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MIT student blogger Jenny X. '13

A Plot Twist by Jenny X. '13

And what MIT Architecture has taught me about design and life.

I’m standing in front of my presentation boards, trying to string keywords into sentences, concepts into arguments, proto-architectural ideas into a proposal for a functional school building. As soon as I started speaking, my sentences were already loopy, my hand wavering between various diagrams I can point to. The panel of jurors judging our architecture studio mid-reviews sat three feet in front of me and I can already tell they’ve stopped taking in the words that are coming out of my mouth.

Before I knew it, my mouth had stopped moving. It’s their turn now.

I have to admit, I don’t really understand your project.

I tried to sum it up again, but another critic zooms in on a detail.

You do know that your building needs legs to stand up right?

No s***, I thought. But how can I even think that when I know it’s my fault my project is behind on development? He kept going.

Let me demonstrate for you.

He walked up to my boards and started drawing a stick figure with legs. My classmates laughed.

And then my professor threw the last bomb.

Now I’m questioning if you even understand your project…

Boom. Boom. and Boom. When your own professor, the one who has seen the promise and struggles of your project since the inception begins to question, what is there left to salvage?

I had seen glimmers of hope while putting this presentation together, but at that moment, I had no idea what I was arguing for, what my project is trying to achieve, why I’m still standing there taking their bullets.

I had tuned out near the end and as soon as the chairs started shifting to the next presenter on my left, I’d started walking right, past Steam Cafe and into the bathroom. I’d already felt the tears rushing up while I still stood up there and I wondered if anyone had noticed. I like to pretend they didn’t. My mom has always told me that crying is a sign of weakness, that real life doesn’t believe in tears. But in my defense, I knew this wasn’t about criticism. Every review in the five architecture studios I’ve taken has had its own share of criticisms, to which my classmates and I all knew we had to absorb and many times challenge.

No, this was something more. It was the result of a build-up, the result of everything I loved, hated, and learned while being an architecture student at MIT, the result of knowing that after this semester, I will be leaving this very special kind of life behind.

I’ve been debating my path on the architecture career for quite some time now. But it has taken a long time for me to admit that, because at MIT, the work really does never stop. As new projects piled up in my face, I was of course excited – out of novelty, curiosity…but was it a relentless and humble excitement, a mobilizing force that will propel me to want to learn more for the years and years to come?

In an earlier entry, I talked about the fear of falling behind and never taking the time to question what you’ve been working hard for. If anything, my dramatic mid-review presentation experience showed me once again how easy it is to get lost in the production of THINGS – whether that means drawings, models, renderings to show your professor, or publications, awards, salaries, Twitter followers, or LinkedIn connections to show everyone else. Looking beyond the products of our constant hard work…when the critics come rolling in however unwelcomed, can we still articulate our own missions? I could not do so in that presentation.

These thoughts piggyback on Chris’ latest entry explaining “the merits of not working too hard” and forgoing the “treadmill” path through MIT. I think by far the biggest rude awakening while crossing the bridge from high school to college is to learn that hardwork doesn’t end with getting into college. We can count on ALWAYS being in a rush to accomplish more. So as Chris suggested, it is truly up to us to peak out from the work zone every once in a while to make sure that we still know where we’re going, to realize what kind of fertile soil or quagmire is really among us.

At MIT, architecture is one of the most personal educations you can get. There is no skipping studio class. Your professor expects to see you every other day (and once in a blue moon, on a Saturday) and expects to see your progress. When you’re not doing well, the professor and jurors tell it to your face. It’s a course where how much you work is directly proportional to how well you do; so when you do receive criticism, it’s always your problem. As difficult as this dynamic can be, I really love it. We get so personally invested in our projects that we have an unparalleled sense of accountability. This building better work out, or it’s on me. But here is the plot twist. This coming fall, I pre-registered for five classes spanning the Management, Writing, and STS (Science, Technology, Society) departments. Architecture is conspicuously missing. I still have two architecture classes to take to graduate, but those will happen next spring.

You can probably imagine the horror when I told my parents I don’t want to be an architect. The first question is – what do you want to be then? Well for now, I’ll say that I’m in love with media studies and details will emerge in future entries. But the next popular question is – what have you been doing for the past three years then? And this is when I explain how I have never doubted being an architecture undergrad. From what I’ve experienced, the course 4 design education has far greater lessons than the things we produce in studio and collect in a portfolio. And this is when I share them.

What MIT Architecture has taught me about design and life: 

  1. Architecture is never anonymous. Your work will be seen, so do work you’ll be proud of.
  2. When you discover a problem, don’t ignore it. It will still be there and come back to haunt you as an even bigger problem.
  3. Beware – there’s a danger to closing off options early on: they could be opportunities to go beyond your present imagination.
  4. Don’t bypass or underestimate research into precedents. Nowadays, it’s common to feel like we NEED to be original. But sometimes, new ideas really do come from studying how people have done it before.
  5. Own it own it own it. Dress up for reviews. (Or at the very least, make time during the all-nighter to go home, shower, and make thyself presentable. Real-talk.) And bring your enthusiasm! if you don’t buy it, no one else will.
  6. Don’t get caught up wth 100% functionality…In its dysfunction, you might redefine what the very thing you’re designing could be.
  7. Indeed, design is about solving problems. Be observant to where the problems are.
  8. Be rigorous. There are ways to test everything and argue why your idea works. Rigorous studies become research and evidence, and in this way, design gains the objectivity of science and engineering.
  9. If you are staring at the computer screen and are stuck, stop staring at the computer screen. Talk to someone. Eat something. Go to the bathroom. Stop staring at the computer screen.
  10. And finally – it isn’t always about requirements, but rather what best conveys your idea.


These are the notes I’ve jogged down for myself to remember, and I hope they may be of use to you in some way shape or form.

And one lasting testament to my studio life?

Piles and piles of Moleskines.