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The Varsity

The University of Toronto's
Student Newspaper Since 1880

Architecture school confidential

A heartbreaking tale of sleepless nights, severed fingers, and a shitload of hard work

By Tom Cardoso
Published: 3:19 am, 6 February 2012
Modified: 2 am, 13 February 2012
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UPDATED

It’s the summer of 2009, around midnight, and I’m breaking into Harvard. Well, not exactly — I’m sneaking into one of the vacant dorms, carrying drafting pencils, a T-square, some rulers, and a big roll of drafting paper. I’m not the only one. Though this wing of the Walter Gropius dormitories is supposed to be empty, every room I walk past is already occupied.

We’ve snuck past campus police, propping open doors and jamming locks with kneadable erasers. Everyone is nervous, sleep-deprived, and drinking Red Bull. Some haven’t slept for days. At this time of night, Gund Hall, home to Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, locks its doors — and our workbenches along with it. So we’re improvising: these dorm rooms have nice, wide desks, perfect for drafting. We work late into the night, and as the sun begins to rise, we pack up, sneaking back out one by one, cleaning up after ourselves as we go.

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*        *         *

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It’s a Monday night at Ryerson’s architecture department, and Ariel’s group is building a bridge. The assignment is simple enough: in groups of six, build a 12-foot long bridge out of nothing but cardboard and duct tape. If you can get three people to walk across the bridge one after another, your group gets a 90. If the entire group makes it across, you get perfect marks.

“Though our prof tells us it’s possible to get the full six people across, none of us really buy it,” Ariel explains. Just then, as a third group member steps onto the bridge, the structure collapses and everyone falls to the floor. “We’re getting closer,” he says. “We should have it by tomorrow.”

Rachel, also in Ariel’s group, chimes in. “I’m still going to wear a bathing suit under my clothes when it’s our turn.” At their prof’s insistence, the groups will be testing their completed bridges over a pool in the gymnasium.

Ariel and Rachel are both first-year students at Ryerson in the university’s competitive pre-professional architecture program, one of a handful in Canada. Once they finish their four-year degree, they’ll apply to architectural master’s programs. Though they’ve just started the program, the workload is intense.

“On the very first day, for the first assignment in September, I’d already pulled pretty much an all-nighter for the deadline,” explains Rachel. “It’s definitely hard on you. Sometimes you have two or three all-nighters in a row, and then coffee’s your best friend.”

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Sleep deprivation is a constant for aspiring architects. Easier projects might take a single all-nighter while others cost weeks of lost sleep. “During the end of the semester, a lot of people started pulling all-nighters,” says Rachel. “The studio was full of people. There were people sleeping in studio, sleeping in the computer labs… [It got] kinda gross.”

At the end of last semester, Ariel lived in the computer lab for five days straight.

“Basically, everybody needed a computer, so if I left my spot and came back hoping to find a computer, there might not be one, and I wasn’t going to be able to work. I just never left, which also meant I got more work done, but less sleep.”

Not everyone can keep up with the lifestyle. “[Last semester], one of the professors took pictures of every single one of his students, and then as they started dropping out, he would cross off their picture,” says Rachel. “The pictures would be posted up in their section as well. So he started off with a group of 12 and ended up with a group of seven.”

*        *         *

I used to be an architecture student. For six weeks I studied at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, enrolled in its “Career Discovery Program,” an intensive summer course meant to give people a taste of what pursuing a master’s in architecture feels like.

Students in the program come from all over North America, and though most are in university, some are older, often in their 40s or 50s. As the weeks progress, we look on as people silently pack up and leave the studio — casualties of the long, sleepless nights.

The hours are demanding. Gund Hall opens its doors at 8 am every day, and by 8:15 am, entire sections are already working on their projects. Many won’t leave the building until midnight, save to get coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts or some food at Darwin’s Sandwiches down the street.

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Our instructors, all Harvard graduate students also enrolled in design programs, unhelpfully assure us that grad school is just like what we’re experiencing. “A lot of people don’t make it,” explains our drafting instructor. “You’ve got to have thick skin. If you’re questioning your resolve at all, you probably shouldn’t be here.”

Getting any sleep after pulling regular 16-hour days proves difficult. When I do manage to fall asleep, I dream of working in the studio, cutting foamboard or drafting up floorplans. When I wake up, I know I’ll need to go into the studio and do exactly what I’d imagined in my sleep all over again.

As we enter week four, I slice off a chunk of my thumb. I don’t have health insurance, so I clean and wrap the cut as tightly as I can, hoping not to bleed all over my model in the process.

In an effort to cheer me up, a studio instructor comes to my workbench and shows me his own scars, including a long line running across his right thumb. “See that? I once sliced off my thumb almost entirely,” he says. “It was hanging by skin alone!” He laughs. “Luckily, doctors were able to reattach it and it still works fine.”

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I ask him whether I should go to a hospital. “That depends,” he says. “How’s your model coming along?” He’s only half-joking.

*        *         *

Architecture students like to exchange stories about their battles with X-ACTO knives, box cutters, and sandpaper. It’s a competition: everyone tells increasingly implausible tales of sleep deprivation and studio accidents.

“I kind of chopped off a whole section of my finger.” Rachel is wearing a hospital bracelet and she’s just gotten back to the studio. She laughs. “No stitches, because there’s no skin that’s salvageable, so they put in some foam or something to create a fake scar and bandaged it up.

“The blood was kinda gushin’ everywhere. One of my friends working on the bridge project went around with the skin that got chopped off, saying, ‘Rachel chopped off her finger! Everybody just take a look! Take a look!’”

Even though she’s only in first year, Rachel says high school doesn’t even begin to compare to architecture school. “High school was a challenge obviously, but once you get here, it’s like, ‘Okay, we’re going now.’ You can’t stop. You’ve got the ball rolling.

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“It’s unfortunate because I don’t get to see my [residence] floormates as much as other people do, and sometimes, I feel left out of their social circles. But then when you come to studio, it’s more like your own family. It’s definitely a family.”

Ariel agrees. “It’s weird. I was originally in engineering, which is a 2,000-person program in first year because everyone’s taking the same course, and I thought, ‘Okay, I’m going to meet 2,000 people.’ But I ended up talking to maybe six people in my small circle of friends. But here, since there’s only 100 people and you’re basically stuck in a building for the whole night, you talk to everybody. There’s just a few people I haven’t actually talked to.”

Right now, having a social life is a luxury Ariel and Rachel can still afford. “The fourth-years tell us it only gets harder,” says Ariel.

RÉMI CARREIRO/THE VARSITY

It does. As I neared the end of my stint at Harvard, I’d already begun to question my resolve. It was the beginning of the end — and perhaps that was for the best. These days, it seems all my architect friends have become stressed out, alcoholic chain-smokers.

Rachel and Ariel are both unfazed by the three years of school still ahead. It’ll be more of the same: sleep loss, severed digits, and long nights in the computer lab. But at least for now, they’re happy.

RÉMI CARREIRO/THE VARSITY

It’s almost two in the morning as I prepare to leave Ryerson, and the computer lab is still half full. I take one final look at the studio: messy workbenches covered in styrofoam, box cutters, and cardboard. I briefly consider telling them my own architectural horror stories, but I decide against it.

It wouldn’t change a thing.

  • http://www.facebook.com/purplepick Rémi Carreiro

    so fitting that I read this while pulling an all-nighter.

  • Chad

    Awesome article Tom! Only wish you’d got a few shots of the would-be bridges.

  • guest

    Is this mandatory a “badge of courage” in a self-fulfilling myth?  In my experience, yes the work is hard and often requires long hours; on the other hand sleep deprivation is the strongest enemy of good work and safety – getting sleep, even 4 hrs, helps prevent redundant work, bad design decisions and studio accidents.  While cutting of fingers is not uncommon, one a studio/semester was more the norm.  After all, long hours may be the norm in architectural firms doing bad work or getting yourself do to sleep deprivation is a sure fire way to lose your job.  Efficiency is value to be learned by students quickly, whether its explicitly taught or not.

    • Dolittle

      I graduated … but only to find disgust in the entire profession.   Egomaniacal social misfits, willing to walk on the corpses of “friends”.     One in ten are normal functional human beings; the graduates are sadists…..Instructors have fantasies of grandeur, can’t make it in the real world where us lessor humans exist.   The article is a very sad reality exposing an educational system that represents the failure of American architecture.  disposable, based on the automobile, architecture for the sake of architects… the public sentiment be damned…

  • Anonymous

    This a well written article that describes a pretty common experience that most of us had in architecture school. But the article could delve deeper into the reasons why such abusive behavior from educators can or should exist. There are some clear ethical dilemmas presented by this article. As educators, do we have the right to create such conditions for students? Does the quality of learning increase with so many hours spent cutting cardboard and using duct tape? There are so many “rites of passage” included in the architecture education experience that simply need not exist anymore. I believe professors can find better motivators for the students than fear of verbal abuse and embarrassment at final juries. Has anyone done a study to measure levels of learning in demanding, unsupportive environments versus a studio culture based on mutual respect, a balanced workload between design projects, liberal arts and physical education (health). At some point, the architectural education bubble will burst, opening the opportunity for new, more innovative, more respectful, and perhaps in even more successful models of design education. 

    • Brian

      I think the bubble has already burst. There are many new models for design education which are inherently more collaborative and productive: MIT Media Lab, Hyper Island, Ivrea, IIT, Cranbrook. In my foray into Architecture at a top-tier grad school I’ve found their culture to be abusive and unproductive. It’s sad because it’s going to push away lot of talented and well intended people who don’t want to tolerate such pretension and hazing. Including me. 

  • Doorsopen61

    Just to be clear, this article is in a UofT newspaper about another university’s architecture program? Though it is interesting to get insights on the situation faced by architecture students, are we to understand that the UofT architecture students do not go through this? Why is Ryerson University’s architecture program the one that everyone’s writing about?
    Oh wait, UofT lost its ability to deliver an undergrad program in the 1990’s… too soon?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=502576321 Alex Mann

    I really like this article, but I’m confused as to the relevance to U of T. Still though, really brilliantly done article.

  • Glad_I_bailed

    I graduated from architecture school 15+ years ago and it seems nothing has changed.  What is the point of these interminable work hours and all nighters?  I wonder if architects have a hard time making in the real world in part because instead of 80/20 (focusing on the 20% of the work that will produce 80% of the results) architecture students are indoctrinated to operate at the other extreme.  If there is 10% of effort that yields 1% of result the professors and guest critics obsess over that last 1% and minute percentiles thereof.  This can result in several world famous architects standing around a student’s model having a 30 minute discussion about a misplaced droplet of glue.  Is architecture school really a protracted initiation ritual? Of my architecture school classmates perhaps the one who is the most successful is a well-known critic working in the realm of academic theoretical architecture.  Fortunately there are plenty of naive aspiring architects whose tuition money pays this person’s salary and enabling them, somehow, to never have had to foray into the design of actual buildings.

  • Finishing_my_masters

    This situation seems to exist at every architecture faculty. At student conferences I hear the same stories over and over. It’s sad.

    Two years ago a sleep deprived student from our faculty of Architecture (I won’t say which University in respect for the student) hoped in his car after a studio deadline and crashed his car into the stairs that ascend to our campus gym. He fell asleep driving. He was seriously injured. A year and a half prior to this, a student in the graduate program commited suicide due to stress trying to meet the unrealistic deadlines given for a project.

    It is time for academic instructors and students to stop thinking of all nighters and sleep deprivation as, like one commentor wrote, “a badge of courage”. Despite these tragic consequences to pressure and sleep deprivation, only a few of our professors have started emphasising the need to get sleep, with “sleep” meaning four to five hours, hardly the recommended amount.

    My love for design has kept me in the faculty, however my love for my health, friends and family have stopped me from pulling all nighters. I would rather risk receiving a slightly lower mark then to jepordize my relationships or health. However, in reality, my new approach has resulted in better quality work, not worse.

    Any professor who places emphasis on all nighters needs to ask him or herself if they can live with consequences, like the ones listed above, if one of their students fails to receive the “badge of courage”. For gods sake, this isn’t Brownies or Boy Scouts! Student need to collectively inform their professors if course expectations are too unrealistic. Why should students pay significant amounts of money for an education that promotes potentially long term consequences to their health? Other than architecture school “war stories” what is acheived?