Until 2020 arrived, November to February had always marked that time of year when a momentary ‘pause’ in the shenanigans of office life, allowed one to indulge in the fantastically well organised RIBA Mentoring Scheme with RIBA South East and the local School’s of Architecture.
Over here in Canterbury, Kent, we are blessed with having two excellent school’s of Architecture; The Kent School of Architecture and Planning at the University of Kent, and UCA Canterbury School of Architecture within the University for the Creative Arts. The mentoring scheme always manages to break down the rivalries and seamlessly fuse together both groups of students into one coherent collective, and this goes for practitioners too; leave your personal grievances and practice rivalry at the door, along with the wet umbrella and the muddy shoes; we’re here for the commonality of teaching and guiding and myth busting these wide eyed, next generation architecture students.
November is always a joyous time to start the programme. With the thought of it stretching well into the Christmas festivities and on into the New Year beyond, it’s a rich period of time in the year as the hard graft for all participants starts to slowly wind down.
“Speaking from personal experience as a mentor, the scheme offers a glimpse into the emerging Architect’s of the future; a new face, a new culture, a new idea (students always have the uncanny ability to demonstrate new ways to deliver projects or a killer image). On the flip side, it’s a chance for practitioners to enthuse about what they do, and to ultimately allay any concerns or misconceptions that the student may have, to clearly differentiate life in practice to life at University, where ultimately the two are similar but completely different in their processes, but ultimately just as rewarding.“PW
The arrival at the mentoring evening is always fun, a mini reunion if you like. To begin with, it’s the re-acquainting procedures to get through first – “hello” to the RIBA host, “hello” to the University tutors (milling around), and then onto the guest practitioners (mentors), some of whom you’ve met before, some you’ve worked with in past practices……”hey, how are you, you look good, how’s the family”, followed by the obligatory handshake, peck on the cheek, or indeed a ‘very professional bear hug’.
Following the RIBA hosts’ introductory messages to students, tutors and practitioners about the do’s and don’t of the mentoring programme, the coffee is poured and the cakes placed on to plates, it’s time to get down to business.
On first meeting your allocated students, they always, without fail, appear (as far as I can see at least) to be observing a cautious excitement, mixed with that daunting realisation that their newfound skills are about to be put to the real-world test. But it’s far more relaxed than that, it’s not a test – but it’s understandable; for some, this will be the first time they get to meet practitioners and they are rightly scared witless, however it’s our job to calm things down quickly, and deliver an open and honest insight into the nuances and complexities of the profession, that they have perhaps not yet encountered. Buoyed by the prospect of completing their degree (Part 1) and on the eve of their Year Out in practice, the students listen to every word intently.
Very soon, they relax, and the questions start to fly in, like the falling snow hitting your car windscreen whilst travelling at 60mph, “what are you working on, how long have you been an Architect, tell us more about the practice, do you really write specifications, can you help me with a detail, can you look over our CV”, and so forth.
Normally, the practitioner always looks to establish if the students have ever worked in practice before. It’s not essential, but it gives us an insight into how detailed the future meet-ups should be, and in some ways, the tailoring of the mentoring scheme begins to take shape; “what do you want to learn about practice over these next few months, do you want to know more about planning, detailed design, procurement, visit a construction site?” It’s an Architect’s trait after all – set the brief first.
After about an hour or so, the evening normally wraps up. With phone numbers exchanged and email addresses scribbled down (best handwriting please), it’s a wrap.
Following the first meeting, the mentor arranges a series of gatherings with the students, a chance to come in to see you at your practice. The first meeting usually takes place within a few weeks of the initial mentoring evening and is always completed before the festive break.
Once the festivities are out of the way and in to the new year, the programme kicks off with a minimum of two more meet-ups, normally one in January and then one in February. From time to time after the end of the scheme, the students are encouraged to stay in contact, and it’s not unknown for them to ask for advice on how best to present their portfolio, their CV, and any tips for the impending Part 1 interviews. All part of the service!
After a quick profile update for each student on Linkedin to take with them (a digital souvenir), were done.
But all that changed in 2020.
At the time of writing, it’s the third week of January 2021, and the mentoring programme hasn’t even started. We’ve got Covid-19 to blame for that.
In November 2020, the RIBA South East announced that the pandemic had forced the student mentoring programme to be delayed until late January 2021.
On the face of it, that’s not a problem for us, and nor should it be for everybody else.
When we went into lockdown in March, some suggested events such as CPD’s couldn’t be undertaken in the same way, and yet our profession bounced back with such resilience, CPD’s were being hosted over ZOOM and Teams almost immediately. But that’s another story, but it’s serves as a great example that whilst events are challenging, we just need to adapt, not give up. We must keep on trucking.
However I suspect for some, the delay, plus the prospect of conducting the scheme via ZOOM/Teams could be a potential deal breaker for their participation. But why?
In one swift blow, Covid 19 removed all basic human interaction with one another. For our profession, that’s a real blow. Yes, ZOOM and Teams will suffice, but it’s not quite the same, is it!
When we do return to some sort of equilibrium, the importance of that intimate corner of the room with a table and three chairs between mentor and mentee versus zoom will never be taken for granted again, certainly not in this generation.
The smell of the coffee and the warm environment of the meeting point, the studio, is almost a distant memory, a dream.
By being totally removed from all tangible connections we once enjoyed and took for granted, we now sit in our bedrooms, dining rooms, kitchen, or at the very best being 2 metres away from each other, sprayed up to our necks in sanitiser and face masks.
“What do I miss?”PW
In simple terms, the mentoring scheme relies on meeting the students in person. Let me explain.
Humans (from the moment we become cognitive) only learn to carry themselves in society and later on in adulthood (for work, for their children etc) by experiencing the novelties and subtleties of peoples’ body language; vocal tones, the use and expressions of the consonants and vowels when expressing a feeling or experience, the subtle movements of the hands, the posture of the body, the eye contact, and the quality of the handshake (weak, mid-range, crush). You don’t get that from ZOOM.
The success of understanding mannerisms is, in my opinion, the fundamental difference between securing a Client’s confidence and respect, and not. This could also translate to future conduct with other design professionals too, and certainly during job interviews. You get the picture.
But in the microcosm of the mentoring programme, it’s the little things that make the scheme so enjoyable (and memorable too) – the arrival at the first meeting, the warm air of the studio hitting your face on arrival (usually at this time of year it’s very cold outside), the sweet aroma of the freshly poured coffee, the social interaction, the hello’s and goodbyes, the reverberations of laughter, the sound of the pencil scribbling on the table, the feel of the slip of paper with new contact details, and then the fresh cold air outside as you leave the building, heading back home.
This year, there will be none of that, nor will there be any practice visits, or visits on to a building site; pulling on the site boots, walking through the mud, climbing up a ladder, seeing details (yes, the scary drawings you see in text books that suddenly make sense, now you’ve seen them in the flesh).
I feel for the Architecture students during this pandemic, I really do. This moment in their Architectural education is critical for their progression, and how they must be feeling being so isolated is beyond me.
But honestly, it will be fine! We need to embrace it and then run with it – we haven’t stopped, we’ve just adapted.
A MESSAGE FROM US:Ingrain Architecture are proud to be involved this year, and plan to make it as enjoyable as it has been in previous years. Good luck to all the practices and students during the mentoring programme this year, kicking off next Friday (29th January) PHIL AND CHRIS.