Surviving the Design Studio: Why Architecture students should read books instead of sticking their heads up Snapchat.  

I took some old books to studio the other day. The students just looked at me like WTF. I also felt a bit ashamed because I felt like I was some kinda old-timey-Appalachian-mountain-fogey bringing out his old architectty books. With all of the current enthusiasms for craft beer, artisanal coffee, cardboard  furniture that  goes soggy when its wet (just like a book), pop up vegetable gardens (real books are made from real vegetables), old timey Ned Kelly bushranger lumber jack beards,  and Aravena communitarianism you think the humble bound book would have have made a bit of a comeback.

My architecture school has a library. Yes, thats right a real live actual library and guess what?  It is actually full of books and it is opposite the workshop. But, as far as I can tell the workshop is more popular and in the library the students just appear to sit there and look into their lap tops. So in this digital age of Pinterest why would you ever read a book about architecture? The following points suggest why the physical book may not be dead after all and that maybe reading is not such a bad thing. My overall argument is that architecture isn’t simply about spinning the Rhino or computer model around and around and around and crafting that so called final render.

The Archive

Books and print media was actually where it was at before the dawn of the computer. In the 60s, 70s and well into the 1980s the main means by which architectural ideas were transmitted was via print media. The architectural magazine and the book reigned supreme. Magazines like Architectural Design, Architectural Review, Progressive Architecture, Japan Architect and also Domus were the places where ideas where debated about architecture. In the 1970s Oppositions, and a bit later in Australia, Transition were central to the architectural debates.

Any one interested in the architecture of the 20th Century, or particular projects in this enormous archive, probably needs to look at magazines and books to try and figure out what kind of project was being proposed and understand the general context at that moment in time.

Not looking at the books or print media means you are limited to what you can know about architecture and its history. As students have got more desperate about learning technical software skills historical knowledge of architecture has unfortunately tended to be seen as being redundant. I would disagree and argue that knowledge of architectures historical traditions and its canon of projects is essential to critical thinking and architectural education. Anything less reduces architecture to a technical discipline rather than

Reading Plans

Books enable you to read plans rather than just consuming architectural images as a series of pressed like buttons. How often do you see a plan on the main social media feeds? Not that often I suspect and it would be interesting to get some data analytics on that.

By reading a plan I mean actively looking at a plan, and its associated sections in order to ascertain how the building or project is spatially configured. What can the plan tell you about the three dimensional form of the building or the project. I think it is easier to read a plan in a book than on the web. The problem with the web is that web plans, and associated drawings, of buildings are often too fragmented. You never see the whole plan or a series of plans in relation to the sections and other orthographic instruments. A neccessary skill of all architects is to  figure out how the plan relates to all of the other spatial and material components that make up the building or project. By learning how to read plans we can begin to imagine in our heads what different places are like even though we may have not visited them. Just looking at images on Pinterest or Google image search doesn’t really cut it with me.

Literature and Cities. 

Architectural books should be regarded as much a part of literature as anything else. Of course not all architects can write well. But there are a few. Some of my favorite books written by architects that would also fit into this class. Aldo Rossi’s Scientific Autobiography springs to mind. Some of the writings of the American architect John Hedjuk arguably also appear to fall into the category of literature if not poetry. Colin Rowe and Fred Koetter’s Collage City is beautifully written. Delirious New York by Rem Koolhaas is also another work where the writing is good.

But you don’t have to read architecture books alone to learn about architecture. Works of fiction which evoke cities and places are also a great thing to read. At first glance these may not neccessarily be books about architecture. Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities is a book that appears to span history literature and architecture. A book that helped me to see the history of cities, in particular Venice, in a new light. Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandra Quartet is a fabulous evocation of a particular historical city. Reading about cities in the work of those who evoke them is a great way to think about architecture and urban design and its connection to lives and memory.

Employable skills

In this age of high student debt and the investment of time and energy to get through architecture school it is understandable that students would desperately want to get technical and computing skills at the expense of the book or the architectural archive. But reading books is a powerful way to help us to apprehend plans, sections and to understand orthographics and not to mention construction detailing; this all enhances the process of the spatial imagination. Theory and practice are often intertwined in books.  This might be bad news for those architecture students who stay away from the book. Those desperados determined to be CAD monkeys, fabrication technicians, coders in order to “advance” their career or get a job.

But, of course the most valuable people in the future architects office will not be the people with just the technical digital skills. Nor will it be the social media mavens with their heads stuck up Snapchat. Both stances are limited. The most valuable architects in the future will be those architects who can go digital and go the old-timey physical books as well.

Those are the architects who will be called on to do the thinking.