Your Tuesday: on architecture schools, part 4



Having recently criticized the many shortcomings of teaching in an architectural design studio, this latest article of four focuses on a positive design process.

The key to this exhibition is a practical definition of architecture, defined here as “a useful space built in a particular place”, and a three-part program of project, pedagogy and process.

Here is a diagram of these parts which requires some explanation:


As we have discussed over the past two weeks, every architectural project has two specific starting conditions: purpose and location.

Goal is often conveyed in a brief by a client, but is best defined by “use” and “users” who will find a purpose in the spaces. With strong reliance on the social sciences, students should be encouraged to consider first and foremost an understanding of people, the individual and the public, and the wide variety of wants and needs of society. No designer should be happy until they get the content.

Place, the other definition of the project, involves much more than a “site”; it is rather the whole of the “situation”, encompassing the physical locality, the cultural environment and the driving micro-micro-climate. Students must learn to respect its peculiarities; how to do a detailed, informative site survey to change shape, much more than an end in itself. Can we begin to see the place as the natives see the “country”: the full spectrum from the practical to the spiritual?


Architectural designers rely on educational studies in three areas; universal ideas for a particular project.

Reasons, a name taken from ‘A language of models‘, a groundbreaking 1977 text by Christopher Alexander and others, based on eight years of intensive research at UC Berkeley. Alexander, a mathematician, and his team sought a rigorous analysis of the relationship between constructed form and human behavior and sensitivity. The “patterns” they discerned describe fundamental design considerations: how people perceive, understand, navigate and use a building. It is essential for students to develop a personal catalog of the possible relationships between constructed form and use.

Principles focus on building physics: typologies of structures, construction and materials; the interior architecture sciences of heat, light and sound, and their relation to climatic factors. It is the physical sciences that are hostile to an understanding of sustainability.

Previous is more than an understanding of history; it is an appreciation of all buildings, their composition and style. See plan and section, read to understand the space. Teachers should take a fresh look at each student so that they can “read” a building, a street, a city; see the physical world in its relation to its social and historical context; understand how the precedents lead to the evolution of the building.


Proposal is at the center of the design process. The choice of words is the key. The designer makes a solution proposal in constructed form. The proposition is a hypothesis: an idea or a verifiable concept that a certain arrangement of spaces, expressed in plan and in section, will meet the objective required in that particular place.

This “proposal” results from a combination of the two areas described above: a deep understanding of architectural ideas (from a pedagogical study of the subject), focused on the purpose and the particularly defined place of the project. In this process, criteria are established from the beginning of the project which are questionable within the proposal as it evolves. She seeks a measurable solution, much more than “subjective satisfaction”.

It is sometimes called the “hermeneutical method”, a form of scientific and artistic looping inquiries into social and physical aspects, often considered irreconcilable or oxymoric, in order to find a particular concept or idea that can bring the different parties together and bring them together. make a singular proposition, or “proposition”.

The design process has generally been the subject of much study, often seeking “universal truths” applicable in all areas of design, but as discussed here I maintain that architectural design (for buildings, urban design and the landscape) is a particular process, differentially defined by its input parameters, guided by a particular pedagogy of the social and physical sciences, at a testable resolution.

This design process is the opposite of the current obsession with “composition,” a common cancer in design studios of architecture schools. To this extent, it is also the opposite of the Bauhaus teaching, which emphasized the universality of design through craftsmanship. This inevitably led to the fetishization of form and the rise of the “decorated diagram” as described by Klaus Herdeg and discussed here.

Composition is not the centerpiece of architecture, far from it, but its ubiquity in academia and the digital world has given it undue importance. We need to push back the growing fad of casual “theater sets” in seemingly “video game” environments, which fill so many websites and, sadly, cities. The showy “blobotecture” and its VR maids should never waste their time.

Real architecture will continue to be “useful spaces in special places”, with due regard for purpose and place, as we create people-centered towns and villages.

Tone Wheeler is Senior Architect at Environa Studio, Adjunct Professor at UNSW, and President of the Australian Architecture Association. The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author and are neither owned nor endorsed by A + D, AAA or UNSW. Comments, particularly well received by the 20 years of students who have undergone But + Place + Proposition, can be addressed to [email protected].

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