- Interview by Dominika Pilch
Practice what you teach
Teaching educates tutors as well as students. Clarifying and communicating their design approach, as well as responding to that of students and the ensuing exchanges, hones the teaching skills of tutors. It also provokes them to constantly reassess and update their thinking and design strategy in response to changing contemporary conditions. The LSA emphasis on being relevant is reinforced by its custom of drawing tutors from its Practice Network — architects engaged with the changing problems of the real world and so of tested practical experience.
The ongoing series of interviews with tutors reveals what they have learnt from teaching and how this is influencing their evolving approach to pedagogy and practice. In this issue, all interviewees are mainly tutors at the LSA, but future issues will draw from a larger pool.
First of all, what is your practice and what is your role within it?
I’m an architect. doing anything that implies: from single houses, to developing building technologies. I facilitate ‘open design’ conversations to guide urban design. I do interiors, public buildings, everything, including domestic product design.
How does teaching inform your practice?
My practice is very research-oriented so informs my teaching profoundly. I started it immediately on graduation carrying my student idealism with me; teaching came later. Research, practice and teaching are legs of a tripod that keeps me balanced: a holistic approach without clear boundaries between these. Exchange of knowledge and experience is continuous – be it in academia or on site. And it is universal, whether learning or teaching.
Getting into formal teaching about 15 years ago, I had a solid research-oriented practice. Many students sought me out. I didn’t want to teach academically, be restricted by systems and formalised curricula. I hoped to teach in my practice – fill in gaps missed at school.
Many of my projects were discussed for their research value and as inspiring future generations. So, with time I took on a more formal teaching roles, simultaneously conducting material and building technology research, which for me is between teaching and practice. I brought technologies into academia so as to research them more thoroughly.
This synergy of practice, research and teaching was a natural evolution for me. Humanity is at a crossroads and current ways of doing things don’t suffice. Driving curiosity in all three fields is the same thing – excitement of the unknown. I never saw academia as a place to just go and repeat what others are doing. It is a means to empower ourselves to navigate with certainty inside the uncertainty that surrounds us.
Such interests got into teaching, for which I have no set methodology. It is more a question of creating an environment where each individual can pursue their personal curiosities and keep on unfolding to reach their highest potential. Although everything is structured, the learning process is driven by the student’s personal curiosity and motivation.
To what degree is teaching a reciprocal education for tutors and students, teaching and learning from one another?
Because someone’s a teacher and someone’s a student doesn’t mean they can’t learn from one another. We are always learning in life.
We are here to discover what we want to do to serve society. This advances knowledge. Look at the Bauhaus, Black Mountain College or the laboratory of Frei Otto, all pursuing discovery, a sort of embodied knowledge. People thought with their hands so as to be engaged in these discoveries, with everyone is involved in the learning process. Otherwise, its merely playing ping-pong between teacher and student.
Would you identify any differences and relative virtues in teaching and learning from inexperienced and seasoned architects?
Not really. Learning is an ongoing experience. Nowadays people confuse learning with information gathering. What’s important is learning skills like drawing, developing your eye, or cultivating your hand. Furthermore, it’s essential to reflect on what moves you and why, to develop your personal viewpoint and values.
But in learning from architects with different experiences, I’d say the more students you have, the more ways you have to learn architecture. The same applies to teachers. Some students may be better off with a different teacher. Why? Because it’s about mutual chemistry and different interests. Architecture is so broad. In most architecture schools teaching is structured so that over different semesters students encounter numerous voices and opinions – from tutors, guest critics or peers. These reveal there’s no absolute, best way to do something. There may be scientific methods of universal validity. But with architecture there are many ways to respond to universal laws.
The course of learning is unpredictable because it depends on the chemistry between those involved. Ultimately it is a question of self-discovery. A certain climate, or certain city, would elicit specific experiences. Wherever you are rooted, being so will help you feel the roots, the bones, the life in another place. Experiences gained in academia and beyond give us skills that can be applied in other contexts of culture, scale or in wholly different sectors.
Did teaching clarify and expand your understanding of architecture and the design process?
Knowledge is driven by the seeker. We must question our habits and whether they need unlearning. You must recognise being overly influenced by an idea or concept. You graduate with certain attitudes, some to be unlearnt because creating an illusion: that the architect as a powerful figure deciding everything.
How has your approach been shaped by those that taught you and are you still conscious of and do you see yourself as extending their legacy?
I’m not expanding any legacy but reacting against it. People have inspired me, but I’m mostly driven by the future.
The changes taking place are so radical the future can be directly imagined. That future of course is impacted by its roots in yesterday. Memories and ideas stay with us to get digested and then transcended as ideas for the future. That is the way of human evolution where the future calls for the next step, for us to step up.
What future do you want to create is the most compelling question. All great ideas arise in answer to it. Predictions and models of the future based on statistics and economics cannot predict market futures. They didn’t predict urban migrations, or cars going out of fashion. Architecture must boldly look at visions for the good life and address pressing environmental issues.
Students shouldn’t feel they have to react against anything per se. They can be proactive because there’s so much healthy energy there compared with having to complain about somebody or something. The best way to complain about undesirable things is not feed the conversation. Instead feed whatever fuels the best outcome.
I joined academia to do that and will never load old baggage on students. Instead I encourage them to critically investigate old theories and that’s it. Not to glorify the past. If we do, we evade the present Instead, students should feel empowered to articulate and pursue their most inspiring dreams. Then, how can we help you execute it? Act, don’t only learn forever, feeling you don’t know enough.
Let’s imagine a scenario where collaboration wholly replaces competition? Why compete? Why thousands of entries to architectural competitions? So much wasted work. Some might say it raises standards. But collaboration can raise them more. The future and the dreams of the young excite. I don’t want cynical smart students who argue well. Will that help if you’re unhappy later on?