Step back with me, if you will, to the early 90’s where a young Tony DeCastro is toiling away in architecture school.

My education as an architect was fairly common in that it centered around Design Studio, as it should.  To not do so, would be akin to the Iowa Writers Workshop centering their coursework around Reading Comprehension.  Design Studios occurred three-times per week, 4-hours per class.  We were on the quarter system, and generally you took one studio each quarter…. Each studio, typically, comprised one large design project. Sometimes you would take what was called a Couplet. This meant you took the same professor two quarters in a row with the understanding that you would work on a larger, complex project over the course of two quarters.

During studio, you worked on your project while you awaited the professor to visit your desk for a desk crit.  This may seem like a lot of time to work on a project 12-hours per week, but you’d be wrong.  At least twice the amount of time was spent after class hours.  You may also think, “that’s a lot of crits.”  You’d be right, and wrong.  It is a lot, but it also is only scratching the surface.  In addition to the desk crits every class, you also had scheduled juries, where you post your work in a gallery and other professors, classmates (sometimes from other classes), and often outside professionals were invite to give you feedback on your work.  There were also peer crits, which happened pretty much whenever you sat at your desk…and were impromptu.  As I understand it, this is pretty much the universal way of architectural education.

One of things that I recognized even as I was living through this was the result ended up being that forward motion on the project was difficult.  With three desk crits a week, and no telling how much advice outside of class time, it was pretty much guaranteed that the last week of the quarter was armageddon trying to meet deadlines.  Why?  The work was endlessly criticized and then revised.  Finishing took a lot of effort.

Another thing I noticed, some design ideas were repeated throughout the studio class.  I’ll never forget a second year studio, where I was designing a residential bank with walk-up tellers.  I had these tellers arranged in a “fan”, and the professor complemented the idea.  In the coming weeks, it was amazing (and depressing) to see “fan”-shaped tellers show up in designs throughout the class.

Other things I recognized years later:

  • We spent a lot of time on single projects.  The Architects Registration Exam’s (ARE) design section basically required us to do the same level of design in ONE day. (some of presentation-levels we were asked of in school admittedly exceed the exam requirements)
  • Almost all of the advice given in crits came down to taste.  Less about whether something actually worked, more about whether the critic liked it.
  • Most of the time, juries resulted in severely conflicting opinions.  Again taste.

Towards the end of my education one of our professors adopted a “no crit” approach to his studios. The only advise he really gave was whether he felt the student was on track for completing the work, and if there were some objective “wrongs” about the design (i.e. the vehicular traffic on site was driving on the “wrong” side of the road).  At the time, I thought this was crazy talk, as did a number of my classmates.

Looking back, I think he had it right.  And I hope that he continued to teach this way.  And I hope what this meant was that instead of one design every ten weeks, maybe he had five.  After all, when you spend no time chasing the holy grail which is an individual’s taste, things should go quicker. Also, think of all the PRACTICE this results in…more projects, varied scope, diversity, etc.

My professors were some of the most intelligent and talented individuals I have met in my life. They helped me see the world, especially the built world, in a new light. I’m forever grateful. But I hope this one professor’s method of teaching design has caught on…

I only started to appreciate this years later when I got serious about writing. Of course, this meant I took up peer critiques in earnest, because this how it is done.  And how else will I learn…

Then, I started seeing things like:

  • Sameness
  • Conflicting advice
  • Never-ending revision of works in progress
  • Projects taking over a year with no end in sight, despite writing 50,000 words in less than a month

To borrow a phrase from Yogi Berra, “It was like deja vu all over again.”  This time, it ground my creativity to a halt. It was after attending a meeting for one of the largest peer writing groups in the state… a “workshop” that I stopped writing for years. I can’t recall saying I’m going to stop writing.  There was no decision. It just sort of happened.  And when I think back, it happened right after this meeting, where a bunch of peers got together to tear each other’s work down or pat each other on the back or both.

Today, I am back writing. It is fun. I am productive.  And readers, not writers, occasionally tell me what they like (or not) about my stories.  I am a “member” of a couple of local writing groups that are mostly focused on critiques. I only make it to the other meetings. I admit that it sometimes saddens me, because I like the people…and I love to talk about writing. I have tried to figure out a way to make it work for me.  But I always come back to what I’ve learned in the past… plus, I can’t for the life of me figure out how the timing could ever work for a novelist.

So, for now, I will remain home telling my lies for fun and (hopefully sometime in the future) profit. The work itself is more enjoyable than it’s ever been.




6 thoughts on “Critique

  1. I, too, enjoy spending time with my local writing group, but mainly stay for the camaraderie and speakers (and the brunch is usually decent). I’ve learned to be a little more critical with the information I take in from my peers and also the speakers, which has helped me keep my sanity!


    1. I’m big on the camaraderie, too. And I realize this can come in bucket loads with the critiquing. I’ve just had enough (crits) to last a life time…the readers can decide.


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