Surviving the design studio: 6 golden rules for architecture students and architects. 

You are half way through the design project or the semester and things are dragging. A few weeks or months ago you were enthused about the project and now it doesn’t seem like things are good. You are worried about your own skills, your research is going on and on, you don’t understand where your are headed and the studio leader, or your boss, or client, keeps looking at you quizzically. Most of all the design is stuck and you are running out of time.

This is not an uncommon situation.

It is important to understand how to avoid this malaise both from the perspective of studio or team leader as well as from your own viewpoint. Everyone can take heart that architectural teams are potentially the most creative, productive and innovative teams on the planet. Why would I say that? Firstly, archi-teams are able to conceptualise and visualise things in three dimensions. Secondly, these teams are not afraid to to conduct processes of creative destruction in order to reiterate or refine a concept or element of a design. That is why the design studios are great laboratories of design. Thirdly, in an architectural studio you can tolerate high degrees of ambiguity; in other words, you can work along multiple and possibly contradictory lines of design. To achieve all this however requires effective leadership and committed team members.

Architectural teams or architectural school design studios are not about sequential or linear lines of thought. It is not about ticking the boxes in sequence. Or swiping right or left on an app. Sometimes, this is not easy for the rest of the world to comprehend. Sometimes this is not easy for architectural students to comprehend as they undertake their first studios at graduate school.

To survive and prosper there are a number of golden rules for both architecture students, design architects, project architects and architects leading or teaching those teams.

1.Studio leaders are human and every team member is different.

It’s a good idea to get to know your design studio leader or the architect leading your team. What are their interests? What are they passionate about? Where do they think the cutting edge of architectural practice is? What kind of design research are they involved in? More importantly, how do they propose to approach the projects design. What is the design pattern or structured process that they seem to be advocating? What characterizes this pattern? Is it orderly or more chaotic and intuitive?

For studio leaders this means sharing and imparting with students or team members the travails of your professional life. What are your points of view on the most recent urban controversies? Who has inspired you as an architect? What are your areas of expertise? How would you characterise your own education and what would should have been different about this? All of this requires a proactive approach to the design process and recognising diversity in the team. Everyone in the studio or team will have a different style of communicating it is up to the studio leader to recognise this in order to foster an ongoing culture of design discussion across the project.

The uncommunicative or passive-aggressive team leader or team member who is reacting and lurching from crisis to crisis is everyone’s worse nightmare. Communication is the key. If you cant do anything else else talk to your friends about the project. The more you talk about a design project during the process the better it will be at its outcome.

2.No two studios are alike. 

Architectural Studios on the inside never seem like the brochure or presentation. So don’t be dissapointed. The particular dynamics of  every studio is different. Different leaders, people with different skills, different styles of leadership and a conception of architectural design. Every design team is different and every design studio experience is different.

Don’t think all because your last studio or project was great the next one will be as well. My rule of thumb is for every 5 studios you teach one will be great, 3 will be ok and one will be a disaster. A few years back I set up a new syllabus for a studio. A lot of research and peer consultation went into it. In the first semester of teaching it was great. The second time it was ok and the results were almost as good. The third time it ran it was a total disaster. The students hated it, my peers were not convinced and the admin staff thought it sucked.

So, don’t expect it to be the same as last time. As a team member its good to clarify to yourself what you think the design process will be. Ask yourself, is it linear problem solving or is it about producing a series of varied solutions? What is the tone of conceptual thinking that is being promoted in the studio? Is it about historical or typological analysis, urban analysis, semantic meaning, abstraction or the technicalities of parametric design? What weighting in the studio is given to aesthetics and graphic communication? A key question to ask an understand is what model of design generation is being promoted in the studio or team? How are you expected to produce design solutions?

3.Engage by asking dumb questions.

Ask dumb questions. This is the easiest way I know how to start the process of communication in a design team or studio. Because the obvious and seemingly dumb question is the question that usually needs to be asked in the design team. Designing is about testing, and indeed stress testing, propositions, arrangements, aesthetics, processes and details. Usually this is done via the question. Usually, it is the obvious question that everyone’s as been thinking that really needs to be articulated.

Admittedly not everyone is an extravert and some people find it difficult to ask questions. For design leaders this means encouraging questions, as they are asked, and not being dismissive. I like to ask my own dumb questions. This helps to break down any barriers of communication between team leader and team members. I know it may sound trite but encouraging or developing a feedback loop of dumb questions speeds up the evolution of the design. It also increases the ability of team members to feel comfortable in voicing their opinions and again this contributes to a design culture within the group.

More often than not it is the seemingly dumb question that can unlock the key issues and complexities of a design concept.

4.It’s not about the mark and nor, is it about winning the award.

Its not about the mark, and in the real world it is probably fair to say it is not about winning the award. Unfortunately, architecture schools have been corrupted by university fee regimes and the brand cache of a degree. Architects as a global profession have been corrupted by the peer distinction and star architect system.

A focus on the marks or awards never really got any one anywhere. I think it’s about packing as much design thought into a design project as you can. The design thinking embedded in the project needs to be robust enough to weather the storms and criticism of conceptual logic, value management, client whims, regulations, constructibility, politics and peer criticism. Trying to appease –by balancing out and juggling too many different factors–the awards judges or your tutors in terms of a imagined assessment regime only gets you in a mess. It usually only leads to design indecision and not knowing what is important amongst a range of factors.

For studio leaders it means getting the team members to focus on the process of the design research, design generation and production as the primary goal. Peer review juries and competition panels are notoriously fickle. Of course, regimes exist in architecture schools for marking and should be thought about and taken seriously. But, an incessant focus on trying to second guess a marking regime or a jury always detracts from the design process.

The good news is that anyone focusing on the design as a foremost priority never really loses out. Even if you don’t win the billion dollar project through a competition it’s still great to have a design that embodies your own design values.

5.When stuck get unstuck and hack yourself and burn your computer 

Let’s face it any design project can get stuck. We all get stuck for ideas or are unsure about the outcomes as a design evolves or progresses. All it means is that you need a fresh perspective. If you re stuck you can usually try anything. Have a break from the project for a day. Get your friends or others in tothe studio crit. Design an alternative concept and compare it to what you have. Throw around a few new crazy idea. What is the most bizarre and idiosyncratic idea of concept you can throw at the project. Is there something new you have not tried?

Hack your own design. You can do this by changing media: making a model, doing a sketch a different style of drawing; a section instead of a plan. Burn your computer and do some sketches. Take a stick and draw in the sand.

Hack yourself, to get out of the design studio grind. Go to a party and think. Take the road trip option. After you have undertaken some of the above methods you can reassess.

For studio leaders getting your students or team members to try out new ideas or new approaches when they are stuck is critical to successful outcomes. Usually designers get stuck when they find the path forward limited by pragmatic considerations or they are overwhelmed by their own self criticism. Designers are usually their own worse critics. A good team leader will understand this and support those team members prone to endless self criticism.

 6.Leaving it to the last minute doesn’t really cut it.

This is probably the most important golden rule and point. This is a real trap for the unwary, for those leading and for those being led. I call it the: a lot of research and too little design syndrome. Studio leaders should be constantly challenging team members to avoid procrastination and design via physical or digital means. research takes place in paralell with research. Make diagrams of your research instead of just reading it or writing about it. Design is not about thinking and researching and thinking and researching and hoping that a spatial entity will all come together in your head and then then translate exactly into the computer.

Design is about trial and error. For this reason designing a project is a race. The more trial and errors the more you can iterate a design. I can tell when I am in a building where the elements have only only been designed once. The second or third pass is where great design happens.

Architecture is too important to leave to the last minute.

 



Categories: architectural design, Design Studios, design teaching, teams

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