Sundance’s Architecture School is compelling, but moves too rapidly to explore its consequential subject

Tonight, the Sundance Channel debuts a talent-based competition with actual consequence. Architecture School debuts tonight at 9 p.m. ET (and is also on iTunes; the first episode is free). The six-episode, half-hour series follows nine Tulane students who attend the “university’s prestigious School of Architecture as they submit competing designs for an affordable home in Katrina-battered New Orleans,” and “the winning model will be built during the course of the school year and put up for sale,” according to the network.

The show was filmed during the school year last year, and although it’s a competition, the students weren’t just assembled to make a television show, nor will a panel of judges eliminate students, who eventually build the winning design. In fact, the winner will be revealed in the second episode. Cameras just filmed students’ participation in Tulane’s URBANbuild program, which sends students and faculty “to neighborhoods throughout the city to develop creative and sustainable urban design strategies, innovative designs for new housing, and proposals for site-specific urban interventions and large-scale mixed use urban environments,” and they end up “designing four housing prototypes for each of the study neighborhoods, and constructing one prototype house in partnership with community non-profit agencies that specialize in affordable housing and neighborhood redevelopment,” according to the program’s web site.

The design selected and built was the program’s third home. Faculty member Byron Mouton told Archinect, “The crew strategically organized filming based on our design-build process spanning two semesters. One of the early episodes exposes the studio learning process during a pin-up critiquing the work and the late night hours students often embrace throughout the semester.”

While a show about architecture would seem to be boring, it’s the opposite: Architecture School is super-compelling, with an engaging cast and genuine conflict that surrounds both the design process and the reception of those designs (one man insists they’re “ugly” and that the students shouldn’t be experimenting in his neighborhood).

The show stumbles, however, when it comes to turning those people and their work into a narrative. The 25-minute first episode ends up seeming a lot longer because there’s nothing to hang on to, and too many (interesting) people get introduced. Perhaps it’ll recover from this, but there are just five episodes left.

In addition, the show moves way too fast during the wrong parts. It feels like we’ve landed in the middle of the design process, which there’s no real insight about. When the students’ professor starts critiquing their early work, and they start explaining their concepts, the editing jumps so quickly–multiple students’ explanations even overlaps as an apparent form of transition–that it becomes super-frustrating to watch.

At its best, Project Runway finds a balance between competition, personality, and the actual work, showing us all three at once. Architecture School has the potential to be so much more, but seems to not be convinced that its subject matter is as compelling, as the first episode short-changes us on the actual work. That’s tragic, because that’s what really gives the show–which is still worth watching–its true potential.

Architecture School [Sundance Channel]
The Reality (Show) of “Architecture School” [Archinect]

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about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.