Tuesday, March 23, 2010


The curriculum of any school of architecture consists of many courses but it seems unquestionable to me that the design studio is the more relevant and consequential of them, as it is where one synthesizes the knowledge necessary to design buildings, landscapes and urban sectors. Besides, it is the only place where something close to what the future architect will do as a design professional is practiced.

If that is so, a couple of questions come immediately to one’s mind: What is the nature od the teaching of architectural design? How should be structured an activity in which, through practice, one learns to design?

Many teachers think the design studio should emulate an architectural office in order to prepare the future practitioners. However, this conception of teaching is not based on sound foundations, as the relations that obtain in an office can hardly be replicated in the studio. On one hand, all people with design responsibilities in an office are licensed paractitioners; in the studio this is only true for the professor, but not always. On the other hand, students come to their architectural training knowing close to nothing about architecture and the speed in which they acquire knowledge will only allow them to pretend being an architect at the very end of their academic life. They just do not have enough skills to tackle a project on their own

With all due respect for anyone who believes in the studio/office analogy, the notion that the student of architecture, employing his or her “freedom”, can develop a “creative personality” without the help of a solid knowledge basis is just ridiculous. Therefore, any attempt at emulating a real office in the design studio – by giving the student a site and a brief and expecting that a design will come out of that – is doomed to failure. An effective school of architecture should provide the students with a solid and wide ranging knowledge basis, built and verified in a gradual way through practice. The place for this to happen is the design studio.

I believe one cannot teach design, but it can be learned nonetheless. How can this be? Contrarily to what happens in several fields, a design teacher is not the holder of undisputed knowledge that could be translated into formulae for the solution of specific problems. The essence of design teaching is the proposition of tasks whose solutions are the means through which the student develops his or her design skills. Along the process of finding solutions to architectural problems, the teacher will present to the students a number of possible ways of solving the, in most cases recurring to the discussion of exemplary cases as support. This is valid for all aspects of a design, be they formal/organizational or technical. The learning of design skills is fundamentally based on repetition, in a process that involves trial and error many times over, and that must be repeated many times during their architectural training in order to be effective.

Ideally, the focus of any architectural curriculum should be the design studio, in the sense of having more hours dedicated to it – something around 20 hours a week –, time during which design exercises would be conducted with the help not only from the specific design tutors but also from the teachers of theory, history, drawing – in its present incarnation using computers –, construction, legal matters, and so on. In this kind of teaching structure teachers of other subjects would divide their time between specific classes and active participation in the design studios.

However, that is not way the vast majority of Brazilian schools of architecture are organized, as in their curricula the design studio is just one more subject competing for the student’s time and attention. This is already a problem in itself but it is worsened by lack of coordination among all the subjects. The consequences of this state of affairs are a tremendous amount of work to be done out of the school and increasing difficulties to acquire design skills because there is no time left for it.

It is a well known fact that very little of the information offered in courses outside the studio actually influences the design work that students develop in the studios.

In this confuse and confusing situation – for the students, that is – in order to provide the students with the knowledge needed to practice design, the studio ends up resembling a mini-school, where the professors have to teach theory, history, drawing, computer graphics, construction, etc.

One may ask what is the difference from teaching those contents outside the studio, as almost all schools do. It is the fact that in the studio there is a very specific focus fo all its activities: the design exercises in which the students get involved during the semester or year, depending on how the school is organized. Having a specific focus does not mean that the topics discussed in class are limited to a few cases because while focussing on the specific we must aspire to universality, that is, to provide the student with tools that will allow them to tackle virtually any design situation.

Before speaking of theorizing in the design studio it is important to make a clear distinction between regular architectural theory courses – which basically present and discuss known theories, which makes of them no more than courses on the history of architectural theory – and authentic theory, which consists essentially on reflection on practice. A true theory does not precede nor presents itself as an alternative to practice: its purpose must always be to explain the facts that cannot be understood through mere common sense as well as to contribute to the “intensification of visual understanding, a necessary condition for one’s recognition (interpretation) of form and thus one’s ability to create it.

The goal of any theoretical activity in the studio cannot be the establishment of formulae to solve all problems once and for all, but rather to amplify the practice of architectural design and to provide the students with tools to recognize in an orderly fashion the complexity of reality.
[3] Objectively speaking, what comes of all this is the clarification of criteria that will serve as reference for both the student’s design work and its evaluation by teachers and peers.

The history of architecture comes into the studio as a means to build up the students’ formal/spatial/technical repertory. Its purpose here is narrow and directly related to the design topics at hand: exemplary projects are studied in search of knowledge about formal structures, contextual relationships, building techniques, etc. at the same time, it is very often necessary to go more deeply into the kind of architecture that characterizes the context in which the present project is inserted.

As for computer graphics – in some places called “representation” – the usual state of affairs is for those courses to teach no more than how to use the various CAD and 3D modeling programs available. It is thus one of the design studio’s obligations to show how modeling applications can go beyond their role as sophisticated drafting tools and to reveal their transcendental usefulness as design tools.

When conceived of as design tools, computer graphics allow the simultaneous knowledge of an object – a design or a building – at several scales – from 1:1 to 1:100 at the flick of a finger over a scroll wheel – and helps the development of one’s visual conscience, whose consequence is a better command of any formal proposal. More than representing ideas, it is a question of constructing forms with the means made available by today’s computer technology. Today it is possible to verify with exactitude the characteristics and quality of a space through photo-realistic simulations, but this possibility will only be enjoyed to the full if one’s technical aptitudes are in sync with the general criteria that inform the project.


A lot has been discussed about what and how to teach architectural design. However, very little is said about the persons to whom this task is entrusted. There seems to exist a generalized belief that it is enough to hold an architectural degree to qualify one to teach design to others, as well as it it is believed in many quarters that being involved in a professional office is sufficient training for that activity.

I would dare saying that none of that is enough to qualify one as a design instructor. Nobody should venture to run a design studio without having a very clear understanding of what designing means in the widest sense, quality which should be accompanied by an unequivocal skill to transmit that understanding to others. A student must know the principles under which the studio is run in order to be able to work effectively but also because these principles will be – or should be – the base for the positive and negative criticism his o her work will receive throughout the semester or year.

Another important feature of any desirable design instructor is an active involvement with projects. Any student would feel more secure knowing that his or her professors deal regularly with the same problems and even at times have similar difficulties as he or she. In the same way that it is demanded from a professor of surgery that he be a surgeon – or has been at some point in his career – any design instructor should be involved with design in a practical way. This does not mean he or she must be a part of a conventional office, although this will never be a bad thing. There are many other ways to maintain oneself active designwise: taking part in design competitions or developing theoretical projects – whose main purpose is not to be built but to generate architectural knowledge ­– are but two among other possibilities.

Ideally, all design instructors should possess a wide-ranging knowledge. What this means is the skill to propose exercises and to counsel the students on themes like urbanism, buildings, landscape, construction techniques, structural solutions, etc., as well as to lecture on those topics and on others whose emphasis may be more historical or theoretical. If that is asking too much of a single professor – which I sincerely do not think so – or if it is difficult for a school to find many people with those qualifications, then a group of instructors should be put together that could deal with those subjects in a concerted way.


It seems that today we are faced with two choices regarding the practice and teaching of architecture. On one hand, one have as an objective to educate people to become the so called “architect artist”, a creator of unusual and overwhelming forms, whose professional value will be the greater the more in tune with today’s spectacle society he or she manages to be.

On the other hand, we can be modest and aim to educate professionals whose goal may not be stardom but to serve society’s real needs instead by producing architecture that is correct and adequate to its place and time. Being modest does not imply to forgo the possibility of producing architecture and urbanism of the highest quality, just that their quality will also depend on how pertinent one’s projects are to their specific circumstances.

In the case of “architecture as art” the emphasis of the design is in its appearance, in how it looks and is perceived by others, and so much so that a certain negligence regarding other aspects of the problem is considered normal, a price to pay for the achievement of ‘transcendental’ forms. In this there is an intriguing familiarity between the romanticism of the nineteenth century ­ – with its emphasis on the expression of the artist’s individuality – and the present values of marketing, based on shocking the public, be it in the promotion of consumer products or the construction of a representative building.

In the second case we are dealing with an architectural position less concerned with its presence in the media than with the adequacy of its products to the cultural, economic and social context in which it will be inserted. It is architecture conceived of as a true service to society, an approach that in no way invalidates disciplinary concerns and the search for excellency.

The mere enunciation of these two ways of thinking about and practicing architecture already indicates that there is no single, monolithic, way of going about it, whether we like it or not. Thus it is evident that teaching cannot be neutral: each design studio should state very clearly what its principles are and what are the differences between them and other possible alternatives.


Let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that architecture progresses from geometrically elementary shapes to more complex ones, in a spectrum that would have Loos and Tessenow at one end and Gehry and Hadid at the other. It does represent any value judgement to say that the architecture produced by the latter is much more complex than that of the former two.

In most kinds of apprenticeship, especially in creative areas, it is usual to proceed from the simplest ideas, strategies and techniques to the more complex. If that is so, it would seem logical that a design teaching program would be concerned with providing the students, in the first place, with basic knowledge, with building a solid foundation – an appropriate metaphor in this context – that would allow them to venture more securely into higher degrees of complexity. A good example of this is Frank Gehry’s own career, which consisted of a conventional production for several decades, after which he started gradually to make the kind of projects that made him famous (although not necessarily a better architect).

However, this is not what happens in the majority of schools. Fascinated with what they see in magazines and events, many teachers mix up creativity in architecture with the capacity to create weird and surprising objects. Until no so long ago that belief was coupled with the one according to which that kind of creativity is dependent on a superior innate talent. Since computer graphics become more widespread the belief in innate talent moved over to skill in exploring the possibilities of 3D modeling software.

To me this is a perversion of the role attributed by society to the university. To put it clearly: a professional program is not the place for experimentation.
[5] For that there is plenty of elective disciplines, postgraduate programs and research projects. Any regular professional program should be mainly concerned with transmitting the knowledge that defines our craft and that will allow a practitioner to serve society in a correct and adequate way.


There occur some curious things in the programs considered to be the avant garde of architectural teaching. One hears a lot of talk about “liberating” the students; only thus they would be able to develop their creativity. Listening to this it is difficult not to wonder about what exactly are they being liberated from, since the present-day adolescent is characterized by an almost complete freedom of choice, movement and thinking. In truth, what the post-adolescent we get as our student in architectural school lacks mostly is knowledge and discipline, things not always to be found in the design studio.

The liberal teacher – the one who supposedly rescues students from an adolescence of intellectual deprivation – tries to teach design using very curious methods. In a famous exercise that crops up here and there, the students are asked to choose any object at home and to design a building using it as formal reference; in general, no program is added to this request. Equally famous – perhaps I should say notorious – is a text by a famous Spanish architect through which one is taught how to dimension a croissant. Also very popular are exercises focusing on the formal manipulation of elementary solids without any connection with function, place or materiality, and this limits seriously what can be gained from them.

In recent years it became generalized practice to encourage the use of complex geometries as if it was an obligation, for the simple fact that computer graphics make it posible to design virtually any kind of shape. Does the fact that something can be done mean that it must be done? If in the 1980’s using gables, columns and other elements of the classical repertory became almost a certificate of being up to date, in the first decade of the new milenium the use of fractals, folds, boolean geometries, Moebius strips and the like serve the same purpose.

What all this means is gross distortion of the real meaning of architecture. Pure geometry becomes the sole origin of form, whereas program, place, technique and disciplinary culture become relegated to a secondary rank.

Another big problem of the ‘liberal, creative and updated’ way of teaching is its lack of systematicity: its lessons are an end in themselves, they do not add up to create a solid base for the future practitioner, who will forever depend on his or her brilliancy instead of relying on a craft sedimented through time.

Architectural teaching has suffered from many problems besides the ones already discussed here. One of them is treating the project as an organism and attributing to it attitudes characteristics of animate beings. Another is the use of terms and concepts from other fields that have nothing to do with architecture, what makes it difficult to understand and solve problems that are strictly architectural. A third one – perhaps the most damaging of the three – is to adopt a conceptual approach in which the concept from which the form originates is something foreign to the specific aspects of the situation for which one is designing. This approach results in projects whose shape derives from the materialization of the initial concept – relegating to second place the real needs that originated the project – and whose fruition is reduced to the recognition of that concept.

None of that has much to do with any real and authentic architecture. The best examples to be found in the history of architecture – most of them related to classicism and modernism, the only two complete formal systems that exist – are the results of an understanding of design as a formal synthesis of the needs of the program, the suggestions of the place and the discipline of construction, using as tools materials – that is, formal strategies and elements – taken over from its own history.

From the above it follows that the teaching of architecture should always be based on architecture itself. All we can really teach is the craft of architecture; it lives in the buildings around us and in the projects that we can get to know through different media. To really learn the craft of architecture it is necessary to be directly and continuously involved with its essence: its buildings and projects.

In a very suggestive book, Helio Piñón says that “learning to design should be thought as a (re)construction of the materials of architecture, guided by criteria extracted from the very works over which one performs alterations”.
[7] Design as (re)construction also means “the construction of a new order from the raw material acquired empirically”.

What is being proposed is a direct involvement with precedents, either by drafting a project to know it or by acting directly over it. Both alternatives make possible to gain access to the formal qualities and historic meaning of any project, two things that in many cases never happen for students immersed in conventional curricula. While the normal way is to proceed from the program to the project, what Piñón proposes is the inversion of this process, so that one ends up discovering the logic of a program through the identification of the formal order of the building.

To adopt a building of acknowledged quality as the object of active reflection provides one with design materials – elements and ordering criteria – for future use in varied and different situations. By concentrating on an ordered totality, the student is led to recognize the criteria of formal and material construction that determine the way the building looks. Besides, “to approach architecture through the buildings – and not through the programs – has the advantage of showing the relevance of the visual aspect of design in comparison to the habit of making reference to legitimating concepts”.

Thus I would like to state my firm belief in a kind of teaching based on a constant work on architecture itself, meaning three kinds of essential exercises as means to acquire specific knowledge of the main aspects of architecture: the re-drafting of exemplary projects, the elaboration of alterations on those same projects and the use of their ordering principles and elements for new buildings with different programs.

It is quite evident that any building with which we have had close contact – that is, a building we have drafted, designed, built or surveyed – will never be forgotten, becoming raw material for future work. Of course, this is true for good and bad architecture. For this reason, it seems safer to choose as subjects of the students’s daily work those projects over which there can be no doubt as to their relevance. We cannot go wrong choosing the best examples of classical and modern architecture. Or will anyone deny exemplary status to projects from people like Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, Louis Kahn, Niemeyer, Neutra and Paulo Mendes da Rocha?

The advantages of modeling exemplary projects – and studying them as if we were really inside them – can be amplified if we ask the students to investigate the result of possible changes to the original program: this will allow them to go beyond the identification of the formal/spatial/material systems to the exploration of their operative possibilities.

Even in less ‘controled’ exercises – in which the student can define the formal structure to be adpted – one can offer a repertory of ordering strategies to be tested em specific programatic and locational situations.

Perhaps the most positive consequence – and less visible – of a design teaching method based on the manipulation of exemplary architecture is that of giving the teachers their rightful place. In most schools the teacher has disproportionate power over what the students do: his or her opinions define what is correct and what is not – never put in this way but in terms of good/bad, I like it/I do not like it, not to mention the use of cryptic terms like “elegant”, “intriguing”, and so on –, verdicts returned generally without being accompanied by any logical explanation. However, as Helio Piñón puts so wisely:

“It is irresponsible to entrust the teachers with the task of providing the students with elements and ordering criteria: they must act as intermediaries between architecture and those who are been trained to practice it. The teacher has an obligation to make evident that the authority is in the buildings, not in their opinions: in his interventions he shall identify e emphasize the values and criteria that can be extracted from them”.

Although it may not be the only place where the students can acquire relevant knowledge, the design studio is where the necessary information can be put together as part of an organized procedure that treats analysis and synthesis as inseparable parts of the project.

In the present situation, especially in the case of most South American schools, all this has to be done within the time alloted to a discipline considered one more along many, with obvious disadvantages for the students. It is hoped that the studio will regain its predominant place in the curriculum hierarchy in order for the method described above to be even more effective and to avoid the loss of time and energy to which most students are submitted during their time in the university.

On the subject, see Mark Gelertner, “Reconciling Lectures and Studios”, Journal of Architectural Education, vol. 41, number 2, 1988.
[2] Helio Piñón, Miradas Intensivas, Barcelona, Edicions UPC: 1999.
[3] Carlos Martí Arís, El arte y la ciencia: dos modos de hablar con el mundo”, unpublished text presented in Rome, at the Progetto Architettonico seminar, 1998.
[4] On this topic, see Helio Piñón, “Representação gráfica do edifício e construção visual da arquitetura”, in http://www.vitruvius.com.br/arquitextos/arq104/arq104_02.asp.
[5] I am here referring to the five-year bachelor degress which are common in South America and in some European countries, that lead almost directly to professional practice.
[6] A clear proof of that is a master’s program offered by a prestigious European university, called “From geometry to built space”, which aims at “transmitting a new vision of architecture based on the use of complex geometries”.
[7] Helio Piñón, El proyecto como (re)construcción, Barcelona, Edicions UPC: 2005.
[8] Helio Piñón, op. cit.
[9] Helio Piñón, “Five axioms on the project”, non published text, 2008. 

OBS.:  This text was presented at the Projetar Seminar (Mackenzie University, São Paulo), September, 2009 and published in Vitruvius (http://tinyurl.com/yzy8kus).

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  1. One important point that I think is worth making is that in many countries in the world (certainly in the UK) most buildings are not designed by architects. They are designed by engineers, technicians, or part-qualified designers who did not complete their architectural studies. In France and Italy, even when buildings are designed by architects, the detail or construction design is undertaken by engineers.

    In Italy building engineering is a specific discipline with some architectural training, but to the best of my knowledge, this is not the case in France.

    How does a professional approach the process of design when one knows that there is a certain element of having to demonstrate 'architecture' in the completed work? How do ordinary people (i.e. non architects) assess architecture as opposed to 'buildings'?

    Most people (and many professionals) cannot tell the difference. If this is the case, one ends up in a profession which is like an exclusive club which is incomprehensible to non-members. This is surely a disastrous situation. If this sounds absurd, think of how architects talk to other architects. We know other people don't think or view the world the same way that we do!

    The role of an architect has evolved in the last 50 years and I would suggest that the greatest challenge to the profession is to engage with the general public to show them what architecture is, and what value it has. We cannot appear arrogant and out of touch (accusations too frequently made against the profession) with contemporary attitudes if the discipline is to have any relevance in future. Without a broader appreciation of the subject, architecture will synonymous with conceptual 'building wallpaper', or functional sculpture.

  2. hi, jim.

    first of all, thanks for posting a comment. you are the first visitor who speaks up!

    I agree with you on all counts. perhaps this distance between us and the users of architecture has to do with the fact that many architects consider themselves artists (for whom a client's needs are merely an opportunity to pursue their personal agenda). perhaps looking at architecture as a craft whose aim is to serve society would bring us near those who should benefit from it.

    best regards.