Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Representation of Places

There’s a bit of a debate going on within architectural education about BIM. Some believe that BIM (or other virtual modeling tools) should be introduced early in students’ design careers, and should be seen as an integral element of design thinking, both because of their prominence in the industry and their because they facilitate spatial and construction understanding. Others argue that beginning students should employ the traditional modes of pencil and physical models, because of their intimacy and physicality.

I’m something of an agnostic on the question, just as I was an agnostic when teaching writing whether students should use Word or Word Perfect or a legal pad when creating their first drafts. I was asking them to create a good argument, not to be a good typist.

In every design curriculum, there are a bunch of courses on design media: almost always freehand drawing, orthogonal drafting, perspective, and some broad array of computational media (I had a course called “Shades and Shadows” when I was a student way back in the stone age). And while I understand their importance, I also believe that graphic skill is grossly overemphasized in architectural education. And not merely in courses specifically about representation. I was at the annual American Collegiate Schools of Architecture conference last spring in Philadelphia, and went to a session called (something like) Research in Design. I left after the first three presenters all showed us some computer modeling of a rule-based form generation scheme; as far as I could tell, they’d developed really cool screen savers that had almost nothing to do with architecture.

I have two paired questions about how we might teach design representation:
  1. How can we help students convey their experience of existing places that they study? This will entail drawing, of course, but how can we help them both perceive and represent the tactile, thermal, social, acoustical, cultural, historical, and temporal elements of good places? (This presumes, of course, that they actually study real places and not just pictures from afar.)
  2. How can we help designers convey the users’ likely experiences of proposed places in all of those dimensions? How can we say convincingly that this design will be thermally delightful, for instance? (Lisa Heschong’s little book Thermal Delight in Architecture, now almost thirty years old, is still one of the very best — indeed, delightful — studies of what makes places satisfying. And not a picture in the whole thing.)
Focusing on drawing, drafting and CAD/BIM misses the point. It’s like focusing on Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. But it does help us to imagine that designers are in the art business, because the tools are somewhat similar.

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