Tag Archives: architectural education

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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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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I’m a yogi (I know, horrific image: me in shorts standing on my head). Without yoga I’d be a physical wreck. But entering into the world of yoga, one enters into an interesting philosophical construct as well. In the west, especially in Judaism and Christianity, we have the proscriptions of the Ten Commandments; in other words “thou shalt not.” The Yoga Sutras have a similar ten commandments, but five are proscriptions, and the other five are observances. Thus there is a balance between avoiding and seeking. In yoga, there are five afflictions or diseases: ignorance, egoism, attachment, aversion, and fear. Fear refers primarily to the fear of death, but this can also be viewed as fear of failure.

I bring this up because my students appear to be afraid to draw. I have experienced this fear myself. Even though very little is at stake, a blank sheet of paper can still be quite intimidating. But it is critical to overcome a fear and make things. Recall that the paper is not blank; it is already loaded with the ideas of the project. The paper is loaded with your own personal history. The paper is merely a vehicle. Recall that a drawing is not an end, but a part of a continuum. Sometimes you get it right, sometimes you make an awful mess. Sometimes it is from the messes that we learn the most. There is a fear that the hand is inadequate, that ugly drawings are going to be made. The drawing is not so much about the hand as it is about the mind. The drawing is merely a means for expressing ideas. The lines drawn are a notation. Once the idea forms, the drawing can start to take over. Apply experience to deepen the drawing. A drawing can almost always be saved, but it takes effort of the mind. A bad drawing is usually about a lack of depth of thinking, rather than a poor hand.

As a parting image, I include this drawing by John Hejduk. Hejduk had an awful hand. I get the sense that he held his pen like a 4 year old in his fist, point down. He certainly doesn’t have the elegance of Lebbeus Woods, or, referencing the current exhibit at MoMA, Henri Labrouste. But Hejduk’s work is not about the finesse of the drawing, but about the ideas they contain. To that end, his drawings are phenomenally successful – he has created an entire world.


hejduk-subject object 01

John Hejduk – Subject/Object


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Decoding the Review – mid Spring 2013

This review went pretty well for most. Of course I have the usual to say: some aren’t working as hard as they should be. But that is always the case (both that I will always want more, and that some will always not produce to their capability). Being able to focus like this is a luxury.

One big theme from the two days is that the “big view” was missing from most presentations. A single comprehensive view of the project in the site was needed. This can take many forms: physical model, digital model, hand-drawn perspectives or axonometrics. Anything that gives a sense of the totality of the project. The nature of the artifact is dependent upon the nature of each student’s investigation. It was difficult to read from the drawings presented, the overall form of the intervention into the site. There were some nice drawings, some were fantastic, but ultimately frustrating because it was difficult to assemble the project in our heads. This is why physical models still get so much attention in reviews – they are the easiest representation to understand the complexity of relationships.

The other theme has to be about the narrative of the project. Sometimes this is luck. The projects with the better confluence of ideas got the better reviews. They were easier to engage because there was a symmetry of the parts. When your project is sited on a former landfill turned into a vast public park, and you combine these elements into buildings built of trash and recycled materials, combined with a landscape that thinks of the changing seasons, this is a strong narrative. What makes it especially so is that it combines the narrative aspect, with the performance aspect. Thus the idea of the materials becomes a challenge for the building enclosure.


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Kids These Days

I was at the Center for Architecture in New York today. They had an exhibit of models made by kids. They were clearly controlled by the adults organizing the work, but there was a freshness and directness not seen among most of the college students with whom I work. The kids have no fears, whereas the college students seem to develop all kinds of hang ups that prevent them from just getting the ideas out. I especially like Fish Lake, which is shaped like a fish. Goofy, yes, but joyfully so. These things get the ideas across quickly and effectively. I like a nicely crafted final model as much as the next person, but for development, give me stuff like this!


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Decoding the Review – Fall 2012 final

I was rather appalled that all students were not there for there for their colleagues reviews. This is unacceptable. Do I really have to take role, and grade on attendance at reviews? This is disrespectful to your peers, disrespectful to the jury (who, for the most part, came in and stayed for the full time – which is more than can be said for many of the students), and disrespectful to me.

At mid-term, most students used a digital presentation format. The narratives were generally to-the-point, and flowed well. This format was universally eschewed in the final, for whatever reason. Is it only because I did not demand it? I sometimes feel that there is no learning happening, that skills developed drop so easily away. I did require students to pin-up their semester’s work, but I asked that they only describe the pertinent information and their most recent scheme. This, too, in many cases, was ignored. For some reason, many of you reverted to the lowest form of presentation: “first I did this, then I did this, then I did this…”

There is a book called The Checklist Manifesto. The contemporary world is a very complicated place, and the author posits that the simple devise of the checklist is a way to manage complex and complicated situations. I dread the thought that a checklist must be issued to students, but perhaps I am just denying the reality – that comprehensive design is highly complicated, with many interdependent parts, and 11 NAAB student performance criteria.


1. Limit your presentation to 5 minutes.

2. Run through your presentation ahead of time to make sure it runs in that amount of time.

3. All arguments need to be supported by diagrams, drawings, models, etc.

4. Do a digital presentation, but have copies of the drawings on the wall as well.

This was a rough review for some. Unfortunately, often the bad review stems not from what was done, but what was said (it doesn’t help when the work isn’t all there either, though).

Following the review, a big question needs to be asked again: what do you want to achieve this year? How can your project support your vision of architecture? (Often this is asked in relation to your career, I think this is thinking too small – think in more global terms about where architecture needs to go, and how your project supports that vision.)

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Decoding the Review – mid-Fall 2012

A number of themes emerged during the review. Designing for climate change was one – a lot of buildings on the water’s edge. There were a significant number of projects that were using existing buildings as the site. With existing buildings it is really important to faithfully understand the fabric of that building. If you don’t have some love and respect for the existing building, you might as well wipe it out and start with your own building.

As for the decoding…

A lot of “air time” was devoted to site analysis. Site analysis is an essential part of the process, but unless it has pushed you towards a deeper understanding of your proposed scheme, it doesn’t warrant a great deal of discussion.

Often the schemes were a myriad variations on a single idea. It is important to refine your ideas, and to try many versions to do so. This is what is in evidence in the earlier post on the 35 Schemes. But at the outset, it is more important to try wildly different ideas, even if they seem silly at first. Don’t be seduced by first ideas. They may turn out to be correct, but you still need to challenge your assumptions.

I have long asked my students to talk to their drawings. I love the abstract beauty of first year investigations, and of work like Raimund Abraham and Walter Pichler and Friedensreich Hundertwasser, where the drawing is everything. This is much the way I was trained. But sometimes it is clearer to use words, especially for yourself to help to better understand your intention.

A lot of self-editing was in evidence. A good deal of work has been done so far this semester, but it was not all of it was on the wall. This kind of a review is one in which that history should be shared – good, bad, or indifferent. Everything need not be buttoned-up tight. In my section in particular, I encouraged the use of a digital presentation. This is buttoned-up, but that is more an issue of telling the story efficiently. In the digital presentation you should and must edit. Organize your wall to highlight your latest thinking, but include the rest. You need not talk about every evolution of your thinking, just what the main ideas are.

Relative to the self-editing, is the design of the presentation. Though the intent on this presentation was kind of to bare all, you still need to guide the discussion through what importance you place on various artifacts. If you have a single rendering that is 24×36, while most of the rest of your presentation is 11×17, it might be assumed that that image carries a lot of weight in what you thinking about.

Finally, sometimes you have to commit yourself completely to developing an idea, and devote time and energy to describing it, even if you are unsure of it, even if it might get shot down. There is nothing lost. Each time through you understand the problem a little better. Each time you discover something new, both positive and negative.

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Shahira Hammad

I recently came across this proposal for the Westbahnhof train station in Vienna by Shahira Hammad. I was oddly taken by it’s Gaudi-esque/Alien-esque appearance. It follows an idea, however, and creates a strong mood. She’s quite young it seems, but has developed a clear language already. I’m curious who she has studied with, and what the influence might be. This is also difficult to discuss in relation to comprehensive design. There is no clear notion of how this might be made, what the actual enclosure is. But I will say, if I have students coming up with ideas such as this, I wouldn’t shut them down.

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Education and Practice

A complaint about schools of architecture crops up on the regular basis: the schools aren’t preparing graduates for the profession. I have long maintained that this is not the goal of education, though contemporary conventional economic theory would argue vociferously with me about that. To the professionals I like to point out that the Intern Development Program (with its minimum of three years of experience required post-graduation) was created to complete the work of educating an architect, and preparing her/him for the rigors of professional practice.

That all said, when I look at the practice today, especially in regard to green building, the level of numeracy and precision required is at odds with much of the focus of the education. This is painstaking and exacting and at times mind-numbing work, but it needs to be done. This kind of work seems to be very much at odds with the manner in which we educate students. I fully believe in a creative life, and that all people have a potential for self-actualization (well, most – there are some politicians, however…). But what if creativity is different for different people? The word “create” comes from Latin, and means simply to “make.” The idea of creativity has come to mean imaginative, inventive. Can we look at this desire to make in different ways? Can this not play out in normative ways, as well as the “inventive?” There are different types of students, and they develop into different types of practitioners. Some students need little direction. They are like asteroids hurtling through space with terrific momentum, and only need nudging to keep them from bumping into things. Others are excellent students, but require more direction and input. They may be less creative, but they are diligent. Our contemporary schools typically have one education path for the architect. This is especially the case with the undergraduate programs. Grad schools, on the other hand, are much better about greater program diversity giving more options for different personalities. However, many of these programs do not necessarily offer a career path to being an architect. Harvard has eight different courses of study for its master of design studies, but only one course of study for it’s master of architecture program – it’s path to licensure.

Large architecture firms typically have at least three different divisions: design, management, and technology. It would be worth our while to examine this condition, and begin to adapt our degree programs to acknowledge these different ways that individuals think and practice, without necessarily compromising our goals of higher order thinking.

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A Building in Order of its Permanence

In How Buildings Learn, Stewart Brand made a diagram that holds pretty true, at least as far as most modern and contemporary buildings are concerned.

A building in order of its permanence, from: Stewart Brand, How Buildings Learn.

In terms of teaching comprehensive design, I have found this diagram to be quite useful in breaking down the huge number of tasks required into a series of manageable chunks. I don’t always use these – in fact I have conceived my own series. I start with site/siting/scenario. How do we deal with the site? I break this up into an analysis that deals with the two primary classes of site factors: physical and cultural. In the studio this amounts to the massing and orientations of the building. But it begins to extend into internal logic as well, and how that internal logic interacts with the forces of the site. Needless to say, this sets the frame for the rest of the work. It also, given the general limit of a semester to accomplish a great deal of work, gets cut off prematurely. This is regrettable. In an ideal world, we would continue to the next task when the appropriate level of completion has been reached. On the other hand, if we waited for all schematic issues to be resolved, students might never get the opportunity to engage with the full range of integration.

Following site comes structure. I ask them to resolve this as a three-dimensional model, typically in the computer. Too often I see column grids thrown down, but on further inspection they do not have a relation to the section. Structure is generally quite straightforward. I talk about coherent systems. Occasionally I get a student who really pushes the envelope, and that is fun.

Skin in contemporary buildings is usually divorced from structure. We look at materials from a performance viewpoint, and a cultural/aesthetic viewpoint. The skin in a contemporary building is a complicated system of enclosure, most importantly acting as a conservative and selective mediator of the environment, but at times also a regenerative (as per Banham). It is the single most important building system for reducing energy consumption and maintaining comfort. It is also the cultural face of the construction, and as such it is the conveyor of meaning. Negotiating between those factors of performance and aesthetics is a sweet agony.

The aspect that gets the least amount of play is services. That is because they are so little known, but also because they are still and ignoble art. Even though they gobble-up vast chunks of the architect’s budget, they are still largely considered an afterthought. Especially in schools students are rarely asked to consider these systems outside of their building systems classes. Here we are, 33 years following Reyner Banham’s The Architecture of the Well-tempered Environment, and the great divorce between building aesthetics and building systems continues, at least in the schools. That gulf is diminishing in the profession, due to climate change and the rigors of high-performance buildings. But this can be fun. How does water drain from a roof? Through some piece of pipe? Or could it channel into a stream that jets off of the building into a fountain below? How does the sun enter the building? What does cooling look like? How can we engage those things that provide for our physical comfort in an inventive architectural manner?

Brand’s penultimate category is space plan. To me, that is the least interesting. Students can get wrapped up into massaging this forever. I typically call this stage (Public) Space or Circulation (I know it is a “C,” but it is an “S” sound). Rather than get entangled into the intricacies of space planning, I focus instead on those areas most accessed by the public, and try to give them quality and resolution. This stage engages the students with how the user accesses and moves through the building, how interior relates to exterior, and what the form and function of the landscape is.

The final category in my taxonomy is synthesis. This is the time for reassessment and the tying-up of loose ends. This is also the production phase, in which the student is to figure out how best to tell her/his story.

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