Designing the Process
It’s Friday afternoon at the studio, two hours after the professors have left, and over half of the class is still reworking their projects after receiving feedback.
I hear a disgruntled sigh from one of my classmates. “How is it going?” I ask with a sympathetic smile. “Oh, fine. I’m just feeling frustrated with my design,” she says, pointing to her site model. She explains her idea and where she is getting stuck. About 10 minutes pass and our conversation covers program requirements, accessibility concerns, and upcoming lectures. She seems a little more relaxed and I go back to my desk.
As I sit down, I realize that our conversation has been more for my benefit than hers. My project has been stuck in second gear for five days. An 11-day charrette to renovate an existing small building into a place where students can get away from the hustle of college, this project was proving to be a challenge. With only a week and a half to work, our goal is to play with form, space and light, creating a user experience that meets the intention of our project. In the first 24 hours I had an overarching concept, but nearly 96 hours later I am barely any further than I was after that first day.
We all have 10,000 bad drawings in us. The sooner we get them out the better. – Walt Stanchfield
The design process is an interesting thing. When I came to college, I foolishly assumed that design process would be taught as if there was a literal procedure – written out and passed around on the first day of studio – that would explain how to approach our projects. I was disabused of this notion quickly as we were thrust into design projects, guided mainly by the encouragement from our professors and whatever questions we were clever enough to ask. Otherwise, we were left to our own devices.
Anxiety is the handmaiden of creativity. -T.S. Eliot
I sat there before my sketches and models, deadlocked. Why couldn’t I see the right move? Where was its character? What did it need? I pushed and prodded it. I raised floors, shuffled rooms, made windows, blocked windows, removed doors, and juggled stairwells. I had fulfilled the requirements but felt totally let down by the solution.
This was the stage at which the professors would encourage us to experiment. Draw from a different perspective; make a model that inverts the mass and space; focus on circulation, then on entrance, then on the ceiling. These exercises are the first line of attack against ”designer’s block,” but none seemed to come to my rescue.
The creative process is a process of surrender, not control. – Julia Cameron
My intimate knowledge of every corner of the building and my frustration around its lack of harmony brought me to an inescapable conclusion. I took all my drawings, sketches and models and set them out of sight and mind. I pulled out a sheet of paper and a pencil and started writing. For four hours I wrote, drew diagrams and cartoons, and thought about the purpose of my project, all the while ignoring questions on how this might actually become a building. The next morning, two days from the due date for the project, I read over my notes and began designing anew.
On presentation day I came into studio with my new building in hand. As I pinned it up on our presentation wall and stood back to reflect, I realized it was a success. Not the building – that was a disaster. But the project taught me something important about my burgeoning design process. Frustration is a guide, a necessary sense to let us know there is still work to be done. Without that sense, I wouldn’t have pushed myself to transcend my original, uninspired design.
Every man’s work, whether it be literature, or music or pictures or architecture or anything else, is always a portrait of himself. – Samuel Butler
Of course I only speak for myself. My peers face similar challenges, but in different ways. My reaction has less to do with a universal approach to creativity and more to do with my own skills and shortcomings. The design process is not a prescription that applies to everyone equally. It is a reaction to one’s own personality, skills and deficits. It is not a thing that can be unlocked and wielded as a tool, but something far more amorphous and elusive. It is the way we fill in our deficiencies and augment our strengths to achieve our goals. As a result, our finished work contains some of our personality within it.
Architecture is a unique discipline that requires the synthesis of an overwhelming amount of data and intentions. As first year students, we are absolute beginners. Learning to find our way through all that information to get to a point where we can begin to become directors who sculpt and harmonize structure is the true challenge in these studios. We are not designing buildings, but designing a process by which we can understand our role in designing buildings.
Written by Shane Leaman Arch 300 student, undergraduate
Sketches by Shane Leaman, Photos by Vincent Huynh