Over the last 2 weeks we’ve looked at the looming crisis in architecture schools, particularly design studio. We looked at the financial pressures: underfunded, understaffed and overpopulated.
Then we sought a definition of architecture, (purposeful space built in a specific place) by which we could steer a review of the curriculum. And that is this week’s content, by way of eight C’S.
All architectural projects have a ‘purpose’, and all are initiated by a client. The client may be the end user, such as a family home; or may represent multiple users (such as an office or school); or be briefing on behalf of public users (a civic or sports building). In all cases the client is the starting point and essential reference for every building, and yet in design studio you almost never meet a client.
Rather, the program and brief are written by a tutor or teacher who also critiques the work, blurring the two distinct roles of client and mentor. This confuses students: is the critique based on a client’s desire to see the design meet the brief; or is it advice from an architectural guide? By removing the reality of a client, who may be very difficult, the student sees all questions as one of opinion and aesthetics, not function and practicality.
Most graduates from architecture school have never encountered a real ‘client’ and thus have no idea of how to work with a client, in particular how to deal with criticism. Based on their studio experience they expect a ‘patron’, someone to support the architect’s vision, rather than be an agent to the client’s needs. Hence architects’ reputation as abstract dreamers, not able to deal with a real brief, or life's idiosyncratic conditions in the real world.
Clients come in all forms. Increasingly we see governments, corporations and not-for-profits engage architects to prepare their briefs, as it's a particular skill. They then require architects to respond with a ‘return brief’. Both are activities that are rarely broached in a design studio, yet they are definite signposts to the future role of architects.
On day one of a design studio, students are often introduced to a project through the ‘site’. This dominates their early thinking, to the exclusion of the client, because it’s real, you can visit it, it is an exact entity. Assuming of course, that the teacher chooses a real site with all of its constraints; frustratingly it can also be totally abstract: e.g. ‘house at the corner’.
But the issues are far wider than the immediate site: beyond the physicality of the immediate to the surrounding ‘situation’ as we discussed last week. We are better served by the word ‘country’, as the Indigenous use it, and of rising in importance in Australia. We should embrace the idea of country as the entire physical and the spiritual nature of a ‘place’.
Students learn early to undertake ‘site analysis’, no matter that it is usually superficial, and this is the driver that makes so many architectural projects in design studio far more redolent of the site constraints and the ideas than they are of ideas derived from the client.
A vital part of ‘country’ is ‘climate’, top of mind when it’s twinned with ‘change’. It's crucial to understanding how buildings can respond to their environment on a diurnal and seasonal basis. It is a hallmark of Australian regional architecture: think of the ‘Queenslander’, ‘Tassie Georgian’ or ‘Darwin tropical’.
Too often however the idea of climatic response is relegated off to architectural science and its trio of heat, light and sound, rather than being deeply integrated into an understanding of the design response to ‘country. In response to climate change research passive and active design have recently morphed into ‘hybrids’ and ‘high-performance design’, and need more attention in studio, not just in class.
Far and away the largest amount of time in design studio is spent on composition: form making, creating the object and, to a lesser extent, the spaces within. This emphasis on composition has a lot to do with its unchallenged subjectivity, making it easy for opinionated teaching. But this obsession tends to crowd out other aspects that are equally important.
Design studio needs to teach architects how to build a case for a solution based on the irreconcilable demands of the social and the physical aspects of a project, without recourse to rhetoric. Otherwise we get a few shiny pearls of ‘Res Publica’ in amongst a sea of mediocre ‘Res economica civitas’ as Leon Krier divided the city.
We have an excess of composition crowding out good analysis. Without that rigour it becomes aesthetic athleticism, conjured verbiage instead of a deep critique built on evidence. Studio spends the largest amount of time on the flimsiest of activities, one that entertains, but never nourishes.
All architectural work, short of a small home, is collaboration. It is between architects, but moreover it is between architects and a myriad of consultants (landscape, heritage, engineering, compliance, QS, and so on). Design is rarely done individually, even if that is the lasting impression of the websites glorifying ‘starchitects’ (I’m looking at you ArchDaily).
Cooperation and collaboration are key skills to learn in the 21st C. Yet almost all architecture studios place the emphasis on the individual, rarely is collaboration fostered within a studio project. No wonder so many graduates burst out of architecture school with an enormous ego about their own design skills, to the exclusion of all others.
An example: some seven years ago an innovative course was initiated at UNSW, involving students from five disciplines in several faculties, in order to encourage both collaboration and an understanding of the breadth of sustainability. Based entirely on ‘group work’, it was initially funded by a grant from the NSW government to break down the silos of tertiary teaching. A visiting architecture accreditation panel three years later decided that this was far too much group work, and architects had to be withdrawn from the course.
The accreditation panel, in part representing the profession, did a disservice to the education of those students, denying them a dynamic group experience just at the time the university had developed sophisticated systems to assess individual contributions in group work. Taking us back to an emphasis on the singular ego, at a time when cooperative work is peaking.
One of the key aspects of the proposal to have an arts / science degree as the first part of an architect's education (see here) is to give them a more broad-based understanding of culture generally. And then to build on that with a more detailed understanding of architectural culture.
And by architectural culture I don’t mean the unsustainable continuum of all-nighters, late submissions and sleeping through presentations, a poisoness introduction to unsafe work processes masquerading as an initiation ceremony. Learning plummets with tiredness, why enforce it with bad timetabling? It only encourages bad management practices on graduation.
In addition, the web has given students access to worldwide architecture without encouraging them to see the city right at their doorstep. Students know more about Milan than Melbourne, more about Stockholm than Sydney.
The culture we want to analyse and learn from is the architecture that evolves in a particular city. Students must be encouraged to read the general culture and the architecture of their city from guided tours. The recipe: one third of time in studio; one third of time studying real cities and buildings; and one third of time reading (not looking).
Architects are at the beginning of a process that will lead eventually, through expenditure of time and money, to a built work. That built space is the end aim, not the digital image at the start. So, architects must have command of that whole process. And that means a knowledge of construction.
It’s an eternal common complaint that graduates know too little about how buildings are built. This is understandable given the limitations of studio, but it can be addressed in two ways: firstly, the designs in studio should not be seen as an end in themselves, as exquisite entities, but rather critiqued as a draft for built work.
And secondly, students need to address their lack of knowledge by visiting built buildings as well as sites under construction, and by studying the processes of sophisticated contractors. By that they become inquisitive and humble enough to embark on a lifetime of learning about construction methods, materials and costs. Which begs the last question, how to learn about costs?
The costs of construction take us full circle back to the start: the client’s brief usually has a budget. But this is never mentioned at the beginning of a design studio, so there is no criterium to check at the end, and students are never asked to address the costs of their design. Students will remain clueless about building costs until a full brief, with detailed criteria, is established at the beginning, and then checked at the end.
Costing is devilishly difficult; a thousand tanked tenders can attest to that. But students must know the rudimentary rules of a builder’s costings if they are to have any hope of keeping up with their QS consultant in the real, financially cruel, world.
In conclusion, a common stereotype of an architect is one who is ego driven, doesn't listen to the client, is ignorant of the culture and climate, doesn't understand construction or costs. It's an appalling trope, but it's one that's being reinforced every day in design studio.
We can address these criticisms by developing a more rigorous design process, which is the subject of next week's column, our final on architectural education.
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].