The beginnings of architecture school prove to be strenuous, challenging, and quite exhaustive. Most students enter with little to no knowledge on the technical aspects of design, and face a harsh awakening the first time they pin-up a floor plan without a scale, or worse, a floorplan completely in one line-weight. 

While these mistakes may receive intense initial feedback, they are simple mistakes that can be easily fixed and learned. Our most important architectural lessons lay beyond the rudimentary components of drawings. 

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The Learning Process. _©ArchDaily
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Lecture Hall. _© Michael Moran

Lessons Found within Architectural History Class. 

“Less is More” –  Mies Van Der Rohe

As one of the prominent pioneers of the modernist movement, architecture students have likely heard and become very familiar with the near-flawless work of Mies Van Der Rohe. Known for the simplicity and elegantly planned details in his projects, Van Der Rohe exemplified the “Less is More” slogan precisely. 

The mantra remains eminent within the architectural profession, but recognizable even outside of the profession. The argument’s premise is not to strip all ornamentation away, but rather reduce elements to the essentials. The architecture demonstrated by Van Der Rohe has been avowed as “skin and bones” architecture. This is seen in Van Der Rohe’s cross column (“+”) rather than the customary square (“▢”) or rectangular column. 

For novice architects, following the teachings of Van Der Rohe helps develop an understanding of the principles and fundamentals of building design. For the skilled architect, this argument serves as a reminder of the essence of design, and this concept can help achieve a more economically efficient design by eliminating superfluous features. 

“Less is a Bore” –  Robert Venturi

Per contra, Venturi led with a playful mockery of “skin and bones” architecture advocating for the opposite. The cutting edge of architecture frequently lays with rejecting the fashionable styles of the time. Venturi was not advocating for a Rococo-adjacent style, with excess ornamentation, but rather expressing a digression from the rules of modernism. 

The quote becomes the slogan for the new style of the era; Post-modernism. This approach advocates for architecture dominated by the needs of the people, rather than the austere rules of modernism. Architects, from varying levels of experience, should take note of Venturi’s disdain for the constraints set forth by particular styles. Conforming to a particular style may constrict the design in ways that may not be beneficial for the program. 

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Architectural Studio. _©Alexander Bogorodskiy

Lessons Found in Studio.

The Importance of the Parti

Freshman architectural students must resist the urge to arbitrarily add components that do not benefit the overall design. One basic rule is to identify the parti. A parti can be defined as the “basic general scheme of an architectural design.” Once identified, the parti will guide the decision-making process at all stages of design. 

Designing without a strong guiding concept is like running in place, you may feel you are accomplishing something but, in reality, you are not going anywhere. All decisions should serve a purpose. Architects should be constantly pursuing the answer to the “why(s)” of design. 

Discussion versus Presentation

One of the most staggering features of a design studio; reviews. Jurors have been known to be quite merciless, and prompt rhetorical questions intended to bewilder students. As @Oneistox points out through an Instagram infographic, architecture students must look at reviews as a discussion, rather than a presentation, to avoid the shock that may be associated with critique sessions. 

The learning platform states that this approach “leads to an open mindset to effectively receive comments.” The post continues, advocating students to enter the sessions with critiques in mind, rather than praise. I, myself, have had to come to this conclusion, especially for midterm reviews. Students receiving solely praise through midterms have reached a standstill with their project, while students receiving critiques have the opportunity to refine and improve their projects. 

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Life Outside of the Classroom. _©Pedro Kok

Lessons Found Outside of the Curriculum.

Learning Opportunities Surround Us

There is something to be learned in every building we see and experience. My realization reached me as I critiqued in jest a local building that had been transformed from an office supply store to a non-denominational church. 

My critiques stemmed from the fact that the building’s appearance had not changed despite the shift in usage, however, as I searched the web to confirm my viewpoint I stumbled across Stewart Brand’s book titled How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built

As Brand points out, “[Big-Box Buildings are] designed not to adapt; also budgeted and financed not to, constructed not to, administered not to, maintained not to, regulated and taxed not to. But all buildings adapt anyway… because the usages in and around them change constantly.” 

By critiquing, even in jest, an attempt to change the usage of a commercial box-building, I was discouraging the further attempts to do the same. This was not my goal, but in this, I realized architecture students are lucky. We have the ability for learning opportunities regularly, by observing and making note of each building we experience and view in passing. 

While most buildings may not fulfill the standards of an architectural masterpiece, we must acknowledge the intent beyond each project and even hypothesize how the project could be more successful. 

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The Endless Learning Loop. _©Shutterstock

While the standard architectural curriculum may seem extensive, and some courses may seem to be digressive, all are necessary for the result of becoming a successful architect. In observing the various design approaches, we are encouraged and stimulated to form our own opinions. Through the studio, students learn the foremost lesson in designing by forming a project concept or parti that commands all further design decisions. 

While reviews can become quite ruthless, students can extract dialogue that demonstrates advantageously in their project growth. Outside of the educational framework, students apply discussions to the routine life as they enter unconventional buildings or become curious in ordinary buildings. 

The lessons in architectural school are boundless and often extend far beyond the classroom. What lessons have shaped you as an architect? 


Katharine Woehler is pursuing an environmental design degree in her final semester of the undergraduate program with Texas A&M University in the United States. Her interests include changing the way humans interact, both with each other and the environment.