Speculative Making: Engaging Mass and Matter

Student at work on full-scale Vessel project for Architectural Design 2, Spring 2009. Instructor: Bradley Walters.

Young designers and beginning design students are often motivated more by emotion, immediacy, and sensuality than by ideologies, theories, and/or abstract principles. Close and/or causal relationships that are remote in perception, time, and/or space are less relevant than those that are immediate, present, and concurrent. Even when students understand the presence of these remote relationships, it is difficult for them to weigh them appropriately when compared with factors that may be much less significant but more present and/or immediate.

One aspect of sustainable discourses is the recognition that design takes place within an intricate web of relationships. The process is shaped by highly variable motivators, disparate value systems, evolving chemical/biological/material formulations, and unstable socio/political/economic/environmental realities. To work in this way requires the ability to understand far-reaching relationships between design decisions and downstream and/or lateral implications of those decisions.

But in the case of beginning design students, these lateral relationships are difficult to teach in part because of their remoteness from the work at hand. The decisions in a drawing crafted in the design studio seem to have no relationship with the productive world outside the academy’s bounds. These relationships are particularly strained if we operate within a conceptual framework that draws disciplinary bounds between building and design practices. If the drawing is relegated to the role of a representation and/or placeholder for “absent” architecture, its meaning and affect is diffused and perpetually diminished. The student is disengaged from the “real” work that happens elsewhere.

The value of defining the work “on your desk” as the architecture itself is that it defines architecture as fundamentally based in relationships amongst and between things. This perspective allows the student or architect to work across multiple media, disciplines, materials, and scales. As soon as we say that architecture resides solely within the building, we limit the scalability and applicability of concepts as well as the role of the profession.

By challenging the location of “architecture” within the design and education process, we are able to re-center the student’s focus not on some remote and unbuilt event, but rather on the work in front of them. And further, if we recognize the importance of the physical, sensual, and present in the learning processes of our students, direct engagement with the body becomes exceedingly important in the educational mission.

This paper will explore methodologies of learning through making by considering drawing constructions, physical model constructions, and full-scale assemblages as critical components within a beginning design pedagogy. It will probe the relationships between students’ minds and bodies, between their hands and materials, between mass, volume, weight, and extent. It will articulate strategies for implementation, using examples from studios in the first, second, and fourth years of our undergraduate degree program to test them.

To design sustainably requires a close association between the body and matter. By engaging the body directly and aggressively, the beginning design student can be sensitized to the fundamental issues of the discourse in a broad-based and open-ended way.

This paper was collaboratively written with Lisa Huang, Assistant Professor from the University of Florida School of Architecture.  It was presented at the National Conference of the Beginning Design Student, Penn State College of Arts + Architecture, 29-31 March 2012.

%d bloggers like this: