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