What Does an Architect Do?
Adults respond to this question with buildings such as the library or courthouse. Occasionally they mention a house such as Fallingwater or Mount Vernon.
Therein lies the problem. Most adults in our society do not think of the built environment of their own lives as "architecture." They do not perceive architecture and architects as relevant to their experience, and the process by which the built environment comes into being is a mystery to them.
Yet the forms of intelligence and behavior necessary to create the built environment transcend architecture. They are relevant to the full range of human endeavor. Architectural problem solving develops the ability to analyze and to synthesize, to understand the parts and the whole.
The practice of architecture is interactive and cooperative. The perspective of an architect is interdisciplinary and holistic. It is a loss both to the profession and to society that architectural process is shrouded in mystery.
A Solution in School
How can we help fix this problem? One way is to bring architecture and what architects do into elementary and secondary school classrooms. Several efforts are underway to integrate design education into classroom practice.
The goal is not to make every student an architect, but to infuse the process of design throughout the curriculum. For this to happen, teachers need opportunities to discover how architecture and design can make a difference in their own classrooms.
One such opportunity, offered by the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, is the Teachers' Residency Program at Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater, where I teach every summer. Fallingwater has been entrusted since 1963 to the conservancy, an organization dedicated to protecting natural lands.
Each July, a group of teachers from throughout North America arrives at Fallingwater. Whether they teach elementary school or high school, science or language arts, they come to learn how to incorporate architecture into their classes.
The week begins with a series of communication exercises in which participants learn the limitations of words and explore ways to process information using their five senses. They explore their environment with fresh awareness, learn to "read" it and to document their experience of place in words, drawings, collages, and 3D models.
Through analytical exercises, they develop their understanding. They engage with drawing, structure, planning, and urban design. Through synthetic exercises, they implement this understanding. They design site-specific projects, which, on our final night, we install in and around Fallingwater.
Each year I am amazed at the depth of understanding this exhibition reveals of concepts that, only a week before, had been a mystery.
Learning by Doing
Central to the effectiveness of the program is experience-based learning. Rather than describing concepts in architecture and assigning illustrative exercises, the program creates opportunities for participants to learn these concepts through experience.
For example, instead of a slide-illustrated lecture telling participants about the relationship of Fallingwater to its site, participants walk through the forest to the house, in silence, the night they arrive, and record their impressions. A discussion follows, designed to elicit the underlying concepts.
For many, this is a profound experience, and a complete switch from the teaching model they know and use in their classrooms. This is a process of inquiry — the process by which architects approach a problem. And participants experience for themselves its relevance to their own disciplines.
"Architecture education is important," said Katie Wolf, a teacher in San Francisco, who attended the program last year, "because it addresses multiple ways to perceive and proceed."
"The problems are right in our own towns and cities to examine and learn from," said H.R. Reynolds, a high school teacher from Burlington, Vermont. "Architecture education offers a perfect medium for personal and social education."
"Our cities and homes define who we are and in what direction we are going," said Peter Vietgen, an educational administrator from Toronto, Ontario. "It is of key significance for students to understand the built environment around them in these times of continued rapid social and technological change."
Once teachers become aware of the built environment and the process by which it is created, and once they begin incorporating design into their teaching, architecture will cease to be a mystery to the public.
Instead of boxes to contain activity, buildings will become meaningful places and spaces that engage the senses and the imagination. With an increased understanding of architecture and architectural process, the public will be able to participate in the built environment in more effective and profound ways.
They will also see architecture as a reflection of their lives, their families, and their communities. We can all benefit from that.
Dr. Claire Gallagher is an architecture/design educator who lectures extensively on the effect of the built environment in education. She has written and run numerous design programs for children and adults.