Architecture Applicant?

How to communicate your work effectively.

Say a lot, with not a lot.

‘The proof is in the pudding, and puddings aren’t made of words.’

A tutor at the Bartlett used to use this pudding line a lot. This essentially means that you can talk and write about your visual work as much as you want with all sorts of conceptual ideas and long words, but at the end of the day, the reality of the thing is in its physicality, and not what you say about it. With architecture school portfolios, it’s important to turn to visual communication, and not written communication. Can you describe your project to your friend without saying or writing a single word? Can you use only the visual work you’ve made? This is what we want to achieve in your portfolio, and not only is it useful in order to communicate your work more easily to admissions at interview, it is a vital requirement of an architect.

There are times when elaborately describing and explaining your work is important, be it in an academic essay, an intense crit, or a dissertation proposal. However, as an applicant to architecture school you will be turning from words to the portfolio. This post is not to dishearten you, as we’re sure you love reading and writing, and simply want to exhibit that skill to the admissions officers. That is entirely fair enough and it’s an important skill, in moderation.

We’ve extracted an interview transcript between Peter Zumthor and Marco Masetti which explores this issue perfectly. The full transcript can be found at this link:

Masetti: Architecture is also a language, it is especially a language…

Zumthor: I disagree. It isn’t especially a language. Architecture is something for living, not a language. My mother wants a house for living, not a language. It isn’t possible to live in a language.

Masetti: In fact, you reduce the architectonic language signs to the fundamental signs…

Zumthor: This subject is boring me. Because I’m very committed to making good houses, and I’m disturbed by all the rest. Maybe I’m too old. There is a language, as you well know. It is worth one’s while to be intelligent about all these things, but this isn’t the focal point of my work. I love philosophy, but not the architect’s one, the philosopher’s philosophy. For me it’s better.

Zumthor was so tired of answering Masetti’s language questions that he interrupted him on both questions. Zumthor identifies an important point. He loves the language associated with what we assume is 20th century continental philosophy but understands and is critical of how it sits within architecture.

A common mistake in portfolios is the following:

‘This conceptual project represents how humanity responds to the circumstantial nature of aesthetics’.

[insert super interesting image of a really well-made pottery item]

This is a tad vague and imprecise. It also doesn’t make any sense, and may have been added after the project was completed in a retrospective kind of way. It also boasts the word ‘conceptual’. Try not to use this word; there’s not a lot of love for it in architecture. Similarly with the term ‘inspire’. They’re quite vague words. However, the actual thing itself is super interesting and really well made, so let’s focus on that. Keep it nice and large on the page and surround it with development work.

The amendment:

‘This project attempted to explore pattern cutting with a porcelain pottery process’.

[insert super interesting image of a really well-made pottery item]

The difference between these two examples is that the amendment focuses on something specific that can instigate a high value conversation at an architecture school interview, or between admissions officers during a portfolio review. Your work is the work itself, and not the text that goes along with it. Invest 99% your time into making great drawings, paintings, photos, models, sculptures etc, and 1% into writing and talking about them. Not the other way around. We want to focus on the really well-made visual work of the portfolio.

There will be posts to come regarding the personal statement/application essay, but for now we’ll say the following. The only time you will write about your work with your application will be in the personal statement/ application essay, and a little in your portfolio (though it is highly unlikely this will be read). You may also talk about your work at the interview. In all these cases, remember that your work wants to be communicated visually. It wants to be described and explained visually. It is a visual medium that you’re dealing with, so try to embrace it and talk through the work itself. Being able to communicate visually is a skill in itself that will comprise more than 50% of your time in architecture school. This is something you can exhibit and boast during your application and will get you big bonus points. Text and speech should be reserved primarily for basic communication to introduce projects or to clarify. Leave the rest up to the work itself.

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