Bradley Walters and Chang He
“A well-designed house not only fits its context well but also illuminates the problem of just what the context is, and thereby clarifies the life which it accommodates.”1 In his Notes on the Synthesis of Form, Christopher Alexander frames the work of design as moving beyond solutions, allowing us to consider and understand the problem itself. Operating within expansive, open-ended, and speculative territories can be difficult for beginning design students. The vast unknown can be overwhelming. It is common for students to seek comfort in that which might be more readily known and measured: structure, building materials, and related technical considerations. Facing more tangible and known concerns, like functionality, durability, and stability, students can find ready solutions through study of precedent and relevant literature. However, the crucial understanding of relationships between people and architecture still remains unknown and inaccessible to many beginning students. Mortals do not merely sleep within and/or occupy given architectural spaces. When an architect considers the scale of the body, shapes the spatial atmosphere, creates a firm structure, and selects comfortable materials, architecture can both be more responsive and convey the essence of what it means to be human by satisfying the needs and pleasures of dwelling.
In many programs, these phenomenological aspects of architectural theory are taught within distinct history or theory coursework, remote from the work of design. While these classes can illuminate the problems of how to build and dwell, it is difficult for students to bridge between technical and theoretical concerns. Although the students learn a great deal from prior cultural case studies, there is still a gap separating the student’s ability to realize and formalize humanity through studio design coursework. Unfortunately, considering the three principles of good architecture as proclaimed by Vitruvius in De Architectura, many student design projects are principally focused on “firmitas” and “utilitas,” relying on technical concepts and functional specificity when designing for an unknown and unfamiliar context. Absent is “venustas” or the creation of spaces that attract humans and encourage dwelling.2 Although aspects of the work may be reasonable and sound, there is an absence of delight. We lose the opportunity to celebrate humanity and the lives that are accommodated and represented through the work.
Beginning design education should provide an opportunity to explore these unknown fields by offering both theoretical study and practical design approaches. Dwelling can serve as a central focus of design education, making it possible for students to perceive the humanity within design and building processes. This allows them, over time, to develop a more balanced and sophisticated understanding of their work.
In the design studios discussed in this paper, we are revisiting the work of German philosopher Martin Heidegger as a framework and conceptual reference. We then engage in a comparative study of two live projects in the dramatically different climates of Tyonek, Alaska and south Florida. Students are challenged to adopt a critical attitude towards architectural form, design strategies, and building technique. In the group discussion and project reviews, students discuss the essence of architecture itself, how it relates to building and dwelling in different sites and contexts, and topics ranging from the relationship between different building materials and specific cultural influence, how building and dwelling these two behaviors influence human’s lives and recognition of being. This pedagogy attempt to lead students to reflect not only on functionality, durability and materiality, but also the significance of culture, history, beliefs, and social structures in architectural design, realizing that architecture can be considered one of the most profoundly important reflections of humanity.
1. Alexander, Christopher. Notes on the Synthesis of Form (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1964), 90.
2. Vitruvius, The Ten Books on Architecture, trans. Morris Hicky Morgan (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 2018), 17.