Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Build knowledge by stepping back

In my recent work with students at Moratuwa University in Sri Lanka I ran across the same problem as I see with my American students. As architects and urban planners, the students diligently work toward design solutions. It's an admirable pursuit. Who doesn't want to make the world better place?
But just like my students in Boston, I want to admonish my Sri Lankan students, "Slow down! Step back!" This may sound like a cruel joke to students who are primed for work. They have studied hard--very hard-to reach the heights they have achieved. They have put their all into academic projects, struggling with the various and sometimes contradictory opinions of tutors, professors, and external jurors during crits. They have striven to produce their best work. And they hope to contribute through their profession. Most important, they want to make the world a better place. 

So here's my question. Can we make the world a better place by "doing" less? Let me put it another way. Can we fill in the intangible missing parts of our designs by observing more and "solving" fewer problems?

Let me give you an example. I was at a field site with an M-Arch student, already an accomplished architect here in Sri Lanka. And he does nice work. As we stood overlooking the colorful, noisy, earthy, dirty, unruly fish market just outside the Galle Fort, he insisted that any comprehensive design he would undertake would necessarily "deal with" the fish market. He called it disorganized and undisciplined. I suggest that a closer look at the market would demonstrate otherwise. 

Taking a further look, or many more looks, and accepting the fish market on its own terms, we are certain to see that there is a fairly strict organization of function. Sellers have their own place, sales and buying are undertaken in consistent, predictable ways. The noise is part of the convention of trade. Even "dirty" goes by the wayside if you look closely. The sellers all have buckets that collect meltwater from the ice. Observe closely and you see order, discipline, and care for the space, all things my friend wants to disrupt!

A talented designer doesn't see through his own biases. What about his students? How do we build knowledge if our basis is our own bias? So perhaps we should be teaching how to learn, how to observe, how to step back from our own "ideas," before we teach principles of design. In fact, I think we should teach and encourage these modalities all through the design education process, to students of every age. 

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