Teaching at BAS; thinking about learning spaces

Bergen School of Architecture at night

I gave a lecture on the history of the Norwegian leisure cabin, emphasizing the infrastructural and systematic nature of the many interlocking technologies embedded in the cabin, for the students at the Bergen School of Architecture this week. We also discussed where the ideal of cabin living comes from and how the cultural and material history of the cabin shapes particular trajectories, possibilities and limitations for change.

After my lecture, I got a chance to listen to the students present their projects – this semester, the students all work on examining the relationship between the cabin and the primary home. While they of course had some interesting thoughts and perspectives on the cabin, I found the project format they followed perhaps even more interesting.

Architecture student projects in studio space

I think the studio space allows the architecture students to work with, manipulate, and visualize information – and to structure it into coherent arguments – in different ways than humanities students generally can. The information our students work with is almost exclusively text, and it lives in the students’ heads, in text processing programs on the computer, and in printouts meant to be read in a particular sequence. The information and the ways in which the student structures it into an argument is quite abstract, as it never leaves this private loop between the student’s mind, the computer, and the printout. The architecture students work in small groups of 2-3 students and approach their assigned topic in a much more physical way (yet still with the same tools as humanities students). The studio space with its large wall spaces allow the students to structure their project differently. A vertical row of printed sheets contain a series of claims about cabins and primary homes. These claims are supposed to be clear, forceful, and preferably a bit provocative. For each claim, a vertical row of sheets contain information that supports the claim.

In many ways, this is not very different from how we teach effective writing. The vertical row can be considered the outline of a whole article – a series of arguments that build on each other to a logical conclusion. Each horizontal row can be considered a paragraph, with the claim serving as the topic sentence, and the following sheets the supporting evidence in each paragraph. The architecture students use visual sources, statistics, newspaper articles, and traditional academic scholarship to support their claims.

Furthermore, the output of all these group projects is collected into a book – this is not uncommon for architecture and design students. I saw a couple of examples of previous project books made by BAS students, and they looked really nice. Having such an end product seems to motivate the students to work even harder on getting their projects done well. I wonder how it would work to do something like this in a class for history students? Can and should we train our students to work with more than just text in the most abstract possible sense? I think so.

Discovering space in Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture

I’m a big fan of Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture, and I have my conference schedule to thank for that. At the 2009 SHOT meeting in Pittsburgh, one of the conference excursions took me to Fallingwater, which was the first FLW building I visited. I had already seen pictures of the building, which is why I signed up for the tour. While it of course does look spectacular from the outside, what you don’t get from the pictures is the feeling of space inside the buildings, of this particular relationship between the body and the room around you. The space simply feels right. This is where Wright truly excelled. Pictures can’t convey this feeling, at least not the ones I’ve taken.

ASEH in Phoenix in 2011 had an excursion to Taliesin West, Wright’s winter home in Arizona, and the 2012 ASEH meeting in Wisconsin gave me the opportunity to both get a special tour of his summer home in Taliesin and to stop in his Oak Park Studio and to see the classic Robie House in Chicago. Here are a few pictures from some of the buildings I’ve visited.

Taliesin West
Taliesin West
Guggenheim Museum
Hillside Studio & Theater
Tree at Taliesin
Robie House
Classic cantilever
Oak Park Studio
Moore-Dugal Residence, FLW’s first independent commission from 1895. Redesigned and partly rebuilt after a fire in 1923.
Stained Glass
Our LEGO Robie House!