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Creating space for all in architecture school

9 July 2019

Nasra Abdullahi – Studio Assistant

What does it mean to be well? The World Health Organisation defines wellbeing as: “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”. Wellbeing is a holistic term and something that includes all aspects of our being.

Regardless of who we are or where we come from, we all have personal lives full of intricate vulnerabilities that can affect our wellbeing at any point. When it comes to mental health issues, while stigma and shame are lessening, many of us still struggle to share these vulnerabilities openly. However, the more we share, the more we realise that there are common struggles often experienced in silence.

I want to share with you my personal journey with the invisible boundaries at architecture school so far. I realise now that my story is not unique and is, in fact, something experienced by many. As an industry, architecture has a long way to go in creating a healthier, more inclusive environment. 

Making the leap

When we enter unfamiliar situations in our lives, we all adjust differently. This is especially common for students transitioning from school into university.

However, architecture school has its own layer of adjustment required as it comes with its own politics of manoeuvering and getting used to very different environments, such as being introduced to studio culture, different ways of working and a particularly grueling work ethic.

I would argue that there are three ways architecture students typically adjust:

Student 1

  • This student can generally adjust quickly and has the healthiest outlook to embracing the unknown. 
  • They engage with the work and accept that everything will eventually fall into place.
  • Accept where they are as not being fixed – they have a growth outlook. 

Student 2

  • I would argue that this student is the most common type of student in the early stages of architectural education.
  • This student develops incredibly unhealthy working methods as a result of the steep expectations placed on them, which might improve as time goes on and they get into the swing of things.
  • However, whilst they struggle and live on the edge, they still make it through to the end.

Student 3 (my story)

  • Experiences the typical first year blues of feeling a little overwhelmed and not as good as peers.
  • Develops a hypersensitivity to other students around them – especially since your work is displayed for everyone to see.
  • They feel shame and embarrassment when they see other students somehow still participating and going.
  • They slowly stop producing work and find that they can no longer engage with the work like before.
  • During this period they develop loss of confidence, shame, low self-esteem and anxiety.
  • They eventually become dissociated from their studies.
  • They then have no choice but to speak to their tutors and their university and be honest about their struggles.
  • They might then take a break and then start fresh the next academic year.

Student 4

  • This student stops attending university altogether and eventually fails their degree – having never disclosed to their university their struggle, they drop out and silently suffer.

The latter two stories are not anomalies, made all the more likely for students who don’t come from the typical architecture ‘mould’. Let’s not pretend that there isn’t an unspoken class issue in the industry – architecture and design schools generally attract students who come from more advantaged backgrounds. The cultural and social capital they bring tends to equip them the confidence to manoeuvre through certain spaces that others might not possess.

Students who do not have this invisible armour of assuredness are not taught that kind of confidence. It is something that they have to create from their own personal lives and they generally make it to architecture school on their own, without other examples of people who have done the same around them. And in my case, once I got there I burnt out and no longer had anything from myself to pull from.

So, does it mean that you’re not ‘enough’ if you don’t have the mental and emotional resilience at first? Absolutely not. 

This story is far bigger than myself and anyone else who has experienced the same. To situate our experiences within the wider context:

  • 86% of respondents to a 2017 RIBA survey claimed to have experienced feelings of anxiety during their architectural education. 
  • A 2018 RIBA survey showed that 33% of architecture students believe they currently have a mental health problem. 
  • 70% of respondents to a 2018 RIBA survey reported working overnight to be a trigger of mental distress.
  • A recent Architects Journal survey report in 2018, found that 1 in 3 architecture students had been treated for a mental health problem during their studies. To compare this with the average person in the UK, in April 2017 the mental health charity Mind published a statistic showing that ‘approximately 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year’. 

Therefore, the problem of mental health within architecture students is higher than the national average. 

If you add that to existing as a woman from a working-class, ethnic minority background then in a way, some of us are socialised to become the perfect drop-outs!

So what can we do?

What we as students can do to learn and heal from this:

  • Have an open mind
  • Recognise that your experiences have probably taught you life lessons beyond architecture and can benefit you in other ways, such as heightened emotional intelligence.
  • Take care of yourself outside of studies – are you eating right and getting enough sleep? Do you have a social life?
  • Be open to trial and error. After failure, solutions come.
  • We aren’t always peaking in life and everyone has moments of mediocrity – don’t let it throw you off. Our definitions of mediocre and being at your best are subjective anyway and always fluctuate. 
  • Do not compare yourself. So what if that person in your studio is so great? And? They have their own story and you have yours. Which one can you cultivate and grow?
  • Learn to be comfortable with the unknown.

What we need from the industry:

  • Normalise design and architecture as a potential career the same way doctors, lawyers and engineers are.
  • Go to more schools near your practice or in disadvantaged neighbourhoods and create an ongoing dialogue to show students that becoming an architect or taking part in the industry is attainable and possible.
  • Become more involved in pre-GCSE career days and programmes.
  • Create more widening participation initiatives for children and teenagers.

So once its all done – and you have said how you feel, put your ‘shame’ out on display – what have you got to lose? 

Gogogogogogo! Have fun.