Architecture breeds stress

A ?Help ? sleep needed? sign decorates the window of one of three first-year architecture studios. Despite this reminder of constant stress, though, the space is lively on a Monday afternoon. One student hums to a tune in her iPod. Another decides to break for dinner, while a third compliments a fellow student?s work. One might find it hard to believe that this is home to the most notoriously stressful major on campus ? one that on average will graduate only two-thirds of its matriculating class.
According to DesignIntelligence?s and Design Futures Council?s annual rankings, the School of Architecture at Carnegie Mellon is the ninth-best in the nation. It?s not the only conservatory on campus that prepares professional artists, but unlike the School of Drama or the School of Music, which require portfolios or auditions in order to be accepted, prospective architecture students can enter the program with no artistic experience at all. First-year architecture majors are admitted based upon standard scales: grades, test scores, extracurricular activities, recommendations, and essays. Portfolios are left out of the picture entirely.
The first year of the program is largely formulated around conceptual projects that focus on developing the students? understanding of form and space. Each major project asks the first years to study an object, from a flower to a house, understand the system that comprises the object, and later build another form based on the same rules as those visible in the original object.
According to Alison Schloemer, a first-year architecture student, first-years often do not go home until three in the morning. During the last crunch before a big project is due, Schloemer only gets about four hours of sleep a night, and it is not rare for her to spend Friday nights in studio. ?[We] have weeks when [we] are just burned out,? she admits. She points at strategically placed couches outside of the studio room, and tells that most people utilize those to catch up on lost sleep. One student has a hammock and a microwave in his corner of the studio. During the busiest times of the semester, Schloemer abandons her regular sleep cycle and resorts to taking occasional two-hour naps throughout a 24-hour period.
This stress has a toll: The School of Architecture is known for its relatively high dropout rate. Schloemer and her peers have already lost ten of their classmates. The sophomore class that started with about 50 students is down to around 30. Many connect the attrition with the program?s lack of admittance portfolio reviews. According to Judith Kampert, the assistant head of the School of Architecture, the program graduates about 50 students out of a starting class of 75: ?Many [transfers] complain that [the program] is too much work,? Kampert said.
In other parts of the country, high dropout and transfer rates characterize top undergraduate architecture programs. The University of Cincinnati, whose program DesignIntelligence and Design Futures Council have ranked second in the country, is one that also requires no portfolio of its applicants. From an admitted class of 80, the University has about 15 first-years transfer out each year. At eighth-ranked University of Texas at Austin ? which also doesn?t require a portfolio ? there are ?a fair number? of transfers in each class, according to Louise Harpman, the associate dean for undergraduate programs of the School of Architecture at Texas.
At the fourth best undergraduate architecture school in the nation, California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, ?it is generally not unreasonable to find about 30 percent or more of the [architecture] students transfer out,? said Thomas Jones, dean of the Cal-Poly College of Architecture. Meanwhile, Cornell University is ranked first in the nation in architecture and does require a portfolio for admission ? but is not known for having a high number of transfers. Although Nasrine Seraji, the College of Architecture chair at Cornell, did not know the exact number of transfers, she said that ?not many? students change out of the highly competitive program.
Kampert pointed out that architecture dropout rates are high around the country. But beyond the workload, she claims the largest challenge for architecture students is time management. A first-year does not need previous knowledge of architecture or art, she says, but has to be disciplined in his or her work, and dedicated to the subject. ?Even with a portfolio, you don?t necessarily know what architecture is [before you enter the program],? Kampert emphasized.
?While a portfolio can be helpful for understanding one?s artistic ability, [prospective students] are very young to do an architecture portfolio,? said Kampert. According to her, the lack of a portfolio requirement helps attract students who have the potential of being extremely successful but who simply do not have enough experience to create a portfolio. Schloemer herself was attracted to Carnegie Mellon because of its no-portfolio requirement.
Dwight Yee is the ombudsman for the Architecture program at Carnegie Mellon, and serves as a liaison between the students and faculty. Yee admitted that adjusting to studio life is a large challenge for incoming first-years. He factored the school?s high drop-out rate to the fact that students do not always know what they are getting themselves into. ?They leave not because they could not succeed, but because they choose to leave,? Yee said. Those with no previous experience find the program to not be what they thought it would.
On the other hand, students who succeed in the program are ?interested [in] and inspired by everything and anything.? It is this interested personality, not necessarily experience, that Yee says results in innovation.
Part of the mission of the School of Architecture is to ?to educate outstanding professionals? in the field. ?The school asks students to produce work that meets professional standards of the working world,? Yee explained. According to Yee, the program is stressful because it consists of ?work that can be considered never-ending.? On the other hand, Yee says the school does not intend to be over-consuming. He points out that in order to be a successful and happy architect, one has to nurture interests outside of the classroom.
Schloemer is involved in Greek life, but sometimes finds balance difficult to achieve. ?It?s easy to get trapped in studio life,? she says. ?You have to make time [for extra-curricular activities].?
Jared Gargano, a sophomore mechanical engineering major, was one of the students who dropped out of his first-year architecture class. He acknowledges his change of major to have happened for multiple reasons, one of which was the fact that he was ?not doing well.? He had no experience with art, and applied to the program because of its no-portfolio requirement. Although he was assured the program expected no background knowledge, he faced a different reality when school started in the fall. The grading, he said, was largely based on highly subjective artistry, while Gargano considered himself to be more technically oriented.
Gargano compares the program to Carnegie Mellon?s drama conservatory in that its social circles are segregated from the rest of the University. As a student in the program, he says, you?re expected to spend all of your time with fellow architecture students. Although the professors don?t outwardly oppose outside involvement, ?they certainly give [you] a hard time,? he says. Even if he simply had to devote time to other academic classes, he felt frowned upon when he wasn?t sitting in studio.
Gargano also criticizes the School of Architecture?s approach to critiquing its students? work. ?Architecture professors are some of the most close-minded people I?ve ever met,? he says. He remembers being screamed at by a professor for work that did not meet the school?s standards, and found that the acknowledgement of subjectivity did not exist among his professors. ?I?d put my heart and soul into something, and it would just get ripped apart,? he remembers. Gargano says that he is not necessarily less stressed out as an engineer, but that his current major fits his personality better. He now has time to meet people from other majors, have more freedom with class choices, and benefits from extracurricular pursuits.
?Architecture is a long and worthwhile field. Don?t look for ?quick success,??? Seraji advised first-year students at Cornell. According to Thomas Jones, ?one of the problems faced in architectural education is that students who otherwise score very high on GPA and SAT scores may not always be able to master the spatial, design, analytical, and aesthetic components of the field.?
For programs that require no portfolio in a major as intense as architecture, this will most likely always be the challenge. However, both Kampert and Harpman pointed out that some of the most successful students entered the program with no previous exposure to architecture.
Said Harpman: ?Borderline admits often end up being superstars.?