The author of this article is a final year architecture student in NUS who wishes to remain anonymous.
I am currently a 4th Year Architecture student in NUS. After spending 4 whole years here, I have finally made up my mind to voice out what had been my observations and experiences.
The existing architecture education in NUS has some long-standing deficiencies that I wish to highlight. While these may just be my observations on the ground, I sometimes wonder – if a formal survey is carried out within the School – how many senior Architecture students would echo the same degree of frustration as I have.
Firstly, the system is just too focussed towards end-results. Professors pay lip service to the importance of the creative processes, verbally encouraging them yet not giving much weightage to these strongly-encouraged processes in the assessment.
How many tutors actually spend time to look through our process portfolio, and scrutinize our part models if they have discovered that our final product is not as wonderful as they envision the potential to be? So far, I have only observed my past tutors barely showing interest in my process portfolios, even when I have taken much effort to present them professionally.
Secondly, the feeling among us students is that deadlines are just too tight. Given the amount of scrutiny and supervision—twice every week, sometimes more – one wonders whether any architectural student can even find the creative space for thoughts and exploration.
For the unfamiliar, let’s break this down more clearly: twice every week means Monday and Thursday. After Monday’s review, the student has to further rush his/her work within a short span of two days to produce something by Thursday’s review. And then he/she works again on Friday, Saturday and Sunday before the next review the following Monday. This cycle goes on for 13 weeks. For whatever benefits there are in the intensive amount of supervision (which till today I fail to comprehend), the stressful scrutiny the student is subjected to is detrimental to the needs of some students who might require plenty of space to explore and discover.
It is understandable that the importance of deadlines is stressed to the architecture undergraduate. After all, having such a rigorous system ensures students are ready for a future career in architecture which demands strict adherence to deadlines.
However, deadlines in this country are too important for another less forgivable reason—not meeting deadlines means failures, and failing in this country(or in this Course) is hard to redeem. Students who are still in the midst of trying and failing, and have yet to stumble upon success, would become increasingly disadvantaged as they continued in this harsh and rigid results-driven system. There is no room for “late bloomers”; either you adapt early, or you are not suitable to be an architect.
And we talk about breeding creative architecture in Singapore. Either one grows a nonchalant resilience to criticism of failures, or he learns to survive the system by “giving what the tutors want”. The latter totally defeats the purpose of creative education. How can this be a good place to express one’s creativity, to experiment with new ideas, if stringent, merciless and rigid assessment methods in the Course have ingrained a deep fear of failure into the typical architecture student?
Needless to say, the school grading system – in the form of the Normal Distribution Curve – inevitably leads to comparison between students. Again, the advantage of peer learning has been demeaned by the need to excel over another peer, if one desires to clamber to the top of the league. Comparison becomes unhealthy and is not conducive to peer learning. After all, why help the others given this competitive environment? The most rational course of action is to selfishly fend for one’s survival in this fight of the fittest. In the design field, this factor can be a huge detriment to the education where healthy sharing of ideas among peers can provide plenty of creative stimulation.
Unfathomably, students seldom, if ever, receive adequate feedback on the other (non-DESIGN) modules’ assignments. How often do we receive our graded assignments back for review, and how often are we given the opportunity to understand our areas of weaknesses, and learn from the mistakes we made from the assignments ?
Approaching the tutor personally for feedback is the only way, subject to whether he cares enough to dig out your work and review them again before replying you. From my architecture peers, it seems that with the high work stress and tight deadlines, many would simply forfeit the time to find tutors for feedback and channel their energy into meeting that dreaded deadline.
All such structural limitations like numerous deadlines and rigid assessment criteria which overlook the process in favour of the end product, are in addition to an inherently unfocussed syllabus. Well-known architecture schools model their education programmes with a specific direction in mind. For example, MIT, UCL, and even the newly set-up SUTD place their education emphasis on sustainability. On the other hand, the NUS architecture course gives an impression of trying to cover too many genres without a specific direction.
The lack of technological skill courses is also a major concern. For instance, the teaching of prefabrication machinery and computer simulation skills or Building Information Modelling –which are widely used nowadays in the industry – is only restricted to a limited group of students who choose the specific studio in their final year. Schools like SUTD are already embarking on technology-driven architecture education, while NUS Architecture seems to place little emphasis on keeping up with the times.
A cutting-edge education in the architecture school may be too much to hope for, since the hiring of many older professors with little or no digital skills restricts the innovation of architectural education. I have also observed that many young and fresh tutors, who are able to teach modern technological skills, leave the faculty after just teaching for a while. Why is this so? Could it possibly be the teaching or research environment which favours the old, is resistant to renewal, inevitably leading our younger tutors to a mass exodus? I hope to know the reasons too.
Judging from the students’ attendance during guest lectures and external workshops, it appears that there is very little interest among student to learn more about architecture externally. Something about the system has killed quite some passion or curiosity to learn.
If we have a mundane academic life, we have even less of a social life. There is simply not enough time to strike a balance in life in this field of study. Once in a long while, we hear passionate tutors talk about the need to expand our knowledge beyond architecture. But there are simply so many redundant core architecture modules to take i.e. Sustainability, Integrated Design Sustainability, Architectural Environment etc. Redundant – in the sense that these modules cover the same, repeated content.
We are then left with so little time and energy to take modules that we are interested in from other faculties. Meeting friends beyond school becomes a feat, and this inevitably takes a toll on one’s social life. Finding a balance in school life comes with the price of being labelled the “phantom architecture student”– with all obvious reasons. Not surprisingly, discrimination arises quite often from friends and project mates outside of the Architecture faculty due to the fact that you don’t really have much time for them. Inconspicuously engraved in the code of conduct, architecture students are implicitly “advised” not to have a life outside design work, and should reside in studio all day long as part of the de rigueur of the curriculum.
Of course, given that architecture students have to stay in school for the bulk of their time, it would seem reasonable that we are provided an ideal environment that is comfortable at least.
Now, the irony: For all the emphasis on spaces, ventilation, creativity and aesthetics that NUS Architecture has taught us, NUS Architecture students have had to put up with a badly-ventilated environment for years. Insular, cold, stuffy, lack of chill-out spaces, even ugly. Greyish. Definitely not in line with the image of a decent Architecture School. Coincidentally, the state of this environment seems to reflect some personalities of the school’s teaching body.
One would not expect the best brains to be nurtured here, but I imagine that the powers that be will give some environmentally deterministic argument that harsh conditions produce the best talent.
Conclusion: Hope for the Future
I have friends in their final year who lament not having learnt anything significant in the course of architectural study. I concur with such sentiments, because what we have been taught repetitively over the course of 4 years is to design in a very logical/rational manner of Conceptà ProgramàBuilding; or in any other permutation along the 3 parts. In the end, the process becomes extremely mundane.
Perhaps with competition from SUTD, NUS architecture school will finally lose its glamour of being the sole accredited architectural school in the country, and clean up its act.