The Twisted Education of Architects

Let’s start by agreeing that, at the end of the day, architecture is supposed to make us good buildings and that architectural education should teach students how to make those good buildings? Sadly, as I experienced it, and I don’t think that architecture schools are much different, it almost succeeded in teaching me how to make bad buildings.

It all began with the “Basic Design” course that you take as the “basis” for how to go about designing your buildings. I don’t know what we were learning to design at that stage, but structures that people are expected to live in or use were not part of the course. A basic design course meant to teach you the basics of how to design good buildings, should at least cover the basics that humans want the place they are going to live in, work, or visit., to satisfy. These things must at least include the following: efficient planning, easy access, efficient daylighting, enjoyable views, good ventilation, a buildable structure, fire escapes, and not having the rainwater cover the floor of your bedroom.

A drawing I did in Basic Design. I hardly spent any time on it the night before, and I got a B for it.

For me, Basic Design covered none of these basic things that a building should do. Instead, the focus was on other stuff such as the shape of the building, its “concept”, whether its organization was “linear” or “central” or something else I’ve already forgotten, the interaction between white and black cubes as they make a bigger cube …  as well as an exercise with strict rules stating that a building should have “positive and negative” volumes that combine to create a 20 cubic meters cube. This exercise seemed designed to enhance skills in making good buildings fit a rather arbitrary criteria.

It does, however, comes in handy for the most difficult problem you are expected to solve – trying to fit a building that people can live in, into some weird shape. Waiting for you after you’ve successfully passed or got past Basic Design, are a series of design courses. Some of these are building-type-specific and some of them are location-specific ones. The thing that brings yet another layer of bullshit to the process of designing a building is when you are told to design a building that somehow relates to its function and to where it is located. This sounds logical and reasonable until you find out what kind of relationship is wanted.

The “inspiration” for my Design II project.

The finished result. See my “inspiration” there in the corner? We were graded on the “process” between “inspiration” and “result”. I think i got a B as well for this project.

The classic location fit is that a building should somehow reflect the culture and history of the place that hosts it. To my mind, the history of a country is a series of events that happened in that country. We know about these through books that tell us about those events that happened at various time. When I want to know about the history of a country I go and read a book about it, and not look at one of their old buildings or especially not one of their new buildings. I don’t understand, and I don’t think its possible, that the shape of a building can tell who killed who, why certain wars started, who got an arrow in his eye in 1066, who was the next king, how many people were killed in some past atrocity, etc. And these are just the big and easy stories out of many others that can’t be told through giving a building fancy shapes.

Culture. If we could all agree on what the word meant and then agree that a particular element of it should represent a country or people, then I’m even more unsure how we can ever expect a building to do that. I don’t want to spend too much time on what kind of ‘culture’ should be expressed in buildings – I’ll get back to that in some later post. For now, let’s just ask if it is really a good thing for humanity to be spending its time and money on trying to represent any kind of culture in its buildings?

In architectural education, these two things – history and culture – form a double layer of bullshit that goes by the name of “concept”. The Concept is the most important part of your project. It’s the first thing you’re asked to think about when the project starts to get serious.  Somewhere along the line, you will have done a “site analysis” and found out that it gets pretty hot here in the UAE but that gets forgotten in the panic to find a “strong” “concept” and “develop” it. I’ll stop using quotation marks on every other word now.

What bees usually do.

Because I was studying architecture in the UAE, some classic concepts that were always popular were tent, palm tree, wind tower (although it was not the Emaratis who invented them but hey), beehive, sand dune and sail. Once you have chosen your concept, the instructor will accept it if it’s strong enough, and ask you to develop it a bit more. And once you’ve done that, you finalize the 3D shape of your building, and then start planning it or at least try to make it into something that people can use.

The thing that’s wrong with this, is that it produces structures that aren’t designed for people to use. It is impossible for them to provide us with the better built environment that, I believe, should be what architecture aspires to.

I don’t know where this whole concept thing came from but I think it has done our built environment a lot of harm. Architects in the industry use a lot of such concepts to justify why their building has a certain shape. Maybe if Le Corbusier focused more on the humans that were going to live in the Villa Savoye, then the Savoye family would have been happier living in their house than they actually were. Maybe if Zaha Hadid took a class in acoustics she wouldn’t have designed Dubai Opera House with such a stupid shape so that ARUP then had to design a new building that worked, inside it. Maybe the original vision for Masdar might have been built if FOSTER & PARTNERS hadn’t designed their buildings with costly meaningless shapes and fancy floors and solar cells not at their optimum angle.

“The plan was to make Masdar the world’s first zero-carbon city, but as the global “cleantech” market stalls in the recession, compromises are made. Foster planned to accommodate 50,000 residents and 40,000 commuters and the city was due be completed by 2016; now the final population will probably not exceed 40,000 and the completion date has been put at 2021 or 2025. The idea of a second Masdar City has been dropped; a $2.2bn hydrogen power project has been called off, as has a “thin film” solar manufacturing plant, intended for Abu Dhabi.” The Guardian

If this is architecture then it doesn’t really need a 5 year course to teach. It is just dreaming up some shapes, attaching a concept, and there you go. Anyone can do that. If we really want to make architecture schools something worth our money and time, then the architecture they teach should be changed to something for the benefit of the people inside those buildings. Something that won’t assume that making a building look like a honeycomb, for example, will be something fit for humans. Something that will make our lives easier, more comfortable, and more sustainable.

2 thoughts on “The Twisted Education of Architects

  1. Bashar Al Shawa Post author

    You are welcome, Pika-Pi, and thank you for your comment. As for the drawing, i also thought that it was horrible, which left me wondering what am i doing at architecture school.


  2. Pika-Pi

    The thing that I hate the most about the way the instructors teach us in design courses is that they force you to choose a concept before starting to work on your design. What I think is correct at least to me is that I should start working on the design, analyse what is wanted and the sizes and functions of the forms first before choosing the concept. For example, if it’s a residential house, the concept must not affect the function of the building and should not affect the 3D shapes dramatically because this is a house after all, not a museum. What made me feel really confused is how some instructors like it. They like that the house in an ordinary neighborhood and for ordinary people is shaped like a snail, seriously?

    Really interesting post, thank you. Also, your drawing is horrible, it doesn’t deserve even a C ~.~


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