The End of Innocence


Musa × paradisiaca (excerpt). Image: Student Work from Architectural Design 5, Fall 2014. Instructor: Bradley Walters.

“Ralph looked through him. Here at last was the imagined but never fully realized place leaping into real life. Ralph’s lips parted in a delighted smile and Piggy, taking this smile to himself as a mark of recognition, laughed with pleasure.” (1)

There is something beautiful and amazing about youth, especially the possibility of all things and the impossibility of nothing. In early design education, we capitalize on the willingness of our students to test themselves, to push their work beyond all reasonable expectations, and to make things that exceed both their own sense of the known and, at times, the anticipations of their faculty. It is also a moment where a certain naïveté about buildings is of great benefit: anything is possible.

For students who are unaccustomed to working at full-scale and with the materials of building, it is easy for construction to possess a certain attraction and allure of the unknown. These students arrive with a tinge of fear but also with overwhelming enthusiasm. Their eyes are opened widely and hands whetted with anticipation. As with Ralph and Piggy, there is a certain promise of all that lays before them, and the great possibility of a project to be realized by their own hands. But as portended in this passage from William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, this moment can be fleeting. The process of building is one that is fraught with challenge and compromise, of coming to terms with one’s own self and others, and of recognizing the limitations of the architect to exert his or her will on matter. It can be a difficult and unsettling process, one that challenges students to grow up quickly. It is also an important moment of learning, where students can be challenged to stretch without breaking, negotiating complex translations between different modes of thinking and making.

The great possibility of design-build as a part of the education of an architect lies in the careful probing of this middle moment, the act of translating, where neither the design nor construction processes are fully in charge. This paper proposes the investigation of engagements with materiality and building at a number of scales in a design and construction curriculum from first year through full-scale design-build projects at the scale of a small residence. The impetus towards realization and physicality is checked in each instance by counter tendencies that tilt towards speculation, meaning, incompleteness, and occasional perfectionism. Design-build is posited thus not as a solution or a culmination of one’s studies, but rather as a fertile site of great risk and great opportunity. It can serve as a site and locus of study, one in which the student is fully engaged in a dialogue with matter and his or her peers. It is the beginning of a complex and lifelong conversation between ideas and matter, a kind of coming of age, and the end of innocence.

This paper was initially presented at the 2014 Fall Conference of the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. It was co-authored with Mark McGlothlin.


  1. William Golding, Lord of the Flies: Casebook Edition (London: Penguin Books Ltd, 1954), 13.
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