Some thoughts on undergrad


If you want to see yourself in the architectural profession and want to eventually go to graduate school in architecture, do not major in architecture as a Barnard/Columbia undergrad. (This is not related to GSAPP the graduate school at Columbia, nor of the architectural profession, and is a critique on the curriculum at Barnard. I still love Columbia College and the core requirements. ) If you want to get an undergraduate degree for architecture, go to Cornell or RISD or wherever for the 5 year program, go to grad school for 1 more year (If you are financially conscious), OR major in some other things, take a few portfolio buildings classes after college, and apply for the 3 year program. (If you are well off). Do not major in architecture here. You’ll end up having to do the 3 year program anyway because you aren’t graduating with a B.Arch, maybe if you are lucky you get to advanced placement, but then AP is more competitive which lowers the likelihood of your getting into prestigious schools, so the best way is to get a high GPA, build a strong portfolio after college, and then apply.

There are a few reasons why this department is not very effective and is a waste of time. I will list them: 1. The faculty is not inspiring. 2. You probably have a lot of requirements and want to explore many things. 3. Doing this program does not give you a strong portfolio and it doesn’t equip you with the solid skills that should give you confidence to go after internships in architecture. 4. Without the #3, you mind as well major in something else because you’ll end up having to apply for the 3 year program anyway. In other words, the program is a waste of time. Major in environmental science, major in math, major in languages. Major in anything else, because as a non-major when you get an internship in architecture, you will start at the same place as the architecture majors of Barnard/Columbia, but with more solid education in another field, which will make you a more interesting person, having not dawdled your time and having given yourself a wider background.

1. The faculty is not inspiring. Truly. If you look at the department review on culpa (a teacher-rating website run by students), notice that the percentage of instructors that get silver or gold stars is very small, compared to other departments. In fact, many people in the faculty are a turnoff – they, and maybe other students who are in denial, will try to stress to you a lot of theory without teaching you solid skills. But when it comes to application, they are not very clear. They will say something like “what the teachers teach you is something greater than just computer skills.” But what exactly is it? Having read a lot of architecture discussion, I sometimes hear the same argument. But the argument often ends there, is very ambiguous, incomplete and unconvincing. Maybe it is because theory is for theory classes, but studio is a BUILDING class, which should require APPLICATION OF THEORY through teaching us solid skills. In the end you can have your abstract theories, but the execution has to be beautiful, and they don’t teach you this very important bit. Nor does it give you the confidence to go seek internships. I will go into it later, but its like having a dressmaker talk about the theory of making dresses but they don’t teach you how to drape / sew, all the technical details that allows you to make good projects. Often those designers lack credibility because they cannot walk the walk, execute what they preach. Yes, theory is important, but in the end you have to produce, and they leave you hanging. The ambiguity, emphasis on the wrong things in studio really does the students a disservice, and it is truly truly terrible. Mastering the tools is not trivial because it allows students to express themselves in the best way possible. I am not denying that theory is important, but execution element should not be disregarded, as it is here at this department.

2. You have a lot of requirements. In addition to the assignments being not good, you have other commitments. What happens is you end up dividing your time, making half-baked incomplete sloppy projects. This may be more of a critique on how the department fits into your whole curriculum. So you read a book in Contemporary Civilization per night, (if you go to Columbia College) in addition to all your other reading for all your other classes, problem sets, postings, studying for language classes etc, but you go to studio for 2 or 3 hours. You should either concentrate on one or the other but you end up with mediocre grades in all classes because of the time commitment issue. So the incomplete sloppy project is a waste of time, because that is a few hours that you could have committed to writing a good paper, since the project assignment sucked to begin with. It can’t go into your portfolio because it isn’t strong enough. And then this decision works against you because your GPA isn’t very high, closing your other options for grad school (law, business, etc.)

3. Even if you ditched your CC paper and you committed all your time to your project, the assignments still won’t teach you / incorporate those computer skills that you should have if you are an architecture major. Some firms may wonder, if you are an architecture major, why don’t you know autoCAD or Revit, or even know of their existence? It is very puzzling. But you really shouldn’t ditch your CC paper, because looking back, CC was a great class, whereas studio wasn’t. I guess ultimately what it comes down to is that they supposedly stressed theory, but they are not good at teaching theory, because behind the flowery pretentious twisted language that instructors speak, there was no substance so you really end up with nothing.

I started the studio classes during my sophomore year, and of the people in that first studio, even the most talented person is now pursuing a profession in another field. Jarring isn’t it? Yes, this program somehow weeds out not the worst, but also the very best, most talented people. None of the people are pursuing architecture. Who remains is necessarily the most talented but the most thick-skinned who has the ability to tolerate a lot of the pretentiousness that goes on, the fakers, and they in turn propel this pretentiousness in the field, nurture pretentious teachers, creating a vicious cycle. I suppose this is how it works in life. But architecture has to be functional and aesthetically pleasing, and in the end, ithat aesthetic beauty shouldn’t have to justify itself through words. Most of the time, if there is substance people recognize it. It just is. What happens when theory takes over with no aesthetic appreciation, ("this is beautiful because b#$?!bjkl&3sek,") is that it becomes very full of B.S. because you end up having architects that don't have that eye / sense of proportion, teaching verbose uninspiring classes. (Meanwhile you are left with the dictionary trying to figure out what b#$?!bjkl&3sek really means, and how to make a building do that.) ((Why do they talk like that anyway, the most brilliant people I've met and heard speaking are clear in their expressions and instructions. Artistic language should be used separately from a classroom, but for some reason, the instructors seem to think they are James Joyce?))

Yes, being thick-skinned is crucial, and maybe in the end it is life, maybe those people would have been weeded out sooner or later, but the department seems to almost make an obstacle for you, in the bad way. (not challenge you, in the good way.) Education at least at this level should really nurture and inspire students (This is not med school.) The teachers should try to bring the very best of their students, (in a tangible form, like a solid project). Solid projects are after all, are all that the graduate schools, firms, clients are able to see. Many of the people that left the field are hardworking, sensible, high achievers. They were probably at the top of their highschool classes. The department/curriculum is simply not effective.

The architecture department is truly doing a disservice to the students. They will not help you find an internship any more than the math department. I wanted write my experience for the future students so they won't waste their time and money making half-baked projects. If you go into architecture, concentrate on it fully later. Don’t do it here. The core curriculum requirements are great. Other departments are great. Meanwhile, the architecture department program should either be abolished, or should reconsider the welfare of the students, the annual school tuition, whether or not the courses equip the students with confidence and competence to land a job/be admitted to graduate school (A solid portfolio). $50,000 a year is not a small investment. The school should reprioritize, think beyond the architecture instructors’ ability to take the easy-way out in make a living in the field.

These are just my thoughts after the experience but of course you are entitled to your thoughts. Just wanted to get it out there for reference.
Meanwhile, enjoy your undergraduate days!

May 20, 09 8:37 pm

what? no footnotes?

May 21, 09 12:39 am
for your TL;DR...

"Columbia undergrad sucks, in my opinion. It's all about impractical theory, and didn't equip me with any applicable design skills. Subsequently, I have a bad portfolio and no internship."
May 21, 09 10:40 am

eh big rant, seems like someone graduated and wanted to get back at his college.

first off, your first point is way off base.

after having taken a studio with michael bell, who was visiting michigan from columbia, i can honestly say that you guys are lucky to have him there. the conversations i had with him were possibly only second to those i've had with my thesis advisor.

and then our nyc field trip... yeah... he knows the deal.

2. i might agree with, but im inexperienced in that department. i was not an architecture major in undergrad and i'm very happy i wasn't. my background taught me to think in a different way. a way that has really pushed my work in a direction that is quite a bit different from that of graduate classmates.. well, most of them.

3. "Doing this program does not give you a strong portfolio" no program will GIVE you a portfolio. your student portfolio is the result of three things:
a) your design aptitude at the moment in which you were working on a project.
b) your willingness to revisit and partially redesign/re-represent those projects prior to the presentation of your portfolio.
c) your ability for representation and design at the moment you compose your portfolio.

no program will GIVE you a portfolio.


"Why do they talk like that anyway, the most brilliant people I've met and heard speaking are clear in their expressions and instructions. Artistic language should be used separately from a classroom, but for some reason, the instructors seem to think they are James Joyce?"

if you just graduated and it's taken you still can't figure that out.. well... that sucks a lot.

May 21, 09 10:41 am


in response to "first off you (are) way off base... i had michael bell, he knows the deal"

michael bell is faculty as gsapp, refer to the first paragraph.

May 29, 09 2:59 pm

"3. Doing this program does not give you a strong portfolio and it doesn’t equip you with the solid skills that should give you confidence to go after internships in architecture."

you and your intellect should give you a good portfolio. I've seen kids from top programs with a bad porfolio so I can imagine what to expect from a "bad" program graduates.

You really have some anger with school and the programs, but I'm curious if there are more of you with so much complaints or is it just you.

May 29, 09 3:12 pm

Would that someone told me all of this before my Junior year...

To be fair, the department does help you find internships, to a degree - there are postings every now and then; but this spring, there were exactly three. To be fair again, the internship I have [which, naturally, is unpaid] I wouldn't have known about if it wasn't posted with the department.

On the other hand, I don't even know where the program ranks on non pre-professional degree programs, but I do know that the people that tend to be doing decently in it are also the darlings of the department. One of which I am not. In most cases, it is my own fault that I'm a B student, but I've gotten some studio grades that just seem generally arbitrary - like, for example, the most recent a I've gotten on a project seemed to be because the professor had taken a liking to me.

How your portfolio looks seems to depend on who you had for your first two studios. My first was a flop, as I was generally failing at school and life, and generally terrified of the professor. The second yielded much better results, but with a generally uninspiring professor. The rest have been a complete crapshoot. As such, while I am not one of the darlings of the department and am probably not a decent candidate for grad school, I'm not the shame of my cycle [yet.].

I find my advisor to be equally uninspiring. S/he, like the majority of the department, picks favorites and cultivates as necessary, I think.

As for confidence seeking internships - I wouldn't say the program destroys it. I've sent my work out two summers in a row, last summer I got a few callbacks but was turned down because I wasn't a junior/didn't know CAD. This summer, I've sent it out to around thirty: a good quarter weren't having interns, another quarter sent nice "no, we don't want you" responses after I spoke to them, and the rest never responded. THAT shattered my confidence, along with seeing a number of my classmates last summer getting firm internships almost solely because they know people who know people.

In general, I'm extremely insecure about my future as an architect and wonder everyday if I should've just stuck with pre-med, for the wrong reasons or no. If I'd known I wanted to do architecture, I would've definitely applied to a five year program and had more to offer anyone I was asking for a job other than the fact that I knew someone who knew them.

I'm also generally disillusioned with the field at the moment, so take that with a grain of salt.

Jun 7, 09 11:02 pm

what's with people complaining about not knowing about programs like autocad?? that is definitely not your school's fault. it's your lack of ambition to stand on your own two feet and delve a little deeper, and i really mean it's only a tiny bit more deeper to find out about autocad, and take responsibility for your own education.

spoonfeeding is so in vogue these days.

Jun 8, 09 6:55 pm

I can give some really solid advice... at least you didn't go to the University of Central Florida-- for fucks sake... you went to Columbia.

Jun 8, 09 6:59 pm

cost for tution>salary

Jun 8, 09 7:02 pm

I kind of agree with sanne... I took an Autocad course in 2002. Got a D-.

Started playing with Revit, Rhino, SketchUp and Vectorworks over the last 6 months... and I don't know shit about architecture but I've been impressing myself.

Past facade design, ADA compliance, random building codes and fire codes... I don't know really know anything about architecture [at least modern/contemporary/international]. I've read the architectural criticisms, I am finishing up reading about the business structure of firms and I know some of the basics of architecture.

So, if anything, I'm like a blind virgin bumbling around in a sorority house looking for a pair of knockers to grab onto. I probably will never get into grad school but I'm at least trying.

I mean I obviously blame my diploma mill of a school for not even referring me to UF. But I think my passion to hate that school and get away from it is my only motivation in life.

Jun 8, 09 7:09 pm

sanne - didn't know CAD as a sophomore, not a rising senior. We did hand drawings and used computers to print out site photos and research; maybe some Illustrator, which some people in my year don't even know. As for Cad, I actually had only just found out what it was fourth semester. Computers didn't really come until the end of last fall, when we were told we had to do modelling in rhino within a weekend. [Which was actually a great way to learn]. I don't believe in 'spoonfeeding', but as someone stumbling upon the major [quite literally] by accident, it would've been helpful if the person I spoke to about how the hell to find an internship had mentioned it. There are a lot of things that just become common knowledge, but everyone has to get to that point first.

which brings me to...hillandrock - wholly identify with the blind virgin analogy, as disturbing as it is...what are you majoring in? And where are you finding these reading bits? And...if we're supposed to know all about things like ADA compliance and fire codes in undergrad, I might as well give up now, finish requirements, then come back and do postbac.

Jun 8, 09 8:59 pm

nobody will ask you about ADA, NFPA, zoning or anything like rockandhill mentioned. You will not be required to know anything when your first enter graduate school, but of course it is really helpful for your own sake, because after a year you will be competing with students having a bachelors in architecture already. During your first year you will have introductory courses to fill you in arch. history, structures, construction and design so at least you have a clue on what is going on when you meet the other students your second year. You will also be introduced to Acad or some other format, and yes introduced, because nobody will teach you step by step how to draw up a house or similar. It is up to you to perfect it and you will over the time. When I went to graduate school, the students in the March I program already knew cad, but yes they were a bit slower than most of us, but they sure did keep up and did well too! If you look at some threads on archinect you will find some posts on some of the readings you should do, which should give you a good background if you really want to. Just read up on general stuff, because last thing you want to face is some kids in March II, saying "shit, you kidding, you don't' know how is blah blah blah" or similar. Good luck and I would not worry too much about it!

Jun 8, 09 9:11 pm

asthecatflies- i can understand not knowing about cad as a sophomore, i didn't touch it until my junior year. my school emphasized hand drawing too, and i started using it because i saw how it could expedite my hand drawing process. completely self-taught however. unfortuntately, architecture is one of those sink or swim-type majors and isn't very merciful to those who take a little longer to learn programs and such.

i can sympathize with you on not knowing what you're getting yourself into. especially at a place like columbia.... geesh. keep your chin up!

Jun 8, 09 10:53 pm

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