notes for new students
a practical guide to architecture school
M.Arch (1st Class Hons) B.Envs (1st Class Hons)
2014 Graduate Class, University of Melbourne
After six years of absorbing, exploring, experimenting,
enduring, and persisting through highs and lows right
to the very pinnacle of thesis- I have at last graduated
from my Master of Architecture, and feel like a
mountain has been conquered.
Like many others before me, I can vouch for the
fact that basically everything you’ve heard about
architecture school is true- the fast pace, the toil,
the sleepless nights. But there is also the very real
excitement, the rewarding fruit of your labour, the
lifelong bonds formed between comrades (er, friends).
As I navigated my way through student life, I began
to notice that there were many valuable lessons
that remained unsaid- there wasn’t a passing-down
or sharing of experiences regarding the nitty-gritty,
day-to-day realities of the architecture student. This
disconnect in the learning chain seems to have caused
many early-year students to either give up from
premature frustration or flail about until they forge
their own path. Don’t get me wrong- it is undoubtedly
imperative to find your own legs in the design
profession- but in lieu of a kick-start, this little booklet
hopes to shed some preliminary insight into what
you’re about to step into, and things to keep in mind.
Like architecture, many things in this guide are
subjective. Some of these tips may seem obvious to
you now. Other parts might even verge on the pedantic.
But hey, don’t say you weren’t told... And if you’re not
already meticulous or slightly OCD by nature, don’t
worry- most of you will be by the time you graduate.
Robin Boyd Studio Intensive
Walsh St House, South Yarra
May this informal guide be of service to what are soon
to be the best, most unforgettable years of your life.
So on that note: welcome to architecture school.
on student life
keep a sketchbook
...but not merely because you ‘have to’.
I know you’ve heard this before. In fact you
might go so far as to say you aren’t someone
naturally draws well, or that sketchbooks are
a hassle, or there is no need for traditional
drawings because computers are the future...
However, intrinsic to the pursuit of
architecture is the very physical act of
recording, documenting, notating. Your hand
is ultimately a natural, immediate extension
of your brain. In the age of digital imagery,
the persuasive power of the pen must not
be underestimated. A sketchbook also
helps you catalogue your student project
chronologically, making it much easier for the
future you to trace back over your processes
and put together your design submission
documents at the end of semester.
1. Don’t treat it like a ‘dear diary’.
2. Leave yourself a paper trail for later!
When any design thought comes to you,
put it in the book.
3. Don’t be afraid to get messy with it. It’s
not your Year 12 art folio- if you need
to scribble or cancel out things to make
better ideas happen- do it!
My ideas at uni often emerged out of a messy
sketching process: be it on-site, from memory or
imagination, based on readings and texts, etc.
Here you can see I also annotate compulsively...
on student life
travel as much as possible
Yes, that travelling studio is calling your name.,.
Something magical happens to your perspective
when you completely saturate yourself in a new
culture and environment, with new friends and
new ways of thinking, seeing and doing. The
rest of your study responsibilities will pale in
comparison to your immersive experiences (that
is, of course, until you inevitably return to the
reality of work that has accumulated in your
absence- but don’t let that faze you). What I am
trying to say here is that if you can rustle up
the funds, any student travel during your time at
university is truly worth the effort.
Being a student you are a prime candidate for
travel. There are grants, subsidies, cheap flights
and mobility scholarships exclusively available
to students- you just have to pin them down and
get your application in there before those (often
Some Ways to Travel:
1. Exchange programs (don’t be daunted
by paperwork! Uni makes it much easier
than doing it on your own)
2. Travelling Studios (offered in the
3. Design intensives over winter/summer
4. Travel prizes for design competitions
Gothenburg Travelling Studio, Sweden
on student life
on student life
As we all know, architecture is by and
large a very serious profession and is
to be treated as such. But when you are
faced with a burgeoning workload, looming
deadlines, daunting crits, software crashes
and last-minute printing troubles (all of
which are painfully familiar to virtually every
design student on earth), you must be able
to laugh. You must stand back from it all,
shrug off the seriousness, and recognise the
ultimate joy in what you have set out to do.
Then of course, do it all over again and pray
that the next iteration turns out better...
Practice humour and humour practice. This
helps develop big-picture thinking alongside
an attention to detail: both essential traits
that architects must learn to balance over
the rest of their careers.
For those who have been in school for a few
years and are feeling a bit jaded- don’t let
the course overwhelm you. Just think of the
Situationists. The spontaneous, ludic part of
our profession (otherwise known as ‘fun’) is
still alive and essential to survival.
When you look back on your student life in
years to come, it is likely that you will not
be able to quote those readings nor recall
the dates of famous buildings (that said, it
is also equally likely that you won’t need to).
You will, however, remember your moments
of personal revelation.
No matter how big or small, the discussions
you have now with your peers, professors
and other professionals, make valuable
impressions on the young mind and create
these ‘moments’ that cumulatively influence
your design inclinations, career decisions
and perception of the world at large.
Now you might chance upon these jewel-like
conversations over lunchtime banter or
accidental corridor chats. But for the most
part, you must engage in discourse first, in
order for it to give back to you. Speaking
up in class might initially seem like an
unpopular choice, but this gets old fast.
Because active participation, especially
while you’re at university, is one of the
rare few ways you can get answers and
feedback, make yourself heard, test out
ideas without losing marks, and earn extra
credit- all at the same time.
on student life
BE THRIFTY WITH materials
Model-making is an integral part of architecture
education, with an increasing variety of
available means and media to choose from.
Hand-made models, laser cutting, card cutting,
3D resin printing, CNC routering... it can all add
up, leaving you to stinge on other crucial things
like print quality.
I know how easy it is to get carried away when
you’re wandering the model-supplies aisles of
Eckersley’s with infinite possibilities running
through your head and a student discount card
in your hand.
Chalmers Architecture School, Sweden
Dungeon of costly student models (now gathering dust)
But it’s probably unnecessary to make sketch
models out of quality foam core, personally own
a glue gun, buy a bag of fake grass or an entire
roll of wire mesh. You might find that ordinary
corrugated cardboard works far better for
massing studies, or that someone already has a
roll of wire lying around. Save the cash for your
thesis booklet and final presentation panelsthat’s
when you want to pull out all the stops.
Even if you have the cash, please remember
that unless you’re intentionally doing something
postmodern or emulating a legendary Koolhaas
model, fake grass is huge no-no.
Quick 1:1 Prototype Testing
Recycled cardboard and masking tape
learn indesign early
try not to read off a script
A rookie mistake is to do all your large format
presentation layouts in Photoshop. You may end
up with a massive file that verges on crashing
whenever you try to export a high quality PDF
or update text... InDesign is your friend. I would
personally develop Adobe Suite skills up to a
level of confidence, before getting into all the
parametric doodads and 3D rendering software
Based on the sheer amount of quality time one
spends with their design project over semester
alone, I would honestly advise losing the palm
cards on presentation day. You don’t want to be
looking down, misreading lines and looking unsure
about your design when deep down you know every
aspect by heart. Take time to practise in an empty
room the day before and put visual cues in your
drawings that enable you to talk to the work.
plan your time
Time management works (surprise!).
You’ve probably spent a lot of time talking about
how little time you have; now it’s time to act on
it. Draw up a visual chart, make a checklist and
track your deadlines from the get-go.
Avoid designing down to the last second before
doing a shoddy job with photoshopping and
printing. Allocate at least 2-3 days at the end
for rendering images, editing drawings, at least
a day for curating and organising panel layouts,
and at least another full day for printing. It also
helps to write out a project summary which
structures your final presentation and really
clarifies what your project is trying to achieveextremely
useful when explaining and defending
your project in the finals.
present with credibility
Make sure your work is logically sequenced, with
an easy-to-follow narrative, so that your audience
arrives at the same conclusions and epiphanies as
you. While it is difficult to present like an ‘expert’
in the field as a student, use all the research you
have to back up the project on your own terms.
remember the little things
Include a scale bar with all your drawings, and
make sure your photoshopped people are not
weirdly enormous. Run a spell check. Make a
model that isn’t overly fiddly or prone to collapse.
Don’t give your crits any chance to be distracted!
look to non-archi sources
Ideas come from all sorts of places, not
just from design magazines and Archdaily.
Expand your field of inquiry into other
disciplines: physics, music, history, theatre,
engineering, the weather, interviews with the
public, technology, philosophy, gastronomy,
anatomy, traditional crafts, informal
practices... Visit exhibitions, interview
people, try new ways of representing
copying is boring
By all means learn from successful projects
and reference them as design precedents,
but try to be original in the formulation
of your own project. Draw your own
conclusions, and unless your proposal is
truly novel, try to steer away from typical
student project ‘trends’. Examples include:
- shipping container housing
- a mobius-strip building
- anything that people would immediately
associate with a starchitect ‘style’
- BIG-diagram replicas
- all-white, material-less buildings
projects are not skin deep
Don’t design purely for the sake of having
beautiful images in your final presentation
and portfolio. Make sure your project has
real substance and intent, research that can
stand up to scrutiny, personal passion (ie.
really love your project) and logical integrity
(ie. know exactly why you made the decisions
you did to arrive at the final outcome). Out of
a thoughtful, cohesive project that you care
about, beautiful images will naturally emerge.
Add depth and complexity that supports
the core idea of your design. Also note that
‘sustainability’ alone is not a concept.
tell a story
The best projects, in my view, not only display
architectural competence, but also paints
a convincing picture of the context they’re
situated in and the problem they’re responding
to. Try to see yourself as an author of a new
novel that no one yet knows the storyline to.
Help them understand the characters in your
story, make all the same discoveries you did,
and recognise all the literary elements and
clever twists in the plot you created.
hope you enjoyed these notes!
All Images & Text © 2015 Amelyn Ng
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