Accident

“I do still stumble across things by accident. As I’m always telling my students: you won’t get anywhere sitting at a table thinking. You learn by doing. That’s how you move forward. And even if you do something wrong, the result may be much more interesting than what you went looking for.”

-Andreas Gursky

This little gem in a brief Gursky interview in the Guardian.

Always be open to possibility. Recognize when things are working and when they aren’t. We strive for intention, to follow our narrative, to complete our agenda. But that doesn’t always work, and we need to recognize when a project isn’t moving forward. At the same time, don’t be too quick to switch gears, especially at the final hours.

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4 Forces

There are four forces that shape a project: site, user, material, and the designer.

The site is a dictator. It exerts more force over the project than any other. The site is both the physical and conceptual. The physical is geology, geography, hydrology, climate, and all the other natural forces; it is the infrastructure, the roads, bridges, utilities, water supply, and the other man-made aspects of the site. The conceptual aspects of the site are the social, cultural, and political forces that shape the site. These are such things as property definition (boundaries), zoning, codes, neighborhood identity, history, ethnicity, class, wealth/poverty, language.

The user is represented by the program – for what is the project to be used? How are the needs of the user to be accommodated? These needs manifest in distinct spatial requirements for different kinds of uses, and all of this has to be organized in specific relationships.

Material gives the project form. Material has to deal with the site forces: gravity, earthquakes, water, temperature, fire safety, but also has to contend with the kind of meaning that we ascribe to materials. Materials are part of the vocabulary of the language of design. Marble says something different than wood; oak says something different than knotty pine.

Finally, there is the designer. The designer is the mediator of the other forces, interpreting the interplay, and ascribing values and priorities.

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Drafts

For some reason in design schools we have adopted the term “iteration” for doing multiple versions. In writing this is called a “draft.” And I cannot enough stress the need for multiple drafts, especially early on when still forming an idea. Drafts are a way of clarifying your thinking. Drafts are a way of testing your ideas, to see if they work. Even the strongest 3D thinkers among us cannot fully envision complex space and form without using tools of visualization – whether hand or digital – to test the concept. Design is not so different from the scientific method, wherein a hypothesis is tested, the results analyzed, and a conclusion is made, which might result in a revision to the hypothesis, new testing, new analysis, and new conclusions. Or the dialectical approach (which I like better because it rhymes): thesis, antithesis, synthesis (idea, test/challenge, refinement). This thinking goes for any aspect of the design process, from the big ideas, down to the details, it is a constant process of refinement.

I like this article from another discipline by Fred Bernstein, the architectural critic, who started his career writing by studying and practicing law. Law is a profession where language is the foundation, and people go to great lengths to make sure their meaning is not misunderstood, and indeed, to make sure they themselves know what they are saying. Thus it is with design. Good design is a constant act of refinement and questioning, research, testing, and many, many drafts.

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Taking Notes

I have always suspected that the act of taking notes by hand reinforced learning – I know that it does for me. But I have also been suspect of my own suspicions – what works for me doesn’t necessarily work for the rest of the population. Now I have corroboration, from this article from Harvard no less.

It is clear on two counts that the use of laptops, tablets, and phones in the classroom need to be significantly curtailed or focused. First, is that these devices are significant distractions. Most applications are default set with a dizzying array of visual and audible notifications, many of which are hard to figure out how to turn off. Second, the processing of information is different when done by hand or keyboard.

This article from Treehugger puts the Harvard article in a different way, and focuses more on the processing that the brain is engaged in when taking notes by hand rather than with the keyboard. And this other article from Treehugger goes into more detail on the multiple benefits of writing by hand rather than on the keyboard, my favorite being the improved composition.

This is a conundrum, because these devices can be genuinely useful tools for learning, and in many cases now they are the instruction. I am currently teaching two classes. One is a presentation techniques class that is focused on digital representation tools. The other is a class in construction concepts for interior designers.

In the presentation class, the computer must be used. But I see the problems, and have experienced them myself. You are introduced to a new technique in an application, and you immediately get immersed in the act of trying to replicate or apply it. Meanwhile, the instructor is plowing on, and becomes a mere buzzing in the background. Finally, you pull yourself out of the machine. Wait what? What did I just miss? And unlike a YouTube or Lynda, you can’t go back. A learning opportunity has been lost.

The Construction class is a different matter. I have a lot of international students, and while their English is pretty good, they use their devices to look up words. Sometimes. Sometimes they are just checking text messages. Or Facebook. I’m still trying to figure out how to put these devices to good use in these kinds of environments. Treasure hunts on the internet is maybe one thing, but I can’t do that every class. It is a work in progress. In the meantime, turn off the dings, buzzes, pop-ups, and other distractions that keep you from your focus.

 

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Rejection

To get things right requires doing things over and over and over again. I recently came across this article about writing: why you should aim for 100 rejections a year. Writing is much like any art, or other discipline for that matter. You constantly have to put yourself out there. You have to make things over and over. I particularly like the bit in the article about the ceramics class. The group was divided into two parts: quantity and quality. The quantity group had to produce many, and the quality group had to focus on perfection. It turns out that the quantity group also had the highest quality. The act of doing something over and over again is a learning process. (Of course, if you do something over and over in exactly the same way and expect a different result, I think that was defined as insanity). What happened was that the students who did things many times learned from each iteration, with the result that they were able to fine tune their craft much better than the students who focused all their energy on the single masterwork.

I think that this is the hardest thing to teach students. Failure is emotionally difficult, yes, no argument. But it is part of a process. The idea is to have many small failures and to learn from them. The more mistakes you make, the more you learn from them. Key here is recognizing your mistakes, where those mistakes are, and how to correct them.

Iterations are part of a process of testing. You have an idea, you take pencil to paper (or pixels or vectors to screen) and work out the idea to see if it has merit. Then you do that for the next idea, and the next, and the next, and the next (you get the idea). Then you can look at those ideas in relation to each other, and determine which ones have the most merit to move on to the next stage of development.

The article that provoked this train of thought was about submitting for publication, residencies, agents, and all the other aspects of the writer’s life. But you can say the same for competitions, trying to get clients, looking for a job that you want. Rejection is likely to be the norm. And it isn’t entirely about you. Whoever is looking at your submission has their own point of view, and is looking for specific things. So if you want something, you have to be in the game.

 

 

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to astonish

I saw this quote on David Turnbull’s facebook feed regarding upcoming thesis reviews at Cooper:

“What we need to question is bricks, concrete, glass, our table manners, our utensils, our tools, the way we spend our time, our rhythms. To question that which seems to have ceased forever to astonish us. We live, true, we breathe, true; we walk, we open doors, we go down staircases, we sit at a table in order to eat, we lie down on a bed in order to sleep. How? Where? When? Why?”

from: Perec, Georges; ‘Approaches to What’, in “L‘Infra-ordinaire” (1989)

I am not familiar with the writer, but I very much agree with the proposition. I just spent a semester teaching interior design, and the most difficult task was to move past making shapes and over-thinking a language-based “concept” and to engage with the body in space, material experience, light and air, and to further interrogate things like the nature of how people work, and the acts of bathing, eating, sleeping.

I’m all for form, but what and why? I remember seeing a T-shirt decades ago that read “subvert the dominant paradigm.” And I remember thinking “why?” “to what end?” Merely to subvert? Perhaps “question the dominant paradigm” would be a more appropriate slogan.

So, we should all be astonished every day by this world in which we live. We should question how we shape that world, and to what end. Our goal, as designers, should be to make things useful and durable, but above all, to delight, to astonish. And these need not be grand gestures, we can be delighted and astonished by small acts.

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Not one-size-fits-all

Architecture requires a great many different kinds of intelligence to function. The typical office is divided up into groups of design, technology, and management. And even within these areas, there are many different specialties. Yet typically within education, especially at the undergrad level, we have a one-size-fits-all approach. All students are expected to respond to the same problems, and are assess on the same basis. Students with different kinds of intelligence are often penalized within this system, and we frequently these people are lost to the profession.

I see a lot of different kinds of student. I have started a kind of taxonomy, and right now I have five basic genera within the family of architecture. Of course, each genus can be broken down further into different species. The genera I have identified are the Artist, the Gearhead, the Theorist, the Administrator, the Politician, and the Architect. The Artist excels at making form and concept. The Gearhead excels at technology. The Theorist excels at history and philosophy. The Administrator excels at organization. The Politician excels at engaging people. The Architect is the rare intelligence that can combine the qualities of most of the other genera.

We have a magically diverse world filled with amazing creative potential, and as a professional training ground, we have to figure out how to engage them all. This is one of the reasons I love group projects.Many of my colleagues don’t like collaborative work because they feel that the students individually aren’t displaying their mastery. I understand their point, but when in architecture is anything done by the single lone genius (other than in Ayn Rand fiction)?

Ordinarily 1 + 1 = 2. But in collaborative work I think that there is a kind of exponential condition where the work isn’t twice as good, but 4x. The students seem to complement each other. One of the best teams I had were the dregs leftover when everyone else paired up. These two seemed mismatched, but in reality the strengths augmented each other to arrive at a great result. It was a “hot mess” no doubt, but a thoroughly committed one. When it came time for grading, I was going to give one student a higher grade than the other, because I thought he was driving the bus. But he stood up for his colleague, and said the other more than pulled his weight.

I’m as guilty as everyone else in perpetuating the one-size-fits-all. In many a studio I have taught I have privileged the artist and the architect. The hardest are the poor first year students who struggle valiantly, but don’t have the inherent design ability. And we lose these hard working souls to the discipline, simply because we can’t find a way to include them.

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Perspective

This is a tough call – do we bother to teach analog drawing technique in an age where the ability of the computer to produce potentially astounding images?

My feeling is that the act of drawing is more about the mind. Training in analog drawing is more about understanding the construction of space, and less about the application of an outmoded means of representation. It engages fundamental modes of learning: cognitive skills of knowing, understanding, application, and analysis; the psychomotor skills of perceiving, guided response, proficiency, and origination; and the affective skills of receiving, responding, valuing, and, one hopes, a change in character. And perhaps the specific skills are part of a dying art, but the meta skills, the discipline of thought, are universal.

I love the drawings of Jan Vredeman de Vries, a 16th century Dutch artist who wrote one of many treatises on perspective at the time. I came across a blog that has compiled parts of many such treatises. They are pedagogical, but he was clearly enjoying himself when he made them. I hope for that for my students. Drawing should not be a chore, but a release, a meditation, a joy.

Jan Vredeman de Vries - Perspective, 1604

Jan Vredeman de Vries – Perspective, 1604

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Internships

This is for all those students getting their first jobs, or even their fifth job. As per the NCARB requirements for professional licensure, approximately 3 years of interning are required. This is an extension of your architectural education. In school you learn certain basic concepts, and you get a well-rounded exposure to architecture. But another set of concepts is required and actually taught/learned in a professional workplace. I heard this great discussion about internships on the public radio program On The Media. As usual, they do their research. The interviews with interns were really quite illuminating. They describe the differences between paid and unpaid internships, but in general, this is a great article on how to work. The radio piece talks about the benefit of the internship to the intern. NCARB requires participation in a variety of different types of work in an office. You, the intern, have to be meticulous about keeping track of this, and advocating for yourself. The NCARB requirements are a tool for you, so that you won’t get handcuffed to the Xerox machine.

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Letter from Your Dance Teacher

Annie Coggan just sent me this “letter from your dance teacher.” It could just as easily be a letter from your architecture teacher, letter from your humanities teacher – the sentiment is still the same. Architecture, like dance, is an iterative process. Though there are often no right answers, there are plenty of wrong answers, and form is critical. It is the language. So a correction or critique is working to strengthen the form. It is a nice read. I used to yell a lot more, and I think I will return to that. It can be humiliating. But better that than to go about without a clear understanding of your strengths and weaknesses. Not to make anyone considering taking my class uneasy – I generally reserve this for those who are clearly not performing. I have sympathy for those who work hard but have fundamental disconnects.

This makes me think about another great piece of advice: get your shit together. Below is an incredibly funny email exchange that went viral a number of years ago. It is brilliant. What makes it brilliant is that Galloway remains a teacher, and taught this young man or woman important lessons. And he did it in overall a respectful and intelligent manner, never descending to name-calling or open insult.

As Galloway says, get the easy things right. Paying attention to deadlines, doing your homework, being aware of what is requested of you – these are the easy things. Most of the time we teachers are thankful for simple fulfillment of requirements, let alone going above and beyond. The converse of this is that there is often an expectation of high reward for simply doing the required. So for those who anticipate being my students in the future, be warned and encouraged. Be warned – you get out of the class what you put into it. My feedback will be in proportion to your effort. Be encouraged – success is a product of criticism, as Keesha Beckford says, so ask for the truth, always, even if it may hurt.

 

Get Your Shit Together – this is an email exchange between an unnamed student and Professor Scott Galloway at NYU’s Stern School of Business.

Subject: Brand Strategy Feedback

Prof. Galloway,

I would like to discuss a matter with you that bothered me. Yesterday evening I entered your 6pm Brand Strategy class approximately 1 hour late. As I entered the room, you quickly dismissed me, saying that I would need to leave and come back to the next class. After speaking with several students who are taking your class, they explained that you have a policy stating that students who arrive more than 15 minutes late will not be admitted to class. As of yesterday evening, I was interested in three different Monday night classes that all occurred simultaneously. In order to decide which class to select, my plan for the evening was to sample all three and see which one I like most. Since I had never taken your class, I was unaware of your class policy. I was disappointed that you dismissed me from class considering (1) there is no way I could have been aware of your policy and (2) considering that it was the first day of evening classes and I arrived 1 hour late (not a few minutes), it was more probable that my tardiness was due to my desire to sample different classes rather than sheer complacency. I have already registered for another class but I just wanted to be open and provide my opinion on the matter.

To which Professor Galloway responded:

Thanks for the feedback. I, too, would like to offer some feedback.

Just so I’ve got this straight…you started in one class, left 15-20 minutes into it (stood up, walked out mid-lecture), went to another class (walked in 20 minutes late), left that class (again, presumably, in the middle of the lecture), and then came to my class. At that point (walking in an hour late) I asked you to come to the next class which “bothered” you.

Correct?

You state that, having not taken my class, it would be impossible to know our policy of not allowing people to walk in an hour late. Most risk analysis offers that in the face of substantial uncertainty, you opt for the more conservative path or hedge your bet (e.g., do not show up an hour late until you know the professor has an explicit policy for tolerating disrespectful behavior, check with the TA before class, etc.). I hope the lottery winner that is your recently crowned Monday evening Professor is teaching Judgement and Decision Making or Critical Thinking.

In addition, your logic effectively means you cannot be held accountable for any code of conduct before taking a class. For the record, we also have no stated policy against bursting into show tunes in the middle of class, urinating on desks or taking that revolutionary hair removal system for a spin. However, xxxx, there is a baseline level of decorum (i.e., manners) that we expect of grown men and women who the admissions department have deemed tomorrow’s business leaders.

xxxx, let me be more serious for a moment. I do not know you, will not know you and have no real affinity or animosity for you. You are an anonymous student who is now regretting the send button on his laptop. It’s with this context I hope you register pause…REAL pause xxxx and take to heart what I am about to tell you:

xxxx, get your shit together.

Getting a good job, working long hours, keeping your skills relevant, navigating the politics of an organization, finding a live/work balance…these are all really hard, xxxx. In contrast, respecting institutions, having manners, demonstrating a level of humility…these are all (relatively) easy. Get the easy stuff right xxxx. In and of themselves they will not make you successful. However, not possessing them will hold you back and you will not achieve your potential which, by virtue of you being admitted to Stern, you must have in spades. It’s not too late xxxx…

Again, thanks for the feedback.

Professor Galloway

 

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