Sessional Academic at the Western Sydney University Faculty of Architecture—Sydney, Australia
Subject Coordinator at the University of Technology—Sydney, Australia
[SW] Shuang Wu
I started my Bachelor degree at The University of Sydney when it was still very much encouraging analogue drawing techniques—even drawing with watercolours and charcoal. We were encouraged to develop our own drawing/design process. Then, when I moved to the University of Technology Sydney to do my Master's, I learnt the opposite—there didn’t seem to be any other option than to design, draw and present using the computer from the get go. Though I believe it was less a pedagogical difference but rather a difference in how technology had evolved and impacted our education.
The pace and process now felt less about taking the time to explore and experiment through iterative analogue drawings and physical models, but rather jumping straight into quite an intense production in computer modelling and drawing. During the time that I completed my Master's degree, there was also definitely an unspoken drawing aesthetic that the school had (perhaps unintentionally) put on a pedestal. This was probably also driven by what was trending in architecture blogs.
Each week I felt the pressure to bring perfected, seductive drawings that fit within a certain aesthetic only to be ridiculed or critiqued when my drawings were unfinished or unresolved. There didn’t seem to be enough space to workshop, discuss or collaborate during tutorial times. I have a lot of respect for the students and tutors who thrived off this high pressure environment, but I will always have the perspective of knowing that this isn’t the only way to produce thoughtful architecture.
Now when I teach, I try to focus my students a lot less on their final presentations and marks, but rather on the explorative processes that get them there. During the design process with my students, more time is spent on draft iterations to develop well-considered spatial and functional understandings. I personally believe that we need to respond to the requirements of a design brief strategically, not through catchy presentation drawings that often disguise poor design.
I definitely challenged these conventional deliverables through one of my projects at UTS in particular. I had undertaken a brief to design and re-conceptualise the UTS School of Architecture, quite metaphorically. I began through an investigative process to map underutilised spaces within our building as well as a programmatic and pedagogical study of the school. I submitted a document proposal for a ‘missing program’ of architectural workshops, then curated one of these architectural workshops with invited guests. I also constructed a small installation that commented on the amount of model making waste discarded by architecture students and strategically installed it at the entrance of the school’s building—live testing a spatial intervention. Neither of these deliverables matched the expectations of the studio and I almost failed.
My project became personal, reflective and I engaged with people and knowledge that I never would have come across had I simply hopped on a computer and drawn a building in a trending aesthetic for the studio.
It’s not always easy to go against the grain, there will be tears and setbacks, but as long as you are giving yourself the freedom to form your own methodology within the design process then I think it’s worth all the risk of failing.
I am trying to challenge these limitations a lot during my teaching at WSU. What drew me to the school is that pedagogically, it is trying to address the urban growth and development of Greater Western Sydney. Taking architecture education beyond the school and understanding architecture as part of a broader network, something I hadn’t experienced in my previous architecture education.
I teach in 2nd Year under the direction of Hugo Moline (MAPA)1
Heidi Axelsen + Hugo Moline
https://mapa.net.au/, who has a practice, shared with his partner, centred around participatory architecture. He has written multiple design briefs for our students that have focused on the needs of specific local communities with the integration of social and public infrastructure always a priority.
From working with the residents of Chester Hill Village Aged Care to collaborating with School Infrastructure NSW, our projects engage with a specific context and community. There aren’t any overly conceptual briefs such as designing a museum on the moon but rather, the question we ask is always ‘How do we collaborate with, learn from and better understand the diversity of Greater Western Sydney?’.
We encourage students to spend time in mapping exercises that draw out findings particular to both the project sites, histories and clients. We don’t jump to designing a building until they’ve understood the implications that their design intervention will have. At the end of semester, students don’t just end up with panels with a building and nice graphics on it, but will actually include all the broader contextual research and client analysis to represent a more holistic approach to the brief.
We also always jokingly say to the students that we are trying to design the trauma out of architecture school. We try to control the pace of the semester to have more time to investigate and experiment. Then at the end, we direct the conversations in these final ‘crits’, when they present their final projects, to be more like constructive design workshops with invited guests rather than judgemental, ego-driven tactics to tear their projects apart. Often students also get the opportunity to present back to the communities that they have engaged with throughout the semester.
Well, architecture schools are known to be competitive, stressful environments and I’m speaking from personal experience too. So where I can, I try to encourage my students to see the bigger picture and not get so bogged down by their final marks. But it’s not easy, because students themselves get into this spiral of self-criticism and competitively compare themselves to others because they’re still working within an institutional system with certain expectations. If there was a way to take out the competitiveness of marks I would.
I like to retell a story Jeremy Till (co-author of Spatial Agency2)Nishat Awan, Tatjana Schneider, &
Jeremy Till (2011).
Spatial Agency: Other Ways of Doing Architecture. once told me about when he ran a research studio at a top architecture school. He said he made all the students contribute in the same way and collaborate together equally. As a result of this, he wanted to give them all the same mark. Then the institution said ‘No, you cannot do that’. He received so much backlash because that’s not how the system worked. I’m pretty sure he wasn’t invited back to run that subject again.
So we can try to re-invent the school all we like, but at the end of the day, it still fits into the bureaucratic systems of a bigger institution that controls how we run things. We are pressured to compare students, we are pressured to be critical.
It’s definitely still pretty idealistic to say that we’re trying to be innovative with our briefs and be more collaborative when the way that the school is running still conforms to the institutional structures. But if anything, I just shift my focus a bit when I teach, and touch on mental health a lot more with my students. The pressure is less on always being perfect and bringing great work to class every session, when sometimes it’s ok to just have an off day but come to class just to participate in the discussions.
The end goal of course is that they’ve developed employable skills, know how to work collaboratively and think critically. At the end of the day, every student has interesting ideas, and they’re coming from different perspectives as well and that’s okay. We don’t enforce one way of doing things. Working with Hugo has also taught me to embrace the unique experiences and backgrounds of each student. For example, one of our students was using her hometown in Afghanistan as a precedent to design a housing project. So instead of saying, ‘You should do a house like Mies van de Rohe’, we encourage students to draw from their own experiences too.
There are definitely some small shifts to how we approach teaching within an institution. However, I don’t think we can change the entire system... Yet.
In my own work, I engage a lot with local communities with specific social agendas. For example, I helped a Youth Centre give their space an uplift with just a small five figure grant. Sometimes a designer chair can cost that much alone. So instead of coming up with a trendy expensive design for my portfolio, it was more important that I prioritised the budget on meeting the practical needs of the end users, in this case disadvantaged 12-17 year olds. I ran a co-design workshop where the teenagers were able to draw and write down things they wanted for their space which helped form my brief.
This collaborative process directly engages with the users of the spaces I design, and is something that I tell my students all the time. That architects don’t work in isolation anymore, we listen and learn from others.
I would personally love for more architecture schools to offer their students as resources to the community and work with them on creative installations/activations or feasibility studies to expand on this process of community engagement.