CTL Featured Assignment Overview

Instructor's Name: , Visiting Instructor in Art History

Name & number of course: AHI 279: Contemporary Architecture

Name of assignment: Architectural Commentaries & Criticism

Class size: 20

Last time the class was taught & when it will be taught again: Spring 2014 (Likely Spring 2015)

Learning goals of the assignment and briefly how they relate to the goals of the course:

This assignment was created to have students engage with contemporary architectural criticism and develop their writing and editing skills. Throughout the semester, students read architectural criticism in the form of newspaper columns, essays, and book reviews. They are then asked to use a similar tone, depth of content and critical eye in crafting their own commentaries about specific buildings, architects, and themes.

Description of the assignment (e.g., when you give the assignment, if you scaffold the assignment):

This assignment is made up of a series of three commentaries, a book review, and a final essay. All assignments (excluding the final essays) can be rewritten once. Students are graded using a rubric and are given extensive comments on their first versions. One of the critical components of the assignment is word count. Students are given very strict word count minimums and maximums and this aspect carries the same weight as grammar in the grading rubric.

This is the description of the assignment sequence that the students receive:

Reading architectural criticism will be a major feature of this course. Since Ada Louise Huxtable began her career writing about architecture for the New York Times in the 1960s, American newspapers have consistently hired critics to comment upon contemporary architecture and the built environment around them. Over the course of the semester, you will be required to write three commentaries or criticisms of contemporary architecture. Like the critics you will read, your own voice and opinions can be clearly articulated but you will be limited in word count just as any newspaper columnist is restricted in how many column inches they have to use. As critics also review what architects write and publish, you will also write a book review Bjarke Ingel’s architectural manifesto, Yes Is More. The ultimate goal of the criticisms and book review is that they will serve as models for your final essay in the course in which you will consider, analyze, and develop your opinion in regard to the question, “What is the future of architecture?”

The first commentary is due during the second week of class and asks the students to write two short essays. The first is a historical analysis of the addition to New London Hall and the second is a critical essay of the same addition. This paired essay assignment requires the students to actively consider the differences between historical writing (which they are accustomed to) and architectural criticism. Students bring these essays to class on the day the assignment is due and then complete an in-class self-reflection of the differences between writing history and criticism. This part of the assignment is designed to make it clear that they need to approach these assignments in a way that is quite different than in other classes they have taken.

The second and third commentaries are both due before spring break. Students are given very general topics (Architecture of the 1980s and The “Starchitect” and the Museum), but must discuss at least two specific examples of their choosing in their essays. For the second commentary, students complete an in-class peer review of their commentaries. This is used as the starting point for a broader in-class discussion of the commentary topic. The topic of the third commentaries parallels as series of discussions about contemporary museum architecture.

The next component in the assignment series is a book review. Students are encouraged to read the assigned book over spring break and the review is due the week following their return to campus. The class meeting when the assignment is due is devoted to a discussion of the text.

The final component of the series is a final essay. In this essay, students are asked to use the skills they have developed throughout the semester in the previous assignments to write an essay that answers the question “What is the future of architecture?” This assignment requires students to be reflective of the course material and discussions and to think about where the field is heading today – an important aspect since many of them are planning on becoming architects and designers.

What you like about the assignment and why you think it is effective:

I particularly enjoy this series of written assignments because the students become very actively engaged in choosing what they will write about and how to approach the book review and final essay assignments. For many students the first two commentaries are extremely challenging. The word count requirement is often very frustrating, but forces them to actively edit their writing and think about how they go about choosing words and descriptions. Having taught this class twice now, I think the book review is particular rewarding both for the students and myself. Not only does spring break become an active time for the course, but students have the time to deeply engage in one topic through reading, writing, and discussion. Reading their final essays has been a highlight of my year for the past two years. By the end of the semester the students have become very adept at writing criticism and it is quite fascinating to see how each of them see the field and its future at the end of a semester of in-depth study.

Download and view these PDFs. 

Book Review


Final Essay