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  • Writer's picturePeter VanderPoel

Why the Hell Would You Do That?

One of the assignments for sophomore architecture students was developed over three related projects.

The first part was to draw a Roman letter, most often an initial from the student's first or last name. This letter would be drawn on a 10" x 10" sheet of heavy paper. The objective was perfection. Research online would reveal the geometric construction of the chosen letter based on a historical standard. There was little expectation of creativity at this point, but the students' graphic design decisions were discussed. How was the letter placed on the sheet? Was there too much or too little space around the letter? Which pen size was selected. Were the serifs satisfying?

The next step was to make a series of 5 different monochromatic abstractions of the letter down the left side of a 20" x 20" sheet of paper. Each of the initial abstractions was to be nominally recognizable. Each of those abstractions was then developed into a series of 5 steps that would modify the original abstraction. The 5 steps were to be coherent and understandable so that each panel would seem to logically derive from the previous panel.

Students were advised to think of the 5 panels as a story or comic strip. Their work was evaluated based, to a large degree, on whether the work was "satisfying". The quality of graphics, the continuity of the 5 steps, the compositions, etc.

The students' work was hanging on the wall when a College faculty meeting took place. The College included engineers as well as architectural faculty. The architecture faculty was used to seeing these exercises, but they were novel to the engineers. One asked an architecture professor to explain the assignment. When his explantion was done, the engineering faculty member paused for a moment and then said he could develop a computer program that could execute the assigment.

My first, mute, thought was "Why the Hell would you do that?"; it seemed nonsensical. The whole purpose of the assignment was to develop the graphic thinking of the student; to understand and discuss their thought process and develop their ability to convey content to someone else with only the graphics telling the story.

But the engineering solution was about the product, not the product's meaning or what it means to a viewer. When we reviewed these assignments, it would be a survey of the student's thought process, her ability to tell a story and understand story structure. So much of art is about telling stories, because they provide a discussion between people about meaning.

I viewed grading engineering projects as difficult. If an engineering student understands the material and correctly answers all the questions on a test, is that an "A" or a "C"? Understanding and properly applying the material seems like a basic expectation, not the stuff of excellence.

In architecture, however, most projects are given a "program" or "brief" that describes the requirement of the project in terms of area, uses, materials, etc. If a student simply meets those requirements, that's a "C". It is by making something more, using rhythm, repetition, pattern and exception, unifying the various elements, then the design pushes toward a higher grade.

In Mathew Frederick's book, 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School he stated that engineers design things and architects design the human interaction with things. That's an excellent summary of difference between the goals of the engineer (and contractor) and the architect; the floors, walls and roof are the concern of all and the expertise of the engineer, but the architect's purview extends to the effect on those who live and work in the space.

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