The Fifthteenth Annual Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectual Design Excellence 2013
Berkeley Prize 2013

Alex MacLaren Final Report

 

Alex MacLaren, RIBA FRSA
ESALA: Edinburgh Schools of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, University of Edinburgh
Edinburgh, UK

 

PREAMBLE

Note that this project defines ‘Inclusive Design’ in terms of ‘Social Inclusion’. This is not to ignorephysical accessibility or designing for disability, but to state those requirements as given, and investigate the less tangible, but very powerful ability of architecture to invite, impress, protect, or conversely to alienate, disenfranchise or dismiss. The project was sited in Dalmarnock, Glasgow, an ex-industrial area which has been vastly de-populated and whose remaining residents have a statistically higher-than-average likelihood of unemployment, mental illness and addiction, and one of the lowest life expectancies in the country. This area is to host the 2014 Commonwealth Games and is undergoing a period of rapid change and investment from stateand privately-owned companies.

 SUMMARY

The pedagogic aim of these two studios was to allow students to engage first-hand with members of the public and contemporary social issues, giving them an opportunity to assimilate this input on their own terms and begin to position their design practice in relation to real world problems. It is hoped that students educated in this way may embark on their careers, emancipated, agents of a new understanding of the professional role and responsibilities of the Architect. The structure of the programme gave weight and value to the direct input of nonprofessionals to the course; a relatively radical practice in this University. Academic demands on the course (time, content and deliverables) were frequently in conflict with the direction suggested by this ‘real-world’-centred pedagogy. This resulting report is a discussion of this friction between the demands of the academe and the pedagogy of a socially-integrated design unit promoting Universal Design. The successes and failures of this experience are documented in the hope that this may offer assistance to others planning similar courses in future.

COURSE OUTLINES

Two design studio courses were run this year, each with approximately 30 students. In each case students met individually with tutors once a week over 11-12 weeks, and attended a further weekly group seminar or lecture. Students worked in designated studio space hosted by the university and were encouraged to work there every day in addition to the mandatory twice-weekly studio meetings.

Figure 1. Studio space (Shown at final exhibition: pictured is workspace for four students).

 The first semester, entitled ‘SOCIAL Housing’, asked second-year students to design a housing block of 24-30 units of mixed tenure, over four floors. The studio sat within the constraints of another 60+ students following similar programmatic briefs in different locations, and was required to match the planning scope and formal agenda of these studios, in addition to the core brief of social inclusivity. At second-year level, the programmatic complexity and resulting challenge of strategic planning of this brief was considerable: over a period of only 11 weeks it was found that the social questions, initially dominant, fell away in later stages as students as students grappled with these problems and the tandem challenge of learning CAD software (Rhinocerous, taught to students alongside this brief). The resulting projects start from a position of social design ambition, but most, except those from the highest-achieving students, become a standard exercise in assimilating planning and form. This was a lesson in understanding achievable scope in relation to student skill level and time available.

Visitors to the studio and mid- and end- semester included a representative from the local developer and local community worker. These two contributors offered their very different viewpoints, which in turn engendered a year-wide discussion of social class, building tenure and the ethics of an architect. Some students engaged vociferously in this debate, but most lacked the ability to develop designs that addressed these issues effectively in the limited time available. Several students were struggling with representing this complex building proposal in a way which our non-academic visitors could easily understand. The ambition of the brief was too great to allow most second-year students to succeed on all points. 

Despite tutors reaching this conclusion, it is noted that student feedback from this studio was extremely positive. Students were invited to feed back anonymously to the university, and several reported being energised by the visitors to the studio and the social engagement of the brief. Interestingly, though student performance was neither higher nor lower in academic terms, the students in this unit reported a significant increase in confidence in their design skills in relation to their peers. It is hoped that inviting them to engage with non-architects and to consider social issues of such scope has given them purpose, and a belief in the opportunities offered by design. The second-semester studio was entitled “Civic Fabrication: [Per]Forming Communities”, an was one of three design units operating under the umbrella of “Tectonics”, a mandatory course offered in the final semester of a four-year MA Architecture course1 . These students were more than a year further through their architectural education and so had a significantly increased arsenal of skills and experience, and the design studio was relieved from teaching ‘skills’, and able to focus more on design. The unit challenged students to understand and design the ‘civic’- that is, an architecture of spaces which encouraged people to engage in meaningful community interaction, to create a sense of place, identity and belonging; to be inclusive and inviting; and in so doing to foster an increase in the health and happiness of the community they serve.

Semester 2 began by introducing students to the local environment, and most importantly, introducing them to members of the local community living or working in that environment. We asked students first to imagine a future for this area, then to design a piece of architecture which would support ‘civic’ development in that future. Usual academic ‘crits’ were replaced by design review seminars where we asked students to present their proposal back to the community members at the middle- and end- of the semester.

The university hosted the mid-term and final- review sessions in which the user-experts  joined the group, alongside academic professors and professional architects. There was one day-long organised visit to the site, meeting the user-experts  and a representative from the major local developer, and incorporating a building tour and coach tour. Students were also briefed on ‘contextual research’ by a group of the second-year students, (two years their junior) who had completed the housing design projects in the area in the previous semester. This initial exercise in briefing across years offered a ‘soft’ start to the challenges of communicating between different groups which became a core demand of the students throughout the semester.

Figure 2. Unit coach tour.  Robert Kennedy, local playworker, has the mic.

 

 As this was a final design studio leading to graduation at either BA or MA level, there were stringent requirements placed on the output from this unit. Students were required to evidence relevant research, to produce complete plans, sections and elevations of a building of moderate complexity, and demonstrate resolution in planning and detailing of this building. The Learning Outcomes demand investigation (of structural, constructional, environmental and contextual matters), resolution (in a coherent design proposal) and skills in communication “with accepted architectural conventions”. Students at this level are under great pressure to graduate well and so are understandably focussed on results, leading to a pressure for the unit to similarly focus on delivering work geared towards these learning outcomes.

The outcomes of this studio were more clearly successful than those of the first semester course. From an academic point of view, the students’ portfolios were beautiful, varied and showcased their skills effectively. From the point of view of social pedagogy, students of all abilities produced work that effectively grappled with the social issues they were asked to address, and succeeded to greater or lesser extent in proposing solutions. All students managed to produce work that was legible to our user-experts, and (after some guidance), succeeded in verbally presenting this effectively in a way that invited user-experts to respond.

The initial visits and interim seminars were extremely effective, enjoyed by both students and user-experts, each of whom gained much from the experience. The end-of-semester seminars were less rewarding: the contrasting requirements of demonstrating technical academic ability versus effectively communicating with community members had polarised, meaning that a substantial amount of work produced was at cross-purposes to the interest of the audience. This was frustrating for both the students and the visitors. Post-graduation, students have been offered the opportunity to re-work their projects voluntarily for inclusion in a community exhibition in the area, also to be built and staffed by students. Students will receive no academic reward for their participation this summer activity. However, there has been significant student support for this initiative, perhaps because re-presenting their work in this is a way of addressing that frustration of the conflicting demands of the user-expert and the academe.

The experience of writing and tutoring these briefs has been hugely informative in improving my understanding of a social pedagogy, and how to best deliver value to both students and to user-experts as they engage in academic architectural projects teaching Universal Design. The notes below for the basis of suggested pedagogic techniques which may be considered to improve delivery of similar courses in future.

BRIEFING

  • Should be open enough to allow unforseen input by user-experts (more of which below): do no presuppose user requirements or perceptions in the brief.
  • Recognise the pedagogic value of ambiguity and contradiction: and the risks attached. Students’ selfawareness and confidence as a designer was ultimately improved by offering them divergent critique, but their portfolio outcomes suffered from the resulting periods of uncertainty and misdirection. The learning experience was enhanced but the immediate academic product suffered.
  • Clearly define the scope of engagement: what can realistically be achieved, and how that outcome is understood by all involved. A successful academic outcome is not a successful community outcome, and to satisfy one may impinge upon the other. Poor achievement in an academic forum can be catastrophic for a student, but failure to deliver a promised outcome to a vulnerable user-expert can be extremely damaging to trust and welfare. This was the most important and also the most difficult point to manage.

PRACTICAL CONSIDERATIONS

  • The physical safety of participants was addressed through routine risk assessments, but the mental impact of this experience on students and on user-experts was more of a concern than had been anticipated. Some students found the local environment to the site unnerving, and found communication difficult. One of the user-experts was similarly uncomfortable and intimidated by their initial visit to the university. These feelings caused some individuals to behave unpredictably, leading to concerns over physical safety.
  • Making space for communication between students and user-experts, and specifically allocating time for non-confrontational communication, and orchestrating this, prior to any direct review of work, was essential in addressing the above.

COMMUNICATION BETWEEN STUDENTS AND USER-EXPERTS

  • The space of engagement should
  • Avoid didactic situations and formal presentations if possible
  • Create, discuss and agree a shared endeavour in order to make introductions
  • Developing a common language takes time and is best achieved by shared experiences
  • The use of a model and of perspective views were invaluable in communicating design ideas to community members
Shared Experiences with the User-Experts

 

 INPUT OF THE USER-EXPERTS

  • Giving our experts comfort and confidence in the academic arena was a huge issue and took significant time, persuasion and diplomacy. This remained a concern throughout the semester.
  • Some cultural responses to material were unpredicted by tutors. This caused some misunderstanding and misdirection, increasing the learning experience for all but requiring students to deal with further unexpected conflict and ambiguity.
  • Inviting comment on discipline-specific technical proposals of significant complexity (for example technical sections) is near-impossible for user-experts. Putting them in this situation caused them to lose confidence and was detrimental to the growing relationship between student and user-expert.
    Models preferable to orthogonol or cartographic drawings

     

DELIVERABLES AND MEASURING ‘SUCCESS'

  • Understand the requirements of the Academe (and particularly their interpretation). Two particular examples which caused difficulty;

    • The course outcomes dictated that each student must produce detailed technical drawings. The technical drawings, whilst relevant, were not communicating to our user-experts, and the students on this course fell behind in this area. We addressed this through two ‘one-to-one’ drawing workshops, making drawings through a façade which were later assimilated into 1:20- scale sections
    • Each project must address Sustainability. This was understood by external examiners as a purely ecological/environmental ambition, and the core brief of ‘social sustainability’ was not accepted as part of this- this must be more clearly articulated and not at the expense of other sustainable ideologies.
    • Design charette investigation 1-to-1 drawings

       

  • Scope of design and intervention
    • Simple solutions to a design task are not considered sufficiently complex to merit graduation. For example, a high-achieving student astutely identified that the most effective immediate architectural intervention in the community would be to reorganise their refuse collection: this project would not satisfy the academic learning outcomes and could not easily be given credit.
    • Students’ growing empathy with individuals from the community led to departures from the brief which again took the students’ projects outwith academic recognition
  • Learning and Achievement (evolution and resolution)
    • This pedagogy underlines the differences between providing opportunities for learning and growth, and in producing results.
  • Requirements of the user-expert  and community
    • These seemed almost always at odds with academic ambition. To finish with an unanswered question: recognising the diverging audiences, constraints, and timeframes we experience in bringing an academic project to the community, can we effectively measure or reward ‘success’ in the community sphere within academic assessment?

 CONCLUSION

Students at degree level have experienced at most, only a few months of Architectural Practice. Their formative years in architectural education have taught them to mimic, present to, and seek approval from other architects. These courses have sought to offer a different pedagogy: to bring untamed non-architects into the studio, to ask students to grapple with wider social problems, and to then present these to an unpredictable audience whose responses may be contradictory. It is hoped that these students will take this experience with them into practice and become architects with social design at their core.

The experience to date suggests that this approach has huge pedagogic value and enhances the learning experience, but at the risk of diminishing the traditional ‘academic achievement’ of students when compared against standard assessment benchmarks. However the long-term benefits, of educating future architectural professionals in this way, may reap far greater societal benefits later.

It is concluded that it is inevitable that the demands generated by a Universal Design brief will diverge from the constraints of traditional course outcomes in architectural education. It follows that students joining such a course will be asked to deliver on more fronts than their peers, and this broader scope may impact on their overall achievement. The fair academic assessment of community-engaged projects continues to be a challenge for those tutors engaged in Universal Design.


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