Last week’s column outlined a city plan at the heart of a radically different approach to the start of architecture studies. Instead of a series of ‘design exercises’, this first semester has students looking at the design of a whole city, then a building within that city and finally a room within that building. And that city was called ‘Opus Musivum’ or OM, Latin for ‘mosaic work’.
The usual way
Most architecture courses start with small design composition problems, based on the teachings of the Bauhaus, but this approach has also been widely criticised, notably as promoting the idea of ‘the decorated diagram’ in the book of the same name by Klaus Herdeg, discussed in A+D here.
Traditional Bauhaus teaching concentrates on issues of composition and form in isolation; but design should never be reduced down to compositional elements of colour, form, assemblage, collage and the like. This treats design in terms of formulas without reference to the brief and the site, the context in which that design takes place.
That context, described as purpose and place, is discussed in this column, and this philosophy forms the basis for the OM program as a complete antithesis of the Bauhaus idea of ‘designer-maker’. Unlike Bauhaus teaching which stresses the creativity of the individual designer, the OM project emphasises collaboration across disciplines, and the complexities of social and environmental issues.
The Opus Musivum program
OM is an introductory program to design in the built environment professions of Architecture, Urban Design and Planning, Landscape and Interior Design. The program gives students an insight to the complexities, dynamics and inter-relations of these professions by emphasising social and environmental issues, and the difficulties in resolving a ‘compositional solution’.
The program starts with a mythical city (last week’s puzzle) which forms the basis for the first third of the semester: a study of city making. Secondly, a building is selected within the city for study, and a design developed based on a refined brief. The last third looks in some detail at the design of one room within that building.
In each part, purpose and place are shown to be paramount at the beginning of the design process. Purpose is introduced as the human usage of space, showing how an understanding that use, function and spatial perception lead to the idea that all built environment design should be about inhabitation. Place raises issues of site, surroundings, topography, landscape and climate: the Italian ‘Situazione’.
Students are introduced to the idea of precedent, patterns and principles which impinge upon design, including typologies, morphologies and usage patterns similar to those established by Christopher Alexander et al, and compositional elements such as those promoted by Leon Krier.
Over a period of fifteen weeks OM offers a chance for students to see the issues in urban design and urban planning, architecture and landscape, and interiors, furniture and product design. It’s an introduction only, a survey of a vast field, but it pays respect to the students’ inquisitiveness about the breadth of the fields of study that await them. Here is a summary of the exercises that run the program.
Exercise 1: Deciphering the city plan of OM
Students are initially divided in tutorial groups, and each group is asked to decipher the OM story to uncover the city plan: a first indication that group work is integral to design. It takes most groups the better part of morning or afternoon to deconstruct the narrative, so it’s understandable if you baulked at the cryptic copy last week.
The clues included an eight-by-eight block plan based on a chess board (King, Queen Bishop etc.) into which Axel walks the angled axis (as axles do) and Ingrid walks as her name suggests, in the grid. Flat Irons are created wherever streets veer off at angles (Broadways in Sydney or New York, or as Melbourne’s two main grid collide). It is not real, but calls up lots of possibilities, as Italo Calvino's book Invisible Cities does more beautifully.
Students are encouraged to try many ways to solve this problem: breaking into small groups, pooling and bouncing ideas, and discussing all possibilities, until they can deduce the plan of the city, its precincts and almost every building within it. They are asked to draw it at scale (blocks 60m x 60m, streets 15m) and discuss the precincts they can see in the city and what they think it might be like to live there.
Each group presents their version and is encouraged to contribute to the general discussion. The exercise encourages participation on ideas and possibilities, not ‘correct answers’, and explores the relationship between intuitive (creative) and deductive (analytical) thinking in problem solving.
Exercise 2: Building OM – version 1
Having established an OM plan each student ‘wins’ one city block from a lottery, and that block / building has to made as a 1:200 model for the next week. There is only a one-word brief, which creates intentional frustration so as to encourage a demand for information, a brief, against which to design. Students are encouraged to focus on form and ideas rather than internal planning, again to help them realise the usefulness of the brief.
Exercise 3: Assembling the city
Students make models from cardboard, foam, waste materials or anything to hand, a chance to give form to their conscious or hidden ideas of how architecture should look in a city. Combining everyone’s model creates a whole city (using an atrium space at Sydney University that seemed made for the cause), like this one from 1991.
This exercise introduces the interrelationship of urban design and architecture. It allows students explore the issues of how a building should work within a city. On the one hand students are excited about the scale of their endeavour, on the other the city is a complete disaster, a shemozzle where most students believe their building is successful, but the city as a whole is an unlivable mess. And then some think it better than the city they live in, which may well be the case.
Exercise 4: Planning codes for OM
The question of how to improve urban space is introduced and the of idea of some controls for a better outcome proposed. Students are asked to consolidate their criticism of OM 1, and to undertake some studies of existing cities to formulate a set of design codes for a better OM 2.
As a tutorial group students prepare a set of OM ‘City Design Controls’ for one the 6 or 8 precincts. These controls can be a list of aims and objectives, performance standards, guidelines or proscriptive controls. The aim is to reinforce the good aspects and avoid the deficiencies. Easier said than done as arguments break out, and the problematic issues with planning codes are exposed.
Students prepare a planning document to set out guidelines for their area, presented in two ways: a graphic set of wall sheets and as a single, double-sided A3 document distributed to the year. Each contains all the controls and the reasons for them and are verbally presented to the year.
Exercise 5: Building OM – version 2
Students know that as a group they will make a district for OM 2, assuming that they will use their own controls. But the guidelines are swapped between tutorial groups. Whatever critique was made in exercise 4, it is increased exponentially when students use controls they usually disagree with. Despise sometimes. Welcome to Urban Planning.
Nevertheless, each tutorial group proceeds to design buildings within a new sector according to a set of guidelines prepared by another group of students. The students make their appointed district, using the controls, or rebelling publicly, and the resulting city is better, but not the perfection that many had hoped for. Big lessons there, and some excitement from this class of 1993.
This exercise introduces the ideas of what external forces control the making of buildings and the relationship between form and content in design.
Exercise 6: A building brief
Students are then asked to develop one single block from OM2. Students are provided the same brief for a block for a mixed-use building and are asked to take account of the external forces (of the Design Controls) and the briefed ideas for the buildings and spaces. The question asked is to discern in what way the good aspects can be reinforced, and the deficiencies be avoided?
Students are asked to prepare drawings for the building, within a very constrained envelope to emphasise the inside out relationship rather than the external form.
Exercise 7: A building
Students produce a model of the building at 1:200, to the amazement of the variety of solutions to a brief and controls that they mostly believed to be all controlling.
Exercises 8 and 9: An interior in the building
In the last few weeks of the semester, the students choose one room in their building to further study interior design and furniture design. The room is usually a coffee shop (or a book shop, now quaintly antiquated). The room is at ground level and has access to both the building and the street. It is the public face of the building, the place where the nature of the building function can have the most direct influence on the richness of the life of the people of the city.
The process runs in a parallel to exercises 6 and 7, exercises that ask students to respond to a brief as their first experience of a return brief, requiring a visit with drawing tutors to several city cafés. The interrelationships between people, rooms, buildings, cities and environments are discussed and applied to the design of the room. Again, this exercise develops ideas of the relationship between form and content in design, a contradiction in architectural ideas that will run through the student’s course and beyond.
The semester concludes with an overview of the work of the previous fifteen weeks. The discussions elicit a students’ self-appraisal (a nod to the great Barry McNeil) and their progress during the previous few months.
Clearly the idea of designing whole buildings within an urban fabric is a completely different approach to the Bauhaus for first year students. But by this process, these nine exercises, architecture is placed in the context of the built environment, and crucially the nature of spaces and places for people.
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. Tone does not read Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or Linked In. Sanity is preserved by reading and replying only to comments addressed to [email protected]