Written by Khensani de Klerk | Feature visual by Nompilo Sibisi
This week Matri-Archi has decided to do its first roundtable discussion. For a while an intended topic for this blog was to speak about the unhealthy culture that students experience in schools of design as well as what professionals in the industry go through mentally. With horrific statistics of architecture falling into most top 10 lists of suicidal jobs as well as the physical and mental effects I have seen in my direct environment; I decided to investigate through anecdotal research whether this culture exists in other similar spaces outside of my direct context.
Another factor that triggered this topic is linked to my physical and mental response from working incredibly hard on a project this week and strenuously investing all of my efforts into design at the expense of basic human needs. I got 4 hours of sleep over 2 days and my eating habits relied on the vending machine and take-out food. All of this in order to produce work that I did not expect to fall flat in. Having all-nightered this past week for probably the 30th time (I kid you not) in my university experience, you would think I would be used to it. But every time I crash, the depression and anxiety of having slept 13-16 hours as a “recovery” and waking up disorientated feels fresh as the first time. It’s not okay.
For some time I thought it was just the way I personally worked. But upon speaking to other people in the design space, it seems as if others go through the same, if not worse. Some are fortunate enough not to experience it this at all. I then dived into some research and even came across a student at Nottingham University in the UK who documented her final 42 days of study in Architecture School through selfies. Through the progression of the series you see her gradually become physically unhealthy, eventually ending up in hospital (read: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-3594606/University-student-s-daily-selfies-goes-fresh-faced-haggard-hospital-final-year-exams.html)
And so for todays article, I found it appropriate to articulate this real life global issue in an intimate and visual fashion. Yesterday, a group of us met up over breakfast for the very first Matri-Archi RoundTable Discussion where we spoke about mental health in the design world. Seated around the table were students of design, in a safe space: current Landscape Masters Student Lesego Bantseng , 3rd year Architecture Student Sivan Zeffert, Urban Design Masters Student Saudah Asmal, 2nd year Architecture Student Nompilo Sibisi and City Planning Honours Student Khensani de Klerk. Nompilo Sibisi is an incredible illustrator who created the visual narrative of the conversation and experience of the discussion. (Do check her instagram @iamnompi.)
Introduction aside, I now present to you:
Matri Archi Rountable Discussion I: The Dark Side of Design School, How Do We Stay Sane?
K= Why did you decide to study in a school of design? How has your perception changed from then to now?
L= If I take it back my reason is very basic, I was looking for a middle ground between my two identities – design seemed like the best thing for the logic creative and I was pretty sure I wanted to study in Pretoria and so I began Landscape Architecture at Tuks. Originally from Mafikeng, many people asked how I found out about this small tiny career and so I supposed when you look at what the department has to offer you end up searching and finding what you like. When I arrived at Landscape, nothing was what I expected it to be- like the whole thing of how low your income will be, and that it is so strenuous; that we spend so much time straining over something that doesn’t get acknowledged for all the effort we put into it.
But it’s this toxic relationship we all have with design where we are constantly searching for approval- from the externals, from the lecturers. But you kind of work hard because of passion- which is what we like to say when we make it romantic- but we are really only working for approval.
And that’s why we spend these nights working, and we get depressed because of the anxiety of what the lecturers think. It lies so heavily on their opinion, even though it may be an act of “love” in the end.
K= I completely resonate with what you’ve just said. I mean personally, I applied to UCT without having researched it thoroughly. There’s this misconception that if you study art you wont make money and if you study architecture you will make lots, and so that did put my family at ease considering the idea of having a job at the end.
Si= That’s funny because architects are busy designing artists houses
L= Architects kind of forgot that we also deserve money for our livelihood because of how caught up we became in the trance of space and design whilst the civil engineers and surveyors hopped onto the money train.
K= I mean, space and design are very important but this is all ture. Did any of you guys study anything else before you studied architecture?
N= So architecture was kind of everything I expected it to be, I mean it was ridiculously overwhelming, I expected these late nights, and this culture of “you have no life”. And so I got sucked into that in my first year, and completely isolated myself from the rest of the university. I stopped being friends with all my other friends, I just had architecture friends-
S= Yeah most people do that.
N= -And so eventually FeesMustFall came and RhodesMustFall. I’d just been so cooped up in my own bubble, and when I went to all of these meetings I just felt so disconnected from it, being in architecture. I realized I wanted to know more about people and spaces and how real spaces work for real people, which was not what I was getting at Archi School. And so at the end of the year I was just really overwhelmed and depressed and so I left architecture and started a BA in Politics and Economics with English Literature and Gender Studies and in doing so integrated myself into the rest of the university, and what the university life should be like; I could have other friends, I could join societies. But I knew that I’d come back because having a design degree would allow me to do design stuff, which is ultimately what I wanted to do. And so at the end of the first year of my BA I felt I had learnt and matured and got the things that I felt I was missing, and really just felt like I was ENOUGH to go back to architecture. And I don’t regret that decision. I’m definitely a happier person now, and if I had stayed back then I wouldn’t have survived it.
I mean some people aren’t going through any of this kind of thing, so it really depends on who you are.
K= yeah, and I suppose the idea of quantifying creativity to marks with the aspect of lecturers opinions is also a concern?
Si= yeah like everyone has their own process, but some processes are valued more than others.
Sa= I feel that once you get to postgrad it becomes more rational in that you set your own brief and satisfy it.
K= I suppose it differs across the design spectrum right? For instance you started with an Architecture undergrad and then studied Landscape at an Honours level and now you are doing a Masters in Urban Design. Did you know that you would go along that path or did other things inform your change in trajectory?
Sa= Well I decided that I didn’t want to study architecture once I had worked in a firm. I think once I had gained more confidence and thought through that notion of constantly seeking approval I decided to branch out and do Landscape because of seeing the other creative things people were doing, and how it was less harsh than Architecture.
K= From your work experience, would you say that this late night macho unhealthy culture is the same in the work place?
Sa= No, definitely not at the places I worked at. I never went big, I chose smaller firms specifically. And my life was balanced! But mostly, once I got married that brought a whole lot of balance into my life.
L= how did marriage bring more balance?
Sa= I think it brought balance into my life because I realized it cant be all about you which is the culture in Archi School. In marriage you have to have time for the other person and so you do that. And it’s not more difficult to juggle now because I care much less about my work (laugh); like I haven’t fallen into that trap I that I fell into in undergrad where you spend so much time on one thing. And I found that spending less time on that one thing doesn’t have as much of an effect as spending less time with reality. I realized how important it is to maintain a social aspect.
L= I also realized that when I was working, because you’re forced to work 9-5. And then during your weekends you have time to enjoy your life, which motivates you to work efficiently and hard from Monday again. So getting that work culture would be a good step in Archi Schools. If they encouraged us to work like that it would help, for example in Landscape, our lead lecturers have structured our deadlines to fall on Fridays and not Mondays, which ensures people don’t NEED to work over their weekends.
K= That’s amazing! I mean I wish that ran through all classes because some lecturers are demanding! In first year I had to submit on a Sunday and wow- Kereke* – dolololo!* you couldn’t go to church if you wanted a mark! And I find that when you complain about such things, lecturers revert to the excuse that they went through similar experiences in their schooling days and so this culture becomes idolized and idealized.
Si= and in retrospect this culture is heroed, and so as a lecturer looking back, that’s what you did because that’s what you remember but you forget how depressing and unhealthy the experience is. Or perhaps they think everyone must suffer because they suffered? Quite spiteful.
K= to extend; I think because the experience is so collective amongst students, we are also victims of embracing this culture through our all-nighters together in the studio. Do we find time to complain amongst it all?
N= well our class did express our concerns and we do get extensions but the problem of this culture isn’t really ever addressed. I mean we have two consecutive 8-6 days and then you have to consider all of the work you have for all of the courses you have. A lot of time is under allocated.
I mean a few of us were talking about it, and do you have to go through all of this to be a good designer?
Sa= I suppose they are trying to see if you are willing to stick it out.
K & N= But WHY?
Sa= Hmm… It’s similar when I speak to my friends studying medicine, who go through late nights, sleep deprivation and appetite loss and it becomes so unhealthy because you don’t notice other people going through it because it becomes you in your own bubble.
L= I think it may be preparation for the extremes of the industry.
K= But is the industry THAT extreme?
Sa= yes… or well, depending on what firm you work for. Some interns leave their offices at 11PM in these big commercial firms.
K= But perhaps universities shouldn’t force you to go through such extreme conditions and instead should tell you what the industry is like, because to go experience this culture without consent is quite violent. You can see it in our school, where more and more people are splitting their courses over two years so that they can cope or manage their day jobs to pay for tuition. Why hasn’t the university formalized a longer programme yet?
Sa= Because of the turnover time I would say, making sure that the number of people studying brings in enough money to maintain the institution.
Si= I mean I’ve been working part-time throughout and part of it is to support myself. I’ve also come to realize that its that forced removal from the Archi environment that is a relieve. I find it my way of not having to interact with talking about the stresses of the design and studio.
K= I here you. The stress is a lot. To add, I’ve found that you are expected to be a Renaissance Man as an architecture student, where lecturers ask you how feasible a project is without having even taught you or introduced you to how feasibility structuring works; or the questioning the incremental process of your project but you don’t know where to begin tackling time structuring in projects. You end up relying on precedent, which is not enough. And it’s all hypothetical in the end.
L= I suppose varsity only teaches us to think, not to know.
N= How do you think you deal with it all? How do you self-care after being critted and crushed? How do you move on from every crit? How do you keep going?
K= It depends you know, if you get a good crit you feel on top of the world, as if your momentum relies completely on good critique.
Si= Affirmation for nothing.
K= but then when you have a bad crit it really throws you off. I end up giving work the middle finger and doing what I want through binge splurges of non-work related activity.
Si= I end up lying in bed for three days. I feel like I just have no control.
L= mine is movies, anything that’s not about me; I’ll watch movies.
N= and it just goes to show how much our mental stability is reliant on the product we produce and the feedback we get. And when that goes wrong and it is not what you expected it to be coupled with all of the time you spent on it, it’s difficult to recuperate.
L= I think it comes down to the department knowing that the system is flawed, and all systems are flawed; but acknowledging that they will do something about it.
Sa= I mean if you look at your timetable alone, it’s clear that you don’t have time to fit it all in with decent sleep!
L= I think it’s expected at all Archi Schools. In Pretoria we all-nightered so much! It gets to a point where you begin researching what the minimum amount of sleep you need is. (laughs)
K= we need more psychological health care at hand. At some point there was only 1 psychologist for the whole faculty at UCT! And when that psychologist was unavailable you just had to deal.
Mental care needs to be prioritized in Archi Schools, this culture needs to be dismantled and disposed. Designers are not gods designing for people. They are people designing for and with other people.
If not, is it even worth it?
- “Kereke”- Sotho word translating to Church in English.
- “Dolololo” – Slang vernacular term referring to “nothing” with emphasis.
- All drawings: Nompilo Sibisi