What architecture students should try and do over the festive season.

Architecture school won’t teach you architecture 

Don’t rely entirely on architecture school to teach you architecture. If you do you won’t learn enough to be an architect. A good architecture school is only an introduction to architecture. It should teach you a few different ways to design and give you an insight into architecture’s political, technological, cultural and historical dimensions. It’s up to you to be responsible for your own architectural education and educate yourself as an architect.

I came to this view as an architecture student in the dark ages of the 1970s and 1980s I spent very little time looking at a computer screen. At that time I  went to an architecture school that went through a lot of changes in the way that it taught its student’s architecture. When I began architecture the do-it-yourself hippies reigned supreme and by the time I graduated 10 years later the highly mannered post-modernist architects, with a regionalist bent, had the school in their grip. This instability in the school’s curricula (and staffing) meant that I could not rely on the architecture school itself to teach me everything I needed to know. It was certainly not like today’s factory like, and pedigreed, architecture schools with stable curricula and a tick the boxes approach to completing subjects. As a result, I took it upon myself to learn architecture.  As a result and to a large degree I was self taught. The festive season and holidays, depending what hemisphere you live in, is a good time to teach yourself a few things about architecture.

Get out of the computer

To live under the impression that you can learn all there is to know about architecture from a screen is a curious delusion. Ensconced in the computer some architects, and architecture students, never really leave it. The work needed to develop the lines of a computer model or simulation is intense. But all too often the 3D lines aggregated into form and then given a sense of volume take on a life and a power of their own. It is all too easy seduced by the bright lines and images on the screen. Its all too easy to privilege your own viewpoint as you use the computer.

However, architects intervene in the real world. They translate data, information and knowledge between the material world and the virtual and back again. For this reason it is extremely important  to study and observe the architectural phenomena of the so-called real world: Buildings, doors, windows, gutters, trees, spaces and the grain of different materials.  Be mindful in the way you observe these things. The purpose of this is to build up for yourself a knowledge of form and space and the relationship between things. It’s a good idea to develop a curiosity about details and try and figure out how things are made. How does a glazed window frame work? Where do the down pipes take the water? What kind of pattern is on the brick wall? What is happening in the timber grain.

Use a sketchbook

Corbusier did it. He used a sketchbook almost everyday of his life to observe and record things of interest. To included very bring and in it life, art and architecture merged. Now of course, Corbusier was the ultimate alpha male colonialist architect who would have probably worked for anyone if he had a chance. Nonetheless, his sketchbooks are full of his travels, his early sketch books show his journeys through the Orient. Greece, Rome, Venice, Istanbul and what the romantics and Beux-Arts architects called the grand tour. Many of these sketches informed his urban polemics about the modernist city. His sketches of Algerian woman became the contour lines in his paintings, plans, sections  and perspectival sketches. Of course, this has raised questions about the way he thought of women and his relationship to them.

His sketches of India include landscapes of the Himalayas drawn from the air, animals, Indian monuments and all the symbols of India’s religions. A kind of Instagram of the sub-continent. All of these sketches moments moments and sketched contributed to Corbusier’s design process. The icons and symbols that he collected through his sketches, as recorded in his sketchbook, were often re-used or  run up in his projects for the Capitol at Chandigarh. The scheme for the unbuilt Governors Palace is a good example of this. But none of the sketches made by Corbusier are in any way conventional, or academically correct, in the way they are drawn. They are messy, they are quick they re in pencil, sometimes they are coloured in. A few of them show an incredible poignancy for example the sketches of his wife’s hand the night that she passed away.

A sketchbook if kept diligently is a collection of material images and moments that can be drawn upon and used later in the design process. A sketchbook like those of the Italian architect Aldo Rossi merge life with memory and art.

Read a book

Recently in my friend’s studio the students were asked to read a book. It was like pulling teeth because architecture students hate reading. The book had words and sentences in it that if read would help the students design an important part of the community building they we asked to design for the semester. Towards the end of semester there were still a few people who did not read the book and as a result they did not do so well.

But, the great thing about being an architect is you don’t have to read that much. Nor do you have to read in English all that well. You only have to look at the plans and sections and all the other images and diagrams that describe buildings.  When I did my PhD in architectural history much of the material was written in French and sometimes German or Japanese. Most of the schemes I was studying were unbuilt and only existed as fragments in architectural magazines or in various libraries. But as an architect I was able to reconstruct what I was looking at by “reading” the plans of the utopian schemes I was studying. I did not have to read much of the text. My analysis and recovery of these schemes from the archive rested on my ability to reconstruct them in my mind as if they were real.

Go on a road trip

Get your friends and go on an architecture tour or road trip. I learnt so much doing this. Visit some buildings and try and figure out what you think of them. Are they what you imagined them to be? Are they well designed? Is their siting appropriate? Did the architect deserve the award or accolades the project was given? How does the real project differ from the way it was represented on the internet?

Can you tell from the completed project how it was designed? By this I mean is it evident if a project has been designed by a committee or has gone through a number of different, or too few iterations, in the design process. Can you tell from the physical reality if a project has been designed in particular software packages.

Make something (with your hands)

This is a really good idea. I don’t just mean attend the latest robot workshop or do some fancy stuff with the Architecture school’s 3D printer or laser cutter. Those things are good to do but I also mean that it is good to actually make something with your hands, a collage a physical model, or even a tree house. A bit of furniture. Use some tools. I was fond of making collaged comics with photocopies and sticky tape.

Sketching, reading, making, and even the architectural pilgrimage all help to bridge the gap between how something is in our minds and its constructed reality. Learning how to imagine spatial phenomena in your mind is a central element of architectural education. I fear that the computer all too often destroys this type of thinking. It is a type of thinking that seems to link memory and emotion with spatial imagination. It is a kind of thinking that is critical if architects are to create the cities of the future.


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