Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Designing Design Education

One thing that happened over the weekend is that I woke up at about 6:00 on Sunday morning thinking about the word "design." (Okay, I'm a freak... sorry. I was thinking about our portfolio review process, and all the student work I'd seen recently.) So I had to go look it up, and my worst fears were confirmed. The word is a derivation of the Latin designare (“to mark out”), and its dictionary entries mostly support that first-draft nature:
• To prepare the preliminary sketch or the plans for
• To plan and fashion artistically and skillfully
• To intend or propose
• To form or conceive in the mind; to contrive; to plan
• To assign in thought or purpose

Design work begins with schematic or conceptual design, in which first ideas are generated and evaluated, eventually narrowing down to a single rough outcome that the client approves. At that point, the design development phase begins, in which that rough outcome is refined, smaller problems resolved, fundamental materials selected. At the point of that resolution and client approval, the construction documents are created, those endless rolls of paper (or computer models) that specify the composition and dimensions of every single material object and its interconnections with each other that will eventually become an inhabited building. And finally, the architect acts as the client’s representative on the construction site, administering the construction and overseeing quality control.

There are several steps left out of this contractual sequence; the assessment of client needs and the setting of the criteria for success on the front end, and building commissioning and post-occupancy evaluation on the other. But even leaving those aside, most design schools focus on a tightly limited range of that process, namely schematic design and design development. Students receive a “program,” which ought to be a dense document outlining the economic, social, and business-function criteria that the finished building should meet, but which is instead usually thought of as a simple space and size list (“20 classrooms @ 960 s.f. each”). They develop a concept that will drive their design and begin the work of sketching shapes. Models are assembled, refined, careful drawings created, and after five weeks, the outcome is presented, adjudicated, and discarded in favor of the next project. It’s an endless cycle of schematic design and some limited design development, starting over and over and over.

In the late 80s, the architecture writer Dana Cuff conducted interviews with seven noted architects. Her purpose was to discern the ways in which they thought about people as they went about their work, and the responses ranged from “The only person in the architect’s work is me” to a sophisticated and eager collaboration between designers and building trade supervisors. But as I presented her article to my Design Principles course last semester, what we found most interesting was the way they discussed the design process. For the most part, their intellectual focus, the part of architecture that truly enlivened them, was schematic design and design development, the same endless cycle of new beginnings that they then teach to further generations of designers.

I think if I were going to create a school for potential architects, there would be a couple of courses on programming and a couple of courses on post-occupancy evaluation and post-construction modification. There would be a semester on architectural economics and contract negotiation. There would be a semester of nothing but drawing and evaluating existing places in your own community. I would avoid photographs like the black death -- students would learn about the built environment from the built environment. There'd be at least two semesters extensively devoted to social, cultural and behavioral analysis.

I doubt anyone would go there... but it's an interesting thought experiment. What would be different about our built world if architecture school had but one or two studio courses that students were only allowed to enroll in after they'd succeeded at four or five years of careful analytical work? Would our places be boring? Would we have less engaging communities?

I have one example, from a different field. I once read an account of a European woodworker who was a little bored with his work and decided to apprentice himself to a Japanese woodworker to learn new skills. For the first two years, he was allowed to carry wood. Then he was allowed to stack wood (carefully, so that it would dry thoroughly and without warping or checking). After that, a couple of years of sharpening chisels, and two years of sharpening saws. Then, and only then, was he allowed to touch tool to wood. He says he completely understood, for the very first time, what he was engaged in.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Last Week Kicked My Ass

Not only did my flight to Boston get cancelled last Sunday, but I was hiring new instructors all the way through the first week of BAC regular-semester classes. Now we have our board retreat today, but I was able to come in early (like 5:30 early) and make comments on your blog posts. I think I'm back to equillibrium...

So on Monday 1/29, you'll see the first assignment for your writing in the Theory component. But today, you can go to the Blackboard site and download an article that might serve as a template for your own writing. It's about a different profession, but it lays out fundamental principles that drive everyday action. And that's my goal for all of you.

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Seen, but Not Observed

Sherlock Holmes, the arrogant fellow that he was, once said to Mr. Watson about some evidence, "You see, but do not observe." But that's true of us all. We go through our daily lives and don't often take note of common occurrences. That's a point that Paco Underhill raises; I'm at work and don't have the book in front of me, but I'll paraphrase him in saying that all of his clients are also shoppers, and yet they're often surprised by the simple observations that he makes. We (and our clients) are immersed in physical environments every minute that we're awake, and yet we often fail to observe things that we see.

I'll use an extraordinarily mundane example -- the toilet. I'm estimating that I've used a thousand or more toilets in my life, all more or less the same and yet mildly different. You've probably specified a great number of toilets in your career; the BAC building, roughly 25K sf, has about 20 toilets installed. But...

I'm assuming that every man has had this experience; certainly those friends of mine with whom I discuss such things have all had this experience. You sit down on a toilet, and the end of your penis touches the inside of the bowl. It's surprising, uncomfortable, and not hygenic. Frankly, it's nasty. And it's a simple matter of the slope of the front of the bowl; if it slopes down sharply enough, and most do, then this doesn't happen. But if it tapers back more gradually, then there's not enough depth for your equipment. When we go to buy a toilet, for ourselves or our clients, do we bring this experience into our professional lives and specify one that would avoid this problem? Is bowl slope even a measurement that fixture manufacturers indicate? No. I can imagine an advertising campaign -- "Stay Clean... with Kohler!"

I can excuse Carli and Anne for not knowing this, but not the rest of us.

Here's another common example: a glass door with identical hardware on both sides. The Golda Mier Library at UWM had this at every floor, a wooden-framed glass door with a wooden tablet mounted a couple of inches out from both faces, so that it can be used as either as a push plate or as a handle to pull. When you look at that, you have no cues about whether the door opens toward you or away (I know, I know, you could look at the door jamb and figure it out, but really, who does that?). I can't tell you how many students I saw come down the stairs with an armload of books and hit that, expecting (from long visual experience) that it was a push plate. BOOM !!! Books everywhere.

Donald Norman, in his book about product design called The Psychology of Everyday Things, said that if you make a mistake with an object (trip on a riser, turn on the wrong burner, etc.), it's almost certainly not your fault, and that countless others have made the same mistake.

The first step at being a good observer in the environment is taking note of our own environmental experiences, and putting them into play when the occasion rises. So tell us about your favorite dumb design feature, one that you see over and over and can't believe so many people designed it that way. (Not necessarily architectural, either... could be in your car, could be your stereo, whatever.)

We'll deal with good ones tomorrow. Today, the dumb ones.

Sunday, January 7, 2007

And now, for something completely different...

Well, the first week of the course went about as well as I can imagine. Good reading, good thinking, engaging writing, and lots of cross-posting. Thanks for all of your efforts.

Now, we're going to set Susan Bickford aside (for a while -- we'll return to her article later on) and move to something entirely different. You should all have a copy of Paco Underhill's Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping, and that's what we'll turn to for the next few days. If Bickford is poetry to be read slowly and carefully, Underhill is a Tom Clancy novel to be breezed through at full clip. I read a third of it this morning in the laundromat.

One of the things I like about Paco's work is the care with which he pays attention to what real people actually do in their environments. He's also willing to put himself on the line, and say "If you follow my recommendations, your store will make more money." That's pretty gutsy, and his degree of repeat clientele seems to bear him out.

But one of the other reasons I like this book in juxtaposition with Susan Bickford is that it points out the need for the design professional to be "bilingual." You need to be able to immerse yourself in the theory, to be able to understand (and to create) a philosophical standpoint, but you also have to be able to present ideas in a way that busy people can grasp and understand. It also helps if you have a sense of humor about it, and Paco definitely does have that. He's got the acres of data and the extensive analyses, but he can put his finger on what a decision-maker needs to know, make a convincing argument in a few minutes, and get changes made. So as you're reading, keep one eye on what he's saying and the other eye on how he's saying it.

Oh, Brother...

I spent about fifteen minutes earlier this evening watching clips of Big Brother on YouTube. It's about all I could stand. "Can Janelle and Erika succeed in getting Will to take a shower with them?" Puh-leeze....

But it makes me think. Years ago, I was doing research in a high school with 47 teachers. They also hosted eight to ten student teachers a year from the nearby state college's education department. One day, I was having a conversation with the college's student-teacher coordinator, and she asked me, "How many really good teachers do you think there are at this school?" By that time, I'd been in every classroom, many more than once, so I said, "If I were starting my own school tomorrow, I'd take..." and then I started counting on my fingers "...six, I think." She replied, "That's not bad. Usually, it's around ten percent."

I have a feeling that the ten-percent rule is true for almost every industry. We have three hundred cable channels on, but there are only a handful of good actors, so the rest of the space gets filled up with Big Brother and Monster Garage and ElimiDate. We have a handful of good films, so most of the summer is filled with Steven Segal and Adam Sandler. There are only a few remarkable songwriters, but there's a huge need for product, so we get N'Sync and Kenny G. When I go to academic conferences, there are a few sessions that are outstanding and engaging, and dozens that are dull and carelessly organized.

You can probably guess where I'm going with this... :-)

Our work this semester is going to be aimed at a statement of belief that each of you will create, beliefs about your aspirations and goals and what constitutes good work, with some research to back it up. As we move forward, I want you to take seriously the notion that 90% of architects aren't very good (just as 90% of professional television actors aren't very good, and 90% of professional baseball players are in the minor leagues or play for the Royals...). And I want you to define for yourselves what you need to do to be one of the ten percent -- not merely successful, but good. Training and talent and hard work are not enough. What is?

Friday, January 5, 2007

A word we think we know...

Much of Bickford's article turns on the concept of privacy, but we have to be careful about what's going on with that term here. According to environmental psychologist Irv Altman (1975), the psychological concept of privacy has to do with controlling the flow of information, both inward and outward. For instance, if people can overhear us, or if we're interrupted by others, then we don't have enough control over the transmission of information. Altman argues that we modulate privacy in four ways:
  1. escape, or moving away from the stimulus (leaving a noisy room, for instance)
  2. division, or erecting a barrier between us and the stimulus (closing a door, for instance)
  3. withdrawl, or body language that indicates you don't want to be disturbed (not making eye contact in the elevator, a group of friends in a close circle that disinvites others from entering, etc.)
  4. anonymity, or going to a place where information flow doesn't matter because people don't know who you are and so the information isn't really linked to a person (every small-town gay kid who grew up and moved to a big city knows about this one)
There's a problem here, of course, which is that all of these are phrased as negatives. If you invert each of those actions -- entering a noisy room, opening a door, smiling at someone in the elevator, or joining a close community -- you're still modulating privacy, but in the positive-information direction. Anyway, we do these things in both directions a thousand times a day.

The other common definition of "privacy" is the economic one, the opposite of "public" in terms of ownership -- private property, private club, privately-held corporation, etc. Public park, private yard; public road, private drive.

Bickford's use, I think, is a complex blending of the two. She's certainly talking about "privatization" in terms of ownership -- the rec center that's only open to members of the development, the independent security force that we pay for. But why do we want to own these things? Why do we want to be removed from people who aren't like us?

Even though her discussion is largely around the physical environment and its economic structure, she (and many of you in your blog posts) have talked about all four of Altman's privacy-mechanism behaviors:
  1. escape, or moving away from the city and into the suburbs
  2. division, or creating walls and gates and guardhouses
  3. withdrawl, or the "border vaccums" (Bickford 369) that pull our gated communities out into the cornfields so they don't even abut the next gated community (another example of withdrawl is the common modern house form that places the garage at the forefront, with the house hunkered down behind it for protection)
  4. anonymity, or not making effort to know your neighbors.

So what's the "information" that we're trying to control in these larger social ways? What do we not want to be exposed to, or to expose ourselves to? Bickford raises some possibilities on p. 365, but those are pretty theoretical. Let's be specific.

Thursday, January 4, 2007

Let's recast the argument

I've spent a few hours today reading your posts about Bickford's analysis, and enjoying myself immensely. Thanks for thinking hard. If you're feeling put-upon, remember that she isn't blaming architects for the state of the world, so you don't have to be defensive. She is asking you if there's anything you can do to change things, though...

The other thing is that you can't really cast this as a chicken-and-egg argument -- does design make us segregated, or does our desire for segregation make us design certain ways? The answer she poses is "yes to both." The question is whether we want to change it, and then whether we can, and then how we can.

Let's take Detroit as a case study. The past century of Detroit can be summed up in two sets of interwoven tensions: cars and industrialization; capital and labor. Detroit was a French and English town with a fortunate spot on the Great Lakes; it was easy to get things in and out by ship, and it grew. Then... Henry Ford and the assembly line. All of a sudden, nearly every car in the world was being made there, and they needed workers, and lots of eastern Europeans were arriving, and so Detroit became a German-Polish city. The English left for Grosse Pointe to escape the dirty Polacks, but they still owned most of the major businesses, and came in by train.

During and shortly after World War II, Detroit made even more cars, along with lots of defense-related stuff like planes and tanks, and they needed even more workers. Blacks moved northward, and Detroit became a German-Polish-Black city. About this time, two things happened: cars were relatively cheap due to industrial success, and Eisenhower decided he wanted America to have its own Autobahn, which he'd seen during the war. So we got the Interstate system, which bypassed cities in order to keep vehicle speeds up to 70 mph. Well, that let the Germans and the Polish leave town, too, because they could drive 25 miles to work but not have to live there. And Detroit became Black.

So we've got two pieces of Modernity working at cross purposes: industrialization bringing a workforce together, and individual cars letting the workforce fracture into distant ethnic enclaves. Detroit becomes poorer and poorer (it's now half the population it was in 1950), and can barely afford government services. The police are still German and Polish, though, since the civil service jobs got passed down through political patronage. So you've got a poor Black city policed by Whites who live elsewhere, and you get the riots of 1967-71. (Note that the common term is "the Detroit riots," but the term in the Black community is "the Detroit uprising" or "the Detroit rebellion." Language matters.)

Through the '70s, the automakers and the United Auto Workers held each other more or less at a standstill. But then we started to get Toyotas and Datsuns (remember Datsun?), and unionized labor was seen as unaffordable. Michigan lost a huge portion of its manufacturing to the South, where unions weren't well established and people would work for less. (I have a strong memory from my own Michigan childhood of a factory a year closing.) And Detroit became poorer still, with unemployment over 20% during the early 80s.

To follow this through the 90s and up to the present day, not only is unionized labor unaffordable, American labor is unaffordable. So all the factories that moved from Michigan to Alabama are now moving from Alabama to Indonesia. But I can get a television at Walmart for $179.99, so it's all good.

No evil mastermind made all of this happen, conspiracy theorists aside. We could have made it stop, though, and never did. Lots and lots of seemingly benign individual decisions -- about privacy, about "good schools for our kids," about affordable cars and TVs -- have added up to social disaster for millions. And that, I think, is Bickford's point.

The Blog Environment

It's kind of like a good party... there are already more conversations going on than any one of us can track. You can engage in some and not others and still leave feeling like you've had a fine time.

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

The Claim

Susan Bickford's article "Constructing Inequality" needs to be read slowly, like poetry, to absorb its complexity (see my first post on "how to read"). If you blaze through it, you get the general overview of someone who's cranky and oppositional. We need to understand what task she's set out for herself here in order to be able to evaluate how well she's done it.

Fortunately, she's made that task very apparent for us, on the second page of her paper :

"In this essay, I argue that the environment of our urban and suburban lives provides a hostile environment for the development of democratic imagination and participation" (Bickford, 356).

This is a rich statement. "The environment of our urban and suburban lives" indicates that she's going to analyze the intersections between our places and our ways of living. "Hostile" indicates that she's going to take a strong stand (she could have used words like "difficult" or "unproductive"). She goes beyond saying that the environment makes it difficult to be citizens, and claims that the environment makes it difficult to even think like citizens ("democratic imagination"). And by using the word "development," she's indicating that she believes that our built environment is hostile to our growth, and keeps us in an artificially undeveloped state of civic engagement and thinking.

But you can't see all that at 70 miles an hour. This essay is like a painting that can be examined for hours; I daresay, it's something like a good building.

Tuesday, January 2, 2007

Just another day at work...

We're just beginning our annual cycle of budget forecasting, and a couple of weeks ago, I sent our CFO a narrative of how my budget area would benefit our strategic goals. Today, he sent me an e-mail asking me to define a term that I used a couple of times -- "design citizenship." Here's my response:

“Design citizenship” is a term that I guess I’ve coined, and I suppose that the appropriate thing for me to do is to write an academic paper about it and get it published so that it’s in the literature. However, I’ll spare you that for the short term and give you a quick idea of it.

Any act of physical design, from an office interior to a subdivision layout, has unseen implications for the lives of everyone who will encounter it. We can design with an eye toward social justice, toward universal design for persons of different abilities, toward sustainable material and energy practices, toward a sense of civic pride and community pleasure… or we can ignore those things and let them take care of themselves. A design attitude that understands and accepts responsibility for the numerous social outcomes of the work is what I would label design citizenship.

As with every act of citizenship, well-meaning people will disagree about both the desired outcomes and the means of achieving them. And that’s appropriate. What’s necessary is that we enter the arena, that we take social responsibility as a primary calling when we go about our work.

There are a few schools that have a focus on what is sometimes called “environment-behavior studies” or “social and cultural factors in design,” although they usually restrict that focus for academic research rather than integrating it into the entire curriculum. For instance, the grad school I went to – the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee – is one of the premier doctoral research institutions of environment-behavior research, which is my field. But the undergrads and M.Arch students had merely one required course, Architecture and Human Behavior, with few ways to extend that learning into their studio work and no subsequent elective classes that they could use to build an area of interest and expertise. This is also true at Michigan and Berkeley and Texas A&M and Kansas State and the Fashion Institute of Technology. And frankly, our field’s origins in environmental psychology have led us down some pretty uninspiring roads, focusing on individuals encountering places as though they were lab rats in a maze – Do they get lost? Are they comfortable? Do they have adequate privacy? These questions are both important and insufficient. I’m more interested in larger social questions. For instance, there’s a big body of research that shows the ways in which women are hindered through suburban design (and in design education as well). There’s a growing amount of research that I contribute to that demonstrates the ways that teenagers are demeaned and marginalized by the designs of their schools and communities.

So that’s my big agenda. We could be a leader in graduating students who take social responsibility as a baseline in every project they encounter; who are savvy about the research base that can inform their work; who know how to facilitate the design process so that clients, users and neighbors all feel respected and ennobled; and who know how to create buildings that can outlast our imagined uses and will be helpful for generations to come.

I think about this stuff even when I'm doing things as mundane as budgets... I guess I'm compulsive.