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Architectural Assistant Mirabell Schmidt completed her Masters of Architecture degree at the University of Westminster in 2018. She joined Bryden Wood shortly thereafter and now returns to her alma mater to help crit the next generation of architects. We caught up with her to find out about her involvement in the Westminster program as well as to get her take on what young architects can learn from this seemingly daunting practice.
BW: How did you get involved with the University of Westminster's crit program and what do you enjoy about being involved?
M: As I studied at Westminster for both my undergraduate and postgraduate degree, I have come to know some of the tutors quite well. On top of this, when studying for my Masters degree, I worked as a PAL (Peer Assisted Learning) assistant for undergraduate students. This is a new initiative set up by Westminster, which involves older students helping teach the younger ones. I assisted in sketching workshops, tutorials, formal reviews as well as crits and certain presentations for year 1 undergraduate architecture and interior architecture students. As a result of my experience, I have on two occasions since graduating been asked to help out at crits as part of the panel. I really enjoy the experience and am very grateful to be given the opportunity to attend. Even though I am there to help the students, I don't think it is only about them benefiting from the experience. I believe it is hugely important for architects to stay involved in architectural education, not only in order to help tutor the next generation of architects, but also to take inspiration, ideas and thought processes from student work back into real world practice. At University we are encouraged to create provoking, abstract, sensitive, conceptual and sometimes impossible design briefs and projects, testing the limits of the designer and the possibilities of architecture; skills that should never be forgotten.
BW: What and who does a crit typically involve?
M: A crit involves the students individually presenting their design work project to a panel of critics. The panel is typically made up of their tutors, visiting tutors from either the same university or another one, external academics, recent graduates and other external people working in or somehow involved in design, architecture or the built environment. The student pins up all their printed sheets on the wall and is then given a set amount of time to explain their work, the design process, the inspiration and their proposal, which is then followed by feedback by the panel and a critical discussion on how to push the project forward and improve it.
BW: What areas are assessed?
M: The students are primarily assessed on their ability to critically develop a design brief, analyse and propose a solution, which responds to the needs of the users and society. On top of this, it is also important to develop a successful and clear way of explaining and presenting their ideas through a range of media, such as drawings, sketches, models and collages as well as through verbal presentation.
BW: When you participated in crits as a student, what were the benefits of them and how did they help your development as an architect/designer?
M: Thinking back, I actually think one incredibly important benefit was learning that sometimes you need to step back from your work in order to take it forwards, not only physically by pinning up your work on the wall and watching it from a distance, but also through bouncing ideas off other people and understanding great design comes out of discussions and talking to others, whether they are your tutors, strangers, friends or family. It is easy, especially as a student only recently starting your journey in architecture, to get stuck by working hard on your own and only relying on yourself in improving your design work. This is when the crits force you to step out of your own 'bubble' and explain your thought processes and ideas to others. As a result, you will understand its weaknesses and strengths and gain the insight of your critics from an outside view; things that might be obvious but as you have been too close to your own work, you have failed to see yourself. After having experienced a number of crits, you will become increasingly independent in seeing your work through other people's points of views. This has definitely helped me develop into a better designer; allowing yourself to be critical and realising this critical mindset is what will make you a better designer.
BW: What's the worse thing about them?
M: Crits can definitely cause a lot of stress and nervosity, but as you go through your studies you start getting used to the format of presenting your work and understand what is expected of you, which makes the experience much more enjoyable and rewarding. Students sometimes wrongly think of crits as an occasion for your tutors to tell you everything you've done wrong, but should instead be seen as an opportunity to discuss the project and its aims objectively.
BW: What one piece of advice would you give to an architecture student prepping for their crit?
M: I would probably say it's incredibly important to have a plan on how you will be presenting your work. Don't forget you will be presenting in front of people who may have never seen your work before, so be clear and to the point. It's also really important to keep an open mind to any feedback you might get. It's easy to get defensive when you're being critted because at that time you define yourself through your project (having worked on it consistently for weeks and weeks, often losing sleep to get those drawings finished), but a crit is not there to judge you and your worth but to ultimately make you a better architect.