By William Sarnecky
The last twenty years have seen the emergence of design/build as an integral part of architecture school curricula in the United States and around the world. In the typical architectural design program, students design a hypothetical project in a studio course. These projects usually lack real-world constraints like budgets, clients and regulations. Design/build projects, on the other hand, present real-world problems to the students, asking them to both design and construct a solution. This approach to design education is one manifestation of the teaching philosophy of “learning by doing” famously championed in the foundational writings of American philosopher John Dewey. The Montessori teaching method used at select primary schools around the world provides another example of this educational approach. Integrating design and construction of full-scale projects into the curricula of architecture schools has leveraged Dewey’s notion of the best teaching method—students engaging with and actively manipulating the environment in the process of learning rather than passively observing the world in order to understand the principles that organize it.
Centuries ago a number of factors contributed to the dissolution of the role of architect as both designer and builder. In the 1400s, Leon Battista Alberti wrote in the first modern treatise on the theory and practice of architecture, “Before I go any further, however, I think I should explain exactly whom I mean by architect: for it is no carpenter that I would have you compare the greatest exponents of other disciplines; the carpenter is but an instrument in the hands of the architect.” In other words, Alberti argued that the builder is merely a tool for the architect to deploy. The beginnings of formalized architectural education well over a century ago at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris further entrenched the rift between designing and making. It wasn’t until the 1960s before design/build began to gain any sort of traction in American architecture schools—and even then only in isolated instances. Yale University for example, began their Yale Building Project in 1967 in which first year graduate students designed and constructed projects typically for a community-based client. This precedent did not immediately spread to other schools.
In the early 1990s, Samuel Mockbee, an architect from the state of Mississippi, founded a design/build program at Auburn University in Alabama. He named the program Rural Studio and brought students from the architecture school into the poorest areas of one of the poorest states in the U.S. There they designed and built award winning projects for these underserved communities. The projects ranged in scale from toilets and restrooms for city parks to houses for needy residents to fire stations and community centers. The astounding success of this program lit a fire in the imaginations of academics and practitioners around the country.
In 1997, William Carpenter wrote that out of more than 100 architecture schools in the U.S., fewer than 10 had design/build programs. A mere 7 years later design/build had spread to more than 40 schools in America. Today, it is hard to find an architecture school in the U.S. that has not embraced some form of design/build within its curriculum.
The design/build teaching methodology has now matured to the point where clear themes have begun to emerge in different programs around the world. It is no longer sufficient to simply say a school is teaching design/build—the question must be asked beyond educating students, in service of what is this methodology being deployed? In some cases (Yale Building Project and Rural Studio, for example), the theme is humanitarian. These programs seek to aid communities in need that often cannot aid themselves. Other themes include material research, landscape architecture, sustainability and digital fabrication.
In the UAE, the design/build paradigm until recently has remained an untapped pedagogical approach. Numerous factors ranging from socio-cultural to climatic to industry infrastructure all undermine the implementation of design/build pedagogy. The next article will explore what the College of Architecture, Art and Design at the American University of Sharjah has been doing to overcome these factors and provide its students the opportunity to engage in this intense form of Dewey’s “learning by doing.”
*All Photos: Form/Work, University of New Mexico Design/build studio 1998
William Sarnecky is an associate professor of architecture at the College of Architecture, Art and Design of American University of Sharjah.
Visit www.aus.edu for more information about American University of Sharjah.