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Design History leader Alan Powers explores the history of design methodologies

JNL Durand’s ‘Divers Édifices publics, d’après le Champ de Mars de Piranese’ from around 1800.

Exploring how design took place in different historical periods, we seek to understand the past to drive the future.

Standard procedures for design teaching have long been abandoned in schools of architecture, but the problem that they were created to solve has not gone away. It is odd, therefore, that when the activity of design consumes the majority of hours in every school of architecture and determines the outcome of a student’s long and expensive training, the methods for learning the required skills are based largely on the individual and personal allegiances and didactic formation of the teaching staff, whose standards of judgement are equally the subject of curious hermetic conventions.

It was Modernism that broke the mould of a long growth of received tradition of design pedagogy, believing it to be obsolete and inappropriate to the modern world. Back in the 1920s, when the British experiment in teaching according to the precepts of the École des Beaux-Arts of Paris was stretched to the limits of credibility, the project for ‘A House for an Admiral on a Rocky Promontory’ was the code-name for a time-wasting unreal exercise. Today, the typical project in this manner is similarly caricatured as ‘Trout Farm on Mars’. Thus, over the span of less than a century, the freedom to relate to a world inhabited by actual people was won and then deliberately discarded, lest it should prove insufficiently amusing.

Engraving by Alexis Lemaistre of the École des Beaux-Arts recording submitted student projects at the foot of the statue of Melpomene.

One of the strangest afflictions in architectural pedagogy is the imagined binary opposition between creativity and reality, as if it were not possible to combine these qualities. The task of designing buildings, and cognate fields of activity, remains remarkably unchanged, and such ‘advances’ as have been made by technology do little to assist such questions of public concern as the elevation of a building in a street. ‘Trout Farm on Mars’ is not a universal condition, but it has long been the badge of the self-described elite schools, a symptom of underlying issues about academic isolation from practice that the LSA aims to address through breaking the binary.

Students, most of whom will be taught either informally or in a recognised structure, should make up their own minds about the nature of their learning, and the diploma or Part 2 stage is a good time to do so. At a time when architectural history and theory has become a vast field of learning, there are multiple ways to approach it, but the study of design as a procedure exercised in different contexts through time is especially relevant, if not commonly considered. Put simply, students may be interested to know how others did what they are now doing.

The history of design in architectural education is only part of the study of design methodologies, but it is a significant one because through it one can grasp different ways of thinking in their distilled form, as presented in the classrooms and ateliers of the past. For this reason, the History of Design Methodologies, which could potentially go back to the ancient world for its starting point, actually begins with the single most dominant teaching tradition in the Western world, that of the École des Beaux-Arts, once considered the antitype of Modernism, before its resurrection and partial rehabilitation in the 1970s.

Part of the interest of the Beaux-Arts today is its organisational structure, which the LSA might be said to replicate in spirit at a small scale. The École itself was a state service, offered free to any who qualified by ability. It delivered formal lectures and conducted examinations, but design learning took place in the teaching atelier of an architect member of the Institut de France, in an atmosphere of mutual student help and discovery, normally involving in the later stages a concurrent engagement in the teacher’s practice. By contrast, the American and British architecture schools that claimed to adopt the Beaux-Arts method were much more monolithic structures, in the form in which they have remained.

The Beaux-Arts had opponents in its own time with reasoned arguments, most notably in the person of the French architect Viollet-le-Duc whose attempt to overthrow the system was temporarily unsuccessful, although his introduction of historical and scientific analogies for the development of architecture contributed significantly to the transition from academic classicism to Modernism around 1900. The Postmodernist rehabilitation of the Beaux-Arts was the result of a sense of exhaustion in the pedagogy of Modernism and the supposed impoverishment of its products. When it was proposed to devote a session in the course to the teaching of Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe, there was an audible intake of breath. If they still represent the enemy, then we should also know and understand them, since what they achieved was probably not as we imagine it. The class session in 2016 was enlivened and connected to reality by the participation of Adrian Gale, talking about his time working in the Mies office in Chicago in the 1950s.

Alumni Nick Keen explored solid and void by 3D modelling references such as Étienne-Louis Boullée.
Nick Keen explored solid and void by 3D modelling references such as Étienne-Louis Boullée.

Similarly, a session held in the archive of the Architectural Association, with its curator Edward Bottoms and an eyewitness of several generations there, Brendan Woods, looked at work from the 1950s and ’60s that belies the idea that Modernism was a monolith only toppled to the ground with the mockery of Archigram. From this point onwards, the content of the remaining sessions moved away from schools in a formal sense to look at other evidence of design methods, with a talk about Herman Hertzberger by Peter Buchanan and one by me on the distinctive methods proposed by Christopher Alexander at different stages in his career, methods that answer questions about formal coherence in design and its beneficial effects that are currently lacking from nearly all discussions of architecture.

From this point, the baton passed to the students to choose their own case studies, for ultimate presentation in large format text and image pages. In themselves, these will be valuable evidence of a significant moment. They were guided towards a monographic study of a design ‘hero’, and some fairly standard subjects appeared – Utzon, Stirling and Le Corbusier – but related to lesser-known projects. Local hero Charles Holden came up twice in relation to his Underground stations. These architects are good to study because of the amount of information available derived from their archives of sketches and studies. A number of the subjects answered a need for socially oriented small-scale design, including Hertzberger, Walter Segal and the Half Moon Theatre by Florian Beigel.

Others went further than this, covering a range of topics and related issues, such as the nature of indeterminate design (a study based on Northwick Park Hospital by Llewelyn Davies and Weeks), the nature of controlled composition and transformation in the work of Oswald Mathias Ungers, and the currently popular theme of social-housing design in the declining years of the Welfare State.

The challenge is to find the tools for excavating all the layers of significance in an architectural scheme, whether built or otherwise. Such dissection used to be more common in architectural teaching than at present, yet it seems to be at the core of understanding the past in order to drive the future, a technique absolutely specific to the discipline of architecture that has been invaded over the past 40 years by many less obviously relevant discourses, perhaps on the assumption that ‘everybody’ already knew how to strip down, say, a Palladio villa or a Prairie House to see how the motor worked. It is laudable to approach architecture with the right ideas for society and a full understanding of the equations of energy and sustainability, but even better if these can be supported with some informed study of the nuts and bolts of form.