BETWEEN MAKING AND ACTION- IDEAS FOR A RELATIONAL DESIGN PEDAGOGY
Thank you very much for the invitation to speak. I like to share with you my experience teaching in the professional Master of Architecture program and the re-organization our undergraduate architecture and interior architecture curricular at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Despite their discipline boundaries due to accreditation and professional licensure, I have often sought to broaden the education of an architect and interior designer far beyond their professional confines. My aspiration is not unlike the goal of the environmental design program, which I understand grew out of a desire to create a more holistic design education that integrates the interior design of a building with the exterior environment. I hope my presentation today will offer a possible direction.
I will start by pointing out a contemporary, everyday phenomenon, an advice on how to trim a Bonsai tree by a design master and the notion of space in the Chinese language. Many of us have encountered this situation. You are late for an appointment and you call your friend on your cellphone to inform him of your current location and status as you are traveling. He may even suggest an alternative place to meet based on your present location. With the invention of the cellphone, temporal and spatial relationships among people now are continuously tuning and calibrating based on live communication. During an interview, the renowned industrial designer Dieter Ram spoke how he knew when to stop pruning a Bonsai tree. He quoted a Bonsai master who said one should stop when it is sparse enough for a small bird to fly through. Although this may not be perceived as a practical advice, the simple yet powerful insight reveals how to live with grace and gentleness with the natural world. Whether as an architect or an interior designer, the fundamental skill, which one can claim expertise over other disciplines is the shaping of space. Space is written in the Chinese language as 空 间. 间 consists of the character sun inside a door- sunlight entering an interior space through a door ajar. For me, this says a lot about the relational and contextual nature of space. It is not an abstract, continuous and homogeneous space where discreet objects are placed as commonly understood or taught in schools. At the same time, 间 means interval or pause; it relates and connects the temporal with the spatial dimension as well. From these three examples, we witness how a relational existence is already an everyday phenomenon because of technological development, is vital in reconnecting our relationship to the natural world and exists in the Chinese language. But how does a relational design pedagogy look like? How can we prepare and shape a relational attitude and sensibility among incoming design students and build upon them?
Importance of Art
The first year design curricular across all disciplines is broad-based in focus and draws upon the strong art and humanities traditions of our School. The objective is to situate the study of architecture and design in relation to the arts. Students are exposed to significant artworks that reveal particular perspectives of the contemporary human condition that have impacts on the future of architecture and design. For example, works by Zeng Hao, who studied oil painting at the Central Academy of Fine Art, presents a facet of contemporary life where the distance and objectification of human relationships are evident. The titles of his work further amplify this condition. They are simply called ‘Thursday Afternoons’, ‘Friday 5.00pm’ or ‘September 12’. In Zeng Hao’s painting, time is cut of into discreet units. The figures are painted as frozen objects in space. It is akin to a new form of objectified, still life in which humans no longer have any meaningful relationship with one another or with their immediate environment. Dean Mohsen Mostafavi of the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University in his essay Architecture’s Inside quoted Dutch product designer Jurgen Bey, who said, “ Good art is like scientific research. Investigating the world in search of new answers without the question of direct use.” (Mostafavi, 2008, p.11) Looking at the world through art is especially important because an artist is like a canary bird in a coalmine who can detect the slightest change in an environment’s atmosphere. The rawness, directly engaged, inquiring and emotive qualities of art bring a deep, human dimension to design.
Architecture and Self
I strongly believe design education cannot separate personal knowing, experience and capacity building. In this regard, the relationship between architecture and self as described by Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein is helpful. He wrote in his book Culture and Value, “Working in philosophy-like work in architecture in many respects- is really more a working on oneself. On one’s own interpretation. On one’s way of seeing things (And what one expects of them).” (Wittgenstein, 1980, p. 16e) I would further argue that it is a situated self where existence is dialogical and an awareness of otherness. Moreover, knowledge gained in the university needs to be attuned to the larger society. In this short assignment titled “What is the building telling you?” my students in the first year professional Master of Architecture program were asked to interpret what the deteriorating and abandoned buildings with boarded up windows and doors in Chicago were ‘telling them’, as if the buildings were their dialog partners. They shared their personal observations and interpretations through a combination of photography and text. For one student, the windows resembled the state of being silenced. They were no longer merely architectural elements but took on a human dimension. Following the identification of human states such as vulnerability, fragility, abandonment, etc. the students re-interpreted them architecturally by combining and manipulating the textures of materials, transforming the scales, openings and light qualities of spaces they created.
What Do You Sense?
In a follow-up assignment called “What do you sense?” the same group of students was given probing questions that required them to shape a multi-sensorial experience through the use of photography and materials. The intention was to challenge them to activate a whole new perception of their environment and to experience it relationally. A student responded to the question “What is the weight of shadows?” by carefully constructing a model that permitted only a sliver of light to penetrate into a darkened space. She explored the different perceptions of heaviness in the space by calibrating the size and length of the vertical slit in the model. Following these initial assignments, students continued into their second, third and part of the fourth years (for the undergraduate interior architecture students) with a more discipline based design education. From the second year of the Master of Architecture and the third year undergraduate interior architecture curricular onwards, there are opportunities to take a wide number of interdisciplinary design studios that focus on current and emerging architecture and design topics.
The Beppu Studio
I like to share with you one such interdisciplinary studio in the fourth semester that took place amidst a community in need. My project partner and I were invited to take part in an art event in the City of Beppu, Japan as part of a multi-year art festival from 2009-2010. Portions of the city had been suffering from long-term economic stagnation, unemployment, homelessness and problems of an aging population. Dotted all over were intervallic landscapes of houses either abandoned or demolished. Human relationships were naturally affected by the state of the environment. Beppu Project, the non-profit arts organization that spearheaded the event hoped they could make a difference to the city through the annual art event. For us, it presented a unique opportunity to re-examine the role of an architect and designer in society especially in light of the Great Recession of 2009. We felt the conditions were right to search for an alternative form of spatial practice that was less market-oriented, more socially grounded and predicated on agency, collaboration and cultural activism in a community. The late British architect Cedric Price, who posed a simple yet provocative question as to the need for a building when he was asked to design one inspired us. Price’s question demolished the conventional and professional expectations of an architect. For him, the building may not be the only solution and can even hide or exacerbate the real issues that the architect is asked to resolve.
Design For the Interim
Junko Abe, one of the members of Beppu Project gave us an enlightened answer as to how we could re-frame design for this art event. She suggested we situate design as the shaping of consciousness towards action and to re-orientate the role of the designer as a 意匠 – a craftsman of consciousness/awareness. Her suggestion demanded a re-orientation of what we do as designers and by extension, how we approach design education. We began by setting up what I called the Studio in the Street. Over two summers and one-winter sessions, we occupied empty shops along one of the shopping arcades and used them as studio spaces for teaching and learning. Objects and actions were combined to create situations for reflection, provocation, sharing, motivation, and the co-creation of ideas to help re-energize the neighborhood during the interval between current economic stagnation and future recovery. Over time, our studio in the street became more than just a place for students to learn about architecture, interior architecture and the city.
Strategies for Building Trust, Empathy and Participation
We developed a series of strategies that enabled us to build a strong and trusting relationship with the local residents, for the students to cultivate a sense of empathy and understanding, and to support the co-creation of ideas to address some of the challenges facing the neighborhood. The first strategy was home visits. We visited homes and patiently listened to and gathered the stories of the residents growing up in Beppu. Sometimes these moments took place over a meal or tea. The elderly residents were especially happy to see us and to know we were keen to hear their stories. We conducted street talks as a second strategy and spoke to residents we met along the street. These conversations helped us to understand the challenges and aspirations of residents from all walks of life. The third strategy involved the visiting of local community organizations such as the House of Mother Teresa, which provided social services to the elderly, the poor and the homeless, and the shopping arcade association to hear how they were coping with the crisis. The students were also immersed in unique, local cultural practices during their stay in the city that formed the fourth strategy. The fifth strategy was community service. We took part in the monthly street cleaning of the shopping arcade since our studio was housed in one of the vacant shops. The activity further allowed us to build trust among the local residents. We were also cognizant of the important role the media play. As a sixth strategy, a group of us took part in the local morning show to talk about the project while the local newspaper interviewed some of our students. Finally, we set up community workshops in our studio to provide a platform where local residents could come, discuss and work with us on making their city vibrant again.
Relational Objects and Experiences
The following examples show how objects at various scales played a relational role in the community. One of our participants designed and built a movable kitchen, which she located in different parts of the city to serve hot noodles to the local residents. Instead of designing a self-contained movable kitchen, she used a hose to connect the tap of her movable kitchen to the source of her water supply wherever she was stationed. She depended on the generosity and cooperation of the local residents, as well as her power of persuasion in order for her project to succeed. In another example, a community model used for highlighting various challenges around the city and the sharing of ideas by the participants was made from materials and objects donated by the residents. My project partner and I went to all the shops around our street studio and asked the shopkeepers to donate surplus objects and materials that were transformed into buildings, streets, pavilions, gardens, etc. by the participants and students. Here is a project that aimed to raise the spirit of the residents by photographing their smiles and by encouraging them to identify one positive quality of their neighborhood or an unforgettable memory. The project began with the offering of gifts made by the students to the local residents. The gifts, in the form of small, circular seed-like pouches also explained the intention behind the project. The pictures of smiling residents were printed onto t-shirts and exhibited daily in the studio. Residents of all ages came everyday to see whose smiles were recorded and what positive messages and memories their neighbors and friends left behind. In one workshop, a participant used the ingredients for making spring rolls to draw pictures of historical buildings and wrote words of encouragement. All the participants later consumed these edible drawings. By ingesting expressed memories and feelings, the gesture symbolized for everyone the collective commitment for change.
Ecologies of Small Ideas
During the last 2 workshop sessions, we co-created a total of 34 small ideas to address some of the challenges facing Beppu. These ideas were presented and subsequently re-organized together with the participants to form larger clusters of interdependent ideas. We avoided standalone ideas that were disconnected to the larger whole as their independencies and relational qualities created new synergies. Besides, the small ideas would have a better chance of survival if they were embedded into a larger ecology. In this particular proposal, I will show how the weaving of five different scenarios led to the creation of an ecology of small ideas based on their mutual interdependencies. First, a pastor wished to connect the existing and new social activities of a few churches in Beppu that were happening independently at that moment. Second, a small tour group wished to expand their activities in the city beyond walking tours but needed advice on the possibilities. Third, many houses have empty street level spaces and were left standing amidst a sea of parking spaces when the neighboring houses were demolished. Fourth, we observed university students there had the tradition of giving away their stuff at the end of their stay in campus by setting up informal stands outside their homes. Fifth, many active elderly residents spent their time seating or watching the television at the local shopping mall because they had nowhere else to go. In the proposal, we suggested to members of the tour group they could expand their activities by introducing bicycle tours. A new type of “Beppu Bicycle’ could be designed either through a national or international competition to help bring greater attention to the city. The bicycle routes were connected to the churches, new places of interest and some of the empty houses, which the local university could assist in transforming them into places for the students to give away their stuff or as small business start-ups for the graduates. The ground floors of these houses could be cafes, bicycle rental and service shops that would help create job opportunities for the unemployed residents. The active elderly could also be caretakers of some of the re-purposed spaces and used them as additional multi-generational social spaces for the residents.
As shown in my presentation today, moving relationally across a sliding scale of engagements, experiences and opportunities, the new design curricular position the education of an architect and interior designer far beyond the conventional demands of spatial design. Furthermore, my students were not limited by the accepted tools of design visualization and communication, even though they were competent by the time they took the interdisciplinary studio. Two students used a comic book format to communicate their ideas due the accessibility of the media and the narrative structure of their ideas. One group of students performed in front of a live audience on how to recycle plastic beer crates as stools, temporary community gardens and as multi-purpose carriers for everyday activities, complete with stage lights and choreographed actions. Another group deployed an analog version of crowd sourcing to gather the smiles, memories and words of inspiration from Beppu residents. They also had the opportunity to present their ideas to a much more diverse group of ‘design critics’ while in Beppu that included social activists, artists, architects, a small museum owner, academics, university students from other disciplines, business owners and even homeless residents. The conventional business model of design where a client seek out the designer was overturned because many of the proposals were unsolicited and arose out of the designer’s active engagement with the community. The experience empowered these young, future designers to take up a new way of realizing their ideas instead of relying on a client-based model. By working directly and with humility within the community, the perception of the designer as a celebrity that the media narrowly portrayed was also dispelled. Starting with the awareness of oneself in relation to the larger context and re-shaping design education as situated and directed towards action and self-knowing, my students are made aware early in their education of the relational dimension of design. With maturity, confidence and the acquisition of more knowledge and skills, the extension of the design studio in the later stage of the design curricular into a community in need helps to strengthen the ethical and social dimensions of design. The designer as 意匠 takes on expanded responsibilities and roles. Moving between making and action relationally, the designer is simultaneously an activist, a provocateur, a moderator, a maker, a facilitator, a curator as well as a synthesizer. The ill-defined curriculum of the environmental design program is often cited as a disadvantage. I would contend that it is precisely the open-ended nature of the program that gives it the agility and flexibility to adapt and meet the emerging expectations of what a designer of the future can contribute to society besides another interior or a building. This is the important challenge that the environmental design program will need to recognize and rise up to in order to be distinctive and relevant in a fast changing world. Thank you.
Hustwit, Gary. (2009). Objectified. Swiss Dots Ltd. in association with Veer: London.
Mostafavi, Moshen. (2008). Architecture’s Inside. Harvard Design Magazine. 29, 6-11.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. (1980). Culture and Value. Chicago: University of
Wu Hung. (2005). Transience: Chinese Experimental Art at the End of the Twentieth Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
The Beppu Studio would not have been possible without the generous support, contribution, and participation of the Jaap Bakema Fellowship, the Motorola Foundation, the Toyota Foundation, Architect Kenta Kishi, Dean Lisa Wainwright and Associate Professor Hennie Reynders, School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Art Curator Takashi Serizawa, Beppu Project Director Jun’ya Yamaide, Beppu Project Coordinator Junko Abe, professors, students, architects, artists and the convivial spirit of Beppu residents.