Having been recently critical of the many shortcomings of teaching in architectural design studio, this, the last article of four, focuses on a positive design process.

Key to this exposition is a workable definition of architecture, defined here as ‘purposeful space built in a particular place’, and a three part agenda of project, pedagogy and process.

This is a diagram of those parts that needs a little explaining:


As we discussed over the last two weeks, every architectural project has two particular beginning conditions: purpose and place.

Purpose is often conveyed in a brief by a client, but is better defined by ‘use’ and ‘users’ who will find purpose within the spaces. Drawing heavily on the social sciences, students should be encouraged into primary consideration of an understanding of people, the particular and the public, and the wide diversity of society’s desires and needs. No designer should be content until they grasp the content.

Place, the other project definer, entails much more than ‘site’; rather it is the entire ‘situation’, encompassing the physical locality, the cultural surroundings, and the driving micro-micro-climate. Students should learn to respect its particularities; how to make a detailed site analysis, informative so as to be shape shifting, much more than an end in itself. Can we start to see place as the indigenous see ‘country’: the full spectrum of the practical to the spiritual?


Architectural designers draw on pedagogical studies in three areas; universal ideas for a particular project.

Patterns, a name drawn from ‘A Pattern Language’, a 1977 revolutionary text by Christopher Alexander and others, based on eight years intensive research at UC Berkeley. Alexander, a mathematician, and his team sought a rigorous analysis of the relationship between built form and human behaviour and sensibility. The ‘patterns’ they discerned describe fundamental design considerations: how people experience, understand, navigate, and use a building. It is essential for students to develop a personal catalogue of possible relationships between built form and use.

Principles focus on building physics: typologies of structures, construction and materials; the interior architectural sciences of heat, light, and sound, and their relationship to climatic factors. These are the physical sciences that are inimical to an understanding of sustainability.

Precedent is more than an understanding of history; it is an appreciation of all buildings, their composition and style. Seeing plan and section, reading to understand space. Teachers should clamp a new set of eyes on every student so they can ‘read’ a building, a street, a city; to see the physical world in its relationship to its social and historical context; to understand how precedents lead to the evolution of building.


Proposition is at the centre of the design process. The word choice is key. The designer makes a proposal for a solution in built form. The proposition is a hypothesis: a testable idea or concept that a certain arrangement of spaces, expressed in plan and section, will meet the purpose required in that particular place.

This ‘proposition’ comes out of a combination of the two areas outlined above: a deep understanding of architectural ideas (from a pedagogical study of the subject), brought to bear on the project’s particularly defined purpose and place. In this process criteria are established in the project’s beginnings that are contestable within the proposition as it evolves. It seeks a measurable solution, much more than ‘subjective satisfaction’.

It is sometimes referred to as a ‘hermeneutic method’, a form of looped scientific and artistic inquiries into social and physical aspects, often seen as irreconcilable or oxymoronic, in order to find a particular concept or idea that can draw the various parts together and make a singular proposal, or ‘proposition’.

Design process generally has been the subject of many studies, often seeking ‘universal truths’, applicable in all design fields, but as discussed here, I maintain that architectural design (for buildings, urban design and landscape) is a particular process, differentially defined by its input parameters, guided by a particular pedagogy of the social and physical sciences, to a testable resolution.

This design process is the opposite of the current obsession with ‘composition’, a current cancer in architecture schools’ design studios. To that extent it is also the opposite of the Bauhaus teaching, which stressed the universality of design through craft. This inevitably led to the fetishisation of form, and the rise of the ‘decorated diagram’ as described by Klaus Herdeg and discussed here.

Composition is not the centrepiece of architecture, far from it, but its pervasiveness in academia and the digital world has given it undue prominence. We must push back against the rising fashion of glib ‘theatre sets’ in seemingly ‘video game’ environments, that fill so many websites, and sadly cities. Gaudy ‘blobotecture’, and its VR handmaidens, should never had its day.

Real architecture will continue to be ‘purposeful spaces in particular places’, paying due heed to purpose and place, as we make people-oriented cities and towns.

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, especially welcomed from the 20 years of students that endured Purpose+Place+Proposition, can be addressed to [email protected].