Notes for New Students


A Practical Guide to Architecture School

notes for new students

a practical guide to architecture school

Amelyn ng

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.

General Notes:

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

elusive) deadlines.

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

Masters program)

3. Design intensives over winter/summer

4. Travel prizes for design competitions

Skara Cathedral

Gothenburg Travelling Studio, Sweden

on student life

03 04

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.

make conversation

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



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


on presentation


on presentation

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

out there.

07 09

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!


on design


on design

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

information, etc.


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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