Parisian Media Merge
Eventually, however, what had been a game for some became a necessity for all. The "laboratory" was not enough. So we developed a new studio that would work with electronic tools — though the paperless studio remained a fantasy. As in the classical mode, we used many different tools and didn't favor a specific brand of software.
We had already seen that most software was not really designed for architectural thinking. In the heat of a charrette, students would either simplify forms, rely on "cut-and-paste," or do their sketching by hand. We wanted the students to be "immersed" in computing and use it as a natural way of thinking much as drawing has traditionally been.
The Web Brings It All Together
We finally found the answer in HTML (Hypertext Markup Language). After all, the students were already using the Web as a simple but effective encyclopedia and communications medium. We were also using the Web to follow the work of our students on exchange at schools all over the planet. And sometimes a link to a particular site, such an article in ArchitectureWeek, could be more effective than a two-hour lecture.
Despite the benefits of the Web, we still felt the "live" studio to be essential for its "face-to-face" instructor feedback, both spoken and drawn, and for the energy generated by the presence of other students.
Our electronic studio has a Web site, ArchiVue. (The punning title means "seen to much" in French). ArchiVue is a library of articles, technical links, and the semester's course information for downloading: instructor notes, site plans, and aerial photos.
Most of today's students don’t read much and can't be bothered by a trip to the library, but we have found that they are much more attentive to text on the Web just because they have downloaded it themselves!
ArchiVue is also a showroom where every student's work is displayed. Even students who don’t care what grade they receive are more concerned when they realize half the world will be able to see their design. The showroom has other benefits. One of our students visiting a firm in New York had left his portfolio in France. But by linking to our site he could show them his work and was hired.
What is nice about HTML is that it is a fairly neutral medium and doesn't dictate form or method. Students who draw well in a classical mode simply scan in their drawings. Those who think in Boolean terms can apply their ethereal ideas and end up in the same 800 by 600-pixel format as the others.
Plotting a Presentation
But they all have to organize their thoughts before even starting the first sketch. They must plan their presentation, scan the sketches at a proper size, and decide which parts of the design to highlight. Importantly, they must figure out how to convey their scheme as a sequence of images that the jury can't see all at once as with a traditional presentation.
We encourage the students to write or draw an architectural "storyboard." This design presentation plan helps by forcing them to figure out ahead of time what they want to do and why. The storyboard process encourages quick sketches that can often convey the scheme better than belabored technical drawings. The students find this practice more engaging than the their theory courses; though, in the process, they often learn what those courses were intended to teach.
Many students today rely so much on computer software presentations that they forget — or never learn — how to draw. I'm referring to that precious architectural language: the sketch on a napkin when two architects get together or the drawing on the plaster wall for the contractor. To support that spontaneous manual language, we have some pressure-sensitive digital drawing tablets on hand.
The studio tries to maintain the spirit of sketching through the various Web media as the scheme evolves into a more developed design. The students look for their own style amid all the multimedia offerings. But it is not an easy task and is often achieved only in the final thesis work.
Of course, in one short semester, with students discovering computing techniques, we tolerate some flaws in presentation, including spelling errors, titles forgotten, or missing "return to" buttons. The first project is usually a mess, with anxious students offering a wagonload of excuses: "My hard disk crashed." "My computer has a virus." "It worked on my computer at home." "I didn’t think a Mac could read a PC disk." And so on.
While hacking through this computer jungle, they learn all about media and file formats, networks, animations, and filing systems. They learn the graphic communication problems associated with computing techniques. And they learn that the architectural design is the only part of the experience the instructor wants to be aware of.
Most of them understand the process enough to apply it more successfully to their next semester's project. Sometimes those who eventually become practicing architects call back to report how this type of learning helps them in their everyday work. Their design talent is being recognized more than any "drafting" skills, giving them better opportunities for advancement.
We have no more debates between expressive watercolor artists who are frightened by the electronic tools and the ray-tracing maniacs who stretch the limits of their "Gotham City" renderings. All of them have discovered that architecture, whatever the media and methods used in design, is ultimately expressed in real works, through a built environment for real people.
Jacques Pochoy, Architecte DPLG Urbaniste, has been teaching at the Ecole Spéciale d’Architecture for ten years, while maintaining a professional practice. He followed the computing trend as a student in the 1970s and now believes in a open, networked architectural office, with special interest in sustainable development.