Tim Joss?s Inspiration series draws lessons in from beyond the arts. Here he discusses how architects have created a successful means of criticising and spurring each other on.

South West Design Review Panel looking over some plans

Do arts programmers gather to critique each others’ past programmes and future programme ideas? Does something similar happen with arts marketers or fundraisers and their campaigns? Do you get your peers to comment honestly on your work when it is in draft or when it is complete? Would you let them? It seems not. The arts appears closer to a world of luvvies and behind-your-back bitching. Look across to another world – that of architecture – and you will find a well established tradition of peer criticism.

In about 1900 at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, student design projects were collected at set times on a cart (‘charette’). Students who were still working on their schemes would climb aboard to add the finishing touches, and fellow students would watch the cart roll by and pass comment. Today charette is used in the US, Australia and elsewhere for an intensive design session, sometimes all-nighters, for architecture students and tutors, and sometimes the public and professionals.

Transport a charette to the UK and you find the same approach but by a different name: a ‘crit’. It thrives in the architecture profession and on university architecture courses. You present your ideas in front of a group of peers. It forces you to present coherently and crisply. Conversation follows, stimulated by the author – the student or the employee or an architecture practice. It is a piece of drama.
Of course really bad crits happen. Even if the comments seem unduly scathing, the trick is not to take them personally and to learn from your mistakes. There is a shared duty, too. Everyone involved has a responsibility to ensure that they leave the process feeling good, that criticism is balanced, that conclusions are properly summarised, and that clear next steps are identified.

The architecture world continues to try new ideas and refine this important tool. So, for instance, PowerPoint has been used, but with misgivings. It changes the process, giving too much control to the author, making it difficult to interrupt, and undermining the equitable and democratic character of a crit. Various alternative versions have been tested according to circumstance and learning objectives: for instance, the table-based, discursive crit, the more formal lecture crit and the virtual crit.

Some architects and architecture students remain concerned about its adversarial qualities. Some see it as culturally specific and failing to provide an atmosphere in which more women and BME students can flourish. In 2006 a play, ‘Private Jokes, Public Places’, was premièred in London. It showed the demolition of the work of an idealistic female student during a particularly vicious crit. The architects who the playwright conjures up are bullying, pretentious and arrogant in a profession which is revealed as conformist, showy and starstruck.

And yet, it works. A crit transforms the process of creating a static product of a building into a dynamic performance. It forces people to speak about their work and submit to criticism from peers. It can be traumatic but it is highly valued. And sometimes, architects have told me, it can be magical. Indeed crits are so valued that they have become institutionalised at the regional and national levels. ‘Design reviews’ – the more formal title used in these contexts – are a key feature of CABE, the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment. Indeed, every region and most cities now have design review panels. CABE Design review is a free advice service provided by CABE, offering expert independent assessments of schemes at an early stage. The aim is to help avoid common mistakes, and make good design as intrinsic as possible to every scheme.
And at universities, the crit is now recognised as an essential element of architecture training. The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) sees crits as central to the learning process: highly valued by participants, and enabling students to evaluate their own work and practise their presentational skills. The most effective crit sessions witnessed by HEFCE assessors were focused, tightly managed, operated at a brisk pace, and an excellent means for encouraging the participation of all students.

So perhaps we can look to a time when, for example, local authority arts officers and councillors gather together to crit each others’ draft policies and programmes, aided by artists, promoters and international experts in arts and local democracy. Artists and arts managers of all kinds could surely be enriched by this well conceived and open process.

Tim Joss is Director of the Rayne Foundation. Previously he was Artistic Director and Chief Executive of Bath Festivals, Bournemouth Orchestras’ Senior Manager, and an Arts Council Music & Dance Officer.
e: tjoss@raynefoundation.org.uk;
w: http://www.raynefoundation.org.uk

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