Building on a slab

September 23, 2008

In the last post I talked a bit about a new cable TV series on architecture school. I caught the next episode and it answered a few questions and raised a few others. Here is my take on the adventures of these plucky students and their teachers as they began to build in New Orleans.

Byron Mouton, the studio critic in the class, has passed my litmus test for young design teachers–he’s no flash in the pan aesthete. He knows how to build on the gumbo soil of the bayous on the Gulf Coast. And he leads his students by example, not by fiat. Even my qualms about letting the students vote for their favorite scheme to build seems now like a wise decision. Taking a relatively average, simple design and making it into a liveable house has made for some interesting television. Since designers are not always given the green light on the “best” solution in a given set, making the best of a given circumstance can teach some valuable lessons.

Following the tension-filled episode in which the class learned which house would be constructed, “Digging a Hole” was a wonderful tonic. The students got a good dose of reality when they put shovels in the ground and collaborated on the construction of “their” design (having forgotten the sting of not being chosen in the competition).  Architecture is by and large collaborative, and this exercise shifted the students attention toward the team aspect of projects. A good example of this was featured in the episode, when three students went to the house built during the previous year to decide how to finish off their exterior stairs. An intelligent group decision was reached through critical evaluation of options and a consensus on which best fit the intentions behind the design. Professor Mouton was not present, having sent the young architects off to do their own thing. Throughout this first stage of construction, the master was in the background. Filmakers asked students to explain the intricacies of the construction, including such things as hurricane straps on the sills, and termite shields. Perhaps their best moment came when explaining why their house would feature a modified version of “slab on grade” construction, with piers set to a level determined by flood and hurricane data.

Why is building on a real site such a great opportunity for young architects? First, it gives students a chance to see the process by which architecture is made from beginning to end, not just the portion that portends to art or concepts. Second, it teaches patience and humility, two key virtues not often imbued on young designers. Third, it exposes design novices to the “user” or client in ways that can’t be simulated in an average studio.

If the change in the attitudes of the students is any guage, the building process has really raised their aptitude and interest–kicking it up a notch, as Emeril Lagasse says. The concrete platform that stood after the last episode represented a lot more than just a building foundation, it was a solid basis for making a career in architecture, and one that more architecture schools should offer their beginning students.

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