Toxicity in Architecture School

It’s safe to say that architecture school has always been described as toxic for various reasons; stealing design ideas from one another without giving credit where credit is due, the absolute disparity when it comes to group work, the odd tutor here and there, and the gatekeeping between students when it comes to software skills. In other words, the reasons for this toxic culture are endless and completely overlooked within the education system. In addition to this, these behaviours are sometimes the cause of students dropping out, having more difficulties with confidence and creating unpleasant environments like studio spaces, which are supposed to be ‘collaborative’.

As individuals who have undergone their undergraduate degrees and who will soon be returning back to university for masters, we thought it would be significant to recall the toxic behaviour that we would encounter amongst our peers which evidently resulted in an unhealthy work environment, that you should try to avoid. 

Gatekeeping Software Skills

Occasionally throughout architecture school, you will hear tutors encouraging you to ask your fellow peers for help, especially when it comes to using software and representation skills. This is to be expected as students enter university at many different levels of proficiency and you’ll often find that people have different backgrounds, which essentially determines their skills. For example, some people switch to architecture after completing foundation courses, international degrees abroad with different education systems, some may switch from art-based degrees like graphic design or like the majority, they might have just completed their A-level education. So right from the beginning of your degree, without even having started an actual brief, there is already an imbalance of skills within the cohort.

To make matters worse, the competitive mindset that most students adopt soon after beginning their degree, results in hesitancy in sharing tips & tricks. Students are afraid to see their counterparts succeed with the advantage that they have shared, especially if it’s the difference between them getting a higher or lower mark in comparison to everyone else. Another reason for being so hesitant when it comes to sharing and helping peers is the thought process of whether they would do the same for you, or whether they would withhold information when you’re struggling. Ideally, we would love to think that everyone is the same as you and would be willing to help if needed, however, this is rarely the case. 

How sad is that? We enter a creative field which depends a lot on communication, teamwork and collaboration, yet here we are obsessing over hiding our skills away from everyone else only to stunt them when crit day rolls around. Even though, everyone has something to offer to the people surrounding them. We’ve realised once we left university and entered the workplace, the toxicity (at least in a small practice) is minimal in terms of design discussions. Which raises the question, why is it that architecture school consistently promotes an unhealthy relationship between grades, students and collaboration, when this isn’t even the case in the working world?

Slacking in Group Work

To be quite frank, some individuals can be a complete letdown. This results from the reality that everyone places their degree at a different priority and therefore tackles the projects, briefs and deadlines with varying levels of care and seriousness. Some students could not care less about their degree, some are content with a pass and some are persistent with their aims of getting first-class honours. Unfortunately, these different levels of ambitions are the most evident when it comes to group work, especially if the group is a combination of these different students. 

In settings like these, there should be less of a conversation on what you want and your goals [or lack thereof] as an individual and more about what is the most beneficial outcome for the group. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen over and over and over again, working in groups where they are pre-determined, always causes more stress, an unbalance in workload and disappointment. This is not to say that there is nothing to gain from working in teams, but more so that teamwork works best when individuals can make smart decisions about who they want to collaborate with. Students are generally better at recognising who puts the same amount of effort and who has a similar mindset to them when it comes to producing work, but as a result of the flaws in the education system, where they’re more concerned with overall year grades the chances of you being able to pick your group is unlikely. 

The reason why group work can be so toxic is a result of these set groups, where the amount of effort from each individual will never equal. One whole undergraduate later, we still can’t confidently say there has been one example of a time when we worked in groups and everyone put in the same amount of time and care. This just never is the case. It’s upsetting because then it means that those who care more, end up having to contribute more to compensate for those individuals that are slacking, only for the whole group to get the same grade, thanks to those who actually tried. Does this sound fair to you?

Those Tutors

Yep, those tutors.

You know… the ones who make criticisms stemming from personal preference rather than looking at the project objectively from an architectural point of view and giving feedback which is constructive. No shade, just reality. Just like a student using the reasoning of “I like it” for sticking to design decisions, we really don’t think it’s a good enough reason to stray away from a design choice purely because a tutor says they “don’t like it”. Students should have the courage to challenge these comments which have 0% architectural standpoint in order to dig up something constructive from the comment. However, we have witnessed and experienced what happens when you do have a suggestion to make in response to criticism.You could be called “stubborn”, “argumentative” and many more when in reality, you’re trying to understand and converse on the matter. Tutorials and crits shouldn’t be a one-sided argument, it’s meant to be a discussion which is only the case when both the student and  the tutor are willing to listen to one another. Some tutors will take it to the length of having grudges against students after certain encounters - very unprofessional if you ask us.

It doesn’t end there… as much as there’s competitive tension between students, it’s also the same with tutors. One design studio against another design studio to see who’s going to receive the highest mark average in the year group. So, what does the education system expect from students? The individuals who are tasked to provide guidance to young professionals entering the architecture field already have this characteristic so it only makes sense for it to spread to the students. We would see this playout at the forefront when it came to final crits, exhibitions, and whenever we had visitors walking around in studios during tutorial days.

You also have tutors who pick & choose their ‘favourites’. We would find that these students tended to be the ones who took up every tutor suggestion without question and inevitably proposed a design their tutor had verbally described to them for the past 10 weeks rather than an outcome of their own creativity. It’s a simple process, “If I do what my tutor tells me to do, I’ll get a high mark”... It was more painful to witness because this was usually how it all ended. These students did end up with the higher marks but the whole year was a ton of “yes, I was thinking the same” or “that’s a brilliant idea, I’ll do it” without second-guessing the feedback and challenging it. To be frank, a very boring way to spend 3 years of architecture school. This scenario is when the one-sided discussion works to your advantage but this all links back to the acknowledgement of student intention by tutors. However, what tutor is going to complain about an easy-going student who’s getting above-average grades… *shrug*

Intense Workload & Unrealistic Deadlines

This might have to be the toxic characteristic that we are all familiar with. The expectation from students to produce large amounts of work in relatively short periods of time. Now some may argue that this time period isn't actually short, and that may be true when we see the work set months before the deadline, but when you have such an intense workload it reduces the amount of time you can spend on each individual piece. This unrealistic amount is incredibly damaging, especially when paired with the ‘typical’ student behaviour of neglecting free time, hobbies, sleep and overall health in order to try and keep up with the deadlines. Even more so when you present this detrimental work ethic to students that are convinced, as a result of the competitiveness, that they need to be working all the time, producing work to the highest standard and spending every living moment making their work ‘perfect’. This just so happens to be many architecture students, who in a sense develop perfectionist traits that make deadlines incredibly difficult. 

As if the workload isn't intense enough, what doesn’t help is having a timetable which says you have 2 important deadlines 3 days apart -_- .  It almost feels like you’re set up to fail from the beginning, and whether that means literally failing or failing yourself having submitted at a lower standard when you know you’re capable of more, is variable upon each individual. Having experienced this multiple times throughout our undergraduate degrees, we can say that yes, whilst being organised and time efficient is incredibly important to help balance the workload, it can only take you so far when the deliverables keep coming and you don’t want to drop the quality. What’s worse is that this pace doesn’t look like it’s going to change anytime soon.

If this in itself doesn't show just how much the workload and unrealistic deadlines in architecture school can be one of the most toxic cultures that is detrimental to the wellbeing of students, we don’t know what is.

Many may wonder, after all these flaws apparent in the system, why bother staying in the architecture industry? You really need to enjoy the profession, the process and the reasoning behind why you are doing what you are doing, reason being the degree has a high dropout rate and many choose to divert their path into a different route in the creative field. There’s also a hope that many of these circumstances will change in the future for architecture school, with organisations like the ARB (Architects Registration Board) putting more of a focus on making the profession more accessible to prospective students as well as other content creators like Alvin Zhu who are using their platforms to raise awareness and make a change.

We, ourselves, created this platform due to the many flaws in the system and by writing, sharing and generating discussion, we increase the chance for institutes to take upon the responsibility to instigate change.

Make sure to follow us on Instagram where we share our journeys as we progress further to get our U.K. RIBA/ARB licences and become qualified Architects. Additionally, if you feel like you need an extra hand with your portfolio whether it be for a portfolio submission or job application, by copping yourself a ‘Portfolio Mark-Up’ service through our ‘Products’ page, within 2-3 business days you can have a fully marked up portfolio giving you feedback on font choices, text sizes, layout, content and further improvements to hit the top benchmarks!

In the meantime, have a great weekend!


The Real Reason You’re Struggling In Architecture.


Why the Architecture Field is Facing a Downfall