Out of Thin Air

We cannot expect to extract ideas and schemes from the student without first feeding his mind and imagination.

Bernhard Hoesli and Colin Rowe, 1954 (1)
PowerPoint Presentation
Mapping of bee movements on the site, responding to specific environmental conditions. Student work from Architectural Design 5, ARC 3320, Fall 2009. Instructor: Bradley Walters.

As informational networks bind us ever more tightly together, they also introduce unseen gaps and fissures within fields of knowledge. While in some cases, these are the product of distraction or youthful naiveté, they are also symptomatic a field which is expanding both in breadth and depth through uneven specializations. The resulting disciplinary lacunae are extensive, with students asked to connect ever more remote points within unsettled and variable terrains. The impossibility of knowing and/or mapping these territories creates an ambiguous and amorphous field within which beginning design students are asked to find their way.

While we can lament this and seek to remedy it with any number of spurious patches, substitutions, abridgements, or abstractions, it is also possible to engage and embrace the unknown, unknowable, episodic, and incomplete as fundamental aspects of contemporary experience. These constituent phenomena can serve to structure a design process that is itself episodic and networked, rather than linear and scalar.

Beginning with direct experience of the natural landscape, students construct analytic mappings that displace the singular (and privileged) vantage point with multiple competing and contradictory episodic vignettes and/or relational drawings. Rather than seeking to impose foreign and/or contrived totalities, the work is deliberately peripheral, operating within de Sola-Morales’ plural times (2) and oscillating between Tschumi’s limited and paradoxical concepts of the Labyrinth and Pyramid (3).  Students seek out relationships amongst variable phenomena, and are charged with investigations that move across multiple media, including hybrid digital/analog drawing constructions, models, text, materialisms, and narrative.

The design process engages the inherent contradictions of site directly, introducing students to a number of competing value systems. Concerns for social, cultural, economic, and environmental sustainability, in particular, create divergent and conflicting evaluative criteria. In the absence of singularly “perfect” solutions that address all issues equitably, students learn to work within polymorphic territories that require them to make decisions that can only be evaluated in relational terms.

Responding to the uneven intellectual and spatial terrains that define architectural education and practice, this paper pursues strategies that seek to augment and teach careful looking in pursuit of systems, languages, and relationships.  The work centers on the visualizations of site, space, concept, and/or context that motivate projective and synthetic studies to follow.  It anticipates and participates in the discovery and invention of space and architecture.

“Out of Thin Air” was presented at the 27th National Conference of the Beginning Design Student (NCBDS) in Lincoln, NE on 2 April 2011.  An abridged version of the presentation was published as Walters, Bradley.  “Out of Thin Air.” Proceedings of the 2011 National Conference of the Beginning Design Student.  Lincoln NE: University of Nebraska Lincoln, 2011, 269-274.


  1. Excerpted from the University of Texas at Austin’s “Manual for the Conduct of Courses in Design,” September 1954, as reprinted in Caragonne, Alexander. The Texas Rangers: Notes from an Architectural Underground. Cambridge MA: The MIT Press, 1995, 420.
  2. This concept of multiple times is explored in Ignasi de Sola-Morales’ article Weak Architecture (1987).
  3. As outlined in Bernard Tschumi’s The Architectural Paradox (1975).