The first few weeks of any project or new graduate studio are critical to the success and delivery time of the project. Too often I have seen both architects and students waste valuable time by not quickly setting up the research, design research and design production process. Whilst, I am all for mulling ideas around in ones head this is not all one should focus on early in the project. Too often procrastination or a laissez faire approach in the early stages of a project can ensure problems with the design further down the track. Timing is critical and what follows are a few ideas about getting started in order to hit the ground running.
One of the key things any student or architect needs to do at the start of the project is to ask questions. These may be tacit questions one may ask oneself or questions you might ask a studio tutor or team leader. Critical questions about the site, the program, the brief, design approach or timing can all be asked at the project or studio’s outset. The purpose of these questions is to begin to set out the parameters and limits of the project. What can be done? What needs to be designed and what is possible? Are there special site conditions? What kind of density of building does the project parameters suggest? What are the critical things that need to be designed? What is ambiguous about the project; what new information needs to be ascertained prior to designing? What still needs to be researched?
Of course some architects or students never ask questions. There are often different motivations for this. But in my experience the student who has asked the most questions in the studio over the semester usually get’s the best design result. In design studio no one is going to tell you the answers. Unless you ask.
I hate it when I hear about studios or teams that have spent weeks or months researching and not leaving enough room for design. Inevitably no time is left for actually designing and the results are usually mediocre. It’s great to be methodical. But, a good studio leader or team leader will recognise this and get the balance right between conducting traditional research activities, urban or precedent analysis and actually designing. I think it is a myth to not feel that you can’t design something until all of the parameters and research information (site topography, history, regulations, precedents, urban context and briefing notes) have been fully researched and documented. Given the internet this kind of research should not take that long. Of course it needs to be done. But it needs to be done quickly and efficiently and in tandem with early diagramming and conceptual design.
3.Design Research Parameters
A lot of architects these days talk about design research. As some of you may have guessed, it is not the same as traditional research although the two are linked. Good textural or theoretical research will underpin your design concerns. I worry that the activity of designing is too often conflated with this more recent notion of design research. Simply designing or thinking that because what you are doing is design doesn’t neccessarily make it design research. Design research is what it is you are trying to find out through the activity of designing. Are you trying to find out more, or ask something about, about a particular site, or brief or typology or cultural context? Is there a design research question underlying your design efforts? You also need to ask how your design process can contribute to knowledge. For example, in our recent proposal for the Pilbara we asked if Australia remote regions were a viable place for new settlements. We explored this via the design and strategic design of a autonomous settlement around an iron ore mine. Our contribution to knowledge was to establish how important notions of country are to new regional settlements. Moreover, the Planetary Urbanism brief was a good design research summary of the issues, the questions and the ground to be covered.
It may sound simplistic but design research should be structured around these questions and conclusions. The why, what, how and so what questions are important in generating design research solutions. To reiterate, design research parameters need to be clearly set out. What is the critical contribution to design knowledge that is being saught? What is unique about the project? What will be explored and how is this different to other similar or related projects.
All I will say is why wait. Design is best explored by designing. It is not simply a matter of being creative or spinning that digital model around and around and around. In the early stages it is about exploring the parameters of the site, the brief, and any other things. In more conceptual projects it is about finding the right abstract structure or process that best represents and solves (in a sense) your design question. Procrastination only delays your ability to reiterate and explore different design options at a later point in time.
5.Avoid the delusions of technology
There is a lot I can write about in regards to design and design processes. Mostly, it is about the evils of computers and the need to respect traditional orthographics. I won’t bore you here as I am sure many of you know architects, or have tutors, who know more than I do about architectural computing and software. Needless to say, a computer model can easily lead you to believe you are designing when you are not. Just being technically adept at producing a digital model is not the same as designing.
The end result is important. It’s a good idea to think about it at the beginning of the process. What kinds of outputs in terms of drawings or models does the project suggest. It’s not good just making it up as you go along and lurching from graphic communication crisis to crisis. Having a vision of how you want to represent or draw your project at the end is actually really important. Considering this at the beginning will help you to design the most important parts of your project and help you to structure your time. Time is so important in the design process. Mismanage it and this will show up in the design. The last minute design effort, or the quickly found new concept a week before the hand in is usually obvious to every one. Client’s and jury critics can usually tell when they are looking at shit presentation.
7.Make space to design as much as you can
There are those who still think that design is all about being creative. Some innate force of ego or the will and innate talent is born into us at birth and the world is occupied by those who design and those who cannot. It is a view about stereotypes. It has helped to perpetuate the culture of star architects, gender and class stereotypes in the profession. It is a view that should not have any place in studios or graduate schools. This is one of the most damaging myths to prevail in architectural culture and discourse. Not unlike public speaking or politics or formula one or airline pilot’s designers are made and not simply born. Which is why we need to design as much as we can in our studios and graduate schools. Avoid being your own worse critic to the point where you can’t do anything. Everyone can design but like most things it requires a space to practice in. If you want to design, either in an office or at architecture school, then the above suggestions should help you to make that space.