• Dara Schaefer

Lost in Space (of Architecture School)


In my therapist’s office a few months ago, I was reflecting that I was the type of kid who always got lost. Every time my parents brought me to shopping malls, inevitably I would end up wandering through the aisles, in tears, lost. My therapist stared at me. She did not need to say anything. At that moment, my understanding of my childhood-self transformed instantaneously: I never wandered off and got lost.

I was the child of parents who lost me!

Cooper Union Architecture Studio, December 2018

A few weeks ago I was meeting a friend who is a

professor at Cooper Union. She was teaching 2nd-

year design studio. It was a Saturday evening about 10 days before their end-of-semester final review. She was doing desk crits with some of her students, the ones whose projects seemed the most undirected, the students who were ostensibly lost.

Realizing that they had been on the wrong track, two of the five students we saw had tears streaming down their faces. We were trying to help direct them, but the amount of work they needed to produce in such a short time undoubtedly felt overwhelming.

Those tears were so familiar...


I have spent most of the last 25 years, since graduating from Cooper Union School of Architecture in 1994, avoiding the school. Every time a taxi driver would inadvertently pass the school, I would get knots in my stomach.

After I posted my last blog about John Hejduk---Excavating the Soul of Architecture, I started reconnecting with classmates who I haven't spoken to in over 25 years. They are dispersed around around the world--- London, Vienna, Bombay, and Beirut--- at least half of whom are teaching architecture. They all had conflicting feelings about the school, which, on the one hand gave them a free and undoubtedly rigorous education, but on the other hand... left them with a lingering feeling of.... not really ever wanting to go back. One classmate who now teaches at Cooper put it bluntly---- "We were all traumatized back then."

When recently, another architect friend of mine, mentioned she was having trouble getting her classmates back for their 25-year reunion at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design--- because they “get knots in their stomach,” I realized this lingering stomach knotting PTSD is a common occurrence for my generation of architects. The question is why?

What are we doing to protect this next generation of architects from our repeating traumatic experiences? Is a non-codified system of teaching a heavily conceptualized approach to architecture, right for all students, especially our youngest ones? Is our system of educating creative students a little too labyrinthine?

Is it just too easy to get lost?


I am not trained as an expert on the teenage/young adult brain, but as a mother of two college students, let’s just say I’ve brushed up against the subject for the last few years.

We know that the adult brain is not fully formed in humans until about age 24. Between the ages of 12 and 24 the brain goes through explosive growth followed by a severe “pruning” of unused neural structures. The college years are particularly important. They are a time where we learn vital skills, such as how to leave home and enter the larger world, connect deeply with others, and safely experiment and take risks. Experimental risk taking is the definition of creativity.

Since the brain itself is significantly shaped by the experiences we have in school, and educators are helping to mold the mind, then it follows that knowing about the way the brain changes in response to teaching methods, can help to nurture stronger, more resilient adults. I am specifically thinking about the way we use the crit system in art, architecture and design schools.

In 1943 Maslow published his motivational theory in psychology comprising a five-tier model of human needs, usually represented as hierarchical levels within a pyramid that he depicted as follows:

Basically, Maslow’s theory is that until a person has their basic physiological needs (food, rest, safety) and psychological need for close relationships and the feeling of prestige and accomplishment, it will be difficult for them to be motivated to achieve their full creative potential.

If we believe Maslow's theory on motivation, is it possible to nurture feelings of prestige and accomplishment in students who are studying in a system which uses criticism as the core of teaching architecture? This is especially true when architecture programs combine undergrad and grad students together (as is the case at RISD.) An 18-year-old will have different knowledge base and will learn differently than a 24-year-old. Even 24-year-olds who are coming from pre-architecture programs vs. the ones with regular liberal arts degrees, will have different skill sets.

The idea that these students will be judged relative to each other, seems… well… unfair.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that life needs to be fair! But, especially for the youngest students, to completely lose the sense of feeling valued, is itself, problematic! The fear-factor is intensified. The opportunity for their creativity to reach its full potential is dampened. In our effort to instill resiliency, do we risk damaging the student’s ability to be creative professionals?

How early do we need to teach them that creativity and fear are in bed with each other?


Cooper Union School of Architecture, 2nd Year Review, December 2018

In my earlier example about my friend who was doing desk crits at Cooper: interestingly, the student who felt the most overwhelmed, who seemed the most lost, was also the student who made the most progress. At her final review, you never would have known she had been lost. Her project was well executed, and entirely on par with the best of her peers.

I did remember that the professor specifically addressed her fear of being lost during our desk crit: “email me every day if you need to, I am here to help you.” As it turns out the student did email her every day.

I would argue that it was not just the desk crit that put her back on track, it was the feeling of being mentored. Her professor made her feel safe, valued and nurtured. Having her Maslow-ian needs met, she was able to focus on achieving her full creative potential, despite her fear. (For more on fear, see my post--- Blasting Through Blocks --Name It to Tame It!)


John Hejduk, Architectures in Love, Rizzoli 1995

A friend of mine said that she remembers our dean, John Hejduk, saying that architects were the closest thing to angels on earth. That architects were the one profession with the purview to create environments which connect the earth with the heavens.

I still want to believe that is true. But to the extent that the architecture school is in the business of creating future angels--- my question is--- is there a way to do that without traumatizing them?

Is there a way to consider the psychological and developmental needs of the teenage and young adult brain? Is there a way to incorporate their executive functioning capacity and their need for mentorship and guidance into our approach to teaching them?

Is there a way to keep our students from getting lost?



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