Back to School
A few weeks ago, I walked over to Shattuck Hall, home of the PSU School of Architecture, to participate in a review of first-year student work. l look forward to these opportunities because they offer a connection to a range of people in the design community, and because they provide an occasion to delve into ideas without the constraints and assumptions of typical practice. The studios under review spent the term exploring creation myths through multimedia collages, drawings and full-scale bodily extensions (imagine an architecture model that you can wear) for live interpretive performance. These studies culminated in architectures that reimagined the creation myths as spatial experiences situated on Shattuck’s third floor terrace.
Our group of reviewers included practitioners from local landscape/urban design and architecture firms, as well as faculty from the school, and of course, the anxious students each waiting for their turn in the hot seat. This kind of group represents an interesting cross section of design thinking – from the most intellectual, through the more practical and discipline-oriented, to the most naive (in the best possible way). Within these groups I enjoy that I get to be both mentor and mentee, passing on insights to younger students while also learning more about seeing, interpreting and critiquing from more experienced peers.
It’s always instructive to watch someone present their work and reflect on where they fail and succeed in communication.
Working in architecture means perpetually angling toward a satisfying balance between efficient design practice and the idealistic pursuit of creative goals. For me, academic reviews offer a venue for considering bigger ideas, like, where did the universe come from, and how can our traditional creation narratives offer a point of departure for design exploration? (Imagine yourself in your first design studio trying to process that!) I enjoy these moments of radical reorientation where I get to chew on concepts that don’t come up frequently in practice, and I appreciate having the flexibility to occasionally slip away from my desk to have that experience. It reminds me of how much territory is out there to be engaged by the creative process.
Even if the content of a given exploration doesn’t excite you, simply considering the process by which someone takes an idea, develops an attitude toward it and then communicates it through a design intervention can be an opportunity to flesh-out your own philosophy about what good design is or does. We all need to master this process to make our design projects happen. It’s always instructive to watch someone present their work and reflect on where they fail and succeed in communication. We will inevitably be in their shoes sooner or later, with potentially a lot on the line.
I was also reminded at this review that everyone has good ideas (often too many of them!), and that even the least experienced designers have fascinating things to say. The real art of design is refining and editing and working those ideas into compelling expressions, and communicating them elegantly and persuasively.
A career in architecture is a never-ending education. Strolling the halls and checking out student work is a great way to remind yourself how far you’ve come and how much is still out there to learn.