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.