What were the primary challenges you faced in designing for Open Source Learning environments?
Are there any “big questions” that you are leaving this studio with?
TLDR: Designing for new ideas is hard; If only we had more time; I wonder if our philosophies on open-source learning were as radical as they could’ve been?
Challenges & Struggles:
The biggest struggle I’ve experienced for these past twenty weeks has been one we have all had as part of this double studio experience, and it is a unique challenge that I think prepared us all for the beginning stages of an eventual thesis project. This is the challenge of designing for new ideas, and it was a frustratingly baffling and enriching problem.
If you are designing…say…a restaurant, you at least know where to start. You know there needs to be an entry, dining space, kitchen space, and maybe a nice outdoor patio or something like that. You know the basic programmatic requirements, you know people are going to eat here, so it’s your job to make it an inviting and comfortable space; beyond this, however, little is left that can be spatially controlled. Food quality isn’t spatially controllable, and no matter how nice the space is the ultimate determinant is the food quality.
Similarly, some would argue that if you are designing…say…a school, you have a pretty set program. Classrooms, corridors, library, gym, and all the rest that we associate with the high schools we came from. In this instance, again, your job is to design enjoyable architecture, but little else is spatially controllable. Students will still shuffle from class to class, teachers will still talk at a room full of information-sponges, and maybe everyone will be a little happier and do a little better because the rooms are nice, but overall nothing really changes; you still designed a school.
But for twenty weeks I don’t think we were supposed to design a school, we were to design what a school could be. We were re-designing the idea of school as we and the rest of our society all know it. In that aspect alone the entire thing was a challenge, one that Illich described, in which a group who only knows the current educational pedagogy attempts to design a new one; the problem being our only frame of reference is, of course, the current one.
And so all of this combined led to this wicked problem with no definite answer or starting point. For twenty weeks we questioned everything (especially the cluster) we knew in an attempt to make these designs necessarily about open-source learning. And this was the next big challenge for me: time…
I feel as if in this twenty weeks, instead of doing a double quarter studio and making some really great architectural concepts and designs, we could’ve literally spent it all reading and writing about educational philosophy itself; and of course i’m not suggesting that’s what we should’ve done, but we easily could have, and that was a challenge for me. When I think back to making our initial concept graphics on how we envisioned open-source learning, I think we could’ve spent so much more time really developing those along with our individual ideas about the curriculum and the in-residence housing and all of the other things that slowly taper-off the importance list as you get into the design. And that’s not to say at all that our projects didn’t have rich concepts, because they did; it is more to express the frustration and challenge of trying to carry all of the rich conceptual work with you while at the same time trying to design a building all in 6 to 9 weeks. Successfully blending dreams with the pragmatic is hard enough when you have precedents and traditions to look at. With all together new ideas it is that much harder.
From the beginning of this whole process I have questioned who actually goes to this place.
Early on we discussed this idea of age, and how as a tool for averages it works: on average most 18 year-old teens are ready to go to college; on average most 12 year-old kids are not. But for me this project was never really about the averages or the easy answers, it was always about questioning everything. So for me I struggled with the idea that maybe this isn’t like any other high school in terms of age, and that there is a wider range of people here. There are definitely 12 year old children out there who are ready for high school, and similarly there are most likely 18 year old people in the world who may still need a few more years of high school. And this of course goes back to the question: what kind of society do we want to create? Do we want a society in which your age and test scores define you? Or do we want one in which your maturity and potential do?
My second question goes back to my challenges in a way, and branches from a leading question: is this a spatial problem?
For me this question was always questionable, as limiting the architects role to a spatial problem solver seems somewhat problematic. And of course this wasn’t Mark’s intention behind the question in the first place, to say that we shouldn’t do anything but draw boxes on Rhino and say we’re done; I know the intention was to keep us on track. But still the question bothered me—the whole thing itself bothers me still, the separation of designer and inhabitant. We discussed how projects can either default to problem solving, or carry a concept through completely; but for me both of these options still fall short. The question remains for me: how can architecture be effective without consulting those who will use it? And so for a school I think that has to do a lot with the philosophy behind the school and how it will actually work day to day. I know in my own project with Alex, I never felt that we took enough time to nail down a common philosophy. We had one, but in some spots it was vague and our ideas weren’t necessarily cohesive. And all of this again goes back to the question: what kind of society do we want to create?
My final question is whether or not we could’ve been more radical with our designs; whether or not they actually talk about the societies we would want to create on their own. But this is a question I think I have with every project, and it’s a somewhat rhetorical one; and so I think I’ll end this unnecessarily long tangent with that, as it’s something we can all think about…