Skip to content

Grading Criteria

Post date:


For architecture instructors, the interval between end of classes and end of semester is a time for reflecting on what they’ve taught and on how to evaluate and document the outcome. Teaching and learning objectives are invariably attained but what of those famous intangibles architecture is supposed to have? If they can’t be taught, then instructors have no right to grade students according to them. Let’s scan the gamut from expected to exceptional.

1. Punctuality

Can the student cope? 

Competition entries arriving at their destination used to have to bear a postmark before a certain date and time. A similar requirement now exists for the receipt of emailed submissions and anything received beyond that cutoff is disregarded and discarded, along with all work that’s gone into the making of that submission. This is how I explain the importance of submitting on time. Another way is to say your boss is not going to be pleased with you if he/she has to go to a client meeting with nothing to show. Both these situations have a direct bearing on marketing and cashflow – the only two things that matter in the business of architecture. Clients aren’t impressed by stories of laptop failure, panic attacks, insufficient ink or paper, or the third untimely death of a grandmother.

2. Compliance

Can the student follow instructions? 

Companies invariably have rules, standards and procedures in place for a reason and that reason is most likely to be quality assurance – which, unsurprisingly, also has a direct bearing on marketing and cashflow even if the cashflow link is mostly via risk management. Evaluating the adherence to standards is simple enough but, in a university situation, drawing and drafting standards are as good as any. None are particularly onerous or difficult to satisfy. Thesy are things of no great import and often the first to be ignored or “looked over” if a design is belived to have redeeming qualities. Now the battle begins. I tell students A0 is 841 x 1189 mm and not whatever the person at the shop gives them, and that there’s a special place in my heart for drawings with borders and a basic title block neatly filled.

3. Understanding

Does the student understand the requirements or are they just complied with? 

Some corporate standards may seem to have little logic but the built environment is subject to many municipal and national regulations that simply must be observed. Fire-escape regulations differ from country to country but they generally follow the same principles and for the same goal. One complies, but compliance is often not enough.

If someone understands the intention of a standard or a rule then they’ll be able to apply it intelligently, and know when some external factor may interfere to prevent even compliant work from having the intended effect. There are very good reasons why vehicular access within specified distances from a road intersection are prohibited and much time can be saved if standards regulating site access and traffic flow are understood rather than merely complied with. Fire escape and accessibility standards also have their own logic that all designers should strive to comprehend. If they can’t, then what we have is a failure of the next quality.

4. Empathy

Is the student able to imagine themselves as a user of this building?

Knowing when some external factor might interfere to prevent compliant work from having the intended effect requires Imagination. Imagination crops up in various guises in this list. Buildings are complex things that need to be designed before they can exist and designing them involves imagining how they are going to be. Designing a ramp to enter a basement car park involves imagining what it will be like for a driver going down that ramp and navigating an unfamiliar road system. The designer has to make it as simple and safe as possible for drivers to do that and without endangering people who might be walking between their cars and the stairs or elevators. Having an Understanding of vehicle turning radii and how to design the car park to be easily navigable is important but, as a general indicator of Empathy, the first thing I look for is “No surprises at the bottom of the ramp!”

5. Problem Solving

Is the student able to imagine a solution to the problem?

Some problems are easily identified and how to solve them is obvious. Others are less easily identified but, once they are, their solutions are obvious. Or they may not be. Either way, as William Peña said in his book Problem Seeking “you can’t solve a problem unless you know what it is.” He’s right, but there’s more than one kind of problem.

A) Problems one is asked to solve

Has the student solved the problem they were asked to? 

This applies when the problem comes pre-formulated as a brief or program and the solution is expected to be a building that satisfies it. In a university situation, it is expected that much of the solution will be informed by Compliance and Understanding.

B) Problems one creates oneself

Has the student solved any problems they may have inadvertently created?

It’s very common for this new type of problem to arise when attempting to solve the first type of problem. The cause is not to be found in the original problem but in some poor decision made somewhere along the process of attempting to solve it. All design decisions have consequences that reduce the possibilities for future ones and, as an instructor, I try to teach students how to identify that chain of decisions so they can backtrack and discover where it started to go wrong. A design project for a small hotel will usually give sufficient scope for a student to create all manner of problems for themselves. Any problems will usually make themselves apparent when the student gets around to finding a position for the service elevators that can’t compromise the typical hotel room floor, the back-of-house at both ground floor level and function room level, and the underground car park. A student is doing very well if he or she can conceive of a three-dimensional configuration that neatly solves this as well as everything else.

C) Problems one sets oneself

Has the student fallen in love with their first idea?

Somewhere between B) and C) lies creativity but, despite everyone being keen to evaluate it, creativity can’t be a grading criteria if no-one knows how to teach it. People can obviously recognize it or the semblance of it, but what is it they are seeing? Are they seeing a creative solution to a real problem? Or are they seeing a solution validated by the creative selection of the problem to be solved? The difference is as murky as ever, and becomes no clearer when the metric of creativity is “strength” of “concept” or “parti” as the chief organising thought or decision guiding an architect’s solution to a problem. I usually suggest students begin to look for an organizing concept where there is alignment between the physical context of the site and its environmental context. It doesn’t always work but it’s a good place to start.

Paul Rudolph said Mies van der Rohe’s buildings were great only because they solved so few problems. In other words, the type of problem that interested Mies was the type he could solve in the way he wanted to solve it. Any self-proclaimed “research-driven practice” is expert at choosing problems that can display how well and how characteristically they have solved them. The unfortunate message this sends to students is that a poorly-framed problem can still produce a brilliant solution.

Even outside of a university context, it’s always good to ask what problem a particular building proposal solves.

The building on the left solves the problem identified by the client (and the general population) in an elegant and intelligent manner while the building on the right solves the problem of how to get a 50-storey advertisement for its architects into the middle of Paris.  

Framing the problem to suit the solution is a marketing and promotion gambit that creates its own need as clients begin to see their needs in terms of how architects can solve them. It’s certainly the case that if a client wants media attention then a whole generation of architects is willing to assist.

Our era is defined by noise and the pointless churn of media architecture. This unhealthy situation is mirrored in universities where students are pressured to treat each project as an opportunity to demonstrate what they can do and have to offer. It’s often the case that the flashier projects are those chosen to represent architectural excellence over those that apply understanding and imagination and achieve more with more conventional means.

Some students understand immediately that this is how it works and tailor each project for how it will present in their folio that itself will be tailored to appeal to a certain type of employer. They enter their chosen company and invariably find themselves being presented as designers on the marketing and business development side of things. On the one hand, this is poetic justice but, on the other, it creates a self-perpetuating system in which the people who play the role of being architects are the ones thought of as architects. Take your pick. As an example, Sartre identified the bad faith waiter acting the role of a waiter. [c.f. Existental Architecture: Being There]

6. Generosity

Has the student brought anything else to the project?

Generosity is not about overwork and the ostentious production of unasked-for drawings. It is about when a designer imagines how nice something could be for a user even if it wasn’t asked for and includes it in their design because they expect a user to appreciate it. It’s the adding of value that is not asked for but that costs next to nothing (unlike “gold-plating” or scope creep). Talk of architectural generosity is now in vogue. Papers are being written.

I’m not the only one who thinks this notion of generosity is important.¹

Architects like to call things like windows and living room proportions “generous” as if they’d paid for them themselves but this isn’t generosity and nor is freespace. We should be clear about this now before, if it’s not already too late, Utzon and his bench are coöpted as Aravena did Maria Reiche and her ladder. Space is expensive stuff and the term unsolicited spatial gifts has a touch of oxymoron about it.

Grafton Architects’ ‘freespace undercroft’ at the Universita Luigi Bocconi in Milan is a large, accessible, non-prescriptive space but providing a space that a client can monetize in a multitude of ways should not be being called generosity. There’s more architectural generosity to be seen in letting people on the street have a free view of the goings-on in the undercroft even though the only person appreciating it for us is the photographer.

This photograph illustrates the gap between generosity and the representation of generosity. The people in the architectural space are benefitting from that space taking from the public realm and all that’s being given back is a reflected orange glow and a view of what’s happening down there. It’s better than nothing I suppose.

Malls and apartments have been very much on my mind these past few months and I used MVRDV’s Markthal in Rotterdam as an example in class on more than one occasion. Making the apartment component of the project into a habitable wall monetized the view of a covered marketplace and though this may be intruiging for the occupants it offers little back to persons in the market. There’s no generosity here.

Guiseppe Mengoni’s 1865 Galleria Vittorio Emanuel II is public space as spatial event and greater than the sum of its three parts. Everyone benefits from this spatial gift whether they are using the covered passageway, the stores along it, or in the apartments above it. I hashed this out a bit in the post Living Above Shops.

In the end, my working through of the semester’s design problem turned out okay and using the apartment blocks to create an external atrium for the mall worked as had I imagined even though I did embarrass myself (and reassure students) with the poor craftsmanship of my model.

I was pleased I was able to add a couple of windows letting residents look directly into the mall and observe its goings-on at any time day or night. I was more pleased to see one of my students think of doing exactly the same thing and very pleased to see his work better than mine. My windows were along a fire-protected corridor connecting an auxiliary fire-escape stair to the residential elevator lobby from which the rooftop amenity space was accessed – i.e. well out of the way, but his were in the residential elevator lobbies used by all residents going to and from the rooftop amenity space. His was the greater act of generosity. This gives me hope.

(hope) → 😀

We’re going to need it if talk of generosity is already being framed in terms of the giver and not the receiver. Self-conscious giving of unsolicited gifts is not generosity but pseudo-altruism. Generosity only exists if the unsolicited gifts are of benefit to the receiver, and seems to be a good criteria to evaluate not just future architects but the ones we have now. A revisionist history of architecture wouldn’t be amiss. McNamara and Farrell are right to draw our attention to generosity in architecture for it’s the first concept we have that has the potential to counter the architecture of neoliberalism. However, if multi-monetizable space is already being hyped as the new generosity then it’s game over even before it begins, and the bienalle will not showcase the emergence of generosity but its assimilation and neutralization as a source of hope.


• • •