NCBDS 2011 in Lincoln, Nebraska

Conference welcome sign
Philip Johnson’s Sheldon Art Museum
The stipulation of no guns on the museum’s door

I had a wonderful time at this year’s National Conference on the Beginning Design Student (NCBDS) at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. The energetic Peter Hind was the conference chair. I was fortunate to meet Peter at last year’s conference, held at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte. I just decided to join his dinner table, not knowing who anyone was, since I came to the conference alone as an observer. I was lucky enough to find myself sitting with Peter and the 2012 conference chair, Jodi La Coe. The title of this year’s NCBDS, “Beginning of/ In the End,” will be mirrored in next year’s conference, “In the End/Beginning of.” This is Peter and Jodi’s conceit and a nice way to tie the two conferences together—2011 focused on teaching the principles of sustainability during first year, and 2012 will be about life-long learning.

Peter scored a coup, I think, inviting Allison Arieff as the keynote speaker. Arieff is the sassy and sharp former editor-in-chief of Dwell magazine, a leader in its socially relevant hay day, who now writes an “opinionator” blog about architecture and design for The New York Times. (Dwell now sadly acts as more of a series of advertisements than as a critical voice about design.) Arieff has a crisp and straight forward style that allows her to cut through a lot of the jargon that normally bogs down architectural discourse (like the word “discourse,” for example). She posed some troubling questions to the audience, like how can professional designers promote walkable communities, for example, in the face of fierce right-wind rhetoric that positions multi-family housing as un-American? (Arieff had no answer to this; she just wanted to point out how polarizing political issues regarding land use planning have become.)

Images of Nebraska: student work in the gallery

The conference sessions I attended sparked a lot of ideas for me about teaching, and that’s what the NCBDS is about: sharing ideas and getting feedback from faculty who care about pedagogy. The only confusing bit it that not all papers are about first year. Others are about the first year of graduate school or about design pedagogy in general. There are occasional conferences and symposiums about teaching architecture, but this is the only national annual one, and presenters have suggested widening the title to reflect the true diversity of topics. (There was a 2008 conference in Leeds, UK: International Perspectives on Art and Design Pedagogy; a 2003 conference at MIT which produced this useful bibliography on the pedagogy of architectural history and theory; and this winter Princeton held a symposium titled, Teaching Architecture, Practicing Pedagogy, the proceedings for which have yet to be released.)

I would prefer that the conference be strictly about first and second year undergraduate architecture education, since this is a special time for students and a period of great responsibility for faculty who are—really, truly!—moulding young minds. Just as adults fondly remember their first or second grade teacher, architects recall their first studio instructor and internalize the values that person transmits. This is how dynasties of thought flourish. My first studio professor was Thomas Chastain, who was educated at MIT by such luminaries as Gyorgy Kepes. Kepes was a Hungarian born artist, architect, and design theorist who investigated such ideas as phenomenal transparency, later co-opted by Colin Rowe. Kepes was interested in how designers create a set of rules, in how the visual mind works, in patterns in the city, and in links between science and arts—all topics that are in turn important to me, and Professor Chastain’s influence is the likely cause. By third or fourth year, this type of influence on a student’s world-view has diminished, along with the importance of the professor’s ability to clearly illustrate their thoughts on the nature of design. A beginning design conference, therefore, is irreplaceable, and suffers when diluted.

Some ideas and information from the conference sessions:

  • from Catherine Wetzel, IIT: tape out plans of case studies full scale on the floor
  • from Jennifer Wall and William Taylor, University of Oregan/Portland State: if you soak plaster blocks for 48 hours, you can then carve them on a cnc mill without copious amounts of dust that mess up the design
  • from Bradley Walters, University of Florida: 26% of the total US waste stream is linked to construction; 12.85% is from demolition, 10.86% is from renovation, and only 2.29% is from new construction
  • just my own idea: a lip dub exercise; students take a week to film a lip dub, then another week to draw and map it; teaches about sequencing events and marking time in 2D space
  • from Michael McGlynn, Kansas State: architecture education is best realized through integration between structures and studio courses. “Structure is architecture.” One must begin with NAAB’s desired learning outcomes and work backwards. However, the conceptual framework of theory is critical: the scaffold of architectural education is built by theory—frames the questions, the why’s of the debate.
  •  just my own idea: instead of lots of projects, give first year students fewer projects with more connecting parts

More about my own session in the next post.