“But I Still Think It’s Ugly”: Explaining Design to Non-Architects Part II

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Part 2: Reason and Effect

In the first installment in this series on explaining design to non-architects, we looked at how our experience of architecture school and practice has nurtured a familiarity with—and consequently an affection for—a set of buildings very different from those most people are familiar with. Our differing familiarity, not only our differing knowledge, shapes our often-divergent preferences.

A second thing to consider, if we are to grasp how far our mindset may differ from that of our non-architect fellows, is the way that architecture school redirects our mode of comprehending buildings from experience to reason. As architects, we will need not only to enjoy buildings, but also to conceive and shape them. The factors that go into shaping a building are so many and so complexly related that we can’t simply depend on intuition. And many of them, like lateral loads and the rate of air changes, don’t readily reveal themselves to our intuition, anyway. So it is essential that we learn how to reason about buildings, how to draw logical relationships among, for example, column spacing, lumens, and social space. In fact, it’s one of the wonderful things about architecture that is possible to draw logical relationships among such disparate things.

Our pursuit of reasoned inquiry can, however, easily be accompanied by a growing distrust of mere experience—of naïve experience, as we may begin to think of it. The person who enjoys a building without really thinking about it, well, hasn’t really thought about it. We have. We know better. Such is perhaps a danger in any realm of knowledge: that those with a formal education may underestimate the judgment of those without. But architecture school imposes an additional motive for over-valuing reason, one that other disciplines often escape.

As an architecture teacher, I’ve spent most of my time in art schools—Rhode Island School of Design and California College of the Arts. This context brings out a troublesome characteristic of architecture education in a way that a university context may not. In art school, students actually make the things they conceive. Painting students make paintings; sculpture students make sculptures; printmakers make prints. Except architecture students, who, with rare exceptions, don’t make buildings. They make representations of buildings.

I’ve seen architecture faculty belittle painting critiques as too subjective, too touchy-feely, too soft. Compared to some architecture critiques, a painting critique may, indeed, feel more gentle (though I’ve observed painting critiques—not at  these schools—that were emotionally devastating). But the subjectivity of the painting critique is also its strength. A critic’s response to a painting is, necessarily, her authentic response. The effect of the painting on the critic is immediate and actual. In an architecture critique, by contrast, if the critic is to judge the effect of the building, she must imagine herself into it by way of drawings and models. And a student’s drawings and models—or, for that matter, a professional’s—may not rise to the task. In the fullest sense, they can’t.

Despite the challenge of projecting herself into the imagined reality of the project, the architecture critic does often offer judgments about the likely effect of the building; and the conscientious teacher will encourage students to develop the ability to correlate, for example, the dimensions of a drawing with a sense of the actual extent of a space. Nevertheless, it may be difficult to agree on judgments projected across the gap between drawing and reality, much less to convey to the student the basis for such judgments.

As a consequence, architecture studio instruction comes to depend less on the estimation of effect and more on the coherence of the design process itself. The student establishes an intention—verbally, through sketches and sketch models, or otherwise—and subsequent critique focuses on how well the student develops that intention. Rarely will that intention be to achieve a particular external effect; instead, it will focus on the internal relationship among architectural concepts and elements.

I would not diminish the value of such explorations. They strengthen the student’s synthetic thinking ability, which is perhaps the most valuable tool of the architect, as well as the architect’s greatest contribution to society at large. Nevertheless, this concentration on the internal coherence of the project is thoroughly disengaged from the criterion by which the average person judges buildings: their effect. In principle, the two needn’t be at odds; ideally, the architecture studio would teach the correspondence between internal logic and external effect. In practice, logic holds the field.

It is this disjunction between logic and effect that forms the greatest barrier to a meeting of the architectural and non-architectural mind. Future installments in this series will attempt to build bridges between the two, to identify where the average person’s experience of the effect of a building intersects with the reasoning that motivates and guides our work as architects.

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Tim Culvahouse, FAIA

Tim Culvahouse, FAIA, is Editor-in-Chief of the AIA California Council and an architect specializing in the public communication of design ideas through his firm, Culvahouse Consulting.

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