, and college was, as ever, full of bewildered parents wondering what they’d spent all their money on.

In no art college are parents more bewildered than in a department of architecture. Imagine visiting a music school whose walls have been covered with staves and quavers. That’s what it’s like for most visitors to an architecture exhibition.

At an art school, the jeweller makes a piece of jewellery, the fashion designer a garment, the painter (call me an old-fashioned curmudgeon) a painting. When it comes to exhibition time, all they have to think about is how to place it in a room. Students of architecture, on the other hand, have made nothing at all. Their projects are fictional; and their exhibition has to be a hall of smoke and mirrors, designed to conjure impossible and unlikely realities.

At an art school show, most students sell their work; but no-one comes home with a model or a set of details under their arm. Rather, an architecture degree show is a slave market. It is the students, rather than the work, which are on sale; and the buyers are potential employers, well-versed in the invisible abstractions and abstruse conventions of architectural representation. No wonder parents feel mystified.

Two weeks ago, I was at another degree show (500th glass of warm white wine in hand). A student was earnestly talking me through his mapping exercises, his parametric mutations, his gothamgothic tectonics, referring to his drawings as if they actually explained what a building was going to be like. I was drunk enough to stop him. “These don’t have to explain anything,” I interrupted, “they’re ART!” At which point I probably fell straight into one of his immaculate clip frames.

When I was a student, we called it spam: a dense visual language of superimposed axonometrics, drawn in white ink on glass, mounted on to a slab of distressed plaster with rusty bolts, and accompanied by a statement of intent drenched in continental philosophy. I don’t know why we called it spam – and spam is something else now – but what it refers to is alive and well.

Spam is beautiful; but let’s remember what drawings and models are for the rest of the year. Drawings, tea-stained and crumpled, are for poring over on a rainy building site. Models, underlit like a chav car, are what we use to part clients from their money. Their job is to communicate with the people who make buildings, and they are no more and no less important (or beautiful) than a spreadsheet or a brickie’s trowel.

As the creators of all those beautiful, perplexing images take them off the wall and disperse on to a competitive job market, they should remember – and rejoice in the fact – that it’s who they’ve become at college, not what they’ve made, that will determine their futures. That’s something in which their parents, and their educators, can take pride.

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Readers' comments (4)

  • zecks_marquise

    true, at it's best the work is philsophy in drawings, at its worst it is truly awful.

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  • The architectural education process seems to be the only place to truly push your creative limits. Some manage it better than others.

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  • Spot on!

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  • Let's stop saying that succeeding in architecture depends on talent. It depends on cashflow, patience and good connections. Most of the architects don't have any of these "skills". That's why just a few really succeed. The others are more or less happy slaves for the rest of their life.

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