Interview with Senator Tomáš Vojtíšek on the topic of applying to studios
The current system of applying to design studios is not uniform. And it does not offer a fair play: it is more advantageous for strong personalities and is often stressful for students and teachers. It leads to divisions between studios, with some heads choosing the so-called best students on the basis of portfolios, while other studios aim for democratic selection by lottery, or possibly by a first-come, first-served method... At the same time, the system does not allow for the application of agreed principles, such as the maximum number of students in a studio, and the system of joint presentations is not welcoming to international students.
When was the idea of discussing the topic of admission to the studio born?
My initiative came from people's dissatisfaction with the way design studios were recruited.
And what about you – are you satisfied yourself?
Neither did I. It occurred to me on the day of this year's studio registration. And the idea came from my experience, but also from the experience of my friends. Either they were rejected by the studios, often unjustifiably from their point of view, or they were exposed to another stressful situation. When you stand in line for three hours to enroll in a studio, you hear a lot of things. And of course you also miss other studios while you wait because they have filled to capacity in the meantime. And you begin to suspect that the current system, which is anchored somewhere in a certain grey area, is favouring students who have sharp elbows. Which is the Dean's point. Those who are not afraid of things that are, in my view, perhaps even amoral, like lying to the head when asked if they have their portfolios elsewhere, and they say: no, no, you are my priority, even though they already have the back door open...You may say, yes, that is how it is and probably will be in our experience. The stronger elbows just win. But I am convinced that a school should be good and developing even for students who do not feel comfortable if, for example, they have to say no to the head who accepted them because someone else has accepted them in the meantime. Those students with sharp elbows, for whom it is common practice to send or give portfolios to more than one studio, are actually at a great advantage because they secure those places. And they do not look at their colleagues who are blocking a place, nor at the teacher who, for example, is blocked by a plot and counts on it, and ends up with an empty mass without windows in the model, because then nobody does the plot...
Allow me a personal digression – when you started with the plot: what assignment did you choose?
I wanted to join the studio Hlaváček – Minarovič – Čeněk – mainly because of the good experience of my friends. And if you are asking about the assignment, then Vršovice, Koh-i-noor conversion. So I went into the unknown. I do not want to say that I was disqualified by the fact that students who had already worked in the studio have priority. During the previous year I had been in the studio of Kohout – Tichý, whose assignment for Nové Dvory was also very appealing to me, and in fact I had been choosing between them the entire holidays. So if they had not known me at Kohout studio and had not created a new plot for me, they probably would not have accepted me either, because they had no more space – after I learned at ten o'clock in the evening that Hlaváček, Čeněk and Minarovič had failed. But now we have to ask, what if someone is not as tough as me? And there just might not be room for him. What should they do? And how is it guaranteed that they will do their bachelor's project, let's say, in an environment they know or like or want to be in...
As chair of the Senate Study Committee, who did you invite to the recent public debate on studio admissions?
I have been in the Senate for less than a year. And as chair of the study committee, I felt that our study topics were alive. Plus, the new dean is interested in moving the school somewhere and somehow... But his vision is still forming, and it is not final. So for me, the idea of recruiting students into design studios came at the right time: to activate students and faculty and see how the thing is perceived. How selection works in other schools. How it has been in history. What the dean plans for the future. And I found open debate to be the best platform. Maybe it could have been a closed thing or a closed meeting in some way. But that would be a terrible shame because we would not have gotten any new input. By the way, I have to remember that the Architecture Students' Association helped me in organizing the debate.
So who did you invite? Could anyone have come?
First, we informed the Dean's Council, and the Dean also invited the heads of the design studios, and finally the Vice Dean for Education arrived. And I also invited the Dean Emeritus, Prof. Lábus, who knows the topic very well. In parallel, there was a promotion, which was the responsibility of the Association.
How many people arrived?
Approximately sixty participated.
How did you define the current situation? That is, the problem of the school's approach? Is there any way to fix it?
The problem lies precisely in the non-anchoring. The maximum number of twenty-four students in a studio is fixed. And the obligation to take two studios during the bachelor's degree. But even in that number there are significant variations. Because the number may not include, for example, diplomas or exams... Which does not remove the burden from the studios, maybe the opposite. In addition, there are studios, for example, where people work in pairs – on one housing project. This can also change the numbers. So it happens that in one studio forty students are designing and in another studio there are six... But I personally see the main problem as the fact that at the moment there is no fixed time, for example, when a student has to arrive for an interview in the studio. There is a certain anxiety that one should always arrive after the presentation of the assignment, or at five in the afternoon. It is just that the vast majority of studios accept throughout the school holidays – based on email and portfolios that also go out by email. So the studio capacity may actually already be full at the time of enrolment. That is one problem. Another is when there are more than just twenty-four students interested in the studio. So you have to turn some students away, and that is where the biggest differentiation occurs, where some supervisors stick to the way that worked here before – the lottery. In other studios, for example, it depends on time, because for a certain teacher, time is a kind of equation in showing interest. Let's say that whoever comes at six has priority over a colleague who comes at nine. But the vast majority choose on the basis of a portfolio, and with that comes a number of consequences. Starting from the social dimension, where not everyone can afford to print three portfolios on 250 gsm paper, to the situation where not everyone can do a portfolio because computer graphics is only taught in the fourth semester. So here we see different implications that may not be obvious at first glance.
As you can see, it is a very complex subject, seemingly only operational, but it is not true. The good ones, in quotes, go where they want, but what about the so-called bad ones? They too are public school students. And they have even been selected for this school. In a democratic state, the citizen contributes to them in his taxes... A peculiar attitude prevailed in the time of unfreedom, as Prof. Lábus accurately describes the pre-Lisbon faculty. (see p. 20) And there is also a fundamental difference between a private school...
There are two streams of opinion here, which were also represented in our debate in the Archicafé. A number of teachers claim that they cannot choose the best, and on the contrary, they express joy when the average student moves up or when good students bring them along... This is what vertical studios are for. But then there are studios where they really pick students based on a portfolio or an interview. But I should honestly say that I personally do not have a clear understanding of this. However, it is true that when the principle of admissions runs on two tracks, there is an opening of the scissors, where there are specific studios that take the best and, conversely, others that take the mediocre because they have the desire to move them on. But then, logically, the studio is not necessarily the best...
Is the best the best? But from what point of view do you mean best? How do you tell a good studio from a bad one?
I suppose it is impossible to say... I certainly would not, for example, blame Olověný Dušan for trying to appreciate studios that are good. That is a perfectly legitimate effort to highlight exceptional work...
You are talking about Olověný Dušan. It represents the Association's renowned student competition. As you know, during the Dušan, the jury has to judge a huge number of projects. They have a few seconds for one... Professor Přikryl pointed that out once when he was on the jury. Is it not more a question of judging the impression of the graphic presentation – not the architectural content of the work?
I guess that is the way it is. For me, a good studio that I visit is Kohout –Tichý, where the leaders are not so much concerned with visual outputs as with making the house work in plans and sections and functional schemes... But to get back to the method of assessing quality, I think the best measure at the moment is probably the enrolment queue. There are studios where a hundred people sign up, and there are studios where seven people sign up. Which, on the other hand, can also be a question of pedagogical leadership or difficulty, there are a lot of elements... Architecture as such is not exactly easy to quantify. However, the interest mentioned can be a clue. And in this context, I wonder if our school has data in this system on which studios have a lot of people applying and which have none or fewer people applying... But maybe we can look at things of quality in a different way: A good studio may not be made up of teachers or assignments, but of students coming together. This is the breeding ground from which good projects and ideas emerge that can influence all other students. And teachers can direct or support everything... In short, the students create the quality. And they choose the studio based on a lot of facts; from how they like the assignment to whether the teacher respects them, whether he or she treats them in a rude way, whether he or she will not intervene in the final documentation a week before the submission, or on the contrary, in the winter semester he or she will say, now it is done and now we will work on the documentation, even if we find a thousand mistakes...
On the way to the algorithm
So again a question, perhaps a bit off topic: can you tell a good studio from the outside?
Personally, I do not think so.
So you are talking more about the process than the outcome – students learning something from those who know or know... But back: did the discussion at Archicafé lead to conclusions that could be characterized as recommendations for the future selection of students for the studio?
The debate in the Archicafé was quite heated at one point. Between the studio heads who draw lots and those who choose according to the portfolio... In my opinion, the future may lie in trying to create an algorithm that works on the basis of student preferences, while at the same time there may be an opportunity for the teacher to correct things... So the new element – the algorithm was introduced by the dean. If it gets tweaked, it can ensure the satisfaction of as many people as possible.
So it is not about grades or arrival time like other faculties...
The Dean talked about some unification, based on the school server. So there would be no way to get around the system with different emails on holidays, etc. The important thing would be that rules would be established. Portfolios would be uploaded for, say, three studios to see where that student most wanted to start. Personally, I can imagine that some mathematical model could be used, but at the same time I think that there needs to be a will for the teachers; so that the system takes their preferences into account. So that things cannot be twisted. Because certainly teachers who want to teach students who are inspiring to them will not disappear. And they do not want to leave the process to chance. And one more thing: it also gives us hard data: where students want to go and where they do not. The algorithm could be tweaked to really make most people happy.
Was there any objection to the dean's algorithm proposal?
There is definitely a group that does not want to let chance or the computer choose for them. And they want the choice in their hands.
It seems obvious: When a student chooses a school, they indirectly choose a teacher. In a school with artistic ambitions, surely a stronger relationship can develop between the students and their teacher... How did the proponents of the current system argue when they heard the disadvantages?
I rather understand the other side's reasons for bringing back the draw, which seems the fairest after all. And it would provide some mix. However, the Dean is coming up with a uniform, systematized method.
Do you know of a school abroad or even domestically that could serve as a model?
I think the faculty's attitude of selecting based on a portfolio or an interview is actually relatively unique. Very few places give that kind of space to faculty. But as far as I know, in Milan, maybe even in Hamburg, schools operate on the basis of: First come, first served. Like the registration of subjects. Then there are schools, for example FUA Liberec, where the system works on the basis of an algorithm, where the teacher and the student can enter the computer process, with the studios swapping or swapping students... But in doing so, they actually break down all the advantages of the algorithm... If you ask me, I think the model for our dean is the University of Munich.
One more perspective, advocate diaboli: Can we not also look at the problem in such a way that its purpose is experience, which will be valuable in practice, when the architect will have to work on an assignment that will bring him a living, and not some total happiness? Simply to do what is necessary...?
I think what is essential is the unification of the system. So that it does not happen that, for example, an average student applies to an excellent studio and is not accepted, or an excellent student applies to an excellent studio and is not accepted because he has never been there... And they both end up in a studio that they just do not enjoy, where they feel that they cannot develop and some frustration arises from that. In general, it is a question of whether it is the right approach for a student to secure a studio, or whether they are playing some kind of wobbly game – and if they don't get into a good studio, they may end up in a studio they didn't want to go to in the first place... I would want to spare the student this stress or frustration. Sure, it can happen in the job market. But we are still in school here.
Interview led by Jiří Horský, published in the faculty newsletter Alfa 4/22.