Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Structure and Image

With regard to studio Project 2, in which we produced the conceptual design of a pedestrian bridge: Are we addressing the quality of the actual product (i.e., the model), or of diagramming the process? Are we neglecting the assigned requirements: constructability, feasibility, etc. in lieu of sexy graphics and a Photoshop-ed documentation process? I understand that producing diagrams helps to clarify, even develop the design process, but at what point does diagramming become the focus, replacing the tangible result? It seems that we are more concerned with developing graphical clarify and process diagrams, rather than the fulfillment of stated requirements. My understanding is that we were creating a conceptual model that could convey structural meaning, not developing an artifact then focusing on documentation/graphical representation of the exploration. What are we discussing more: lessons learned from the exercise, or critiquing layouts and image quality?

This is a courageous and multifaceted question: a juicy one. Let me start by saying that I was happy with the studio’s results from Project 2. It was a difficult exercise that asked you to re-balance many aspects of your design thinking, and to introduce a few new aspects altogether. In fact, it seems it was too much to bite off. This is always a pedagogical danger when trying out a new project. Few people got their heads around the jig as mechanism of analog-based parametric design, for example, and jigs did not play the central role in creative exploration I had hoped they would.

Another deviation from the project pedagogy was the failure of many folks to engage the bridge as a structure. Few people took the bridge’s need for structural stability seriously, and the result was many bridges that are structurally weak. Instead, the focus shifted toward: material-based research (continuing the process from Project 1), componentization, tectonics and propagating components into a larger structural pattern. These were all crucial issues to tackle and digest prior to Project 3, so I consider the project a success. But there is that nagging neglect identified in the question: what about structure? It seems to me that there is some interesting psychological dimension to this neglect. I was surprised to find that even when I tried to reassert the importance of rigidity and lateral bracing, few seems to get serious about resolving these things. If students had taken seriously these structural requirements, nearly every project would have looked radically different.

I have reflected on this a bit since the end of Project 2, and I believe the cause is, in part, confusion regarding modeling versus prototyping. What were we doing in Project 2? Were we building a scale representation of a bridge, or a real, structural, spanning artifact out of tubing, wood or Rockite? To the extent a student saw it as a scale model representing a bridge, it became a non-structural, merely visual study. In other words, issues of structure receded and issues of appearance dominated. To the extent a student saw it as a material artifact in its own right, it became a structural entity that needed to support itself, become rigid, and make it across the gap. In this regard, the two projects that best captured this real-thingness approach, and produced the most structurally authentic results were Tom’s Rockite House of Cards and Brandon’s Wax Cactus. Strangely it was Rockite and wax, which seemed most difficult in the early days of the effort, that might have played a role in getting people into a truly structural frame of mind. These two projects do not just look structural, they are structural, and it was the weight of the material itself that led to an unavoidable need to treat it as such.

In response to this realization, I have already made a change to Project 2, in the event I reuse it next year. Two new requirements: 1) bridge must support a brick, and 2) bridge must reduce lateral deflection to maximum 1/4” when a box fan is placed next to it and turned on high. Heavier materials have a harder time with requirement #1 and an easier time with #2, and vice versa for light-weight materials. These rules will make confronting the realness of the artifact unavoidable. Architects are traditionally so well trained to avoid realness, to avoid direct, empirical study of material things, that the tendency is to treat everything as a representation of something else. The goal of this studio, in contrast, is to treat everything as a real thing, even model-scale representations. It seems to me that this is a radical kind of authenticity, which makes the second aspect of the questioner’s concern even more interesting.

The second aspect expresses concern about the studio’s focus on diagram-making, and especially on the final review for Project 2, which focused on diagrams and image layout. Are we getting lost in the making of “sexy graphics”? What is more important, the design of a bridge or the design of an image layout? From my perspective I would say that they are both very important, and it would be deadly to neglect one or the other. In my experience, students at our school are given weak education in visual communication, and in some cases, they are even given a mis-education: taught to manage visual information in self-defeating ways. I find it necessary to give students a contrary perspective on visual communication as well as other aspects of design process. It is part of the studio’s ground-up critical redirection of the architectural education status quo.

Part of the problem is that students are taught (sometimes tacitly, sometimes overtly) that the way you present visual information is irrelevant, that only the content of your presentation is important. But content and method are interdependent, and the fact is that the way you present ideas visually has a huge impact on how your design will be understood and evaluated. Our students lose many professional opportunities merely because their method of visual communication is clumsy, and it expresses the operation of a clumsy, naïve mind. How you present something conveys complex messages about you: the clarify of your thinking, your degree of self-discipline, your level of confidence, your level of passion, and your degree of empathy for others. I say that our students’ visual information is often "naïve" because they do not understand that all these things are conveyed in a page layout, and because they do not know it, they inadvertently convey horrible, off-putting things about themselves. The studio’s agenda of diagramming and visual communication seeks to show you that even subtle choices about graphic layout are choices, and they convey something about you, for better or worse, and to professional designers, who are acutely attuned to visual things, it conveys a lot about you, for better or worse.

Perhaps the biggest weakness of our students with regard to visual communication is lack of empathy. Students at our school routinely produce visual content that makes it very clear that they do not care at all whether anybody can understand it. They have no empathy for their audience, so little in fact, that they usually do not ever stop to ask: Will people understand what I am trying to show? What will they likely glean from it? What are they most likely to miss, and how might I correct that? What aspects are confusing and why? Is anything vague, and how could I clarify it? Students usually do not realize how powerful it is to see something clear and true. This happened once during the Project 2 final review when Dace remarked with fervor how clear and true Michelle’s layout was. When information connects with an observer, it is powerful. This is visual authenticity: the clear and true portrayal of your design content. Yes, authenticity is important in the content of designs, but it is no less important in the method of conveying them. What we are seeking in this studio is both kinds of authenticity, which cannot really exist apart.

Content is important, but content can never be conveyed and understood except through some means. It is dangerous to undermine the importance of visual means as mere appearance, as sexy graphics. One’s visual medium is the only path to one’s content. Belittle the path and you belittle the content.

The Post Modern slogan "the medium is the message" (translation: the method is the content) is dead. This was an attempt to negate content and raise visual method to a status of sole concern, in which discussion of "sexy graphics" was self-sufficient. But do not fall into the opposite trap, believing that visual method is dead. We need both. The crux of newer thinking is that design content and visual method are interdependent.

Having said this, I will also say that in the studio there is always a day, usually during Project 2, when everybody shows their diagrams and layouts for the first time. It is an important moment of feedback when I try to help students make some important connections to the previous diagramming lectures. But I have said pretty much all I want to say on that. I am happy to look at individual diagrams and layouts and provide feedback as we move forward, but we will mostly move on to other concerns.

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