Using Students’ Design Work to Teach Design Theory and Criticism

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Shawhin Roudbari, Architecture

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2012

GSIs teaching Architecture 130, Introduction to Design Theory and Criticism, are tasked with bringing an awareness of theories about design practice and pedagogy to students otherwise fully engaged in their own designs in their studios. To many students, the “theoretical” is a space in their thinking about architecture that doesn’t come automatically. Many consider design theory to be the antithesis of “actual” design. But studying design theory and design criticism almost invariably produces more thoughtful architects and powerful designs.

Students commonly learn design theory and criticism as another history of architecture. But I believe the power of the course is in making students theorists and critics of their own work, thereby engaging (and situating) them in the very history they are studying. The teaching problem was in how architecture students were exposed to design theory and criticism; the solution was to incorporate students’ own work in the teaching plan; and the effectiveness of the method was assessed by observing their ability to think and talk about their and their peers’ work critically and by observing the effect of this dialogue on their design work.

Instead of limiting the class meetings to discussions around a table about the history of design theory and criticism, in our first meeting I asked each student to bring a picture or sketch of a design project that resonated with them. The selection and discussion criteria were left open with the intent to highlight a variety of interpretations and appreciations of design. We pinned up what the students brought in and spent most of the first meeting informally talking about the projects. The students had a lot to say. Thinking about architecture came naturally. The open discussion served as a microcosm of the evolution of design theory and criticism. This activity, and others like it throughout the semester, had the effect of showing that theory and criticism come naturally from thinking deeply about design. This way of thinking about the subject stands in contrast to how students typically view theory and criticism — as a formal, historical, and ultimately detached counterpart to the design process.

When students brought their own work to this “theory class” they crossed a threshold. Apart from studio “pin-ups” or “desk-crits” (both forms of review in their studio classes), in our meetings, their work was scrutinized in explicit historical and theoretical contexts. Comments from their peers forced students to think about why they were designing what they were designing: what social, historical, and even economic and technological context were they a part of, and how did that affect their work? Almost invariably, students were surprised to see how contingent their work was on forces previously invisible to them. It’s one thing for students to read that postmodernism in architecture was partly a post-Fordist reaction to a modernist ethos. It’s another thing for them to situate their own work in an un-periodized historical context of the present. By the end of the semester, students could see and articulate how their own creative process was deeply embedded in temporal fashions in architecture pedagogy and practice.

The growth of students’ ability to think critically about their own architecture was the primary measure of the effectiveness of this technique. At the last section meeting, I re-posted the images students brought to our first meeting. I asked students to comment again on these projects. Not only did they have an arsenal of historical context within which to situate them (an outcome of a semester’s worth of reading and studying), but they fluently and naturally reflected on the projects, bringing up penetrating criticism beyond topics covered in the course syllabus. They had learned to see design critically.