Little Maps

Last updateMAY 2020

A Cartography for Self-assessment

How do I start? How do I continue? How do I know I am doing it right? What to do when I'm stuck? To architecture is a journey that is unfolded not by sitting down, but rather while walking.


WHY? PRECEDENTS AND CONTEXT

‘What saves a man is to take a step. Then another step’.
Antoine de Saint Exupéry

-This chapter has been introduced to unfold some of the questions that the COVID-19 lockdown has raised in the global pedagogical community during the Spring of 2020. This particular context raises a more general hypothesis: What if you were sent home without the possibility of talking to other peers, or your tutors? How much self-learning can one do in architecture?

Although architecture is mainly a collective effort, it is the sum of individual mental and bodily processes as well. For the most part of our practice as architects, we are accompanied by other colleagues, clients, engineers, builders, carpenters, bureaucrats… We learn from each one of them and can test our ideas with them.

-Can you do architecture alone in a room?

-In this context we need to focus not so much on online or remote learning, but rather on self-learning. You might spend 30 important minutes a week hopefully learning remotely with your tutor, but is more important to give you the techniques to be able to learn by yourself, and to self-assess yourself all along the way.


-Today’s youth have grown immersed in digital medium. Most desk tutorials are already being conducted mainly through a screen, with few hand drawing or physical model handling. So the digital medium is not a fundamental flaw in the learning process, it actually allows us to continue communicating remotely. The challenge is again how fast we adapt to this different context, where we can actually use almost the same tools. For many young learners, the disruption would be to actually have to go back to a totally analog medium, pencil in hand.

-What really changes is the format and preparation of lectures and pin-ups. The social aspect of learning.

-In this context, the core competencies that need to be nurtured are not so much online learning, but it is self-learning on steroids. From the 10.080 minutes in a week, now you spend 10.050 by yourself, without any external tutor or colleague by your side. This is 99,7% of your time, learning alone. But don’t panic, it’s quite alright.


WHERE DO WE LEARN?

Studios are spaces, normally quite big, where a group of people sit together and hopefully learn from each other. It is a common learning environment in many countries. In some other countries, mainly in South Europe, institutions decide that their students should mainly work and learn at home.


-The pedagogical methods might be the same in both contexts. Learning in a studio or learning in a room of your own is not better or worse, just different. Some of the pros of working from home is that you have more time, more autonomy and intimacy. Some of the cons, is that the domestic space is less homogeneous, it stresses differences, and somebody might have a difficult physical or social environment to work in. Shared tacit learning and physical collective intelligence are diminished. Architects can’t work alone, so their social skills are very important. In most Studios, the amount of self-learning is already very high. But when sent home, you ARE more alone, and FEEL you can’t count on your peers opinion or help when in doubt. This is just a feeling, you can still reach out to them, and even meet them in person outside the Studio.

-So COVID-19 main problem is if you got it. And then, the lockdown mainly challenges the ability to adapt fast to external changes. An ability which architects should master. The faster you move from lamenting to embracing, the better.

-However, unless you are under a total lockdown like in Spain, it is not true that working from home is confining. In countries like Denmark, people have still been able to go for walks, sit in the park. Most students have been able to visit the site of their assignment. And we are still able to communicate digitally, which may arguably be a diminishing channel with its specific noises, but it’s still a peer-to-peer channel.

-You can focus and be mentally active in a space for around four hours. After that, it is best to move to another place, preferably with different spatial, light and atmospheric conditions. You can go for a walk. A new itinerant school is emerging these days, spread out in streets, parks, forests, rivers and beaches. Always on the move. Going back and forth to your room. I wonder how many of you have felt the need to walk by the School’s vacated buildings.


WHERE AND HOW? WALKING

-Every project is a journey. This is not a poetic image. It can take from a couple of months to several years. It changes you and you are changed along the way. Every project is the consequence and cause of an organic process that, not only takes time to think and produce, but that grows within and without you, in synapsis, neurological connections, pain and pleasure, tiredness and excitement. At the same time, it changes you, literally.

-Today, architect’s main job is thought to be designing, which is commonly seen as an intellectual activity, with the brain as its core. This is quite accurate, but it is equally a fact that it is the whole organism that is involved in this process, from the direct activation and involvement of your whole body, to the impact of organs, their physiology and chemistry in the brain’s carburation. Brain processes are still today mainly unmaped. So one of the main motor and vehicle we use to design is quite unknown for us. This doesn’t mean that in other cognitive levels it is not operating to fulfill this particular task. That we don’t fully know how it works, doesn’t imply that it doesn´t work.

-Mental processes like thought, decision-making, taking choices and making interpretations are timeful and organic. It takes time, not only to solve, but to emerge, to form, to grow. They are highly complex electric and biological processes going on in your brain, and the rest of your body. What legs and feet bring to this is of special interest to us.

-As you walk, the unconscious and non-conscious cognition processes go on. Although most of the self-conscious decisions are taken while sitting down, the unconscious and nonconscious processes go on 24/7. The more focused your self-consciousness is on the project, the more your unconscious and nonconscious processes will continue working. That’s how sudden good ideas appear. They are a consequence of this physiological process that you can spark but you don’t have total awareness control of.

-Walking is a fundamental part in the broken rhythms of designing, and it is the rhythm of building flows. Music is a good temporary substitute. That’s why architecture is as much handmade as footmade. Feet -and legs- are forgotten limbs in architectural theory.


HOW DO WE LEARN?

-Which are the biggest challenges we face if we want to improve as architects?

-The hard part of our job is not the what, but the how. We deal with a huge quantity of information, and its heterodox and vast nature. We handle multiple questions at once, and answering one includes and modifies the rest. We need to know how to build. Building is a complex process, full of uncertainties and external factors we can’t seem to control. The many agents involved have their own agenda, and often selfish interests prevail over the common good. We are immersed in a destruction industry, not a construction one. Means of production are rigged, and what most architects feed and work for is a fiction -that´s a fact, not a negative comment.


-In architecture there are many objective factors. Some things work, some don’t. Cultural and individual experience and character also play a key, necessary role. Each of you, from the same brief, develops a total different project. Some things are open to interpretation, some things aren’t. How you reach your goal is also open and diverse. There is no single way of architecture, and there is no single way of learning to architecture. In some cultures, it is learnt by thinking. In others, by building. But in all higher education institutions the risk and trouble of a ‘real’ building process is diminished to make things easier and to focus on the supposed core competences that all aspiring architects should acquire. You learn through a simulation.


-How do we acquire these competences?

-In the Architectural Design Studio tradition, one learns to architecture by design. It is mainly addressed as an intellectual process, where one patiently absorbs lots of embodied and tacit knowledge that form a craft. One that can be done sitting down, or so they say.

-Other crafts are learnt very differently. One learns to play football by playing football. One trains by playing football, sometimes with the ball, sometimes without. Most tactic lessons are given and corrected on the field, a few on a blackboard.

-Similarly, one learns to play the trumpet by playing it. As John Holt explains, there is no separation between learning to play and playing.

-Architecture design is a very special category, common to practices that involve danger, for one’s own integrity or others, and whose task is slow, expensive and involves many other people. It is a pedagogical approach based on simulation. Like jet fighter pilots, the learning process is an imaginary, fictitious setup. A make believe by design. This method has proven very successful, but of course it comes with some challenges and weaknesses.

-Which kind of simulation are we talking about?

-It is one that provides a protected, less dangerous, cheaper, faster context, with diminished, more predictable inputs. The difference with the jet figher pilot is that at least the apparatus provided to her includes the realistic movement of the cockpit, so her whole body learns to master the experience and scary situations of the real flight. But the jet fighter is confined to her machine, and can only truly practice while in there, while your simulation space and time is not just your room.

-In Catalan, tutor designates the long post that guides the growth of the tree so it is as straight and robust as possible. It is a temporary appendix, only applied in a specific period of its early growth. But the tree will keep growing by itself. There is a disperse tradition of learning by doing, but the focus should also be put on doing by learning. Learning is not a goal, but a medium. Some people argue that it takes 10.000 hours of dedication to master a craft. Others think it is 10 years. But it takes a full lifetime, at least, to keep improving and refining what one devotes to. Learning is just a consequence of this drive.


-Which are the most fundamental questions you face in your room?

-When you join a school of architecture, all of you have designed previously. Designing is an innate skill. You arrive with certain, intimate or cultural, expectations and prejudices of what an architect is and does. These are in fact the initial hurdles that need to be removed:

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”
The Bigh Short opening phrase

“The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of a doubt, what is laid before him.”
Leo Tolstoy, 1894

-Before joining a higher education institution, you have already learnt to design. It has mostly been a tacit experience.  And you are already adults. You’re not a blank page. You come with certain expectations, prejudices and thinking vices. After a few years in practice, you are more trained, and have probably acquired even more vices or nurtured assumptions, frustrations and disappointments.

-Most of you know the steps, but it’s easy to get lost on the way. You should get lost, and you will, because it’s an essential part of finding your own way.

-As we explained previously, the architectural design process is complex and heterodox. No matter what the size of the thing you design, it contains thousands of questions, choices, decisions and interpretations. Just try mapping it out and you will see! 


-How do I know I’m doing it right?

-That’s when self-assesment comes in handy. Architecture is a practical endeavour. There are things that work, and things that don’t. Then there is interpretation, a necessary side of the process. It depends on each individual’s and team character and experience. To make things work, reality is your friend. These are just a few of the many questions you can ask when in doubt:

-Is this coherent and aligned with the goals I have decided?

-Will this work for the inhabitants? When building? Whole lifecycle? Budget?

-Are the solutions reliable? Available? Will they make things easier?

-Is it a logic deduction of the initial conditions I set up? Or is it driven by my own caprice? Do these initial conditions make sense?

-Can it change slightly? What won’t change under a worst case scenario?

-The invisible!

-Your design process could be quite swift. Whenever you face a hurdle it is something you don’t know how to do, or somewhere where you’re not applying the logic priorities you have previously established. But it might also be the precursor of a new idea, so be calm and patient.


-I’m stuck! How do I move on?

-I’m lost! What do I do?

-Getting lost is part of the process of walking. Firat change place, take a walk. View the document from another medium. Go back to the goals and references, what was it I was looking for? How can I achieve it? Maybe you have found something along the way that asks for a reformulation of your questions? Look at it from another angle, be your own Il Grillo Parlante. Learn to care and be detached at once. Step by step you’ll get to thinking about everything at once. 


-When to go back?

-When you reach a proposal that doesn’t align or is not coherent with your priorities and goals, and with the logic you have established. When it doesn’t do what you say it will do.

-When you are drawing without thinking.

-When you reach a building solution that doesn´t work (water leaks, weak structure, not durable, difficult to build, too expensive, polluting, too much waste…). 

NEXT LITTLE MAPS

TEACHING, Little Map

What can architects do?

Which kind of information do we harvest in this initial stage? Where and when to stop? Where to look for knowledge?

TEACHING, Little Map

To identify some symptoms, which most of the time are not what we initially expected. What is the job to be done?