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Caitlin MacLeod

Making Room

April 8th, 2019

It's 2015. I'm in my second ever semester at architecture school and I am struggling, perhaps even more so than in my initial few trial-by-inferno, oh-god-what-have-I-done months on the course, if that's possible. I'm reading another article on the general poor state of architecture students' mental health, and I've started noticing a formula; present statistics, present some potential theories as to how studio culture creates these issues, present a talking head from a professional in the industry – something along the lines of ‘it's really quite bad, isn't it, and we really should do something, shouldn't we’ –and close out with a laudable call for us all to Do Better. Because I am a sadist and I've forgotten the Golden Rule of the internet, I check the comments. One in particular sticks in my memory, a sneering fellow suggesting that if these students ‘can't handle’ the course then they should ‘do something else.’ 

 

Just you wait, I think coldly, full of bitter indignation, One day, when I'm able to get out of my bed in the morning and feed myself and shower and brush my teeth all in the same day, I'll write a blog post that lays out just how wrong you are. That'll show you.

 

Today is that righteous day. I'm able to do all those things – and even more! – despite the fact that not so long ago such a feat seemed almost impossible. In addition to secretly declaring war on a commenter on an AJ article, I also dreamed, back then, of telling the side of the Mental Health and Architecture School story that I believe is virtually untold in our corner of the media: the stories behind the statistics. Minus one brilliant piece by Scott McAuley for the AJ in 2018, I don’t recall seeing many actual mentally ill students in the press discussing their experiences in recent years. Percentages and questionnaire results are helpful – necessary, even – but they lack any sort of narrative which can humanise a subject beyond a slither on a pie chart. Without this half of the puzzle, ‘mental health issues’ remain as illusive and misunderstood as ever, and articles which attempt to address the topic become a breeding ground for helpful and enlightened comments such as the example mentioned previously. Where statistics tell us there is a problem, the stories of the people behind them are what guide us closer to solutions. 

 

So, here's an example of one such story. I said I was struggling in my second ever semester of architecture school – I'll start there. At some point during this year I would be diagnosed with both depression and anxiety disorder, and subsequently prescribed the anti-depressant fluoxetine, which is a Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor, and Propranolol, a beta blocker. If it sounds cold and clinical, that's because it is: my brain wasn't producing enough serotonin and would frequently freak out over small things (and sometimes big things), sending me into meltdown fairly regularly, so I was given medication to correct these chemical imbalances that seemed to be ruining my life. A broken arm needs a stookie, a diabetic needs insulin, and I needed SSRIs and beta blockers, for my scrambled brain.

 

On reflection this seems so obvious, so simple a problem, but at the time I felt as if I was in free fall. I would wake up, and indulge in a cry in my bed. Despite sleeping lots – too much, even – my body would feel heavy with it, a thick coating of exhaustion dragging down my arms and shoulders and eyelids. The anxiety would force me up and into the studio (lest I fail my courses, and embarrass myself, and drop out of uni, and never get a job ever, and–) despite the depression wanting to hold me back in sleep all day. For anyone who has ever tackled both beasts at the same time, this is a familiar anecdote, I'm sure. No shower, of course, and there's something the statistics don't tell you: remembering to clean yourself, feed yourself, or even simply care about yourself in any form becomes a chore so physically and emotionally exhausting that it becomes impossible to imagine a time where the chasm between a sedentary existence in bed and a normal one wasn't as wide as the universe itself. 

 

And then there was the work itself. Contrary to what you might think, it's a difficult thing to care about the strength of your concept or the attention to detail in your site model while your mind is preoccupied with wanting to die. I apologise if this is shocking; with years of depression and mood disorders under your belt, morbid thoughts of harm and death are ordinary, even boring. They are old friends who make you sigh in annoyance when they show up unannounced, taking up your time, eating all your food, difficult to get rid of. The thing about suicide ideation is that it never seems to rise to a cresendo, the way it's portrayed on TV. It never seems to be the result of a cataclysmic, earth shattering moment that causes you to snap and want to throw in the towel, at least in my experience. Instead, it's a vast and delicate tapestry, woven with threads of the most seemingly tiny and insignificant inconveniences – I remember feeling particularly macabre one evening in the studio after I lost a drawing board clip for all of two minutes. There's a mundanity to it all, a dangerous normalisation of hardship and struggle that closely mirrors how the study of architecture itself is discussed – an inevitable, unavoidable reality of the thing, or as McAuley labels it, a ‘necessary evil.’ It's because of this that I believe architecture especially is a degree with a poor mental health record; I’ll come back to this later.

 

From what I can gather from the snake-pit that is the comments section of these ‘Architecture Students: Still Really Sad’ articles, there seems to be an assumption that a degree in architecture causes depression or anxiety, that perfectly functional, healthy and happy young adults go in and, like a malfunctioning sausage factory, a swathe of zombie-eyed, sallow-skinned husks come out at the other side, clutching either a degree or a transfer request to another course. What I'd like to propose is that, in fact, architecture is exactly the sort of profession that attracts the slightly messed-up creative kids that grow up to become those statistics, the ones we tut and sigh at on a bi-annual basis. 

 

The problem is not that our neuro-divergent students are not resilient enough, but that they do not receive enough support for their alternative needs, and that the culture surrounding the study of architecture is a toxic, unhealthy one, which could push any healthy adult to breaking point. Maybe I wouldn't have struggled so much if I wasn't being told by (some) tutors to stay in late and skip shifts at my part-time job in order to cram in more studio time, like all the other students. Maybe I wouldn't have cried so much if course notes, reading list texts and briefs were written in a language I understood, rather than needlessly complex and borderline exclusionary academic English – I’ll need another blog post to explore this particular bugbear. Maybe I wouldn't have panicked to the same extent if I wasn't having to simultaneously worry, as a student from a more modest background than the vast majority of my peers, about how I could afford to fund my studies – mandatory, expensive field trips, model-making materials, printing costs and all. These are just my own challenges, the things that finally drove me to a crisis point and forced me to seek real help in the forms of medication and therapy, but there are plenty of things you'll hear from architecture students, neuro-typical and divergent alike, about their experiences studying this degree that simply shouldn't be considered normal or okay, and frankly wouldn't be, in most other degrees. 

 

Therein lies the problem, this normalisation of hardship I touched on before. Bad practice has become the standard, self-sustained by the slew of alumni scoffing about how nothing has changed, and they survived it, didn't they, after all. As if being static is a good thing, as if emotional pain and sleep-deprived suffering are key tactics in the mission to produce good designers. In fact the opposite might be true; by pushing out potentially excellent students who simply cannot handle the stresses of the course on top of already demanding mental health (and perhaps other) issues, we lose a wealth of talent from a highly creative, if misunderstood, group of young people. A little understanding, a little more room made for the outliers, and our degree can properly nurture the skills of all architects-to-be, not just the ones who's genetic makeup or chemical balance happens to be favourable.

 

It's 2019. I've seen therapists over the years, I'm medicated, and I'm happy. The idea that I am the same person as the one I've just described from four years ago is almost inconceivable, as bizarre and abstract a notion as the thought of being a healthy, happy and successful graduate seemed to me back then. Glimpses of the life I used to live sometimes make their appearance in the present: a whole day in bed, a heavy cloud of exhaustion over my head as I try to work. I'm still reading the statistics, still missing that much needed narrative thread, still dreaming of a story told more fully, beyond the quantitative numbers, a sharing of pain and failure and success and conquering and relapse. Still dreaming that, one day, I can help make room for more people like me in the world of architecture, maybe starting here, with this, right now.

 

That'd really show them, wouldn't it?

Designing for Disaster

March 21st, 2019

For my first trick, I'd like to share an article I wrote last year for Part 1 of SEDA Magazine's 'A Guide to Being Unsustainable,' which was adapted from my final year dissertation. I remember that I set out to write one thing, an ode to the conscientious architect, some sort of proof that we could Be the Change We Wanted to See in the World, or something, and ended up discovering that I believed in something entirely different and writing about that instead. Which is not to say I became a cynic: I like to think of this piece more as a call to be more realistic and genuine, and less tokenistic, in our efforts to affect change.

 

And maybe it's a little cynical. I think that's healthy. 

 

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Climate change and its increasingly apparent effects are being discussed now more than ever. 2017 saw a number of devastating natural disasters: Louisiana’s Tropical Storm Harvey damage, the hurricane in Puerto Rico, the earthquakes of Mexico and the California wildfires to name but a few. We had our own issues in the UK also, with the evacuation of Lancashire residents following widespread flooding across northern Wales and northwest England in November, and Storm Eleanor causing the Scottish Environment Protection Agency to release fifteen flood warnings across the country at the start of the year. The consequences of our mistreatment of the planet are being felt, and they are consequences which hit those living in vulnerable conditions the hardest.

 

Disaster architect Michael Sorkin has said that ‘the environments of those billions of our fellow citizens who live in conditions that deprive them of opportunities for health and happiness must be the object of an architecture of conscience.’ As stories of natural disaster adorn the headlines on ever more frequent occasions,the need to consider the livelihoods of said billions of citizens is increasingly urgent. The design professional is, on paper, very well-equipped to deal with the challenges that the aftermath of tsunamis, fires and earthquakes pose. That is to say, our core skills in problem-solving, spatial innovation and interdisciplinary collaboration would be - and have been - very useful in the context of an emergency situation. However, what we must acknowledge is that this does not necessarily mean we are fully equipped and qualified to address the complex issues and challenges that are thrown up by natural disasters.

 

Depressingly often we have watched as charity money dedicated to helping affected communities goes missing, badly made shelters provide little beyond immediate and short-term relief, and those in harm’s way suffer for years with little improvement in living conditions. The current involvement of western architects and the wider design profession in the field of natural disaster relief is minimal, and what effort is being made is often sadly ineffective or even harmful to vulnerable communities. In his lecture Humanitarian Architecture: Who Really Designs?, Dr Anshu Sharma discusses the phenomenon of the ‘igloo’, which he perceives as one such failed response:

 

David [Sanderson] often says, and I quote him, that “wherever there is an earthquake, there’s an igloo.”…This is an innovation that always seeks a problem…Innovators like us from all over the world…[come] and set up designs and prototypes of what we believe people should be building and what the answer is…I’d like to add that in these twenty-five odd disasters that I’ve worked in, I have also never seen a single family ever live in a house like this…you only see them as prototypes that are coming from the world of innovators and well-meaning architects…very removed from how people work and how society works in these places.

 

Herein lies the issue. Designers still seek to solve these highly complex, locale-specific problems with design competitions, glossy renders, and clever prototype shelters that can be shipped off to whichever devastated location is in the news that week. When it comes to us helping after disasters in developing countries far from our own, we are entirely removed from the process, focused on the product to the point where, as Dr Sharma highlights, the final shelter solution is one that is so removed from the realities of the devastated community members that it is unusable.

 

So what is the solution? We must acknowledge architecture as a practice specific to location, and that the process of designing necessarily involves collaboration, information exchange and integration with locale. In an interview with architect William Flinn, he outlined his work with CARE international in the Philippines to me, stressing their focus on teaching ‘build back safer’ techniques to local populations in order that they might future-proof their homes and businesses without having to rely on the charity of design professionals. This technique integrates local materials, vernacular construction techniques and the skills of local workers into the reconstruction process rather than forcing a foreign architecture into a context where it is not welcome. He believes disaster reconstruction is about empowerment’ and asks ‘can we communicate better with communities?’ He stresses ‘knowledge exchange, not knowledge transfer,' seeing the role of the architect as allowing communities to self-recover while guiding and informing their ideas to steer them in a better direction. I believe that if we as design professionals hope to make a meaningful contribution to the world of disaster relief and mitigation in the near future, we must adapt our profession significantly and recalibrate our approach to and perceptions of vulnerable communities, particularly those existing in poorer developing countries. Flinn’s approach is one that departs from an all-too common attitude adopted by architects wherein there is an obsession with design ownership, of design professionals putting their ‘mark’ on their work. As David Sanderson has argued, ‘most architects are taught the exact opposite of what is needed’ when it comes to working in post-disaster contexts. Social Impact Researcher and Strategy and Operations Consultant Nikki Linsell has been an outspoken critic of architects in the field of disaster relief in her published writing work, and as I interviewed her she elaborated on how this hubristic attitude translates into the misguided glorification of architects working in vulnerable communities:

 

It might not just be architectural charities, but there’s this sort of suggestion where “30,000 kids have gone to school because of us.” And it’s like, well, no, you wouldn’t say that if you were an architect in the UK, it wouldn’t say on your website “check out our lovely new school in London, we’ve educated the next London generation.” No, you haven’t, the teachers have, the public sector have, what you’ve done is created a good, conducive environment to support education. Yet we don’t use those terms in the charitable sector when it comes to architecture.

 

In a particularly scathing piece by Linsell, she clarifies that her criticism is directed at ‘any architect (or student of) who believes that their heavily culturally potent and political design skills has a justifiable place, let alone positive impact on a targeted ‘vulnerable’ community far-removed physically and socio-politically than themselves.’ I fully agree. By assuming that any attempt to help in ‘poor’ parts of the world is inherently good in itself, we engage in a new kind of imperialism. We limit the growth of built environment sectors in third world countries by flying in our own professionals rather than promoting the use of local workers. We erase culture by ignoring local building techniques and materials and plonking in our own alien prototypes. We continue to perpetuate the myth that poor communities exist to be saved and that it is our job as architects to save them with our superior knowledge of design and construction.

 

This may seem an entirely negative point of view to take. But I believe it is necessary for us to admit our own limitations before we ‘screw a system of place up beyond recognition’ as Linsell puts it. What we can do is focus on the contexts with which we are familiar, where disasters are occurring with increasing frequency – this is our professional duty. If there is a need to travel abroad, it should be to facilitate learning: empowering local workers and stepping back to adopt a smaller role within a more important whole. As climate change advances, empowering rather than inhibiting vulnerable communities is a far more important a job for us than attempting to promote ourselves as world-saving heroes: in doing this, we champion real and meaningful change in our most vulnerable environments.

 

A Guide to Being Unsustainable part 1 has recently been published and includes this piece. Part 2 is now under development: when finished, the two guides will be combined to form a lifestyle Colour Supplement to help us all tune into our changing world. It will include fashion, travel, your money, relationship advice, film reviews and a horoscope - I will be publishing a piece on sustainable fashion. You can find out more information at https://www.seda.uk.net/seda-magazine-landing

 

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