Later Design - Towards a more experimental approach to architectural education

Marcos Cruz (2010)

Published in: Archithese (Universitäre Räume), 
3.2010, Zurich Switzerland, pp. 60-65

There are many types of architects today, many of which are involved in practices that are not strictly related to the building industry, such as film, graphic/web design, advertisement, engineering, interactive design, writing, etc. As a result, I advocate an architectural education that, against the idea of a Universalist all-knowing architect prepared for such vast knowledge, allows for more differentiated, varied and even specialised routes in academia that enable students to develop their own architectural personality.

As it has often been described, there are many changes occurring in our profession that have to be understood outside the traditional disciplinary boundaries, and we, architects, are thus forced to rethink our field of action including both professional practice as well as education. This is not just in the way in which we understand our own human body and its natural habitat, but also how the profession is exposed to advances in technology, such as a huge range of new computer-aided design and manufacturing procedures, intelligent environments, developments in a microscopic and nanoscopic scale, etc. Moreover, wireless technologies are improving very fast and being introduced everywhere, ‘now completing the long project of seamlessly integrating our mobile biological bodies with globally extended systems of nodes and linkages’, as William Mitchell has argued.[1] There is also a large amount of research made in the realm of time-based, interactive and responsive architecture, while design in biology and the medical sciences is being approached in new and innovative ways. All of this is becoming of significance to architecture due to its inevitable technical, aesthetic, as well as cultural implications.

This is partly why a school like the Bartlett is shifting to a much more research-driven culture (including Research-by-Design) where such changes are being investigated. Staff and students are involved in particular design agendas that go beyond the education of basic knowledge and skills. There is also a greater cross-disciplinary involvement of the school with other parts of the university, which in turn encourages undergraduate and postgraduate courses to develop conjoint research projects with other departments, including Planning, Energy, Environment, Engineering, along with collaborations with external offices and industries. A great advantage of this approach is that this will not just bring the academic production, often criticised for its self-indulgent and overtly eccentric mannerisms, closer to the ‘needs’ of the outer world, but also help schools to push the boundaries of the traditional architectural practice in a both speculative and realistic ways. A further benefit of this shift towards a far deeper research-lead teaching culture is that a lot of future innovation in architecture is probably laying in the interface between different disciplines, which does not imply loosing architecture’s disciplinary identity, but, in fact, strengthen it via a more inclusive design discourses. In the end, schools should aim to use this as a vital instrument to develop more resource-efficient design in the future, and find new ways to confront the environmental, social and cultural challenges that our profession is exposed to.

I still observe in many academic institutions today a pervasive pedagogic attitude that discourages and even inhibits a ‘risk-taking’ approach to architectural design, partly due to prevailing modernist heritage that has been taught for a long time, or simply due to more recent prescriptive teaching methods in terms of parametric design. Either way, ‘risk’ should not be interpreted as a means to accept academic complacency with low quality work; much the contrary, it should imply a way to encourage staff and students to step into unexplored territories where ‘mistakes’ and ‘failure’ are a necessary and accepted condition. In this context, it is worth mentioning Edward de Bono who speaks of the importance of ‘Lateral Thinking’ in creative problem solving.[2] Likewise, we, architects, should perhaps aim for more ‘Lateral Design’ as a means to find new answers for an increasingly complex world that is intensively scrutinising its unbalanced environment, volatile finances and diminishing resources. We need more non-linear thinking systems that do not seek for obvious and predictable outcomes. The notion of ‘lateral’ implies here thinking ‘out of the box’ and more synthetic action that is prone to generate creative ideas across a variety of disciplines by exploring intuitive, rather free flowing design possibilities. In other words, one is here talking about promoting an experimental work ethos that relies on a multiplicity of divergent thinking modes, which in turn have proven in our Unit 20 at the Bartlett to produce an amazing array of original and innovative design propositions.

But we should not think of architecture in experimental terms without also seeing it as an inherently experiential condition. I am referring to an architecture that is in both conceptually and phenomenologically multi-layered and ‘convoluted’, as my partner Marjan Colletti would argue, and where the body is back in the centre of our preoccupations; an architecture that is not the result of a thin, one-line thinking process, but rather the construct of a deep embodied Convoluted Flesh.[3] Like in psychology, where sensory and emotional awareness is understood to precede cognitive perception, the spatial experience of buildings should precede conceptual design, and, consequently, the practice of architecture precede the theoretical interpretation of it. It is tragic to see how many students today are deprived of an experiential culture that strongly reduces their conceptual thinking, while turning design bodiless, often culturally decontextualised and spatially rather empty.

A way out for many students is the refuge in purely skill-driven design modes, where those with better (computational) techniques stand out. But this is obviously not enough, even though the masterly control of tools and techniques is very important in a time where software and equipment is changing with unprecedented speed. We know that architecture schools are competing like never before for good and motivated students in a global world where anyone can be anywhere at any time. Hence, to be on top of the game, schools have to be proactive and forced to invest in cutting-edge equipment and staff that offer students the opportunity to reach out for innovative design solutions. A school that is not well equipped with a proper high-tech workshop, for instance, is inevitably out of touch and with little chance to fight for excellence in research and teaching. There is also a straighter relationship between academia, practice and industry that needs to be fostered in order to re-establish the crucial triangle between these complementary fields. More than the schism between academia and practice that affects so many institutions, at least in the United Kingdom, this straighten relationship could have much greater impact in the way how schools of architecture are able to contribute decisively to the development of our future built environment.

It is however, fundamental to maintain and foster the old and long-established studio culture as a basic pre-condition from where students learn the shared experience of architectural design. There are academics that argue this to be a model of the past, but it has proven too often that the idea of the atelier, as opposed to the office, is a much more enjoyable, and, above all, most efficient way in which architects develop a true culture of dialogue and teamwork. This allows them (within a necessarily competitive surrounding) to recognise their own strengths and engage with a wider community of experts and critics, particularly when they are proactive in exhibiting and discussing their work through international competitions, exhibitions, etc. as many of our Unit 20 students do. Bear in mind that the contemporary architecture student is not isolated in front of a drawing board as in the past, but rather a networked ‘virtuoso’ that should be able to develop a personal language and critical approach to contemporary architecture.

I stated in our introduction to the Unit 20 book, now eight years ago that for me ‘each project is an adventure; a fight to discover, through experimentation, a method in which ideas and information can be integrated into a final credible outcome.’[4] And this has not changed for me since. Ultimately, I value the very few schools like the Bartlett, because they are in essence schools of design, or better said, schools of Lateral Design, because they see current and future challenges as an opportunity to engage in risk-taking research that is original, experimental, experiential and multi-layered. And that should continue to be its genuine strength.

Images and captions:
Exhibitions of Unit 20
Sublime Flesh, Christ Church Spitalfields, London (numerous)
Framework gallery, Berlin (Steve Pike, Keith Watson)
Actions re Form, Munich and Coimbra (Tom Foster, Steve Pike, Jen Ritter)
SaraBen at …., New York (Sara Shafiei, Ben Cowd)
Dreamspace Gallery, London (Yaojen Chuan, Yousef Al-Mehdari)
Architectural Hinterlands, Arup Gallery, London (Johan Voordouw)
Royal Academy of Arts Summer Show, London (Tobias Klein)

[1] marcosandmarjan. ‘Convoluted Flesh’, in AD – Protoarchitecture, Analogue and Digital Hybrids (guest-ed. Bob Sheil), July/August 08, Vol 78 No 4, John Wiley & Sons, London, 2008, pp. 36-43
[2] Cruz, Marcos; Perez-Arroyo, Salvador. ‘Unit 20 – Ground Zero: Looking for New Territory’, in Unit 20 – Projects by Unit 20 of the Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, University of Valencia / Actar, 2002, p. 31
[3] Mitchell, William J., ME ++ The Cyborg Self and the Networked City, The MIT Press, Cambridge Massachusetts, 2003, p. 58
[4] De Bono, Edward. The Use of Lateral Thinking, Cape Publishing, 1967