A guide to Kunstakademiets Arkitektskole

I just realised that I've spent monumental amounts of time responding to emailed inquiries about what it's like to study at the Kunstakademiets Arkitektskole - The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts - in Copenhagen, and it's taken me almost a year to conclude that I should just make a compilation of answers on my blog. This is going to be my go-to guide, and any new questions will be answered and added as they come up. Click on the questions to see my answers. 

UPDATE

I attended KA from 2009-2011. I was in the first class of graduating students from the dedicated English program - the group of guinea pigs so to speak. Since this time a lot of changes have happened at the KA - they merged with the design school, possibly have changed some of their facilities, and hopefully improved their programs and response to foreign students. Please understand that when I write about my experience it is a reflection of the way things were when I attended. 

1. You mentioned in your blog that they [instructors at the K.A.] lacked coordination and seemed to be fairly academically inbred, was there any interaction with outside partners? 

Not really. It depends on what you count as an 'outside partner.'  What I can recall is the following:

1. We had a week-long workshop with CITA (Center for Information Technology in Architecture) and they had invited visiting prof Mark Burry from RMIT in Melbourne to join in.

2. During the semester course Tek 5 we had a lecture from an architect from the ETH Zurich. I think it was about digital fabrication for high rises. I can't quite remember.

3. One of our studio tutors was originally from New Zealand, but had lived in Denmark for 3 or so years, so I'm not sure if he counts as an outside partner.

4. Over the course of the 2 years I was there we had a few visiting architects who gave public lectures, but this was pretty erratic (once every two months?). The one I remember for sure is Caruso St. John.

What stands out for me the most is the fact that we never, not once, not even at our thesis reviews, had ANY guest critics. Never.

There wasn't a school-wide, regular lecture series.

There was no lecture series for my department.

All in all it gave a feeling of a pocket of tight-knit Danish designers who weren't all that interested in what was going on outside of Denmark, let alone Scandinavia, let alone Europe.

2. From your perspective, did the K.A. treat the international students quite differently? / What are the challenges of studying at a foreign language institute? 

Yes. They treated us differently.

ADMINISTRATION

School announcements and events were sent out through email in Danish only. Occasionally there would be an English translation but then a note that the event would occur in Danish. Fair enough, it's a Danish school, but when you have an international program maybe you should think about arranging some events in English so that your new students feel like they actually belong and have a say.

The main problem was that the instructors had no clue how to deal with, instruct, or organize an international class.

The 'international class' is made up of 10 full time international masters students and 10 Danish masters students, plus 10 international exchange students (students who are there for one semester only). 

The administration of Department 11 never stopped to think that there were 20 people who all came from completely different backgrounds, who all had different methods of doing things, and that perhaps it would be good to set out a common set of parameters for presenting ideas. They never really considered that we would all approach design from totally different directions and really came down hard on us when we didn't have the same kind of research and analysis as the Danish students. 

THE STUDIO

The instructors thought we would get all the information we needed from the Danish students so they made very little effort to direct or guide us. They never made hand-in criteria, a presentation plan, a sign up sheet for desk crits, and did not have set studio times. Sometimes they would email one or two hours before they would be in the studio, and expect you to be there ready to show them something. But they never would make a sign up sheet - that was too much like putting one person above another. Rather they would start at one end of the studio and make their way across - and damn to those who have to be somewhere else. 

The worst was in my final year. The instructors were completely hands-off. They basically handed us a project brief at the beginning of the semester and put up some dates for reviews, and then waved bye-bye. Studio instruction was not seen as important. Desk crits were not seen as important. Emailed questions about pressing issues were not seen as important. If you have questions, you should ask the Danish students and not the instructors. They didn't even arrange for a place for us to present our final projects. 

We went 3 or 4 weeks at a time without seeing a tutor. When they did decide to show up, it would usually conflict with another class we had, so we had to decide between missing a class and speaking with our design tutor. There were no lectures associated with design studio. There were no handouts. No readings. No discussions. Just yourself... floating along, trying to make something of an ambiguous project brief. 

The instructors did not ever specify any requirements for presentations or criteria for what we should show at design reviews. If you asked them to specify they would mumble for a while about how everyone's project is different and you can't expect everyone to have the same things. This is bullshit. I now work with people who teach design at the architecture school here in Berlin and they always set a format for the masters students - it just makes it easier to talk about the work if everything is at the same scale and in the same place.

Oh, and these differences of working method were not appreciated, either. Instructors put the Danish students' work on a pedestal and made us feel that the only work worth talking about was the Danish work, done in this particular format with this particular design process. The more Danish you became in your approach, the better it went for you at the crit. Cultural learning was not a two way street - it was very clear - you were there to improve yourself by studying the Danes, not the other way round.

3. Were there any chances to choose classes/electives, or was it strictly a set schedule? / What are the courses like? What does a typical semester look like?

There are a few optional courses you can take, but most of your schedule is fixed. 

The optional courses are advertised via email about 2-3 weeks prior to the course starting and many of them are in Danish. A few will say that internationals are welcome to join but that instruction will be in Danish. Optional courses are not semester long. They are usually 3 days - 1 week long. Most of them are courses on computer programs (3ds max, ecotect, rhino, etc). These are, in short, not typical 'electives' as you would find at a university in North America. They are mini-classes; workshops.

> The course schedule works really strange at the K.A., as it's never a progression of similar courses throughout the years, but rather a mish-mash of unrelated courses and workshops that add up to fulfill ECTS credit requirements. At Dalhousie, where I took my bachelor, we had 5 courses: Design, Representation, Building Technology, Professional Practice, History and Theory. Every semester you had these classes, progressing at different levels. 

At the K.A., Design Studio is worth half your credits (15 ECTS per semester), and they fill in the other half with seemingly random crap. Here's what I did in my first year:

Year 1, Semester 1:

> Design Studio ("the bridge") comprising studio work and 2 week-long workshops related to bridge-type things (lighting, structure).

> week-long course to learn Rhino (comprised of printed tutorials from the rhino website - I did this entire course at home)

... that's it. We later found out that we were supposed to have taken Tek 5 during this semester, but due to a scheduling screw up by our department, we ended up having to do it in our final year which was insanely stressful. 

Semester 2:

> Design Studio ("furniture"), comprising studio work and 6 week-long workshops that were mostly unrelated and unhelpful to actually producing furniture or detailing at 1:1 (lectures on branding? putting together presentations about converse sneakers vs. high heels? tectonics of foam-core triangles? yup... it was all worth credits and just sucked time from our studio projects...) Never once was there a workshop where we designed, drew, or built something.

> Theory and History 1 - intensive PhD level readings and seminars about abstract spacial concepts; e.g. Heidigger, Foucault, and the like. Was not rewarding. Thankfully I instantly forgot everything.

> Week-long workshop with CITA and Mark Burry "Reading Room for the Botanic Gardens" - not sure what the overall goal of this was, as 5 students worked closely with Mark Burry to learn grasshopper and test the breaking point of wood planks, and the rest of us sanded said wood planks and tried to figure out how parametric modelling was related to what we were trying to make. Nobody ended up with a 1:1 model of anything and it all ended up in the garbage heap afterwards. 

> 20th Century Scandinavian Design: 3 lectures, and then student presentations on famous industrial designers for the rest of the semester. 

> OPTIONAL LECTURE COURSE: 3 lectures on 20th Century Danish Design.

4. If you could go back and do your masters again, what do you think you would do differently, or where do you think you would have rather gone? 

I honestly have a hard time with ALL architectural education and I think that many of the problems I encountered were not necessarily unique to the K.A. I just think that at the KA all the problems were even more underlined because of the hostile attitude towards anything different from the Danish Way. They weren't even open to thinking about anything differently or considering that you might have a valid point of view as a foreigner, and that is so frustrating. 

One week before I was to present my thesis, my supervisor decided to have a talk with me to 'reassure' me that she was going to tell the jury beforehand that I wasn't Danish and so they couldn't expect the same level of work as they would expect from a Danish student. Nice, huh?

I think the most important aspect of an M.Arch program is that you have just enough support to enable you to find your own way of doing things. You should also look for a school that has practicing architects who do work that you really admire, instructors who inspire you and who you want to learn from. You shouldn't have to struggle with the things that I had to struggle with (language, administration, organization, struggling to find instructors who care, trying to book your own presentation room for a critique....) 

I did eventually get to the point where I could do my own thing in a fairly confident way, but this was more about proving a point to the Danish teachers than having enough support. I needed to prove that a foreign student could do an excellent project in their own way, not the Danish Way. And I did. But it should not have been like that.

5. Do you think that studying at the K.A. made if more or less difficult to find work? In other words, do you think there are disadvantages to a degree from the K.A.? / Has the reputation of the K.A. helped you get work? 

The K.A. is at its heart an arts school. Many of the students that come out have good visual skills and can tell an impressive design story, but have very little real interest in solving social or environmental problems. In general, we lack the skills at even attempting practical construction. But this could be said for many graduate schools.

The advantage to having a degree from a European school is that you get the title 'Architect' upon graduation, and do not need to take tests to become licensed. The disadvantage is that there is no formal process for gathering the experience you really need before applying to become licensed and so the post-graduation work situation is very dire indeed.

Most grads are finding themselves looking to other professions or taking low-paid praktikums/internships. For this reason, I generally don't recommend taking a professional degree in architecture to anyone. It is a lot of money that you will probably not earn back for a very long time. Is the experience worth it? I would say it depends on the person.

A degree from the K.A. hasn't helped or hindered us in finding work as far as we can tell. I don't believe that the reputation of the school you went to matters one little bit in a job search, actually. What matters is the quality of work you are able to do there. 

We only know of 2 other people besides ourselves in our graduating international class that have real, paid positions as architects in Europe (neither are in Denmark). Many of the Danish students are on unemployment benefits and collecting low paid praktikums. Even dual citizenship and speaking 2 languages doesn't seem to be of any help if you don't have highly developed design skills. 

6. Do you recommend going to the K.A. for Masters? Was it a worthwhile experience?

For a while, I've always said "No." I don't recommend going to the K.A. But schools change, instructors get filtered out, and feedback slowly starts to make its way through the system. I don't know if the K.A. has changed enough in the last few years for it to be a 'worthwhile' experience. But I do believe they need a lot of foreign students full of attitude to come and knock away at some of that smarm and arrogance. If you are determined to go to K.A. and live in Copenhagen, I think you should do it. I just think you should be prepared for a struggle first. 

7. Do you know if your degree will be usable in Canada?

If I wanted to get registered and licensed in Canada, I would have to get my degree accredited by the CACB (costing somewhere in the realm of $1300 for them to review it). I'd have to provide a record of each class I took and prove that it fulfills a Canadian equivalent. I'd have to take 'make up' courses for anything they disagree with. Then I'd have to take the registration exams for all kinds of useless and obsolete 'site planning' exercises and pay a licensing fee of some 7 grand a year (not counting insurance).

Since Denmark didn't have a course outline for anything, let alone in English, I'd be hard pressed to do any of this. On the plus side, I am entitled to the title of 'architect' in Denmark and the EU.

But my question is: when 99% of North Americans believe that architects walk around with rolled up blueprints and build things like architraves and vaulted 'great rooms', would I want to go through the hubbub, time, and cost of licensing in Canada all to fight against archaic zoning legislation and damaging land-use strategies in a country full of people who can't imagine life without a 2500 square foot single-family home? As my interest is in urban public space and landscape infrastructure, the answer at the moment is an emphatic no.

Final thoughts:

In my opinion there are two typical attitudes of architecture students.

> The first set is made up of the kind of people who see only the positive side of everything and take everything as it is given to them, because 'everything is a learning experience!' They make loads of friends and seem well integrated because they go drink beer with the locals. They are buddies with the instructors. They are involved in setting up exhibitions and attend a lot of openings and seem to network very well. They get decent marks, or even really good marks. You often feel that their projects don't really make sense but possibly they are working on some higher mental level that you aren't able to access. Converting philosophy into architecture is one favorite pastime of this group.

People who have spent all their energy on doing well in school may find that it doesn't translate very easily into doing well professionally. At some unique points, if you are lucky, these two spheres of school and work will overlap and 'what you want to say' will fit directly into 'what they (the instructors or whoever) want to hear.' But in general if you always try to produce work that is praised by academics, you will have spent very little time developing your own design method.

This group, if they continue their architectural career, will be doing it in Academia. I predict that you will see a very high number of M.Arch grads getting PhD's in Architecture within the next 5 years. 

> Then there is the second set. People in this group gradually see all that is wrong with a program and assess the limitations of the situation. They irritate the crap out of the first group because nothing is ever good enough and they seem critical of everything (yeah... this is me.) 

But even though they may not get along quite so well with the instructors, they see education as only one small piece in a long career, and adjust their perspective accordingly. School is not so all-important. Impressing people is not so all-important. Making buddies with the other students and attending parties is not so all-important. What is important is using the time in school to explore your interests, develop parameters for design that hold value for you, and to measure your way of doing things against other people.

When people say you should make all your mistakes in school, they really mean it. School is for focusing on your design method and experimenting with how to reach a satisfying and well developed design solution. That is what will stick out for employers in the end. Not pretty pictures, not the name of your school.

I hope this guide has been helpful, and I welcome any more questions via email or the comments section.