The Mysteries of The Bartlett (UCL) Unravelled

A very interesting and exclusive Boidus interview with  Bartlett Architecture student Chris Hildrey, conducted by Mark Ellery.

Forgotten Spaces - Project by Chris Hildrey

Forgotten Spaces - Project by Chris Hildrey

ME – We at Boidus want to understand the working ethic at The Bartlett, how do students find the time to study if they have to work for a living as well?

CH – There are a few people who work professionally while studying, however from what I saw the numbers were in the vast minority. I would imagine that anybody who does do this will have a relaxed part-time arrangement with their employer because otherwise there really wouldn’t be enough time to study.

ME – How does everyone afford to study?

CH – I couldn’t tell you the ins-and-outs of others’ financial status but I was lucky to have my parents pay for my rent while studying in London. Obviously this was a huge advantage during term time. I also worked and saved up during summer breaks. For others, there are bursaries for students facing hardship and some were sponsored by practices (which required a commitment to work for them for maybe a couple of years afterwards). Generally speaking, however, architecture does seem to attract a disproportionate number of students from rather affluent households. Financial status can have a direct result with the quality of the work (more money = more/bigger 3d prints, better materials, larger prints etc), though in the Bartlett it was good to see that most people’s ambition would stretch even the most forgiving budget, so there was a lot of people being very clever and/or disciplined with their approach to production (skip diving, second hand components, measuring twice/cutting once etc).


ME – Does everyone study/work 100 weeks every week towards their project?
What are the tutorials like, and how often do you attend them?

CH – In terms of the exact hours worked, it’s fair to say that it varies according to each individual student and the time of year. Generally speaking, there is a tutorial every week and so there is a constant push to consider feedback and then produce new work for the following week. This means that larger pieces (such as very detailed models etc which take many weeks) have to be worked on in parallel with this main body of work to enable feedback and development.

Time management is a constant struggle and some students are better at it than others. I certainly suffered because of it.  If you don’t get on top of being disciplined with your time things can spiral out of control pretty quickly.

We probably don’t work 100 hours every week, but we certainly do in the weeks running up to examinations. In any given week you can be sure that the project will certainly be on your mind 24hrs a day though. Some of my best ideas are ones I’ve scribbled down having woken up at 4am. I think this is true of most architecture schools, though.

ME – From the outside looking in we are led to believe that the Bartlett is one of the best schools in the country, but also one of the most intensive with no room for a life beyond the design studio. Would you agree with this or is the insider experience of studio life much different?

CH – This really depends on whether you work in the studio or not and, if not, what your living arrangements are at home. I’ll spare you the details, but in the middle of my final year I ended up living alone and working from home. There was a spell of three weeks where the only people I spoke to face-to-face were the check-out staff at Tesco. I broke this stint off by going to a party and was a little overwhelmed to say the least! But for each of those weeks was a month of working in the studio and being able to chat to your classmates, go for dinner/drinks together (before returning to the studio of course!) and generally have a bit more balance, albeit within our insular little unit bubble. In the end, if you really want to get the most out of studying there you have to be willing to make the course your complete life but ensure that you can tell when things are getting too much and make yourself let off a bit of steam now and then.

ME – What are the lecture rooms like?

CH – The majority of lectures are held on the UCL campus rather than in Wates House itself. They are pretty standard fluorescent-lit boxes with projection. You can see one of the bigger ones for yourself by going to one of the Wednesday lectures which are open to the public and a great way to get some mid-week inspiration!

ME – Do you have a studio to work in or does everyone work from home?

CH – Wates House is a very tight space, so only about half of the students can fit in. All the others work from home/hot desk in the computer room/study in the library etc. It’s also tricky for some people to get in every day as they live further outside London. On those winter mornings, sometimes it’s just easier to draw in warm slippers in your own bedroom than pushing through the crowds to get into town.

There’s a oft-quoted saying around the Bartlett that “the worse the architecture department building, the better the architecture department”. Though that’s a little bit tongue in cheek, there is a certain truth in that the crappy building allows the students to be less precious with their environment. If you spill a bottle of PVA or put a drill through the table, people tend not to worry so much. That’s quite creatively liberating. Even now I always make sure I have a desk I wouldn’t mind being cut to pieces. There’s a nice contradiction in relying on Ikea’s disposable mass-productions in order to free yourself up to making bespoke work. I couldn’t imaging sitting at an expensive desk and getting any real work done.

ME – BOIDUS SCOOP – CRUNCH QUESTION!
Are you allowed to design in any way you like or is there a school style that you have to adhere to?

CH – This very much depends on which studio you join. Some studios are extremely prescriptive; others more relaxed. As a general rule, studios will normally have a certain expectation that you will share an interest in the tutor’s research concerns. For some, these concerns are very specialised, so you really have to be prepared to produce a certain type of output to make their guidance of any use (e.g. you wouldn’t get far making hand drawings in a studio that is interested in investigating the effects of virtual 3d space through parametric modelling – though it’d be interesting to give it a shot).

Fortunately, there are around 13 studios in Part II so you will usually find one that specifically caters to your tastes or, at the very least, a studio ambiguous enough to incorporate them.

ME – Are you allowed to rely on freehand drawing and physical models only, or, do you HAVE to use computer generated images?

CH – Absolutely the former; in fact, there’s fairly equal split between digital and traditional techniques with some of the most interesting work occupying the space between, or rather which overlaps. I think there always has to be room for both in any architecture school. To refuse to engage with either because of enforced loyalty to the other seems rather rigid in my view. Sure, people should focus on what they have ability in as they near examinations but there’s a lot of room for experimenting beforehand. The most memorable work that I’ve seen come out of the Bartlett includes hand drawings, physical models and CGI (with the best in my view being the work that blurs the boundaries between each).

ME – BOIDUS SCOOP – CRUNCH QUESTION!
What is the ethos?
What are the ethics, can you pay someone to help you build models or finish drawings on time?

CH – This is very much up to the individual. In the MArch (Part II) programme (I didn’t study undergrad at the Bartlett), the 4th year students finish the year a few weeks before the 5th (final) year ones.
As such, they are encouraged to help over this period before final hand in and external examinations. There is a general unwritten rule (though I’m sure the official university policy would back it up through fine print) that this help is only for presentation/small jobs etc –  such as helping build a portfolio case, or running to the printers etc. If students were to decide to use their helpers to actually create new content which they then submitted as part of their portfolio, the ethics of the situation would be more tricky.

There are two sides to this – on one hand, having a concept and having others construct/build/3d model these ideas is part of a professional architect’s daily life. Ideas are outsourced at nearly every level (indeed, just last week the AIA’s chief economist Kermit Baker argued that architects should add a layer of paraprofessionals to take on the responsibilities of drafting, leaving architects to focus on design and concept [http://www.architectmagazine.com/business/add-a-layer-the-case-for-paraprofessionals.aspx]) and to do the same at university level would simply be to embrace the realities of the professional world to which you’re about to enter. On the other hand (and this is my own personal view), the fact is that all students are assessed and compared in the job market/final examinations as individuals. Were somebody to gain a better mark as a result of passing off others’ work as their own this would be extremely unfair – especially if it were to result in an entire skill being added to the portfolio which the student being assessed doesn’t possess (e.g. 3d rendering). At the very least, it would be possible to mask an inability to manage time – either way, it would allow a student to gain an unfair advantage over their peers who, in good faith, produced the content of their portfolios as individuals.

ME – Having been a student at the Bartlett you must have had a quite intensive set of experiences in a short space of time. What were the highlights during your period of study? Did you enjoy it?


CH – There’s no doubting that studying architecture is intensive wherever you go, but it is (nearly) always enjoyable. One of the things which I felt at the Bartlett, however, was not just the intensity of the course (exams, critiques, tutorials etc) but the intensity of the personal development. I went in with a feeling that my ability to design was still very blunt, meandering and amateurish. Don’t get me wrong – I was able to design things to a level I was pleased with, but it seemed like every time it was a lucky accident. It’s like they say about sports – the more you practice, the luckier you get. Eventually you get to the point where you start to understand what you’re doing to get the end result and then you’re able to control it. This was the greatest overall experience for me – the feeling that I was becoming a better designer rather than a better student. It’s very easy to get hung up on mid-term grades etc but once you start to think that you’re on a trajectory that will last a year or two, negative feedback doesn’t seem so scary.

Having said that – there are always people who are more concerned with getting the grades by ticking boxes at the expense of learning through taking risks. It’s a constant temptation to try to appeal to seemingly fixed formulas for success. Luckily, the Bartlett (which I think it’s fair to say has suffered from this on occasion) is trying hard to dissuade students from trying to emulate successful projects from previous years for the sake of it.

ME – Who were the individuals during your spell at the Bartlett that have influenced you the most and why?

CH – I joined the Bartlett pretty blind to the world I was entering. I remember walking for a coffee on my first day and chatting to some other Part II freshers; everyone seemed to be talking about which unit (studio) they wanted to go in and which tutors they liked – referring to tutors by their first names. I just nodded and smiled and made a mental note to do more research before unit interviews! In the end, I joined Unit 22 which seemed to have a really interesting brief (I ended up doing their website at http://www.u22.org should you want to see their work). This unit turned out to be one of the few with a truly open mind. There are many units which are fairly prescriptive of the type of output you produce. This is entirely natural and useful when it comes to helping progress specialist interests, but the genius of Peter Szczepaniak and John Puttick (the tutors) was in their ability to isolate their judgement from what format the work took and simply judge it according to how good it was as a project in and of itself. As such, the unit featured a wide array of skills – video, 3d modelling, drawing, model making, 3d printing – all working alongside each other to address the same ultimate brief. It was quite disorientating for me at first and probably knocked my ability to design for a while – every week I’d be tempted to explore another medium because I saw another student do it so well. But, like much of the advice given out at critiques, it was only months later the penny finally dropped and I realised with hindsight what was happening.

In terms of a specific individual though, it’s very hard to pick one out (obviously I can’t choose a single one of my tutors – they all worked in pairs!), so I’d have to go for Don, the man on the front
desk. He has an uncanny ability to remember everyone’s – and I mean everyone’s – name and greet you with a smile. He probably influenced me most because I’m sure there was a point when his big grin stopped me from throwing myself on a bandsaw!

ME – How has that influenced your wider thinking and how have you applied it to the development of your career?

CH – One of the biggest jumps for me in going to the Bartlett was not necessarily the standard of the average student, but more the standard of the top students. In the past, I had always thought along the lines that if you are one of the best in your year, you get one of the best grades. This might mean you get a bigger spot in the exhibition or even a prize. But at the Bartlett, there are a lot more connections beyond the strictly academic than I was used to. Here, if you were one of the top in your year, you could go on to be published, to be widely exhibited, head-hunted, or even use it as the jump start to setting up your own practice. The Summer Show being in London is also a great
source of exposure, but again – I was used to exhibitions being populated by parents and significant others, it was quite a jump to have what seemed like half the architecture world of the capital come
and peruse your work.

ME – In the current Architectural climate does being a Bartlett graduate open more doors to better opportunities?

CH – I think it probably does help – especially in London where so many graduates stay to work and later find themselves in a position to hire. I have once been offered a job simply from someone learning that I was at the Bartlett. It seems to have a seal of approval associated with it. In many ways, the reputation is self-sustaining. With it being highly regarded, huge numbers of students apply there; once that happens, the cut-off point inevitably raises and the overall standard of students’ ability rises with it. Then the circle starts again… I’ve heard recently that due to the sheer number of applicants, the Bartlett will only consider students who achieved a 1st class degree at undergraduate  level (though this is very much hearsay); if that’s the case then the cut-off point is now very high.

ME – What advice would you give for anyone thinking of applying to study Architecture?

CH – I’d say go for it. It is a very intensive course and there will be times when it gets too much, but the great benefit of architecture as a degree is the wide variety of skills you learn. If you decide after Part I that it’s not for you, it’s very easy to move to a profession with similar skills depending on your strengths. I know people who left architecture after Part II who have gone on to be journalists, photographers, graphic designers, 3D visualisers and environmental consultants. All these people had developed skills in these fields while studying architecture before later specialising. If architecture is what you want to do though, I would recommend trying to get as broad an experience in practice as early as possible. Within the one profession there are some roles which are similar to studying and others which are another world (depending on where you study too, of course). Once you work out what floats your boat, carry on working at it.

ME – Great advice to anyone considering architecture I think!

ME – With such intense study what do you do to relax? Do you travel, go to gigs…etc?

CH – For a while I would mostly go to the pub/clubs/gigs with friends -just the usual, but after so long in front of a computer I’ve started to crave something a little more the polar opposite to the stationary position. I’ve been scuba diving and bungee jumping recently and hope to keep that kind of thing up. You need the physical side of things to stop your body from just being a way of moving your brain from place to place (which is how it felt at the end of Part II!).

ME – So what is next for you?

CH – I’m currently working at Jestico + Whiles in London on the education team which is an education in itself! I’m learning lots and developing my skills when it comes to actually getting things built. This was important to me as I didn’t have much experience in this from Part I as I opted instead to work on three short placements in the year(which included OMA and Zaha Hadid so was working on large projects with a small window to observe/work on them).

One of the things I was determined to do when I finished Part II though, was to try to keep up my momentum. I didn’t want to find my design ability rusty in ten years time, so I thought I’d better get stuck in. I was fortunate last year to win a competition to design a £20,000 reception desk (which is currently going through some mechanical issues but will hopefully begin construction soon); get shortlisted and commended for a RIBA London competition (which resulted in an exhibition in the National Theatre[http://tinyurl.com/6ydyxoj]); and work with artist Matthew Derbyshire (which got some great reviews and a piece of my work on sale at the Tate – albeit for a weekend! [http://tinyurl.com/ya4jyrx]).

Moving forward, I hope this year will be just as fun. I was invited to undertake a research project at the Bartlett which is ongoing until May and I’m also working with Matthew Derbyshire again on a new installation which will (hopefully) be the first of my work to go to outside of the country. Things are busy but it’s always better to be busy than bored…though a lie-in wouldn’t go amiss!

Boidus would like to say a big thank you to Chris Hildrey and we wish him all the best with his future in Architecture.

Watch this space; it could be quite soon that we see some of his professional work published on Boidus!

Also, take a look at Chris’ website here
NB it is still under construction

The content of this article has been edited (25.01.11 and 27.01.11) and varies from the originally posted article (17.01.11).

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13 Responses to “The Mysteries of The Bartlett (UCL) Unravelled”

  1. liquidarch  on January 21st, 2011

    It is interesting to see that the perceived “elite” schools of architecture (especially in regards to Grad programs and the like) are little different to anywhere else. Pity though that the excessive hours put in during student-hood are often repeated, endlessly and abusively, within the profession. Having been a student and also taught in several schools of architecture, crazy hours and all-nighters are inevitable. But there is an element of validating and possibly glorifying the no-sleep lifestyle – which might have an element of fun and comeraderie as a student, but quickly translates to low wages in the real world. Somehow we need to strike a balance everywhere!

  2. disgruntled_  on January 21st, 2011

    liquidarch, that is very true! long hours turn into an obsession (or quitting). once a student has this obsession they freely continue it into th profession to be exploited.

    architects were once highly regarded, but now they outsource most of their work and dont value their design skills. they sell themselves too cheaply, and as soon as one practice does this, the others compete in a downward cycle

  3. Robert Pike  on January 23rd, 2011

    I think it is tenuous to suggest students working long hours directly leads to low wages. Low wages is as a result of Architects racing to the bottom of the fee scales in trying to meet clients desire to charge a minimum for the service. Low wages are a consequence of that and it just so happens students are easy pickings for free work or minimum wage because surprisingly students want to work after years of study. In pro prac studies they don’t mention exploitation and selling out.

    The question is as a practitioner do you do the same?

  4. Robert Pike  on January 23rd, 2011

    You should also ask Chris if Jestico and Whiles take advantage of him. I do have admiration for that practice who have a very good pragmatic approach to architecture and promote sustainability in a wholistic way. They lectured at LSBU when I was there and I found that their approach went beyond the tick box approach and addressed everything from the cost aspect- which is often the downfall- up to post occupancy issues.

    I like the way that the Bartlett and UCL as a whole creates opportunities for students through contact with live work opportunities such as that suggested above. This is why it is importnat for students to get in to one of these established places. My fiancee is a Translation MSC student at Imperial and gains a lot including her current employment from being at a prestigious institution. She has gained contacts in useful places such as the European Union. It is the same for my brother who read MA Geology. Hard work and application at these places opens doors! I am envious of that.

    I think the point about avoiding rustiness is a good one. I feel rusty right now and I only six months out of part 2. The trouble is that it is easy to get stuck and so I admire Chris’s proactivity an success.

  5. Annie Chu  on January 23rd, 2011

    In my estimation, as a student, you have 168 hours available per week, take away a minimum of 77 hours for necessary activities as a person with a human body in the modern world, take away about 16 hours of instructional time in school, and you are left with a maximum of 75 hours.
    If you work even two days a week, that available time for school work drops to about 60 at best.
    As we all know, it is extremely difficult to work and have enough time to deliver on the project’s ambitions.
    In the US, schools of architecture typically allocate 10-18 hours of studio instructional contact time and several more hours of seminar time. (some of that time of course can be independent work as well depending on the structure designed by each instructor/tutor)
    I set a guideline of minimum 3 hours of independent work for every hour of class time. That translates to having to dedicate a minimum of 60 some hours in order to achieve adequate development. My advice to even the most disciplined students who must work is to keep that under 16 hours a week.
    It is a total shame that students can no longer spend a summer working to save up the money they will need to pay for school / or at least supplies and living expenses.
    The disturbing trend in the US = higher education is rapidly becoming the privilege of solely the upper and upper middle class.

  6. Matt  on January 24th, 2011

    Annie, it will soon be like that in the uk too – fees are due to be trebled to around £9,000 a year! But dont quote me on the statistics, all I know for certain is that it is becoming a LOT more expensive

  7. Mark Ellery  on January 25th, 2011

    @ Robert Pike – I agree, low wages are not directly caused by students working long hours. But if you are paid a fixed yearly salary and you work more hours then the amount you are paid per hour decreases.
    On a positive note i have actually heard of some practices paying overtime (even in this current climate), I can only dream of finding a job in the construction industry that either pays a very good salary (to make up for the inevitable long hours) or pays overtime.

  8. 34rTLeSs  on January 26th, 2011

    “The content of this article has been edited (25.01.11) and varies from the originally posted article (17.01.11). Boidus would like to apologise for allowing unfounded claims to be published and any offence caused.”

    Typical – can’t write anything about The Bartlett without someone throwing their toys out of the pram!

    So who took offence?

    Thanks Chris for a great read, it was very interesting to learn about your experiences

  9. Chris Hildrey  on January 26th, 2011

    @34rTLeSs:

    Unfortunately, somebody claiming to be able to act on behalf of the Barlett threatened legal action for an answer I gave in the interview.

    However, after looking into the complaint, it has become clear that it was not made in any way by the Bartlett or UCL but rather by Kevin Kelly – a graduate of the Bartlett and somebody who I considered a friend until now. I’m quite honestly baffled as to what his motivation was and saddened to receive his threats of legal action towards myself and Boidus.

    Both Mark and I wanted this interview to be an interesting insight into my experiences at the Bartlett. I did not expect to receive emails pretending to be someone able to act on behalf of the Bartlett and threaten to try to get me removed from the school.

    This is not even to mention my utter confusion at why he felt he had to hide behind a pseudonym rather than simply call or email me and take his concerns up with me personally.

    Fortunately, he was careless enough to email Mark from an email address already used with me personally and so the bizarre charade came to an end. Be warned of this should you receive any emails from an email starting ‘bigbox80′ or the full email address ‘bartlettstudent@yahoo.co.uk’.

    Hopefully the question and answer will be reinstated in the interview (albeit in a more watertight form) and this whole sorry mess can go away.

    The Bartlett really is a great school full of insanely talented students and faculty. Please don’t let the acts of one bad apple ruin your perception.

    I’m glad what’s left of the interview was interesting to read.

    Chris

  10. Robert Pike  on January 29th, 2011

    @Mark That is a pretty obvious point.

  11. Kamueku Kakizaki  on June 22nd, 2011

    Good interview to get an idea of private (elite?) architecture programs in the UK. Needless to say, I would add that in the US, a large number of students in prestigious programs come out of school, which ranges from 2 – 3.5 years, with loans/debt in the range of purchasing a flat. Its the American way.

    Long hours, thinking of architecture in dreams, caffeinated, and relatively poor, architecture is the worst business to be in if you are looking economically. But its the best field if you are passionate and want to be surrounded by creative, fun, well-dressed, and sexy people!

  12. Mark  on June 28th, 2011

    has anyone seen the 2011 summer show?
    We’d love to hear your comments!

    http://www.bdonline.co.uk/5020546.article?origin=BDdaily

  13. John  on July 18th, 2011

    an amazing video of “robots in brixton” from 2011 bartlett exhibition -
    http://www.geeksaresexy.net/2011/07/02/featured-3d-short-the-robots-of-brixton-video/


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