Digital Design Grows in Education
Michael Dingeldein, AIA, vice-president of Steed Hammond Paul Architects in Hamilton, Ohio, and former chair of the AIA's Computer-Aided Practice Professional Interest Area, also teaches at Miami.
"I have no doubt," Dingeldein says, "that working with 3D modeling software makes the students better 3D thinkers. The amount of information they can imagine and test extends their design abilities by far."
Other schools, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of British Columbia, and the University of Hong Kong have experimented with worldwide "virtual studios."
In these studios, students from around the world team up to design together and work out solutions to communications problems brought on by collaborating across time zones and language differences.
Robert Woodbury, an architecture professor at the University of Adelaide, Australia, observes that other innovations in exploiting technology have also come from academia rather than the profession. For example, most CAD-based urban models now in use by governments around the world were built in architecture schools.
Woodbury notes that as students come to college with an unprecedented software fluency, professors who once taught how-to computer courses are instead looking for ways technology can help foster creativity, communication skills, and critical thinking.
What Students Bring to the Office
Without the pressure to produce real buildings, students are freer to experiment with imaginative design techniques that would be unrecognizable in a professional setting.
These techniques have the potential to transform the profession, but some adjustments to firm culture may be needed before the skills brought by interns (most of whom are, after all, still inexperienced in the practice of architecture) can be appreciated and adapted by practitioners.
As both teacher and practitioner, San Francisco architect John Marx is familiar with these issues. He observes: "The problem is that even though they know how to generate form, they don't yet understand the building types. So our goal is to help them acquire the background they need in how buildings go together pragmatically.
Marx agrees that 3D modeling improves students' three-dimensional thinking. However he notes that the proportion of outstanding designers has probably remained constant despite the emergence of technology.
A Case Study in Technique Innovation
While many schools now teach 3D modeling in design studios, some are dabbling in still more experimental processes. While a graduate student at the University of Oregon, Francis Dardis, now of the Portland architecture firm BOOR/A, experimented with innovative graphic techniques for generating unusual and imaginative imagery.
Encouraged by professor Daniel Herbert, Dardis would begin with a physical model of a simple concept. Then he would place the model on a scanner and create a 2D image which he would subject to a variety of "filters" with Adobe PhotoShop. These filters perform such manipulations as adjusting contrast, adding textures, blurring lines, changing colors, and so on.
Some of the results were surprising and evoked new design ideas. These were sketched and scanned, and the cycle continued. In the end, Dardis came up with a credible project but with richer imagery than in typical student projects.
Although he has not had the opportunity to apply such novel techniques in practice, he has found that taking the risk of including experimental imagery in his portfolio made him more interesting to prospective employers.
Dardis, who also teaches, observes that these richer imageries lead students to a more idea-laden design process. "With the more generative process linking computers to design process," he says, "students more readily accept the computer as an integral tool in their media repertoires."
He adds: "This acceptance helps students to benefit from image manipulation tools, 2D drafting tools, and 3D modeling." He advises that an intern's ideal portfolio would demonstrate a balance of 2D drafting skills and adventurous imagery.
What Practitioners Can Do
Even as interns' portfolios become more populated with computer work of all kinds, they still tend to lack what they have been traditionally weakest in: evidence of an understanding of materials, details, construction methods, building codes, and other practice issues.
Learning about these most often occurs during apprenticeship. In the past, such learning was associated with years of manual drafting under the supervision of a more experienced architect.
Computer technology is, ironically, depriving many interns of this experience for several reasons. Some of those who come into a firm with very strong modeling skills may be sequestered in a narrow design niche where they do not have the opportunity to develop other skills.
More serious, perhaps, some young people new to a firm find no opportunity for mentoring. The senior designers may feel it's more efficient to do all their drafting themselves because they can do it on a computer as fast as they can think about it, and even large projects can now be conducted by relatively small design teams.
Ten to 15 years from now, many of those in the middle bracket of experience will have come up through the ranks without learning everything about practice that their predecessors did. What will this mean to the profession and to the quality of buildings?
Dingeldein says his firm is confronting this situation in several ways. Because most senior designers are not yet fluent in 3D modeling, they will often team up with younger designers, thus offering an apprenticeship albeit a nontraditional one.
But this is not enough, he admits. "Interns come into a firm," Dingeldein says, "and think all they want is to be under the wing of a designer. But when it comes time to pass the licensing exam or put a building together, they will not have sat through a long drafting experience or seen how a wall section is drawn."
One way to address this problem, he says is to require mid-level job captains to take on more jobs, thus forcing them to use more intern-level help.
What Students Can Do to Prepare
The dilemma for students is that computer technology is giving them more, not less, to learn during their school years. There is probably no single school that regularly turns out graduates with solid grounding in all the areas of design, theory, and practical experience.
At the Boston Architectural Center, the curriculum emphasizes practice-related work. Every student is required to work in a firm full time while going to school at night. Those who survive this grueling regimen, which can take eight to ten years, emerge with practical skills that make them more readily employable than traditional students.
A recent BAC graduate, Corina Martinez, has worked at the Boston firm of Shepley, Bulfinch, Richardson & Abbott for several years. She says her background enabled her to come to her first job with a more realistic view of the kinds of work interns are typically given.
While in school, she was careful to balance her 3D modeling and 2D drafting courses. Now she is creating a computer-based graphic standard for the firm's master plan projects. Still, like any intern, she has to be vigilant with her employer to allow her to expand her skills into all of the areas laid out in the Intern Development Program (IDP).
The IDP is a joint program of the American Institute of Architects, the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards, the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture, and The American Institute of Architecture Students.
Martinez recommends that students become familiar with the IDP categories before they finish school so they'll know where they may need to expand beyond the horizons of their formal education.
Adapting to a new professional culture brought on by technology will require flexibility among all concerned: students, professors, and practitioners. A good way to start will be for each group to see what the others are doing and to understand the differences in expectations.
Professor Woodbury says: "For better or for worse, computing is changing the field of architecture and will continue to do so. I believe that as academics our best role is to seek those changes out or to create them, to challenge them or foster them, and to try to make the inevitable more interesting and productive."
B.J. Novitski is managing editor for ArchitectureWeek.
This article first appeared in Architectural Record, April, 1999.