A guide to Kunstakademiets Arkitektskole
I just realized 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.
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?
It depends on what you count as an 'outside partner.' What I can recall is the following:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 3-4 months?). The one I remember for sure is Caruso St. John.
What stands out for me 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 KA treat the international students quite differently? / What are the challenges of studying at a foreign language institute?
They treated us differently. And there were many, many challenges.
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.
But 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 apparently 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 and Instructors
Was studio all bad, all the time? Depends on who you ask. Personally, I don't see the following list as anything but a damning failure on the part of KARCH to put together a master's program, but there are others who take a more light-hearted approach. A few highlights from studio life:
The misguided belief that we would be completely self-taught and self-administered by being immersed in Danish-ness.
The instructors, for some strange reason, thought we would get all the information we needed from the Danish students so they made very little effort to direct or guide us. In the whole 2 year program they never made hand-in criteria, a presentation plan, or a sign up sheet for desk crits, and did not have set studio times.
- The absolute avoidance of giving any professional guidance in the form of organized classes, lectures, assignments, or desk crits.
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. Since these visits were so erratic, the tutors would then spend more than an hour with each person, leading to a never-ending studio day.
The worst time was in my final year. The instructors were completely hands-off. They basically handed us a vague project brief at the beginning of the semester and put up some tentative dates for reviews, and then disappeared. 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.
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.
- No planning for reviews, no guest critics, no common format for presentation, no criteria for grading.
The instructors never specified 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.
Most unforgivably, they never organized a place for us to put up our work to present at the reviews. One time, our class of 20 had to present to 3 instructors in a small conference room made for max. 10 or 15 people. Two students only could pin up at a time, and one would do so while another student was presenting at the opposite facing wall. Most of the class ended up standing around outside the room, because it was so unbearably hot and stuffy.
The whole "every project is different and has different needs" argument is bullshit. I 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. That is probably also why, in competitions, the project brief will tell you exactly how many sheets you should have, how many plans, sections, and views, and at what scale.
Differences of working method were not appreciated. 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?
Courses, Electives, and Credits
There were a few fixed classes, and some room for taking extra workshops and elective courses.
The optional courses are advertised via email about 2-3 weeks prior to the course starting and many of them are in Danish. Optional courses are not semester long. They are usually 3 days - 1 week long. Many 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 for example, 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.
Each year of your masters must add up to 60 ECTS points, with half of those credits coming directly from design studio. Other required courses may be worth 3-5 ECTS points each, and it's up to you to fill in the blanks. Here's what I did in my first year:
Sample Semester 1
- Design Studio ("the bridge") comprising studio work and two week-long workshops related to bridge-type things (lighting, structure). [15 ECTS]
- Rhino 3D (week-long course comprised of printed tutorials from the Rhino website - I did this entire course at home) [5 ECTS]
...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.
Sample Semester 2
- Design Studio ("furniture"), comprising studio work and 6 week-long workshops, that were mostly unrelated 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...) [15 ECTS]
- Theory and History 1 - intensive PhD level readings and seminars about abstract spacial concepts; e.g. Heidegger, Foucault, and the like. Was not rewarding. Thankfully I instantly forgot everything. [5 ECTS]
- Parametric 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. [5 ECTS]
- 20th Century Scandinavian Design: 3 lectures, and then student presentations on famous industrial designers for the rest of the semester. [3 ECTS]
- Option course: 3 lectures on 20th Century Danish Design. [3 ECTS]
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?
Honestly, I have a hard time with ALL architectural education and I think that many of the problems I encountered (poor administration, bad course organization, unhelpful tutors) were not necessarily unique to KA. I just think that at 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.
Fun Fact: 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.
If I were to go back and do my master's over, I would be taking into consideration the following:
The most important aspect of an M.Arch program is that you have enough support to enable you to find your own way of doing things.
This would require dedicated tutors who will be present when you need guidance, and will offer guidance free from prejudice about your background and interests. They should also be able to give you new perspectives on your interests, and open doors to new possibilities you wouldn't have thought of on your own. They should not push their own design agenda on you, or overbear your design intentions with their own preferences.
- 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 KA made it more or less difficult to find work? Are there disadvantages to a degree from the KA? / Has the reputation of the KA helped you get work?
The KA 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 only a few have the kind of practical skills needed to contribute immediately to a design firm, let alone open their own. 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 'Arkitekt' upon graduation, and do not need to take tests to become licensed in Denmark - every European country has their own way of registering architects but all will acknowledge your degree and title. The disadvantage is that there is no formal process for gathering the experience you really need 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 seem to be 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 KA 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 KA 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 KA and live in Copenhagen, I think you should do it. I just think you should be prepared for a struggle first.
If there are any other current or previous international students who want to add to this article - please do! I'd love to know how the school has changed in the last few years.
I'd say it was a worthwhile experience for me, but only taken in the way that moving to a new city in a strange place would be an experience for anyone. I can't say whether I could have had a better experience somewhere else. I'm making the best of my time and education in Denmark, which in some ways made me a better designer simply by forcing me to place myself in opposition to others.
7. Do you know if your degree will be usable in Canada?
If I want to get registered and licensed in Canada, I 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, once I have gone through the internship process (gaining specific experience in specific areas) I'd have to take the registration exams and pay a licensing fee of some 7k a year (not counting insurance).
Jed is doing this process right now - he's at a firm that will pay his testing and licensing fees and will mentor him throughout his internship. The process of going through the courses was harrowing, and we are still waiting to hear from the CACB whether he will have to take any additional courses. **Update - No additional courses necessary.
In my opinion there are two types of students.
The first group 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 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.
In general, if you always produce work that is praised by your tutors and academics, you will have spent very little time developing your own design method.
This group, if they continue their architectural career, will likely be doing it in Academia.
Then there is the second group. People in this group 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 we may not get along quite so well with the instructors, we see education as only one small piece in a long career, and adjust our perspective accordingly. School is not so all-important. Impressing people 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.