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  • Writer's pictureNayanika Dey

What does Architecture School actually teach you?

5 years is a long time, by human standards. It's enough time to finish 2 diplomas, fight a World War, or if you're a snail - sleep. I made the decision to spend that time in an institution (educational) studying Architecture.

Like many, I was a clueless 17-year-old, charmed by the term 'architecture', visions of flashy offices, clicking heels, and doing something different. I was not cut out for engineering, 2 years of slogging through organic chemistry had made that clear. I wasn't cut out to be a complete artist either - that was too radical and different. Architecture seemed like a cosy middle ground to settle into.

Well, the shift to a field that demands creativity, hands-on work, and values hustle culture and overworking was jarring for me. I was interested in architecture but I was not prepared for how different its courses run from what schools teach up to class 12. I was also not prepared for the intense dilemma the final year brought as I watched my engineering friends get placed well while I applied and got rejected from multiple internships. Watching a friend write a piece of code got me thinking: What does architecture school actually teach you?

Is it drawing a building? Anyone can do that - we all have an artist in us. Is it designing the building? But there are civil engineers who do the same for less. Is it realizing the building? Again, contractors. So, where do we come in?

There's no handy guidebook for architecture, and I often lament this.No textbooks that colleges provide. No single book for any topic highlights the important things. Yes, there is a list of reference books with glossy pages you can check out. Yes, all FDK Ching books are very engaging and 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School is a fun bedtime read. But none of them are textbooks per see.

Only a few subjects have "textbooks". (And as a product of the Indian Education System, I terribly miss the comfort of having a textbook that told you everything and all). There's Timoshenko for understanding structures, Gurucharan Singh and Varghese for construction methods, and the giant Banister Fletcher for tracing the evolution of architecture. We skim over them, we remember enough for the exams.

But if I were to write a textbook myself of all the things I have learned, I would hardly be able to categorize them into things an architect should know. I know a few IGBC laws by heart, a few case studies on slum redevelopment, the evolution of mandapas in South India, and the plan of the Taj Mahal - but I really don't know if that's what makes you an architect. When I did my mandatory internship in Mumbai, I didn't need a single piece of the above knowledge.

It seems that, for a field as vast and open as architecture, there CAN'T be a textbook. The world is open, it's on you to develop an interest, pursue it and keep up with it. The world is large, and everyone's interests so niche. Someone interested in mud architecture could rattle off the name of 5 famous architects from the stream.

And I would have the same response to the question as an owl. That is, "who?"

So, that always bothered me. What did I really learn in this place I gave 5 years of my youth to.

Did I really learn mechanical, electrical, and plumbing drawings from 1 meagre semester of it? Anyone in the profession knows that details are endless and so is the learning. Did I really learn how to calculate a beam's bending moment? Just kidding, I didn't and I'm sure neither did any other B.Arch graduate.

Everything we needed to know and were taught at university was so at odds with what the field meant and demanded from architects. When 3rd year rolled in and we were finally allowed to graduate from hand-drawing - the focus really was on knowing enough software to make your CV eligible to multiple firms. There was a time when we considered "building our portfolio" and "academic work" as 2 separate entities though the 2 should ideally coincide.

At the time of my graduation, I felt no smarter than my 1st-year-old self. Only more accomplished in terms of software skills and a bad back that develops from AutoCAD usage.

Of course, I was wrong. And it took me graduating and getting out of the college bubble to notice that. In architecture school, you're always surrounded by people who think the same way as you. And that's why perhaps we don't realize - what we're really learning across all those juries and vivas where toilet placement is debated - is design thinking.

Because sure, architecture is about the latest materials and green building laws - but at its core, it is a profession built to serve people. And when you're around people who automatically know that, it doesn't really strike you that this...isn't common.

I was lucky to study in a college where the professors recognized this. Our juries focused on spaces and people. It was not about flashy renders, colour-printed sheets, and filling up an entire notice board wall to wall (though it was certainly encouraged). It was about the design itself, and how it would respond to people filling the spaces in between.

Our projects were almost often the topic of discussion. Multiple views clashed, meshed, and thrashed about. We enacted users in spaces, we imagined entire buildings on empty plots of land, we made tiny models with care (did I mention the bad back?). And all this while, we developed a particular worldview. We learnt to notice details others missed, question where others accepted and constantly be on the lookout for creating a more empathetic world.

Dieter Rams once said that good design should be invisible. After 5 years, I do believe we start noticing and absorbing the invisible. We could see opportunities where others could not. We could see the resolutions of problems never spoken of.

So, while I did learn that reading rooms go in the north and that stairs should not exceed 150mm, what I really learned was the fundamentals of design and design thinking. And this is a transferrable skill!

These 5 years did give me an understanding of spaces, elements, and design on the whole. It also taught me how to adopt this understanding to various mediums. Which is why it's no wonder to see Architecture students go on to make great graphic designers, product designers, or even set designers.

Not all learning can be produced onto the pages of a book. Perhaps that's one of the reasons why design and its tributaries are yet to be appreciated by the common man at large. But that's content for another thought piece. And if we're moving onto the non-academic segment - then there are certainly many more things those 5 years taught me!


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