Tag Archives: architectural education


I’ve been struggling with how to get at the teaching of environmental issues in the studio. What I am coming to recognize is that it is not an issue of understanding some technology, but a more fundamental understanding of and appreciation for the way natural systems work, and how buildings can manipulate or be manipulated by those systems.

So, how do we get at this, yet retain the poetry of our formal investigations? After all, this is how we were raised as architects, dedicated to formal and spatial preoccupations.

My answer is language. Change the focus of the investigation. I have questioned language in the studio for many years, in one form or another. Usually I question culturally loaded words, and ask to challenge the received meaning. Words like window and door are dangerous, especially today in the world of Revit, where they are lazy blocks or families, casually inserted. Instead, use a more ambiguous term like aperture, and begin to describe the qualities desired.

So, too, with engaging natural systems. The goals of poetic form are there, but in the service of engaging the natural world. The focus changes, but the development of architectural language proceeds. Issues of spatial sequencing, tectonic language, scale, hierarchy, rhythm, linear, planar, volumetric, all this continues unabated.

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First Year

In reviewing the work of advanced architecture students this past week,  their ability to make form, and to apply new tools of representation to describe those forms, is quite impressive. What is troubling, however, is a lack of engagement with natural systems. They become very inventive with structure and skin when pressed, but the level of understanding and invention with natural forces is not natural to them. There is no fundamental comprehension. There is a primarily a preoccupation with contemporary stylistic devices. The schism between structure and comfort that Reyner Banham identified in 1969 is present today. I am as guilty as the next person in this – typically there is little such discussion in the studios. But it goes well beyond the design studio and dwells deep within culture. There is a lack of a direct engagement with the world. When it is hot, we put on the AC. Most Americans move from air conditioned cars to air conditioned buildings. Electricity comes from a socket in the wall, water disappears into a pipe. Americans spend some 95% of their lives indoors.

So, how do we shift this matrix?

To get to a carbon neutral world, many  believe it is an issue of deploying the appropriate technology. The work being done by the Society for Building Science Educators (SBSE) is admirable. Learning the appropriate tools of analysis and design are critical to solving the climate issue as it pertains to buildings. But the technology needs to be preceded by a deeper cultural appreciation, and perhaps even a level of play. And it needs to happen earlier in a student’s education.

Most first year pedagogy involves tectonics, narrative, spatial sequencing, and ways of building skills in architectural representation. We need these skills – no doubt. So what I want to question is are these skills an end to themselves, or are they in service of a larger idea? Could that large idea be a focus on how architecture reveals the natural forces? Could we examine how architecture both shapes and is shaped by natural forces?

One semester teaching first year at Pratt many years ago, we did a project called “container space.” It was meant to be a container for air, earth and water. My colleagues chose to treat this metaphorically; I chose to treat it literally. The students were required to make containers that engaged these elements. Thus had to hold water and earth. I feel that this project holds a germ of an idea that could point the way forward. They looked hard at the properties of the material and how they interacted. One student made a floating array of volumes held down by a brick. The floating volumes were cubic, with the bottom face omitted trapping air. The brick was earth. By adding and removing air from the volumes (by blowing or sucking air through a straw), he got it to float level. Another student had water suspended in air, with an open pool at the base. The vacuum properties of air held the water in place. A third student froze water and earth together. As the ice melted, it deposited earth in a random manner, much like a glacier. Thus he incorporated the element of time as well.

Air in the volumes of the column produces buoyancy, held in check by the brick.

Water is open to the air at the bottom – the “foot” – while water is suspended in the topmost volume by the force of a vacuum.

Glaciation – sand was frozen with water in a sheet suspended over the top of the project. The melt resulted in glacial deposits across the interior space.

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Psychomotor Domain

In general, I think that we as teachers of architecture probably need to gain a better understanding of the processes of learning. I am a novice and an admitted lightweight in this arena, but I have been thinking a lot about it. I was introduced to Bloom’s taxonomy a couple of years ago by my dear friend, Jassen Callender.

I have been interested in the psychomotor domain of learning as it relates to learning about issues of sustainability/environmental engagement. I came across several systems, and I am trying to assess which one fits best within architectural education. Probably the most widely accepted is E.J. Simpson’s taxonomy. It is easy to see why. It goes beyond the development of a child’s skills, or the pure mechanistic response of reflex into the psychomotor contribution to learning. Simpson’s clearly stands out, because observation/perception is probably at the root to our understanding of the physical world. What is also interesting is that Simpson’s taxonomy acknowledges the fact that the cognitive and affective domains cannot be separated from the psychomotor, and incorporates that indivisibility in the set category.

I ask the question of my colleagues: how can we instill a body understanding of natural forces? I suppose part of the answer to that question is that students need to live some, for that aids perception. Coming close to drowning fighting one’s way out of a rip current, chopping wood, picking strawberries, these are life experiences that shape our perception of the natural world. Can we shape an understanding of the physical world? Can we construct a pedagogy of engagement that moves between the concrete and the abstract.

E. J. Simpson’s taxonomy:

Perception: The ability to use sensory cues to guide motor activity.  This ranges from sensory stimulation, through cue selection, to translation.

Set: Readiness to act. It includes mental, physical, and emotional sets. These three sets are dispositions that predetermine a person’s response to different situations (sometimes called mindsets).

Guided Response: The early stages in learning a complex skill that includes imitation and trial and error. Adequacy of performance is achieved by practicing.

Mechanism: This is the intermediate stage in learning a complex skill. Learned responses have become habitual and the movements can be performed with some confidence and proficiency.

Complex Overt Response: The skillful performance of motor acts that involve complex movement patterns. Proficiency is indicated by a quick, accurate, and highly coordinated performance, requiring a minimum of energy. This category includes performing without hesitation, and automatic performance. For example, players often utter sounds of satisfaction or expletives as soon as they hit a tennis ball or throw a football, because they can tell by the feel of the act what the result will produce.

Adaptation: Skills are well developed and the individual can modify movement patterns to fit special requirements.

Origination: Creating new movement patterns to fit a particular situation or specific problem. Learning outcomes emphasize creativity based upon highly developed skills.

R.H. Dave: this appears to nicely describe the act of acquiring a physical skill, like throwing a baseball or drawing.

Imitation — Observing and patterning behavior after someone else. Performance may be of low quality. Example: Copying a work of art.

Manipulation — Being able to perform certain actions by following instructions and practicing. Example: Creating work on one’s own, after taking lessons, or reading about it.
Precision — Refining, becoming more exact. Few errors are apparent. Example: Working and reworking something, so it will be “just right.”

Articulation — Coordinating a series of actions, achieving harmony and internal consistency. Example: Producing a video that involves music, drama, color, sound, etc.

Naturalization — Having high level performance become natural, without needing to think much about it. Examples: Michael Jordan playing basketball, Nancy Lopez hitting a golf ball, etc.

A.J. Harrow: this also describes the acquisition of skills, however, I like the final category: non-discursive skills. For artists, this category where the physical gains a level of communication is fundamental.

Reflex movements — Reflex movements are actions elicited without learning in response to some stimuli. Examples include: flexion, extension, stretch, postural adjustments.

Basic fundamental movements — Basic fundamental movements are inherent movement patterns which are formed by combining of reflex movements and are the basis for complex skilled movements. Examples are: walking, running, pushing, twisting, gripping, grasping, manipulating.

Perceptual — Perceptual refers to interpretation of various stimuli that enable one to make adjustments to the environment. Visual, auditory, kinesthetic, or tactile discrimination. Suggests cognitive as well as psychomotor behavior. Examples include: coordinated movements such as jumping rope, punting, or catching.

Physical activities — Physical activities require endurance, strength, vigor, and agility which produces a sound, efficiently functioning body. Examples are: all activities which require a) strenuous effort for long periods of time; b) muscular exertion; c) a quick, wide range of motion at the hip joints; and d) quick, precise movements.

Skilled movements — Skilled movements are the result of the acquisition of a degree of efficiency when performing a complex task. Examples are: all skilled activities obvious in sports, recreation, and dance.

Non-discursive communication — Non-discursive communication is communication through bodily movements ranging from facial expressions through sophisticated choreographics. Examples include: body postures, gestures, and facial expressions efficiently executed in skilled dance movement and choreographics.

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Sustainability in the Curriculum at CCNY

I have joined the curriculum committee at CCNY, and have volunteered to do work on the “sustainability” curriculum. Part of my task is to review what other schools do. In reviewing the curricula for about 10 schools, it is apparent that not much difference exists between SSA and most other schools in terms of the overt curriculum. Most schools have some variation of 9-10 studios in the undergrad curriculum, 3-4 history theory courses, and usually a technology sequence of 2 structures classes, 2 materials and assemblies classes, and 2 environmental controls classes.

What becomes important lies below the surface. I contacted Alison Kwok, who is one of the most recognized green building educators, and her response was:

“Really depends on the mission of the program.
–are studios taught by ALL faculty or are studios taught by designers and are the technology people separated/included/integrated at all?
–how many tenure related faculty have technology backgrounds? (of 32 Oregon tenure related faculty , approx 1/3 are teaching ECS, structures, construction . . .)
-how many green electives are offered? (again that depends on how green is defined)
-what kind and how many galvanizing activities/programs on campus and in the department?

I guess those would be my criteria.  Critical mass is essential. Without that, change doesn’t happen, from the faculty and the student side.”

Kwok’s comments pretty much sum it up. Without the buy-in on the part of all faculty members who teach in the design studios, at least in the levels that the school determines that such teaching be the focus, this is a failed project.

So, how to achieve buy-in? The answer isn’t to bend all faculty to the will of the technological, but how to erect a scaffold for the curriculum that promotes the goals of teaching green building while at the same time allowing room for the individual design instructor to pursue her/his own agenda. A level of academic freedom is essential in a school of a creative discipline. Architecture is a hopelessly complicated discipline. Issues of form, structure, occupation, and urbanity are important pursuits. I doubt that any individual faculty member is a climate denier, or thinks that green building is a worthless pursuit. But people develop expertise in various areas, and it is counterproductive to ask that they potentially bag decades of research and teaching. These pursuits are still valid questions. So let us look at how we use our resources (i.e. faculty).

My own feelings are this. We need to rephrase the questions we ask. To quote Le Corbusier: “The airplane shows us that a problem well stated finds its solution. To wish to fly like a bird is to state the problem badly… to search for a means of suspension in the air and a means of propulsion, was to put the problem properly.” If we look at the current Sustainability Matrix, we see that the first semester first year is devoted to “Introduction to principles of form; basic craft.” The sustainability agenda is “introduction to sustainable design thinking, global warming, development projections; and history, theory, concepts, and philosophy of sustainability.” To be honest, I’m not even sure what this means. What if we changed the overall focus? Could we instead say “introduction to air, earth, light, and water?” The principles of form and basic craft could still be taught, but in service to a larger agenda. Consider light: perhaps a light pavilion, or perhaps scale-less. How to create interior and exterior space defined by ideas of light? Ask students to consider time in relation to sunlight. There are many approaches – texture, reflection, translucence, change. Other problems become dependent upon this. The goal isn’t necessarily a high performance building, but awareness, creative exploration.

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