Surviving the Design Studio: Why architects and archi-students should go non-digital cold turkey.

In between moving house and writing the conference paper I was able to attend attend a few end of semester pinups at my architecture school. Afterwards of course the tutors and critics sat around in the local pub and get about the current state of play. We mused about one very prominent and recently built facade in the city and how it may, or may not have been, developed via the computer. Inevitably the discussion turned to the insidious grip that the computer and digital design has on architecture students and even architects.

We were however, or at least it seemed to me, to be in agreement that the computer’s influence on modern day architecture students was often, although not always, potentially negative. An understanding of orthographic design, iterative process, and the ability to research design issues via different media are all essential skills for the architecture student.

Too often architecture students rush into digital design and then never return. Too often as a design teacher I am faced with students who are lost to me. Lost in the computer, they seem to have no interest in learning about architecture and its relationship to the real world. They are certain that the computer itself will solve all problems.  I think the computer software vendors have a lot to answer for.

Architectural education is a continuous process. Architects learn from one project to the next and the then the next. Each time lessons are learnt and the knowledge gleaned from the encounter with one project or situation is then banked in the mind for later use. But this continuity also extends into our lives as architects. Perhaps it sounds trite, but architecture is a spatial medium, and as architects we encounter this medium in our everyday lives.

The journeys we fleetingly conduct, the places we inhabit and bodies that we encounter are all a part of our continuous education as architects. Too often the allure of the computer limits our understanding of these other encounters.

So I would suggest the best thing any architecture student or architect is to have a few free digital days, weeks or even a life between projects. Yes, I think it is a great idea to go non-digital cold turkey. At the end of it the next time you do a new project, which will inevitably mean using the computer, you will feel be more capable and have a different insight into the design process.

So next time you are between projects go non-digital cold turkey and try and see what happens. The following exercises and rituals should help. The are designed to help you get over the fever of going cold turkey.


Yes its not a bad idea to look at things. Yes, actual things in the world. This is what going non-digital is all about. Architects are constantly observing and assessing the everyday environment that  surrounds them. In a way there is really no need to go and visit the latest building or luxury product produced by your local version of the star architect. Houses, streets, details roads, objects and urban patterns. Record what you see and interests you in a note book or a sketch book. Study on particular thing: street lighting, doors, kerbs, drainage grates, or windows. You could also observe different materials like concrete, brick, steel or paint and render. Of course, you can cheat a bit and take photos with your phone and start a new Instagram account based around a particular element or issue.

If you get really desperate you can always go to a gallery and sit in front of some art. Sit in front of a Rothko; or maybe even a building buildings or a landscape.


Size is everything. Measure you house. How big is a chair or a table. How much room is need to clear a path of circulation through a space. How high are your kitchen benches? Its all too easy to pull things out of a digital library and plaster them all over your drawings. But do you really know what it is those things represent.

Going non-digital means observing things to consider how high or how big they are. Its always good to carry a tape measure in your bag to help.

Imagine how big something is. a place or a building or a door, and tray and quantify this. Then go and measure it in reality and see if you are right. This exercise or ritual will help you explain to your clients the size of things when they don’t quite understand how big thing will be.

Different scales

Going non-digital means measuring things or considering the relative size of things in the real world. This way of seeing inevitably leads to a consideration of scale. Consider juxtapositions in scale. In some senses the architectural world that we inhabit is comprised of elements thrown together at different scales. Architects, if they choose, are able to nest and embed different scales within the one project. Arguably every project is a series of nested scales.

The tiniest renovation or detail fragment can evoke the monumental.


Vist a view buildings and consider how the are viewed and how viewpoints are either controlled by the architect or taken advantage of in their urban setting.

View points and scenography have always been big in architecture. For some post Tschumi architects viewing architecture via the viewpoint, based on the architect as an individual observer, might suggest a dated and static approach to signification. Contrary to those design methods reliant on conceptual abstraction, field theory and overdetermined diagrams, I think the viewpoint is still a valid compositional consideration. Ask Brunelleschi (except he is dead). Even Zaha Hadid’s (also dead) riffs on Suprematism rely on the view and the viewpoint.

Going non-digital means asking yourself does this building reveal more as I engage with it from different viewpoints? The facade of the building (that shall remain nameless), I was talking to my fellow jurors about, looked terrible to me from its Southern perspective. Coming up in the tram, it looked like a ham fisted commercial office building with coloured glazing : yet from another more oblique viewpoint, travelling in my car, from the Easter approach it looked great. I could almost imagine that this was the viewpoint from which the architects actually designed the building.

I guess what I am suggesting is that, as architects we should practice a kind of architectural mindfulness; its great to live in the digital world but maybe its also better to understand how the real world is. Going non-digital means taking back architecture before it becomes just another gap filler amongst the virtual banner ads.





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