Architecture School Portfolio
4) PORTFOLIO IDENTITY:
Define your own identity and the identity of your architecture school portfolio will follow
Make the basic ideas that you want the admissions committee to absorb as easy to understand as possible. This is the only way to make sure that a good project is fully appreciated.
By defining the identity of your architecture school portfolio, you are able to transfer the load from the individual project, onto your entire profile. The identity is what brings all projects together to lift your portfolio. Even if someone does not understand or appreciate your individual projects, they will appreciate your identity as a candidate.
A portfolio example by former ASR student, Yina Luo, who managed to get into several top architecture schools as an M.Arch.I student,including Cornell AAP, Harvard GSD, MIT SAP and UPenn. When she started working with ASR, Yina was a financial analyst at a major investment bank in New York and had very limited experience in design. She developed an identity that had to do with her narrating her story as the story of two worlds. The entire portfolio became an opportunity to narrate this story through projects that dealt with nostalgia, transplanting of memories into new environments. Yina chose to attend Harvard GSD, where she excelled as a student and got the chance to work as an intern at the Office of Metropolitan Architecture.
5) POETICS OF ARCHITECTURE:
Use the projects in your portfolio to explore the poetry of design
Poetics is a big and important part of portfolio development. Begin by asking yourself: how your projects deal with poetics of space, How is this poetry perceived, and what is the process of poetic composition. Developing a demonstration that is purely illustrative and not related to experience is simply the wrong way to approach developing your projects. An architecture school portfolio is supposed to encapsulate the essence of your thinking. Make poetics of space appear to be the core/ the essence of your thinking process.
You may want to read the book Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard. It is a great read, and will allow you to begin thinking or architecture and design as disciplines with humanistic cores, where human behavior and psychology play a primary role.
One of our former students, Jordan Miodownik, developed a project that attempted to redefine the jewish temple, while critiquing the idea of ‘Sacred’ spaces. Jordan’s approach emphasized poetics, and tried to get to the root of human emotion, by building sequences of spatial experience that took his portfolio reviewers through intriguing emotional transitions. Jordan’s emphasis on poetics resonated with his architecture school reviewers, so he gained admission to several M.Arch. programs. His top two favorite programs were Cornell and UC Berkeley. Both universities offered Jordan full fellowships. He finally decided to go to Berkeley, where he had an excellent experience.
6) CONTENT TYPE:
Choose the type of projects that fit the type of architecture schools you are planning to apply to
The point of the architecture school portfolio is to help you prove that you are a perfect fit, but also very different from everyone else. If you manage to strike this balance, your portfolio will be very successful.
Do your best to develop a slightly different portfolio for each school of architecture that you have decided to apply to. Some portfolios, for example, may be good for a polytechnic institute like MIT or Virginia Tech, but may be thrown out by a school of architecture that is part of an art school, like Pratt, or Parsons, or RISD. There are also schools that are in a category of their own, somewhere between a polytechnic institute and an Art school, like Columbia GSAPP, or Sci-Arch, or the AA in the UK. The portfolios that are ideal for a school like MIT, especially for M.S. applicants, may not be as ideal for a school like the AA.
Begin by studying the programs you are applying to. Understand the philosophical foundation of the program, their mission and ways in which they are different from others, and try to adjust your approach to them. Obviously, if you decide to apply to ten schools, you cannot produce ten different portfolios, however, it is recommended that you make some minor adjustments, or that you vary one project or so according to the school. The main body of your portfolio should remain the same for all schools, which will allow you to refine and perfect it. For some schools, some of your projects will be interpreted as somewhat “unusual”, which is good, because it contributes towards differentiating yourself from their usual pool of applicants.
Overall, reflecting the mission of the architecture schools you are applying to in your portfolio is a good idea. However, always make sure to remind them of your differences from the rest of the crowd.
7) PORTFOLIO THEME:
Establish an ‘umbrella’ Theme that will pull together all the ideas in your portfolio
The best way to tie several seemingly disconnected ideas together is by developing a umbrella portfolio theme, and carrying it throughout presentation of all your projects. So, what does a theme for an architecture school admissions portfolio look like?
An architecture school portfolio theme is not a strategy, is not a mission, but is an extension of both. It defines a set of ideas and graphics, a system of personal branding and aesthetics, and a set of tools and processes, that appear and reappear throughout the portfolio, in an attempt to help integrate multiple ideas, while constantly repeating other ideas that characterize the applicant. Therefore, in developing a theme, it is essential that you first develop your mission and strategy. You need to go in depth into the specifics of your background, and engage your portfolio reviewers in some sort of an indirect dialogue, in an attempt to help them grasp the complexity of the material that you are presenting to them in your architecture school portfolio. It is therefore highly recommended that you be as analytical as possible in the pages of your architecture school portfolio, using all sorts of sketches and diagrams related to the project, trying to take the viewer through the important parts of the process of creating the work that is in your architecture school portfolio. Through doing this, you can define what the essence of the project is and try to explain it through your sketches and diagramatic sequences, as quickly as possible and as early on in the portfolio narrative, as possible. Keep the main point of the theme is in line with your mission and strategy., and then use the rest of the space to analyze the projects and get into their various interesting details. This will allow you to create exciting in-between sections, which introduce the examiner to the upcoming projects as parts of preceding ones.
8) METHODICAL THINKING:
Use your architecture school portfolio to demonstrate your ability to develop ideas methodically by showcasing the development of effective design processes
In terms of understanding the portfolio, your theme must be a reflection of your strategy and mission, and should allow the reviewer to instantly grasp what your book is about by simply looking at the main umbrella theme. This is when you will know you have a clear organization. Then, begin working on the development of potency in the presentation of your process. After you have described the design problem, continue with a seed of an idea, a concept, and develop it as you go. Use primarily sketches and diagrams in the beginning to explain your idea development, and eventually begin placing in the more finished drawings and renderings, until by the final spread you have narrated the whole process and the only thing left is an image or two of the final product.
9) DESCRIBE YOUR PROCESS:
Create an architecture school portfolio, which demonstrates your ability to develop complex concepts out of simple ideas
Your Design-thinking Process is by far at the most important element of a portfolio. The reason is that architects live and die by the processes that they use when working on architectural design projects. It therefore makes sense that the process of creating a project is actually more important in an architecture school portfolio than the product itself.
As you are narrating your story, you have to take your reviewers through the entire process of project development, starting at the pre-schematic level. The reasons are two: First of all, it allows you to engage them more easily. They begin by wondering what you are trying to do, and eventually they see it. This process sticks your project and you in their mind. The second reason is that through your “seeds” of concepts you have an opportunity to use references from your own life. Ideas that make you special can all be potential influences that you could filter into your concept. By using your own influences in your portfolio you are able to tell them about you and what makes you different. By seamlessly weaving your own life into the project you communicate crucial information to the examiner, who will be making his/her decision based on your personality as well as your work.
When we are talking about process we mean a) process of development of the project, and b) process of taking the viewer through the presentation. Do not forget that architecture is itself based on individual sequences of spaces that an individual stitches together and forms perceptions and memories of moments in time and space. In the same way, a sequence like the one of taking someone through the process of development of your own project is like a miniature architectural project. Do not make your presentation static. Take us on a ceremonial walk through the memory of how you generated and developed your ideas.
10) CONCEPTUAL ANALYSIS
Relate the projects of your architecture school portfolio to social issues
When you show your work, it is ok to show the finished final pieces, but it is more important to show the conceptual models that led you to them. If at this point you do not have any conceptual models left (perhaps you are missing photos or threw them out), simply remake them as if you were in the process of developing your project. Build up your conceptual analysis through post-rationalizing.
Post-rationalizing is an essential technique in making a portfolio work perfectly with a strategy. You can go as far as adjusting the program of your projects and even the story behind some of your them, to present them as if you are trying to solve some serious social problem. Adjust their location to be in a type of neighborhood that you would want to serve, addressing urban issues as well as the life and culture of a particular place that you feel you can identify with and represents what you care about in this world. Finally,develop diagrams and conceptual sketches. Use pencil and ink to create new ones. Develop a more complete presentation of the issues related to the environment and the world we live in.
The rule of thumb is that at least half the concepts in an architecture school portfolio should stem from some kind of a social cause and be spread relatively evenly throughout the portfolio. If you are able to develop more than that, even better, but if not, then half is fine.
Try to use a variety of media, specifically for conceptual drawing and sketches in order to capture your involvement in the study and development of concepts stemming from different social arenas, so that you can demonstrate your own passion for using architecture to create positive change.
11) ANALYTICAL SKETCHING:
Use sketching and diagramming instead of text, to analyze your projects and go through the narrative of your architecture school portfolio
The ability to communicate ideas quickly with a stroke of a pencil will be essential throughout your career, from team-meetings at firms where you will work, to meetings with clients or general contractors. Diagramming is particularly significant when putting together a portfolio for architecture school admissions, because (simply put) no one will read your text. Effective diagramming of ideas and processes can make the difference between an acceptance and a rejection letter from your favorite architecture schools. Architecture school admissions reviewers will take a quick look at some of your pages, and unless they capture their attention immediately, your lofty dreams will not materialize. The projects in your architecture school portfolio exist nowhere but in the imagination of the reviewer, and therefore mastering the art of diagramming is essential because diagrams and sketches help you establish that rhythm to your analysis, which is important for telling the story of each project in your architecture school portfolio. This rhythm is important because it allows reviewers to quickly grasp various patterns in your work. A great diagram captures the essence of your ideas and designs, and presents it in a way that captivates and often inspires the reviewer, without necessarily fully resolving the project. By allowing your projects to remain unresolved, you give the reviewer a chance to picture the final result in their own way, which helps them remember you.