Last week's column looked at the triple threat facing the 23 architecture schools in Australia:

·     underfunded - reductions in government money and the sudden decline in OS students, so…

·       understaffed - insufficient funds for sessional, practicing architects, so less teachers, so…

·       overpopulated - student numbers trebled, and graduates doubled, so bigger tutorial groups.

The centrepiece of architectural teaching, the design studio, has slowly been adopted into the general university as they discovered its beauty as a problem-solving teaching technique, promoting unique study that avoids plagiarism. But it stalled dead when the resource requirements for studio projects of high levels of time, energy, and staffing were exposed. Its use rapidly declined elsewhere in the university, and now it is threatened in its original home.

What should be taught in those diminished studios, and in architecture schools generally, particularly for professional training in master's programs? That is the issue for this column and the next.

First task is to define architecture. There are numerous adages over the years: ‘frozen music’; ‘the masterly, correct and magnificent play of volumes brought together in light’; ‘a dangerous mixture of omnipotence and impotence’; ‘a language that is very difficult to understand’; ‘is the art of the possible’; ‘ the starting point for anyone who wants to take humanity towards a better future’.*

All very poetic, but if we are to build a useful curriculum, we need a more pragmatic definition. Let’s start with ‘Space in Place’ and unpack that.

‘Space’ denotes use and usefulness, designed for occupation by users and participants, it has a purpose beyond its own existence, consciously intentional. Crucially architectural space is built, not a digital creation or a video game. Architecture is physical space, visual, tactile and haptic that can be palpably engaged inside and out.

‘Place’ denotes a particular location; a specific site, with physical, cultural and climatic surroundings. It is particular, not universal, in contrast to other design fields: industrial, automotive, textile, fashion, graphic, cinematic or digital.

We can make an expanded definition: “architecture is purposeful space built in a specific place”. And by architecture we mean the span of urban design, landscape and interior architecture: captured in some faculties or schools as ‘the built environment’ or ‘environmental design’.

From this definition we may deduce that an architectural design can be said to respond to three parts: purpose, place and product.

It must have a purpose. It usually has a client, private or corporate, and a brief which outlines its intended use by people: family, staff or general public. It brings forth words such as use, narrative, senses and engagement, and successful design relies heavily on an understanding of the human condition and diversity. It is a study in social sciences.

Secondly, it exists in a particular place, commonly called the site. But it is so much more: the Italians call it ‘la situazione’; sounding so much better than the prosaic English situation or circumstances. It calls for an understanding of, and response to, the physicality of the site: landform, geography, landscape, topography, geology; of the immediate surroundings: urban form, buildings and landscape, cultural and historical significance; and the surrounding forces of the climate. This is a study in the physical sciences.

Thirdly, it is built. It has to be produced and therefore it is a physical product: made. Maybe in the long tradition of craft assembling small individual pieces; maybe in the current approach of assembling large parts on site; or the incipient industry of factory manufacture of part or whole buildings. All those are about production, about materiality and construction, and the management of trades and costs. This is a study in engineering and economics.

Architecture cannot exist without those three conditions: purpose, place and product. A combination of any two of those conditions gives rise to something to be taught in a design, science or art school, but you need all three for architecture. This diagram shows architecture at the heart of the three overlapping requirements, quite often contained within a school that has many other design disciplines.

Last week's column looked at the triple threat facing the 23 architecture schools in Australia.

If you have purpose and product (but no place) then it is ‘design’ without specific location: consumer products, vehicles, graphics, theatre and cinema or web design.  An idea is briefed; the starting point for all design is that it seeks to solve a problem; here for something that can be used in multiple different locations.

If you have purpose and place (but no product) then it is land use: environmental land management, farming, ecological restoration or national park, no lesser an academic area of professionalism that needs design, but not architecture.

If you have a product and place (but no briefed purpose for space) then you have art, particularly sculpture. Art originates with the artist, maybe with a patron (quite different to a client), certainly there is design and materiality, and public engagement, but is neither design process nor is the result architecture.

Architecture is unique in bringing together three aspects of academia: the social sciences for understanding users, the physical sciences to interpret the site, and the arithmetic sciences for construction. It is very difficult for a student to comprehend that span, and architecture schools struggle to provide that wide range of study.

Too often a school’s response to these teaching difficulties is to constrain the design project: to eliminate the client, even the users, to choose an arcadian site, simplified away from urban difficulties, to rarely ask for construction details and never discuss costs. The school compensates for the inadequacies of curriculum teaching by dumbing down the design projects.

The solution: architecture schools (and all professions) should get out of undergraduate degrees altogether, but rather offer some courses to university-wide undergraduate students interested in design. The schools would only take graduates with three (or more) years of science and arts study into a 2 or 3-year Master of Architecture.

It’s a common approach in the US: students inexperienced in life get a generalist college education before starting a professional degree in medicine, dentistry law, etc. Some universities here have swapped to this approach, particularly for medicine. And the University of Melbourne has commenced a 3-year architecture masters along these lines. In a John Wardle-designed building. Win-Win.

What should be the basis for a masters’ design studio that has a broadly educated undergraduate entering? That’s for next week, but let me forecast the 8 C’s: Clients, Culture, Country, Climate, Construction, Costs, Collaboration and Composition. And a curriculum of 6 P’s: Purpose, Place, Proposition, Principles, Patterns and Precedent.

Students would learn to design architecture: purposeful spaces built in a specific place. Beauty desired, always included.


* by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Le Corbusier (twice), Rem Koolhaus, Paul Rudolph and Carlo Scarpa.

Tone Wheeler is principal architect at Environa Studio, Adjunct Professor at UNSW and is President of the Australian Architecture Association. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and are not held or endorsed by A+D, the AAA or UNSW. Comments can be addressed to [email protected].