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.


peterjames said...

I heard someone recently describe an architect as someone with, "the soul of an artist, and the hands of a craftsman"..... kind of funny I know.... poetic, but mostly unrealistic... however, I do see value in the soul of an artist part.... the desire to create and express artistically.... its almost like a high..... and it can be felt in great architecture.. educating architects the way you propose, would probably make better architects in the short run because of the discipline and ability to analyze.... but I dont know if it would, or could, ever make great architects.... The way it works right now, school gives us just enough of a taste to keep us striving for it throughout our careers... with each project, we learn a little more, get a little better, and hopefully before its too late, we finally get it.... it all clicks, and we have created something that we can stand back and say, "yes, thats it, thats what I have been trying to do all this time, and here it is"..... we have to keep the passion in it.... otherwise, why dont we just call ourselves "spatial engineers?"...

Felix said...

Interesting thought!

As far as I remember, when I was undergrad student, we had similar discussion with our instructor. What the professor said to us is, most of the school emphasize their teaching in developing ideas and designs oriented. Why? Because learning and understanding how to design are rarely available in the work environment.
His opinion about contract document, negotiation, post construction, technical, etc can be learn from our office experiences.

Too many things that the architects have to learn and understand quickly, and so many expectations the architect have to fulfill in a short period of time. I think there should be a big revision for architecture school to balance between design, and education in the real world. Architect is one of the oldest professions in the world. Unfortunately, when we compare with other professions, so many times our professions are too slow to react, when facing the evolution of the world

Tim Oates said...

Based on Felix’s recollection of the professor’s comments ,it is very close to what our professor told my class in undergrad. The thing that burns me is that all other professions cover a vast majority of the needs within today’s professions. Architecture schools leave it to the firms to teach an individual the rest. My question then becomes why do we even need Architectural schools if they are not going to give us the basic building blocks to leap us into the profession? I come from a background, as everyone already knows, that is very simple skilled, farming. It is pretty easy there. So easy that you learn all you need by taking the Vocational Agriculture classes in High school. For me to go from something that I was born into and go to something that is completely foreign was extremely hard. I had no real understanding of what Architecture was about. Then I get to school and begin to believe that Architecture was only about design. I had no clue that there were these other aspects to Architecture, like Marketing, Specifications, Technical, Graphics, Planners, Business Management, Accounting, Sales, Construction, IT, etc….. As I have worked in the profession for around 10 years now. I have come to the realization that for me to advance my career I have to learn on my own. There is no time or money in the company’s budget to give a damn about my advancement in the profession. They would prefer to keep me at a low paying job which would allow them to make the job fee cheaper so that they can get more work. Sorry about that I vented a little.
Herb, if you started a school that you are mentioning I would attend. Design is not my strong point and I would be thrilled to be able to understand some of the other aspects of Architecture. Your example about the woodworker is an intriguing notion that could be related to our profession. It implies that you must know your craft in all aspects before you can begin in your real craft. So why are the Colleges not teaching Architects in the same way?

Joe B. said...

Regarding what Felix and Tims initial comments were, sounds like a certain university in Columbus. That statement is probably repeated to every studio in second year, "we dont teach you the basics, we teach you to think." I would agree with part of that statement, thinking is a crucial part of the design process, but the basics are just as crucial (as described in your posting). The one item I might include in your studio circulum would be a class devoted to working in construction for a semester. I have worked on a few small construction jobs, and I actually gained a better understanding of how the drawings are read in the field and how buildings are built. I think that is one way to become a better designer, is to actually understand how a building is put together by actually experiencing the process first hand.

Tim Shremshock said...

I think these discussions are very relevant to the issues that have been on my mind. Architectural schools are failing to provide viable resources to the workforce upon graduation. Our profession is relying on registered professionals to provide the practical knowledge base required to be an architect, but most firms do not follow through and provide that mentorship. They simply sign off on the IDP certification and move on. The fact that the mentor also never received formal training and education further lessens the value that the new graduate receives from the "mentorship".

Also, there is usually only one mentor required for IDP. That one professional is probably good at a few aspects of our profession, but lacking in others. What we should strive to acheive is to have muliple mentors that have been approved by NCARB by meeting certian criteria. These can be architects, accountants, contractors, construction managers (if we have to include them), engineers, etc. And we should start the IDP process during undergraduate studies and intergrate them with academia. Bring these same professionals into the classroom envrironment. This will help strenghten our field and re-establish the architect as the qulaified authority in the built environment. Which I believe we are losing at the moment.

pgarland said...

The very first thing our sophomore year studio professor told us in 1992 was "change your profession now because the ecomony sucks for architects". That made use feel great....

As Herb put it the first day of theory class, "this will not be a great hits class". Most architectural schools are nothing more than that. We need a school like medical school where they get to cut into cadavers and learn hands on. Right now we learn the basics enough to get a job to draw casework or stair sections for a few years.

The problem with putting together a school as Herb desrcibed is who wants to goto school for 10 years at the minimum. I do agree with him, that more should be taught in the schools. OSU for example is on the quarter system. fall quarter you do programming and schematic design. winter quarter will be design development and budget analysis. spring quarter will be Const docs and basics of CA and bidding.

I personally would like a class on how to deal with contractors. They are masters at 'its not in my scope', specification loop holes and dumb looks when you quote the general conditions is just amazing. Here's a quiz for everyone: try to get a contractor to say the word "credit".

Karrick said...

I think one thing that desperatly needs to be mentioned in this conversation is the fact that the educational requirement to get a license in architecture keeps changing to higher degrees. In 20 years will architects be required to get a PhD? Who is making these decisions? We talk about how architects are becoming more and more disengaged from the construction industry, and we lament the time that architects were master builders? Well, it is directly due to our education... we get less and less practical experience, and more and more BS. Let the architect back in the field and learn through experience. At the end of the day, the test is the gateway. If you can pass it, why does it matter where you got the knowledge with which to do that.

Besides, design is an innate ability. You can't teach it. You can learn how other people do it,... but if you don't get it... there are lots of other things in the architectural profession that need the attention of architects other than design.

rbutera said...

I think there is something that we are missing from this conversation and Joe hinted at it. What we (most of us I think) learned in undergrad was not how to draw a section or how to put together a room finish schedule, we learned a very very important skill that each of uses everyday on the job...

We learned how to think. We learned how to problem solve. We learned how to critically assess a given set of rules and derive an expression, an artistic solution, and yes even cultural solutions.

I would suggest to you all that this is a far more valuable skill than the basics.

The fact that we as a profession are so void to the possibilities of training new grads is a shame. All because of cost. The bottom line to business books. We cut off our nose to spite our face. Don't put training off to someone else. Embrace it. If you look back at the origins of architects, before the seperation of builder/architect, the profession was learned via apprenticeship.

Let's face it, we are not doctors, lawyers, or engineers. Those professions deal with hard facts, scientific and otherwise. Architects deal in the abstract, hypothetical, unbuilt, conceptual. Hard science is a part of architecture, no arguement there. But it is the means to an end.

This is were we dwell. That space and time in which we first concieve of an idea and begin to flesh it out... that is where our souls are to be found.

At least for me it is.

Ken Ballard said...

Well it appears that we have hit a topic that we all are quite familiar with. The need for a formal education in the profession of Architecture. Personally I see a need for a formal schooling, however I also strongly believe that through school, work experience, construction experience there should be a point that "qualifies" us to become an architect. Now don't get me wrong, not everyone can be an architect and if the process was way to easy... then contractors would try to act like architects... oh wait... they do. I am more interested in teaching students the first four/five years design concept, a new way to think/analysis, etc. and place ( and I mean place them, not just, "good luck, now try to find a job") them in the work place, this should also be part of the education (work and school at the same time). Not everyone that goes to school wants to be an Architect. I personally know many that went through the schooling in order to get a better salary at a better firm being a "Drafting Captain". Me, I want to be the Architect. I want to be able to control what comes out my office and how my buildings affect the user, public, city, community, etc.
For the most part I would say that there are many of us that could start to take the tests and do well (pass most of them the first time). However, that is not the case, when we all started this program as well as the undergrad programs that we all went through we knew what we had to do in order to sit for the exam. We all dove head first in this program at the BAC because it allows us to use our work experience in an academic setting as well as continue to work full-time. Lets embrace this program that the BAC has put together. BAC has adopted, as much as we have adopted their concept of architectural schooling: Practice + School = Better Architect. In the middle of our intensive, Jeff, I think it was Jeff said (I am paraphrasing), "the BAC is not interested in graduating students, we are interested in graduating Architects." At first I was a bit confused with that statement... but the more I repeat it back to myself I can hear myself and my boss talking about hiring students... 'I wish these students didn't have to be trained so much, the more time we have to spend with them, the less we are productive'. Now this is a two sided sword... We believe that working in a small firm affords a person more opportunities in areas that Herb is talking about. On the other side, if these areas on not taught in school, yes it is up to the profession to teach it, and we as a profession need to embrace the opportunity to teach it. If the educational platform was more balanced in Practice:School, students work be more productive post education thus a Better Architect.

Back to the ,"there should be a point that 'qualifies" us to become an architect", there is.... its the EXAM. To take the exam we need to be educated, to be educated we need to complete the program. Is there a different path to take? I don't know if another path will work any more... I think the profession is still, for the most part, a social club, status symbol.... Dare I compare it to that of the Lawyers and Doctors. In order to become one of those two, a person must be educated and pass an exam. The differences of the three professions are minimal... all three are service based. We don't sell a product, we provide a service.

Over the working years I have learned that there is good architecture, architecture and bad architecture, all three types can and will be created by all types of architects. Is there a way to eliminate the bad architecture and architecture and leave only good architecture to remain? I don't know, but if we could, don't you think that the "good architecture" could possible fall back into the realms of "bad architecture?"

I too am interested in "graduating an architect" and if that means examining parts of me and they way I design, think about architecture and education in a way that makes me feel uncomfortable and uneasy, so be it.