This quarter was about fighting my own demons. Though nominally about an open source learning laboratory, spring was emphasized less as a continued exploration into school design and more as the ~best project you’ll ever do at Cal Poly~ or ~the one project that’ll land you a job~ by most alumni, students, and faculty. Whether or not this is true, this places an unnecessary amount of pressure on the student (im talking about myself). It doesn’t help that the student (it’s me) is perfectionist or anxious, and it doesn’t help that the student designed a massive and complex project. This is a problem in the culture or the pedagogy. Studio should not be approached with a heavy heart, with the weight of expectation and the pressure of future employment. No, studio should be approached as it has previously been approached – with a sense of wonder, of curiosity, an uncontrollable impetus to explore and iterate. Because when design becomes about competition, and job-finding, and business, it loses all sense of play. And play is fundamentally what drives good design.
Flexibility also drives good design – you’ll fail if you’re as stubborn as I was in these past 10 weeks. With a vision of what I wanted my building to be, with a vision of the kind of spatial, programmatic, organizational, and social complexity and variety that I felt needed to manifest in this project, I refused to compromise or relent or remove ideas I felt would honestly contribute to my idea of an open source learning lab, even if they were timesinks. The result is not only a complex project, but an exorbitant amount of time spent on design over production, a consequent failure to communicate the complexity to other people through drawing, a massive rhino model that most if not all computers find themselves incapable of handling in order to produce drawings (if you can’t make2d or render your project, something’s wrong) and a sadness that comes with a failure still to meet the vision with the amount of time spent. So, be flexible.
Sidebar: flexibility and play go hand in hand here; with a lost sense of play, I found myself unable to be flexible. I wasn’t agile anymore in my design approach, and as the weeks wore on, design became a chore, not what I truly believe it to be – the funnest thing ever to do of all time.
Flexibility and play are, more pointedly, fundamental to school design. Everything in this studio is connected; it’s all meta – just as the principles of the initial puzzles (i.e. play, collaboration) were to be found in the puzzle, fostered among the players, in the rules themselves, and above all, in the design approach and among the designers (and within the studio), the principles and problems that drove speculative school design were to be found and immediately experienced in a school environment as a member of a studio and as a university student.
This is what makes this particular studio so beautiful. Everything is relevant, all of the lessons and experiences are interdependent; the solution to your design problem can be found in your immediate experience – you just have to be open (or reflective) enough to see it. We’ve talked about parametric design and a parametric design process. This is “parametric” learning.
Back to the very first point – if the pedagogy or school culture is creating a sense of seriousness, expectation, weight, and pressure, why is it doing this? Is it the school’s issue, or is it a result of larger social pressures? If there are larger social pressures, how can we, as a student/faculty collective, initiate change in the school culture and subsequently affect change in social culture? Much of what I’ve done these past 20 weeks has been tangentially about this. If schools are unique environments that foster future citizens, how can we nurture these individuals at this very limited scale to initiate broader social change – to indirectly but powerfully mold our society into our desired vision? I posited that our purpose was to produce a more collaborative, generous, self-refcletive, conscious, and empathetic society, and that the most basic thing a school could do for these ends, the most basic thing that a school could be designed for with a certain level of certainty, that could pervade through every design decision and ultimately through every fiber of the building itself, was imbuing students with a sense of agency (read: the manifesto with Scott and Waylon). By giving students the ability to find self-worth, self-reflection, their own social power…..themselves…we can be relatively certain of a kind of empathy, collaboration, and a love of learning (again, read the manifesto for better explanation). More importantly, we can design for it – by providing spatial and programmatic variety and spatial and programmatic blurring, we can create environments that provide students with the opportunities to explore whatever they choose to explore.
But there are plenty of projects that claim to offer students the opportunities to explore whatever they choose to explore – just as important is the ability of the spaces and programmatic intersections to nudge students to explore and to explore in ever more innovative, passionate, and collaborative ways. But in order to produce the more complex nudge, the building must be designed to balance structure and open-endedness. There must be designed spaces or devices that entice engagement and interaction, but these designed spaces or devices must not be restrictive in the kind of engagement and interaction they entice. It is fine to design floating pools in your programmatic clusterfuck, but it’s better to design floating nets or floating undulating surfaces, if you will. A pool might very well nudge students to engage with it and one another and may very well foster collaboration, intimacy, and chance encounters as a result. but a pool is a pool – it cannot remove itself from the word pool and every connotation and previous experience that this term carries. A pool, to most sane people, is only good for swimming and bathing – beyond this there’s not much more to it. Of course, overtly presented with this challenge, one could invent a number of different ways to interact with a pool, ways that could contribute to the learning experience, but the pool doesn’t present this challenge itself. The pool does not speak to the student in the way an undulating surface might – rather, it speaks to much and too literally. It says to the student: “swim” or “bathe,” and the student needs not and will not imagine much more for it. No, the designed space needs to be open-ended enough so that the student imagines 10 different uses for it. Then the student acts upon these 10 different options, finds new options while exploring these initial options, other students see this student exhibiting his agency, are inspired, things happen, people collaborate, people learn new things, and the space contributes to their learning. And on and on and on. But really, it’s about that inciting of the imagination. Pools might do that, but in a limited way – it’s better to find the design and social intentions of the pool and reduce it to something more open-ended and versatile. – in this case, collaboration, communication, swimming, bathing, learning, and on. As it is with everything we’ve learned in these past 20 weeks, it’s about thinking abstractly in order to get to base principles. (base principles..saying it like that makes it sound like we’re a philosophy class) And anyway, in the larger scheme of things, pools are devices, not designed spaces, and I think if there’s anything I’ve learned in this studio (which I guess is a dumb thing to say considering I’ve learned so much), it’s that the position of the architect is to design spaces that meet social ends, not to design spaces that require technological devices in order to meet these ends. The same goes for sensory nodes and the various other things that the Katies used – they’re devices.
Back to the very first point – if a student responds to an inherently homogeneous school culture with anxiety, or any other behavior that precludes optimized learning, then that student requires special attention so that his or her learning may be optimized – so that he or she may have the best possible learning experience (i know i wrote those first bits from a personal perspective, but this one isn’t about me, and i will clarify later, but ALL students need “special attention,” this is just a zoomed in example). Again, meta. Just as schools should foster play and exhibit flexibility, they must be designed to tailor to various students’ various needs. The word students helps to characterize a group of people; it would be a mistake (a ubiquitous one at that) to treat this group of people as a single entity. Various students, various needs, various ways of learning.
I do think that the pressures of comprehensive studio and the competition among studios (not the competition itself, but the way it was approached and emphasized) contributed to an unhealthy third year environment. More locally, the pressures of comprehensive studio led to a loss of play in our studio. This, along with fractures created by the formation of groups, led to disjunction, fractures, bitterness….
I believe this is part of the reason why we lost so much from Chicago. Chicago was the pinnacle of studio bonding and learning philosophy – and in removing camaraderie, we lost our ability to critically and continually reflect on this underused but immense experience. You can see the impact that the trip had on design, but you can see it too obviously and too obviously lacking. At its most basic level, the point of Chicago wasn’t to ape Intrinsic at its face value with 1 coastline, 1 peer to peer, and 1 small group + repeat. Maybe the most abstract “me, we, community” is better, but still, not very profound.
There are big questions about and big takeaways from designing learning environments, but I feel far enough detached from it that little springs to mind at the moment, at least little that we haven’t already discussed last quarter, in Chicago, and in the manifesto. What I haven’t yet reflected upon are the considerations of comprehensive studio. This quarter, structure, circulation, and the wall section were ROADBLOCKS in the most extreme sense. Issues with structure caused me to redesign the interior of my project- because I realized after the section model that my building was structurally dumb. Circulation also caused me to redesign the interior of my project – because I aspired for undirected, meandering circulation, but ended up with a hot mess. The wall section was also a mess, but only because I lacked prior experience. Many people felt intimidated by the wall section – not only because we’d never done one before, but because it lacks any predetermined methodology – unless the building is extremely conventional, the wall section requires a lot of imagination, faking, and aping – imagination, faking, and aping of components that we have no physical experience of. How od you concoct a wall section without ever seeing how a building is built at that scale? Ultimately, you just have to do it, which is what I did. Looking at countless DETAIL mag examples and drawing them in my sketchbook gave me a better sense of construction, even if it was still two dimensional.
As the most important project i’ve ever done and the one that’ll land me a job, I felt that it needed to be my best and needed to a apply everything I’ve ever learned in school. It needed to have all of these features, at multiple scales …… it inevitably became to complex and too personal……..and this experience has made me a far more cynical person
But writing now, I realize just how much I have to say about learning environments and just how passionate I am about them. This project needs to be over—– but I want to write a book. Someday.