Tutorials # 5

What If?

A lot of the work today felt like all the flotsam that builds up behind a dam. Lots of really interesting ideas, themes and potential processes swirling around, but not so much forward movement in terms of playing out these ideas against any kind of context. Maybe the work is stuck in the classic mode of architectural education, which is that of problem-based learning. This goes something like this:

(a) A problem is set. It is called a brief.
(b) A ‘good’ solution is seen on the distant horizon
(c) A process unfolds which moves towards that solution.

There are a number of difficulties with this approach.

(i) The solution is either tacitly – or more often explicitly – accepted at the start of the process, in terms of the tutor’s own interests and track-record. Students are thus locked into tramlines leading to these accepted values. This is exactly the problem with Donald Schon’s much-feted reflective practitioner model, in which the process he describes, while seemingly allowing the students their own voice and space for self-reflection, is actually overseen by the demands and suggestions of the tutor
(ii) Because of the implication that one solution is better than another, there is an endless process of deferment in which students try to cover all aspects (theoretical, formal, material, spatial) in the search for that solution. Architecture in all its dependency can never be pinned down to a contained set of issues, so as soon as one thinks one has covered one of those tracks, another one emerges. Therefore any ‘solution’ to an abstract problem is inevitably partial, but is usually presented as definitive. (see: J.Till Architecture Depends, MIT Press forthcoming late 2008. “A brilliant book. I read it cover to cover and did not understand too much but I am very proud.” B.Till, father).
(iii) There is, as Alistair pointed out today, a falsification in the documentation of the process, which is obliged to work forwards in a linear manner to demonstrate that the solution is inevitable, or else (worse) work backwards to fake that logic.
(iv) The idea of a good solution leaves not room for mistakes or accidents, which are ruthlessly edited from the documentation of the process. It is therefore not possible to learn from mistakes or enjoy the chance event.
(v) As Chris Jones notes, to think of designing as ‘problem-solving’ is to use a rather dead metaphor for a lively process and to forget that design is not so much a matter of adjusting to the status quo as of realizing new possibilities and discovering our relations to them.” In this light, problem-solving is revealed as an inherently conservative act of incrementally shifting around what is already there in a manner directed by preconceived ideologies.

So lets get rid of the idea of problem-solving as a pedagogical exemplar. And lets replace it with a week of ‘What If?’ This means abandoning the idea that there is a good solution or a logical route to it, and so suspending disbelief. It means taking one of your ideas or potential processes however barmy or irrelevant they might appear, and playing it out against a more concrete context (a fragment of your project). Maybe then some of that flotsam will be released from the top of the dam to drive something forwards more productively. ‘Mistakes’ are not just accepted but encouraged, because in that way you will be able to see what works and what doesn’t. Cul de sacs may be reached, in which case you will need to find means of maneuvering out. Surprises may be thrown up, and then seized gladly. But, and this is important, the process must be precisely, regularly and confidently documented. At the moment, many tutorials proceed in the manner of throwing drawings onto the table in a slightly haphazard way in the hope that we will see something in one of them (and in this you become dependent on approval). This means that the work, in all its fragments, never really adds to more than the sum of its parts. For this week, we expect to see instead precise, regular and confident documents.

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