The ‘crit’ as a learning experience
Rolf Johansson* and Sofia Sandqvist**
Landscape Architecture Unit, Department of Urban and Rural Development, Swedish
University of Agricultural Sciences, Uppsala.
The teaching in design schools is built around ‘the crit’. The aim of this pilot study is to
identify the most urgent issues for further development of ‘the crit’ as a learning experience
and a form of examination. In this study we have interviewed experienced critics from schools
of art, architecture and landscape architecture.
‘The crit’ plays an essential role in architectural educations, both to organise collaborate
learning situations, and as an exercise for a professional role. Further, it creates an
opportunity to discuss project works on a higher, conceptual, level by making comparisons.
Ideally ‘the crit’ is a dialogue, which involves critics and students.
The interviewed critics express a need for both informal and more formal project reviews.
This calls for a need to distinguish between different procedures for reviews during a studio
course, and reviews when projects are finalized. Another issue is to further develop the
portfolio as a basis for evaluation of the students’ design process.
The physical setting for the project review is important. It needs to be suitable for
presentations in the different medium the students use, and provide good visual contacts
between presenters, critics, and other students. The settings for informal formative project
reviews and the more formal summative reviews are ideally quite different.
The project review or the ‘crit’ has a central role in all educations in Art and Architecture.
This has been the case since the 1890s, when the tradition started in the Ecole des Baux Arts
(Parnell et al. 2007). The teaching in design schools is built around ‘design critics’. The
review fills several needs: Firstly, it gives the students the opportunity to practice and
improve their intra disciplinary language skills and as a direct consequence of this, provides a
better knowledge of the subject as such. Secondly, it functions as a learning experience,
developing the students design skills. Thirdly, criticism of design proposals may be an
assessment point and, as such, serve as a basis for grading. Besides being an assessment of the
student's presentation of his or her project, the ‘crit’ also reproduces the social relations in the
architectural profession (Vowles 2007). The review prepares the student for a professional
life, where “a similar criticising process takes place between the designer and his office
principal, between client and architect, between architect and contractor, between urban
designer and the Urban Design Commission, between users of a building and the building
itself, between legislator and the profession.” (Attoe 1978).
The aim of this study is to develop forms of criticism, which are components of a pedagogical
strategy within our Landscape Architecture Programme. The results presented here are from a
pilot study with the purpose of identifying the most urgent issues for further development. In
this study we have used questionnaires and in depth interviews with experienced critics from
schools of Art, Architecture and Landscape Architecture.
Why do we need ‘the crit’?
All interviewees agree that critique is a most important component of teaching in
Architecture. It is an effective way to take part of all students’ proposals and it also serves as
a learning experience. One of the interviewed critics argue: [The critique is] a way of
common sharing of the results from all students’ project works; to devote a few hours [to ‘the
crit’] when all students have been working on their own proposals and maybe not have had
the time to contemplate what other students have presented, is important, and another
interviewee argued: ‘The crit’ is an effective way to find out what has been done in a situation
of collective learning.
It is possible to distinguish two main reasons why ‘the crit’ plays an essential role in
architectural educations; ‘the crit’ is an effective way to organise collective learning
situations, and it also serves as an exercise for the architect’s professional role. One of the
interviewees explains: It is an important pedagogical tool. [It is] a dialogical method, and
constitutes training for a professional life.
An argument to why we need ‘the crit’ that has been expressed by the interviewed critics, is
that through ‘the crit’, what has been produced in the studio course is lifted to a higher
reflective level. The conceptual notions embedded in the project works are discussed. A
respondent to the questionnaire says that: A conversation with the student about his or her
intensions with the work advances the work quickly. I believe the critical conversation is
necessary to improve both the design and the thoughts behind it. It provides a resistance that
fosters the student’s ability of backing up the design proposal with arguments.
Another reason to why we need ‘the crit’, mentioned by several interviewees, is that it is an
indispensable way to acquire the necessary skills to use a professional language. The ability to
develop the skills how to master concepts, was mentioned by the interviewees as the most
central role of the critique in architectural educations.
How to structure a good critique?
The interviewed and surveyed critics agree that ‘the crit’ ideally should be a dialogue between
at least two critics, and the student presenting, and other students. Two of the interviewed
critics emphasize that the critique needs to be chaired by the teacher responsible for the studio
project. The reasons, they say, are to guarantee that the evaluation is focused on the purpose
of the project and that it is related to the development of the individual students. One of the
interviewees said she has a specific method when she acts as critic: “As a responsible teacher
I try to be the first to speak … to set the agenda and identify the issues in focus. A risk with
‘the crit’ is that the discussion falls outside the topic. I make sure that the external critics
know they have the responsibility to focus the critique on the most relevant issues. I inform
both students and teachers about that. The worst thing that could happen is that the overall
themes are left out and only details discussed. It easily happens at the end of the day when
you are tired.
All of the interviewed critics emphasized that it is important to have a team of critics, at least
two, of which one should be a practitioner, and that the group of students should not be too
big, ideally about ten. One of the interviewed critics said, when asked what the most effective
form for ‘the crit’ might be from a qualitative perspective: “to be able to afford to engage
outstanding practitioners, who are capable of delivering qualitative opinions. To have guests
who understand that it is an educational situation, and not an opportunity to show off and just
find fault in others. Guest critics of high quality have a tremendous input. It does not matter
how good you are as a teacher, the students need a second opinion.
The critics need to be well prepared and familiar with all design proposals. If so, they are able
to categorize the students’ proposals and compare their different approaches to the topic. They
can avoid limiting themselves to discuss just one proposal at a time, which facilitates for them
to focus on the leading ideas instead of the details. By being well prepared and arrange the
students’ project works thematically, they enable ‘the crit’ to reach another dimension, one
interviewee argued, and explained: That the teachers prepare carefully and really have
something to say at ‘the crit’, is most important, then they will lift the work to another level
for the student to continue from.
The interviewees are unanimous in their view that it is equally important that the students are
well prepared for ‘the crit’. It is a conflict between this opinion and the demand, which they
also expressed, to have more informal project reviews. The solution could be to have different
procedures for a formative ‘crit’ during the process, and a summative ‘crit’ of the students’
How does ‘the crit’ function as a form of examination?
The examination of a project work includes two aspects: the result as such, and the process of
managing the task. This implies both the problem to evaluate architectural quality, and the
problem to visualize and discuss the design process. Many respondents to the questionnaire
expressed some doubts whether ‘the crit’ provides a good opportunity to make a fair
assessment of the students’ works. One comment was: The grading should not only be based
on the design proposals. Of course it depends on how the goals of the course are formulated,
but it is not to be recommended that the grade only refers to the presented design solution. It
can contradict a creative environment. A creative environment is fostered if the students feel
confident that their whole learning process is evaluated.
One of the interviewees works with both a pre-examination and a final examination to make
visible and be able to evaluate the process behind the results of the project works. A more
common method is the portfolio, where the students’ whole production is collected and
evaluated. This might lead to the students being afraid of long-term consequences from
mistakes they have made. To avoid this, one interviewee advocates the use of a “directed”
portfolio. Then the student selects the most important components of the project work to
reconstruct the process, not necessarily in chronological order. The “directed” portfolio is
evaluated together with the final project proposal.
Concerning architectural quality, none of the interviewees propose guiding principles.
Extensive practical experience and pedagogical skills are considered to be the best guarantee
for good critique. One critic calls attention to the fact that the curriculum for the course is
crucial to the quality of ‘the crit’. It is necessary to have accurate criteria in the course
curriculum. We devote a lot of time to work out the curricula.
The role of the physical setting
The results show that the quality of the physical setting for the project review is considered to
be very important. It needs to be undisturbed by other activity. At the same time it is
emphasized that it is important to exhibit ongoing activities at the school, both to other
students and to visitors. These two demands are to some extent in conflict.
One aspect of the physical setting is that it has to be suitable for presentations in the different
medium the students might use: posters, physical models or virtual models.
A conclusion from the interviews is that there is a need for different kinds of ’crits’
throughout the length of a course. This implies that there will be different and sometimes
contradicting demands on the physical setting depending on what kind of critique it is. The
formative and guiding critique situation requires a setting where the project and the process,
and not the presenting students or the critics, will be in focus. On the contrary, the final
presentation and critique situation demands a setting, which accommodates the presenting
student, the critics and an audience in a frame, that also focuses on the student and the project
presentation. One of the interviewees expressed a strong scepticism towards these highly
hierarchical situations. There is this arrangement that strongly irritates me: there is the
project hanging on the wall, the students presenting it with their backs towards the project, in
the front row sits the critics and behind them the ‘audience’. I used to problematise this
situation before. Are the presenting students the centre of attention and a target, or is it the
project, why are the critics sitting in the front row with their backs to the rest of the students.
The critic has to turn their heads every time someone from the back of the room utters an
opinion. This is not stimulating for an interesting discussion about architecture. [The
arrangement] is quite problematic.
There are good reasons to re-think the traditional setting for the project reviews, and develop
arrangements, that support dialogue and participation also by other students.
The conclusions from this pilot study are that a number of issues are identified, which will be
in focus for the next phase of the study.
Attoe (1978) advocates a definition of critique, which includes almost everything architects
do. In order to develop critique in the context of architectural education, we need to develop
distinct different modes of project reviews. The formative project review during the project
work has other objectives, than the summative ‘crit’ of the final design proposal. Therefore
the optimal procedures most probably will differ. How they differ will be one issue in focus
of the succeeding investigation.
The basis for evaluating the students’ problem solving process needs to be further developed.
How the students’ portfolio can be used and developed to serve this purpose better is a
The ideal physical setting for ‘the crit’ is another issue. We first need to identify the most
important types of critique and thereafter their ideal settings. Is the traditional hierarchical
system a good one at all? Are there other ways of arranging and organizing the different
Attoe, W. (1978). Architecture and critical Imagination. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons.
Parnell, R., Rachel S. (2007). The Crit. An architecture student’s handbook. Oxford:
Vowles H., (2000). The ‘crit’ as a ritualised legitimation procedure in architectural education.
In D. Nicol and S. Pilling (Eds.): Changing Architectural Education. London: Spon Press.