Crits and Fear Factor

The TV game show “Fear Factor”, debuting in the early 2000s, once did a segment on public nudity. It’s a ubiquitous, cultural taboo, so ancient that even the Bible mentions it. The brave contestants were willing to perform myriad feats – many involving the use of gruesome insects – most of them pushing against the tide of social norms.  But in order to win the prize, the competitors willingly participated.

Many of us will never publicly and willingly expose ourselves in that manner, but whenever an architecture student pins up their design solution for all to see  -- sheets representing hours of toil, weeks of internet research, ideas wrung out of a sleep-deprived brain, verbal presentations fueled by adrenaline and caffeine -- I see some similarities between what occurs during a critique (or “crit”) and what we see on Fear Factor; it is an emotionally challenging experience, exposing your thoughts and opinions, a price to pay, in order to move onto the next level toward the goal of graduation and entering a noble profession. 

Recently, Redlands architect and long-time friend Xavier Adrian, asked me to be a guest juror on final crits at a design studio he teaches at Cal Baptist University.  I agreed before even checking my calendar.

I arrived ½ hour early, met Xavier and together we entered the classroom. Only a few students were pinned up. I could feel the urgent tension in the nearly empty room. When I returned after a lunch of catching up and meeting a fellow juror, those old butterflies began to turn in my stomach. I hadn’t felt those in decades. The students were welcoming and surprisingly calm -- all were hardworking based on their study models and the work pinned up around the room. For a moment, I subconsciously traded places with these students, as if I was about to pin up as well, to have them critique me on my critique. 

The crit began. I was transported back to my university. A variety of practicing jurors were sitting, focused, legs crossed, holding white Styrofoam cups of coffee, offering their suggestions to the students. I remember the “cool” jurors: excited, energetic, smiling, encouraging, the ones who picked out all the silver linings in my project and made me grateful to bask in their unconditional positive regard. I also remembered the harsh critiques I – and sometimes my fellow students – endured. I remembered the disarming disappointment of an instructor critiquing aspects that they had never before mentioned. I remember the pride I felt at inviting my wife to my crit and thankfully, receiving extraordinary feedback. I remember the sigh of relief when it would be over – an alternate path to explore, the bullets dodged.   

The CBU assignment was incredibly provocative: design a facility on a prominent, downtown Riverside corner, where people of all ages could enjoy and read poetry.  Inaugurated in 1996 by the Academy of American Poets, National Poetry Month occurred last month, April 2018, and this project no doubt paid homage to the occasion.

The student work I saw was inspiring and my fellow jurors were Argus-eyed and encouraging. We reviewed nearly 20 projects within a 3-hour span of time. The students were articulate and intelligent, their enthusiasm for the profession visually evident in their projects. Some had done much research prior to beginning design; some were incredibly gifted in graphic presentation, and in the use and application of color; others were great model-builders. The variation kept everything fresh. 

Half-way through the afternoon I realized that my pulse had slowed, and that the students were laughing and cheering each other on. They were incredibly relaxed, and so was I.

I look back at my education with great fondness and appreciation. The crits were not easy, but necessary, giving me confidence and causing me to see my strengths and areas needing improvement, helping me to hone verbal presentation skills that serve me well in many venues of life today.