The Ambiguity of Perfection

A fellow student created a sign with two sides: a happy face and a sad face. On the handle was inscribed: “Your project makes me…”

This ingenious rating system was the result from several of the followings conversations:

“Hey, what did [studio instructor] think of your model?”

“I don’t really know…”

We actually gave the sign to our instructor and we all shared a hearty laugh together. They then told us that studio instructors never say something is “great”, because that would imply no more work is necessary–hardly the advice for studio culture!

I still laugh at the sign when I see it! It lives right at the desk across from me. But it got me thinking: what warrants the smiley face? What is a perfect studio review? Is it glowing praise over a design? Is it an interesting discussion? A learning moment? I think this is the most difficult aspect of an architectural education: ambiguity.

Sometimes good reviews or desk critiques come in different forms. Sometimes reviews evolve from bad to good, or vice versa. But every student knows when they’ve had a bad review. Just ask any student or architect and I’m sure they have a story which begins with: “I stayed up all night and…” Such stories never end well. Either it is a model broken, final drawings scribbled over, or a verbal berating equal to, well, let’s not go there.

Perhaps this is the best way to educate an architect, though. I feel studio ambiguity mimics the ambiguity of a “good” set of construction drawings. What is a good set of drawings in the professional world? Are they 100% coordinated to perfection? Do they minimize the cost of the building? Is every single detail drawn down to 3″=1′-0″? And we are only talking about the drawings! What about the design?

Perhaps I am a bit off. At one review, a critic commented that my design looked like a prison. At first I was taken aback. How could anyone compare this to a prison? But then I realized that at least my drawings and my design were clear enough for them to make that comparison.

Similarly, on one project I worked on, we had extremely short deadlines. Everyone on the team worked extra hours each night to accomplish these deadlines. Nobody completely finished each deadline, though. There were millwork details left out, ceiling details incomplete, and MEP drawings uncoordinated. But at a later team meeting, one with our firm’s owner, we learned a different lesson entirely. The owner commented that we had hit every deadline and provided the drawings agreed upon in the contract. They said, in turn, that this had given the firm a good reputation among all parties involved. And as they say, a good reputation is more valuable than money.

So perhaps architectural perfection comes in surprising forms. Like life, it comes when we least expect it.

2 thoughts on “The Ambiguity of Perfection

  1. It would be a neat experiment to give each person a happy/sad-face sign to gain a consensus of each project before and after the crit. has taken place.

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