Surviving the Design Studio: Don’t be a Lemming when choosing a design studio.

Yes, it is almost that time of year (at least in the Southern Hemisphere) when architecture students begin class and go about the business of choosing their final semester design studio.

This blog is a repeat of previous blog I did last year. In that blog I argued that the four worst reasons for choosing to be in a design studio are related to a cluster of common syndromes. But I have now added more syndromes to the original list. This is as a result of countless millenia watching architectural student lemmings jump off the cliff  and choose the wrong studios.

So here is the latest list of Lemming like syndromes:

1. Everyone passes this studio (Degree of badness 9  out of 10)

Choosing a studio or a design tutor because you think that everyone who takes that studio will pass. That’s great until you work out that it’s not exactly true and you fail the studio. Never take passing for granted.

2. My friends told me to do it (Degree of badness 10 out of 10)

Another bad reason and indicative of someone who can’t take responsibility for their own architectural education.

3. My friends are in it (Degree of badness 8 out of 10)

Time to cut the umbilical cord from the friends you met in the enrolment queue or at orientation. When you leave architecture school you will be working in teams, yes I am serious, actual teams with different people in them. A good idea to get used to it now.

4. It sounds too theoretical (Degree of badness 10 out of 10)

Sure that’s fine if you never want to think about architecture’s place in the world as a critical practice. that’s the path to CAD monkey and BIM monkey mania. If you want to be valued in a practice, when you graduate, then you need to have a handle on theoretical and conceptual ideas.

5. I already did that kind of project before (Degree of badness 7 out of 10)

Maybe. This is a legitimate excuse for not doing a studio. But it may also be a good reason to get really good at something by doing the same kinds of over and again. Going into greater depth might be good.

6. Running with the pack syndrome (Degree of badness 8 out of 10)

This is a variation on, “my friends told me to do it”. It’s great to get into a popular studio and “run with the pack s” at the beginning of the semester. But, it is not so great at the end of the semester when you realise how unsuited that studio was for you. It’s even worse when the studio outcomes semester end up being the most mediocre at the end of semester.

All because it is popular doesn’t mean the studio will be good.Popularity is the most misleading reason to choose a studio on. Don’t succumb to  peer group pressure or groupthink.

7. Charisma syndrome (Degree of badness 10 out of 10)

The seemingly charismatic tutor or architect may not be the tutor that you need to foster and build your design confidence. Charismatic architects, especially the alpha-male variety, do not necessarily make good studio leaders or teachers.

Of course they looked great at the studio presentation, they have been published a lot, won a few awards and have a great website. But, that charismatic architect or the person who gives a great presentation to students about the studio may in fact be one of those woefully inadequate studio teachers. Woeful studio teachers are the ones that are potentially narcissistic, lack the humility needed to teach, mismanage your criticism time, develop favorites in the class and give contrary and contradictory advice to students from week to week.

8. Interesting project syndrome (Degree of badness 7 out of 10)

This is when students choose because it seems like an interesting project. What do you mean by “interesting” and how do you know it is actually interesting? Will the design outputs of the studio make a contribution to design knowledge.

What architectural or studio project isn’t potentially interesting? Good architects are the people who  make mundane and ordinary programs and problems into something cogent and culturally powerful. So just choosing a studio because it sounds like an interesting project is a really unthinking way to choose.  I learnt the most from the worst and least interesting projects that I did at architecture school. The bourgeois house, the outer suburban primary school, the kindergarten the social housing on the large site. You don’t need an exotic landscape, location or intricate program to learn in a studio.

9. Sounds easy syndrome (Degree of badness 10 out of 10)

Unfortunately, it is easy for students to think they are learning something when they are having a great time in a design studio. In fact the converse is probably true. When the student is challenged by a tutor or a design problem that is probably when they are actually learning something. By doing studios that are personally challenging an aspiring architect is able to learn design resilience, not just in the face of critical indifference or negative criticism, but also learn how to pursue a design proposal from start finish with all the various steps and missteps that this normally involves.

After all, once outside of architecture school, the aspiring architect must rely on their own reserves in the face of trenchant indifference to architecture.

10. Bogged down in research (Degree of badness 7 out of 10)

Of course, it’s not so great when you get into that “interesting project” studio and find there is no established brief and you spend so many weeks researching the project that you don’t get enough time to design it at the end. This is a common syndrome. Make sure that the tutors have a handle on the research component of the studio. A clear time schedule usually helps.

A few guidelines to help 

Choosing a studio for  a postgraduate architecture student is a personal one. It’s a personal decision. In choosing a studio students should firstly ask themselves the following questions:

  1. What technical skills do I have and what skills do I still need? Which studio or studio leader help me develop those skills?
  2. What am I yet to do at architecture school? What projects or types or scales of problem should I get experience in?
  3. What do I need to learn about in relation to design processes? Do I have the confidence to experiment? Should I do a studio that allows me to do this? SHould I do something is right outside of my comfort zone?
  4. What do I need to learn or in what kind of studio do I need to be in to grow in confidence as an aspiring architect?

Finally

You cannot rely on Architecture school to learn what you need to learn. Learning and and becoming an architect is kind of like any race in many respects. Preparation is important, practicing on different types of tracks, constantly refining your own training regime and above all taking responsibility for your own education is vital.

The best architecture school’s, like the one I teach in, offer an impressive range of diverse studios and teaching approaches.  The best architects in the future will always be those architects who are self-taught. The ones who made the most of the diverse opportunities available to them at architecture school.

At the end of the day, the best and most employable graduates will be the ones who took the harder path at architecture school rather than the easier one.

 

 

 

 

Surviving the Design Studio: 7 things to do to hit the ground running.

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.

1.Curiosity

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.

2.Traditional Research

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.

4.Design

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.

6.Design production

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.