Thinkers & Makers

Architecture

Reflections on podcast of Thomas Heatherwick in ‘Dream Builders’, BBC Worldservice

How is it that in learning a furniture design course, you make furniture, in a glass design course, you make glass, in a fashion course, you make clothes, but in studying architecture, most people never make anything bigger than a small model? This is an issue raised by Thomas Heatherwick in the series  ‘Dream Builders’ on the BBC Worldservice:

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Thomas Heatherwick

“I realised there was no making whatsoever in the training of the people making the biggest objects on the planet. Realising there had been a hundred thousand people through the university being trained to design buildings never having made a building.”

–> The way that Architecture is taught in University is very much based on concepts, ideas of ‘types of spaces’ and context. This is all great, however, there is often very little hands-on making at a large scale, which I feel is a great missed opportunity. There is a strong potential to increase the quality of architectural design through appreciating that much can be learnt in the physical process of making. Making can be the catalyst for design ideas, in experimenting with the materials, you get a better sense of the textures, weight, smell, forces in action and crucially, the details of building.

In designing a building, many architecture students appear to spend days and weeks agonising over the ‘form’ of their design, constantly tweaking curves and corners in their 3D computer model. Then, by contrast, only a couple of hours choosing between whether to apply ‘brick’ or ‘timber’ texture in the photoshop render that can only result in a skin-deep first visual impressions-based design. This problem can also continue to appear in built architecture, where an obvious lack of understanding of building processes can result in a design idea and its physical reality not quite matching up.

Thomas Heatherwick identifies these problems as arising from a disconnect between the designer and the maker

“This rift happened between the people who make and the people who draw and come up with the idea and there was this wonderful elevation of the designer… but without realising it, it demoted making… and the sense of togetherness as a team became a problem… If nobody really values you… it kind-of ‘alright, what do you want me to build?’”

By contrast, learning across the disciplines  can have the effect of improving design through dialogue and collaboration:

“There was a quality of discussion you could have and a response from makers… because you have welded, you’re not a good welder but you can weld… they can have a level of discussion with you about that which isn’t abstract.”

–> By learning construction processes, architecture students will appreciate how hard it actually is to brick-lay thus get over this affliction that has been with us since Plato that physical work is demeaning.

A parallel can be made with putting on a play

A parallel can be made between constructing a building and constructing a play. Here the writer and director act as architects, building from concepts and designing an approach to the story, the way they want it to come across. The actors are then the contractors; they take the ideas and manifest them in physical reality and in doing so bring their own creativity to forming characters; they ask questions and bring new ideas to the director. It is this dialogue that forms the finished play. The same should also be the case in building. If we were to go by today’s common practice in building, then the actors would be mere automatons, acting out the pure will of the director. The result would be that the actors either succeed in achieving what the director had in their head without contributing to its improvement; or, given that they have no investment in the product, cut corners to save effort, leaving us with a play like a roof that will start leaking.  Theatre is at its best when the actors work with the director and communicate effectively and actors can offer suggestions like ‘I feel I could express the affection better if I moved closer…etc.’ In the same way, architecture has the potential to be more than just a stilted production if everybody involved in the project from starchitect to manager to contractor to intern is given a voice.

In losing touch with the process of making, architects have reduced the builder to an automaton and denied that they could have creative input that would improve the design. In their eyes, the mind-vomit of the genius cannot be improved through collaboration. As a result, we have so many buildings that could have been better, and in their static state, have none of the joy of creation that older buildings, in the lineage of Ruskin’s thinking craftsman can possess.

“the mind-vomit of the genius cannot be improved through collaboration”

To conclude, here is an adept summing up by John Ruskin:

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John Ruskin

“We want one man to be always thinking, and another to be always working, and we call one a gentleman, and the other an operative; whereas the workman ought often to be thinking, and the thinker often to be working, and both should be gentlemen, in the best sense. As it is, we make both ungentle, the one envying, the other despising, his brother; and the mass of society is made up of morbid thinkers and miserable workers. Now it is only by labour that thought can be made healthy, and only by thought that labour can be made happy, and the two cannot be separated with impunity.” – Ruskin, ‘The Stones of Venice’

–> Ruskin followed this through in his time at Oxford to the extent of taking gangling literary undergraduates including Oscar Wilde out of town to help repair roads. If Ruskin did it for that lot, then I see absolutely no reason why architecture professors today can’t take a similar initiative for their students… we are, afterall, actually going to spend the rest of our adult lives engaged in the business of construction.

You can listen to the Thomas Heatherwick podcast from ‘Dream Builders’ on the BBC Worldservice here

I’m always interested to hear other people’s thoughts on any subject so please email me at theoshack@live.co.uk.