Face to Face vs. Online Teaching: The destruction of culture in architectural schools.

Why architecture students and even university managers should go to design studio. 

I went to my Archi school reunion recently. It had a kind of 80s theme. It was great. The pitch for it went like this:

If you remember the days of set squares, Rotring pens, dyeline machines, compulsory Charles Jencks text, cardboard models and scratching out your mistakes with a razor blade….

Today it is all different of course. No more adjustable set squares covered in masking tape, no more broken 0.18mm Rotring nibs, no more inky hands (with ink smudges all over the house), no more sleeping under the dyeline machine at the back of the Master’s office, no more sniffing the dyeline ammonia to get high, no more scratching, scratching and scratching on thin tracing paper. Worst of all  Charles Jencks and the Language of Post Modern Architecture is now a weird curiosity piece.

Digital and mobile computing has changed everything. Of course, we all love our mobile apps. The speak directly to us.  They deliver content and information specifically tailored to our needs and personal pathways in life. Weather, traffic, entertainment, personal fitness and even relationships (tell me about it). I even did a online Coursera MOOC last year delivered on my mobile phone. Although, I did not finish it. But it all seems a good reason to skip class and opt for the online lecture. Its easier, you can raid the fridge and hang out in your pajamas and watch the course online.

Nowhere is technology  and so called disruption innovation more seemingly apparent than in tertiary education.  For those of us who work in tertiary education the spectre of so called disruptive technologies in the sector is real. There is even a book about it. All the executive managers and Dean types have read the Innovative University by Clayton Christensen which discusses the issues around innovation in the sector.

The narrative is a little predictable and hence easily taken up. As it states in the book:

The downfall of many successful and seemingly invincible companies has been precipitated by a disruptive innovation—that is, an innovation that makes a complicated and expensive product simpler and cheaper and therefore attracts a new set of customers. 

Of course its all about “customers”:

In higher education, online courses now typically offer lower-end and more convenient access to courses that can improve students’ credentials or help them switch careers, which is often precisely what the students customers want to accomplish by enrolling.

All of this is about doing things cheaper and the book claims to establish:

How universities can find innovative, less costly ways of performing their uniquely valuable functions and ensure their ongoing economic vitality, thereby saving themselves from decline and possible disruption.  

Thats enough to scare the pants of any university corporate manager or strategic executive in the ivory tower.

So what does all this imply for architecture? Should architecture students go to class? Or should they work at their low paying retail and hospitality jobs and catch up online on lectures when they can? Why even go to class when you can earn a part-time income and get a qualification from a premium branded institution?  How will architectural education fare given the rise of these so called online disrupters and lower cost educational innovators. Should universities migrate architectural studio teaching, or any of the architectural syllabus, to online platforms and delivery? Will this diminish curricula?

I think architects and architectural educators need to resist and question simplistic calls for whole-of-subject shifts to online teaching. Design studio teaching and design thinking is best taught face to face. I think future architects get more out of face to face teaching for the following reasons.

 Design studio teaching is unique 

For a start, studio design teaching is a mode of teaching that is unique and particular to architecture. It is one of the central elements of architectural discourse and its associated canon. Face to face studio teaching is the strong intermediate link between local and increasingly global architectural practice. The design studio is the crucible of design research. It is also itself a place of disruption where desires, expectations, and ideas are generated, regenerated, critically considered and creatively destroyed. The architectural studio thrives on creative destruction.

With all the talk of customisation via marketing channels and delivery portals its good to remember that face to face studio teaching is already customised to the individual. Nowhere else can individual gestures, vocalisation, tone and temperment be part of learning and the teaching equation. The teaching and learning of design processes is very much an individual, and even emotional, exchange between teacher and learner.

 Face to face collaboration teaches leadership

It is essential that we teach our future architects about face to face collaboration. After all that is mostly what architects do in the real world outside of the academies.  At the moment there are a variety of Project Management and web tools which enable collaboration in the virtual realm. But, in advanced procurement research there has also been a return to physical co-location and face to face relationships. For example, an increasingly popular tool for scheduling collaboration in the new Integrated Project Delivery (IPD) projects are physical maps which allow project teams to discuss schedule sequencing as an integrated team in  large ‘Big Room’ environments as they are denoted. These maps appears to be closely related to the lean construction philosophy where construction processes are conceptualised as “flows.” In the IPD model “value stream mapping” appears to have been borrowed and adapted  from Toyota’s lean manufacturing process. It all hinges on in person collaboration.

NASA’s Team X at the Jet Propulsion Lab is another example of advanced design processes and face to face design innovation. JPL created the first concurrent engineering team in the aerospace industry. Team X as it was called started in 1995 and since then it has carried out over 800 studies, dramatically reducing the time and cost involved, and has been the model for other concurrent engineering teams both within NASA and throughout the larger aerospace community. Team X relys on the physical co-location of different engineering disciplines; alongside, an advanced  networked spreadsheet intensive system with real time parameter updating ( See here and Warfield & Hinh 2009). Architects are not rocket engineers or scientists but again problems are very often solved face to face on building sites and on manufacturing floors directly with craftspeople and tradespersons.

Whether it be done using technology or systems such as those borrowed from Toyota, JPL, or a Building Information Model and rapid prototyping, these tools shift the decision making to integrated teams. These teams, at some point, rely on face to face collaboration. Educators and managers who wholly opt for the virtual dream are doing just that: dreaming. I fear that the current fashion for online teaching and so called university innovation is just another version of corporate managerialism gone wrong.

Mostly, these days my students like to watch the lectures online at a time of their choosing after it is recorded. In this nice new neoliberal age of tertiary education they are too busy to come to class.  That’s because they are probably also working hard to pay their fees. This has destroyed and is destroying the culture of architecture schools.

If as a student you want real value for money then its best to come to class and engage with face to face. You will end up being a better architect.

The same goes for university managers. Most of the university managers I know, with a few exceptional exceptions, have never been to a design studio crit session. Yet they are intimately involved in architectural education. My experience is that often they don’t appreciate, and frankly whilst it sounds harsh, I wonder if they even care about the value of building a culture around a discipline or a cohort. It’s too hard to build a culture, in a discipline you are not trained in, when its is so much easier to cut costs, outsource staff, manage up and apply rules and policy regimes.

For strategic and executive managers further up the food chain in universities it’s easier to opt for the new cheaper lecture delivery technologies and spout off mantras about “innovation” and “disruption” and the “future.” If anything Christensen’s earlier work would show that simply adopting the latest technology does not necessarily ensure success.

Interestingly, enough, Frey and Osborne’s seminal paper on AI and which future professions will be “least (probability 0) or most computerisable (probablity 1) ” ranks Teachers at 48 (.0095) something that is not easily computerisable. Architects are ranked at 82 0ut of 702 (.018) employment categories (Telemarketers are last of the 702 occupations modelled in this study).

In more practical research a recent paper in the Journal of Applied Research in Higher Education asks if  “the use of online video mini-lectures, intended to complement in-class teaching by allowing students to review the more technical aspects of the course (in this case a Washington USA micro-econ0mics course). It is concluded that:

“online lectures improving student achievement, but that this improvement is mostly achieved by the lower achieving students, and exhibits significant diminishing returns to the number of times the videos are watched. As such, the videos are shown to help students who were struggling with the material, but that there is little value to exclusively watching the videos multiple times.”

A cynic like me, would again say, that the students are probably struggling with the material because they are too busy working part-time to pay for their degrees.

As Frey and Osborne argue creative intelligence and the processes of creativity are difficult to specify. Indeed, the ability to formulate architectural ideas, concepts, schema, systems, forms, compositions, theories and ways of knowing in practice is best taught through a vibrant educational culture. A culture which understands and puts face to face teaching first is central in this endeavour. In our universities and architecture schools architects will need to fight to preserve the integrity of their education systems and their canon against the onslaught of mindless managerialism disguised as “innovation.”

Authentic innovation as most architects will know is about destroying any idea just before it threatens to become a commodified and generic product.

The Zaha Grandparent Test: Turning your design into a great visual presentation.

A colleague told me her final year Masters design students asked her what the format requirements were for the final submission. What is the template they asked? She told them, as they were all doing individual projects, there were no right answers. There was no template. They were horrified and disturbed.

She suggested  that they each needed to design their own layout and graphics for their project. Of course, as all experienced architects know, by the end of architecture school students should know that there are no rights answers. Full stop.

Of course, such stories make me wonder about the power of computers to seduce young minds. Yes, I know this sounds cynical. But the computer is a highly controlled software environment ruled by algorithms producing another set of rules, graphical user interfaces and templates that are stable and static. Unfortunately, outside of this pleasant world of the rule regulated shimmering screen there are no rules. So here are a few ideas about making that design shine on the printed page or on some other digital platform. At the end of the day, or studio, your work needs to pass the Zaha Grandparent Test.

Drawings are read 

In the real world people “read” drawings. What do I mean? It is not like reading a book; nor, is it like watching  a television; or like looking at the screen of a mobile device.

The key to a great visual presentation is to understand that reading drawings or digital models is about getting inside the head of the person, or people who will look at our drawings and digital images. It is like a novelist who writes words in order to evoke images, sensations and thoughts in the person reading the book. Your drawings and visual images are “read” in this sense. If you do not prepare your presentation with this in mind you will fail to communicate your project ideas.

Approach it from the viewpoint of creating memorable images for your audience. What are the images that you need to produce that your audience of critics or clients will never forget? In other words create images they will think about even when they are fiddling around on their favourite app on their mobile phone.

RACHEL JONES FINAL LAYOUT_BLACK_Page_5

Layout is crucial 

When I look at architectural drawings or images on the wall. I don’t often read the text. I want to look at the images and get a sense of what the project is like. The layout of the drawings in the pdfs. or on the posters on the wall need to tell a story; in other words a narrative needs to be created that guides a “reader’s”, in other words a critic’s, “eye” through your architectural or urban design. In two dimensions either digital or physical you will need to describe and guide this “eye” through a three dimensional project.

What the project is like as a spatial entity, object or series of spaces is important. The spatiality of the design may need to be described and explained at different scales. At a urban scale in relation to a city or neighbourhood. How it is approached is important. At the scale of the street or its immediate neighbourhood. Entry conditions should be described. How do you enter the building and what are the spaces you first encounter when you are in it? What will a person see as they move through the building? What is it like at the scale of rooms? One way to do this is to organise your layout around these different scales or even the circulation routes around and through the building.

Layout is crucial to convey all this. It should not contain too much text as people want to see what the design is like. Too much text is confusing. Give your layout a heirarchy. Consider which information is more or less important. Structure it so that supporting diagrams, text and research information is adjunct to describe the spatiality of the building.

It is no good having one big aerial fly through or overall image if you then do not show the other spatial aspects of the project.

Always test your layouts with mock-ups and then refine them. Physically print them and pin them to a wall and then stand back and see what it is like. A bad layout has usually been done in one hit.

RACHEL JONES FINAL LAYOUT_BLACK_Page_4You don’t have to show everything. 

A good layout is a sequence of well organised images that convey a story and give an overall impression of the design. You do not have to draw everything. Tutors or critics who insist that you draw everything or you need to consider every detail are pedants. In the dark days of the 1970s I visited the architecture school up the road from my architecture school. I remember coming to the final year pinup and seeing sheets and sheets of plans, elevations, roof plans and sections. Every internal elevation, every external elevation and numerous sections. Line after line after black and white line of two dimensional drawings. There were even a few details. By the time the students had done all of these there was then no time to do any 3 dimensional drawings. The whole enterprise was as boring as batshit.

Drawing everything is a waste of time. Draw and translate into other media your digital models the  aspects and qualities about your design that are the most important. Architectural design communication is not about naive realism or trying to representing reality. You are not a failure if you haven’t drawn every elevation. In fact you can convey more about a design by just producing sections. After all plans are really sections anyway.

Only draw and present those images that convey the spatial, emotional or material narrative of your proposal.

RACHEL JONES FINAL LAYOUT_BLACK_Page_2

Design with the end image in mind 

Smart architects, at some point in the design process, plan their images, drawings and layouts ahead of time. They then put more design effort into those aspects of the building that will be presented and end up as images for others to view. In other words they start to design with the end visual product or presentation in mind.

Once you have a design up and running its always important to think that this will be presented and then work backwards from that. The worst presentations are those that desperately pop out at the end of the digital design process and get slapped around in Photoshop and slopped into InDesign.

RACHEL JONES FINAL LAYOUT_BLACK_Page_1Avoid excessive realism.

It’s not about copying reality. If your were going to represent your design as reality then you would build it at one to one scale. But, creating architectural images, particularly in the early stage of a project (sketch design),  and representing your design is not about making it real. It is not about filling in the dots with material likenesses, textures or colours of the real thing.

Yes, the sky is blue and bricks are red and concrete is a kind of grey. But that doesn’t mean we have to make everything look like its kind of real. Usually it just leads to really bad visual images that are oversaturated with colour and that reek of naivety. Drawings are not real, (look at Zaha Hadid’s early work for example), digital images are not real, 3d printed physical modes are not the real thing. So why try and pretend they are real? The best and most powerful architectural images are those that recognise this fact. Your images are representations and translations of your design. They are not the real thing and as such your images should represent the essential ideas of your design in the very manner in which it is presented.

Understand your media

We don’t all have Oculus VR set ups. So in the meantime we have to be able to translate our models from the computer to other formats. Sometimes these formats are actually physical. In the past we had a limited range of formats to translate or describe our projects in. Mostly just pens and pencils a and ink and limited range of reprographic techniques. I was an expert on reprographic techniques and using pantone for colour on drawings.

Today the techniques are different. Today with the proliferation of different platforms, software  and mobile computing your project may end up in a powerpoint, in a .pdf file, as a poster on a wall, on a web page or in the screen of an ipad or mobile phone. Its a good idea to remember which media you are translating or representing your design in.

Finally, the Zaha Grandparent test

Your images need to pass the Zaha Grandparent Test. Put your grandparents in front of your final Zaha like outputs and see what they say. They should both be able to understand what you have done and also be blown away as well. All of the above survival tips are another way of saying that to a large extent architecture is about image making. Of course how these images become a material reality is the topic of another blog. If not a few thousand blogs. Again, there are no right answers and after all isn’t that what architecture is all about.

(The images are from Rachel Jones MSD MArch thesis from 2011.) 

 

Surviving a design jury presentation: The essential guide. 

Design juries can be terrifying. It doesn’t really matter if you are an architect or a student the experience can be soul destroying. Get it wrong and you can lose the job or fail. Get it right and you live in order to fight another day. Standing in front of a group of critics can determine if you get the job; or the prize; or if you are at architecture school, a pass in  design studio. It’s much harder to present if you haven’t done enough work or you don’t really believe in the project. But speaking well in public and knowing the essential lessons of presenting a design can be the difference between passing or failing.

I have sat in on numerous design and award juries. The awards or the commissions don’t normally go to the architects who talk too long, speak in jargon, or bore the jury with an explanation of the stair and or toilet details. So here are a few essentials that will help calm the nerves and get you through if you are not used to public s peaking or always find presenting to a jury harrowing.

Timing 

When you are presenting to a jury. Get the timing right. Don’t run over time or drone on. Architects are notoriously bad at timing there talks. As a student I went to the old AIA International Lecture series. All I  remember is Hans Hollein talking for around 3 hours straight. Aldo Van Eyck was the same. Will Alsop did it to us as well. Each time it happens to me it is excruciating. It doesn’t really matter how good the work was an overly long talk will kill any audience interest or curiosity. But, at least Will Alsop was kinda interesting because he was long winded as well as being drunk. But I still would have given him an E for going over time.

A picture says a thousand words

If you are smart, or English is your second language you don’t have to say a lot. The more diagrams, images or other representations you have to present the less you have to say. The less visual material you have on the wall the more you have to explain what is not there. There is nothing worse for a jury than seeing an under designed scheme that is then talked up, explained and elaborated in words.

In presenting to a jury architects need to remember to right balance between about talking and what is on the wall or on the digital files. Architects are visual and jury members like to look at images. I tend to think it is better to have more visual material than text on your drawings or images. There is nothing worse than having a few thousand words of detailed and so called explanatory text on architectural presentation pdfs. A short summary of the concect is good. Like an abstarct it should be no more than 300 words or so. The rest should be diagrams including, charts, graphs, flow charts and conceptual diagrams explaining the concept. Minimal text is good. As well as two and three dimensional views that explain the design.

In short there should be enough visual material on the wall to make your life easy explaining it. You wont always be there to explain you work. This is particularly the case for competitions and when a jury member or critic reviews the project later. So the layout and the visual argument of the design with any supporting diagrams is very important. This is why clear and communicative graphic skills are important.

Just cutting and pasting the renders out of the virtual world into photoshop and then sending them straight to the printer doesn’t really work. Slapping together a layout doesn’t really work. Keeping it in the computer up until the last minute doesn’t really work. Over-talking or over-texting the project doesn’t work.Filling your drawings with slabs of text doesn’t really work.

As a presenter of a design the aim is to lead the juror’s and critic’s eyes to the drawings. The aim of what you say is to get them to understand the visual argument and, in the minds, to inhabit the space. What you say to a jury in words must be linked to the images.

Don’t avoid talking about the concept 

Some architects find it difficult to talk in conceptual or theoretical terms. This may be in apart training and it is usually because for some architects it is easier not to talk about history, aesthetics, compositional processes, form, critical theory or the politics of urbanism. But this is exactly the sort of thing a jury wants to hear.

Bad presenters or architects, or students, who have not got a great content on the wall talk a lot about the other stuff. Like, what they had for breakfast. How their semester shaped up in terms of blow by blow and sequential description of how the design happened. Usually the easiest way to do this is to talk about everything that doesn’t matter. There is nothing worse than hearing a long winded talk about the pragmatics of  project. Siting, briefing, sustainable technologies, construction and materiality, client and user preferences can all too easily dominate any presentation. A great design is not simply a response to these factors; nor should it sound like it.

Most jury members and critics are architects who know a lot about that kind of stuff. Good architects have mostly spent there life trying to escape from the contingencies of pragmatic design. Mostly they are there because they have an interest in the strategic issues, problems and broader views not the details. Jurors and critics want to hear and talk about the big ideas. For a jury member going to an awards presentation is a bit like going to one of those TED talk thingys. As a jury member you want and expect to hear about life the universe and everything in relation in a very focused way.  Design Jurors and critics like to debate ideas in relation to the design. Give them what they want and don’t avoid talking about the conceptual apparatus and how it has shaped the building.

Of course, if you just talk about life the universe and everything and not the project design then you should be doing philosophy.

Structure 

Guide the jurors eyes to the design. The way you structure the presentation should reflect this. Avoid the “this is what I had for dinner” or the “passage through life” syndromes. Get to the point. The first thing a jury wants to here is about are ideas. This will give them the context from which their eyes will begin to apprehend and understand the design and inhabit the building in their imaginations.

Do it as an elevator pitch. In three or four sentences you should be able to say what the project is about. What is it’s over riding concern or concept? The sooner the jury is familiar with this the more they will feel comfortable with looking at the design. Don’t leave the concept to the last minute. The best way to present to a jury is as follows. The improtant thing is to guide the jury to the design and the images which describe it.

You also need to lead the jurors thought the building. You can do this by describing how they enter the building, how they circulate thought it and what qualities of light or spatial qualities it has once they are inside or moving through it. The point is that you need to guide, not unlike a tour guide, the jury members or critics through your design.

  1. Introduce your self and the concept
  2. Quickly describe 3 or 4 ways that the concept has shaped the design of the building.
  3. Lead the jurors through the design quickly discuss: Siting, main entrances, circulation and spatial qualities of different spaces.
  4. Summarise what the design contributes to design knowledge and what you would do to evolve the design further.

And then you can be ready questions. Of course you in the above scenario there are whole lot of things you have not spoken about. Like materials or what or how its constructed or where the toilets or parking are. Some jurors like to ask these questions and by not mentioning them and yet being prepared for them. You will end up sounding knowledgable and thoughtful. Nevertheless, the main aim in the question period is to get a discussion going about the design, its associated concepts and what it says about the designers attitudes towards the particular type of architectural or urban problem the design encapsulates.

Public Speaking 

Don’t speak as if you are channeling a bad power point slide. A badly formatted template with crap images and too much detail on each slide. Keeping it simple is best.

I once saw the director of an architectural firm destroy his firm’s chances of getting  a $150M project by the ineptitude of his presentation. After 10 minutes everyone in the audience felt the same. After 10 more minutes I wanted to stab myself in the eye with a biro. The problem was that the presentation went on for another hour. It was scheduled to be only 35 minutes. The firm did not get the job and the primary topic of conversation in my email inbox, by other attendees, the next day was how bad it was. I just hope someone told him.

All the rules of public speaking apply. Don’t forget to wear your bow tie or best shoes. Get a good nights sleep before hand and rehearse, rehearse and rehearse. Practice in front of your grandmother or your non-architectural friend’s. See if they get it. After all it could mean the difference between getting the architectural commission or doing the Uber thing: Who wants to be an Uber driver after seven years of study?

 

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.

 

The Four Syndromes: How not to choose your design studio at architecture school

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 a design studio. This short blog is specifically aimed at that curious class of human beings known as architecture students.  I think in some ways it would be better if the studio leaders interviewed and then selected the students rather than the other way around. I am told that this is the case at some school’s of architecture and I think it avoids the popularity contests that seems to characterise the studio teaching systems in many architecture schools.

The four worst reasons for choosing to be in a design studio are related to a cluster of syndromes: “running with the pack” syndrome, “charisma” syndrome,  “interesting project” syndrome and worst of all the “sounds easy” syndrome.

Running with the pack syndrome. 

Popularity is the most misleading reason to choose a studio on. Don’t succumb to  peer group pressure or groupthink. All because a potential studio seems popular amongst your friends that doesn’t in any way guarantee that the studio will be right for you. A studio which is popular at the beginning of semester may or may not achieve good outcomes at the end of semester. Besides who really wants to be in a studio full of your friends? It might make you feel safe and warm and fuzzy but the studio, its tutors, the project and the skills you will learn may not match your own educational needs as an aspiring architect. Being in a studio with your friends doesn’t really foster what I like call design resilience.

Its great to get into a popular studio and “run with the pack with your friends” at the beginning for the semester. 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 of the most popular studio at the beginning of the 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.

Charisma sydnrome

Charismatic architects 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. The seemingly charismatic tutor or architect may not be the tutor that you need to foster and build your design confidence.

Interesting project syndrome. 

This is when students choose because it seems like an interesting project. It might be a museum in a far flung and exotic corner of the world, it might seem like a real project with real life clients, it might seem funky because part of the project is to use the robots to fabricate one of those domey things; worse still, it seems interesting because you have always wanted to design a pop-up barista coffee cart.

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 chose.  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.

Of course, its not so great when you get into the “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.

Sounds easy syndrome 

The sounds easy syndrome is usually the choice where the design studio student feels they don’t have to work that hard. The brief is established, the typological complexity of the building is something the student has done before, they know the tutor and they know they are not a hard arse. The student knows other students who have previously taken the studio and they all know that it is not terribly challenging. You can easily tick the box.

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 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.

Diversity 

A great post graduate, or Masters level, architecture school will present to its students a range of studios. The portfolio of the studios offered in the school should be diverse. It should not be centred around any particular fashion or ideological cause. A range of contexts, projects as well as a range of design teaching styles should be presented to students. Thats pretty much what is on offer each semester at the architecture school where I work at MSD. A school which is only devoted to parametric studios, or is aligned with the particular outlook of the school’s professors I think is a very conservative school. It goes without saying that diversity in both teaching staff and projects on offer is extremely important (I still know of architecture schools where the  design tutors each semester are predominantly male).

Choosing a studio for  a postgraduate architecture student is a personal one. In choosing a studio students should firstly ask themselves the following questions. The primary aim of these questions is to help you figure out what your learning objectives are.

  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 and 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?

Of course all these questions, or variants thereof, should also be asked by practicing architects with their own studios as well. If as a student you can answer these questions you are half way there. All you need to do then is find out as much as you can about the studios on offer that you think best match your learning objectives. That may mean asking around regarding the tutors teaching abilities and design expertise, and maybe, just maybe, actually talking to the tutors running the studio and asking them questions. If you can it is also good to see what was produced by the studio leaders in their studios in previous semesters.

You cannot rely on Architecture school to learn what you need to learn. Learning and then 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 global trends that have led to the academicisation and privatisation of architecture education now leaves a lot to be desired. The best architects in the future will always be those architects who are self taught.