título simmlab
LABORATÓRIO PARA SIMULAÇÃO E MODELAGEM EM ARQUITETURA E URBANISMO
Introduction
The Sequence
Conclusions

The cognitive studio: exercises in design learning

 1. Introduction    

Design studio teaching methods have experienced, in the last few years, a consistent evolution from a practice based in the design’s critique towards a strategy based on cognitive processes. The cognitive strategy put its emphasis in the learning processes and, at the same time, deliberately
relieves the students from frequent harsh, sometimes aggressive, criticism from their teachers. Concentrating attention in the student’s lines of thought, the teacher becomes an educational rather than a “corrective” agent in the learning process.

As Oxman [2001] puts it, “(…) distanced from the knowledge that must be part of the education process, the traditional design studio is characterized by the criticism of the product, creative design as a black-box and the pedagogical distance of the tutor”. The emphasis in the product is often translated by the lack of explicit definition of the ontology related to the students’ cognitive processes and practice of design. Many of the learning difficulties in the specific domain of design and architecture are not to be found merely by looking at the students ideas (or lack of) but in the strategic and procedural knowledge resulting from teaching methods in the ‘Critique’ Design Studio.

We suggest that changes in design studio teaching methods, from the current practice based in the design’s critique towards a strategy based on exploratory and visual content, are to be achieved if more attention to “thinking in design” and to “tool design” as pedagogical contents are structurally developed. It is shown that design knowledge, design thinking and design skills can be enhanced through the gradual learning of the architectural syntax and its elemental structure –primitive shapes, geometric principles, spatial relations and architectural semantics, contextual and functional implications of the conceptual and formal choices. The argument for a new approach in design teaching processes was already made by Akin, (1986) Oxman(2001); Eastman et alli(2001). However, very few experiences described how the new approach has helped to structure a new design teaching method, showing results of the application of this method. Most of the cognitive investigation in architectural design is related to the design process itself, or devoted to an analysis of its means, ends and tools. Here we describe the results achieved through the application of a series of design exercises aimed at the development, by the students, of different cognitive abilities. Its originality is that it correlates theoretical approaches so far developed with a structured sequence of design learning exercises culminating in an architectural product in its own right.

The experience departs from the assumption that architectural students’ creativity is directly proportional to their ability to make generalizations andanalogies about how things work as much as about means and ways to perform actions. The method was based upon the inversion of the traditional sequence of the ‘Critique’ Studio. Instead of departing from a design brief, students perform a series of exercises focused on shape vocabulary and the design brief is introduced only in the last part of the term. On the other hand, cognitive abilities, needed to solve the proposed brief problems, are exercised in the beginning of the term.

 

1. Three teaching concepts

Traditional design teaching methods involve reasonably well-defined steps related to the evaluation of programmatic, functional, economic or context dependent constraints, while steps related to the creative process linked to architectural language or individual style are poorly defined. Given a design brief and a site, the student must set a design proposal that has consequences and implications to be solved in both formal and functional realms. The student must establish his formal preferences as choices whose consequences and implications must be further developed – all within an emerging field of constraints and alternatives (Schön,1986). Traditional design studios have the design brief as a starting point. Although studio teaching styles may differ under many points of views, they are generally based in the “problem solving” paradigm. This paradigm has led to the consolidation of pedagogical strategies which tend to reproduce the pathway of the professional practitioner, under the argument that the “fundamentals” of the profession are to be taught “during the game” i.e. during the elaboration of building or urban design themes.
Academic projects normally depart from a chosen theme and a correspondent design brief. This combination is normally situated in two language levels (Tversky,2002). For example, “house” is considered a basic level language, which refers to a super ordinate level (building) and to a subordinate level (a summer house, for example). Each of these three levels embrace different numbers of features, increasing top-down from the super ordinate to the basic level and, with less intensity, bottom-up from the basic to the subordinate level.
One remarkable feature of academic project themes is the fact that the super ordinate level is taken for granted (e.g., all architectural projects must be buildings), while the basic and subordinate levels are generally conveyed by the design brief.  Because the design brief is the first given step, visual references searched by students normally fall into a database comprised by building types belonging to the already adopted levels. More often than not illustrated by images, these levels end up constituting a fixed repertoire to solve the problem. Although images are valuable guidelines for the creative process, the initial correlation of the design brief with building type references related to basic or subordinated level languages may lead to cognitive limitations and  to a universe of preconceived solutions or schemas of buildings (a house and their rooms, bedrooms, kitchens) and parts of buildings (beams, columns, windows, doors). The consequence of this procedure is the narrowing of the students’ formal repertoire and, under a cognitive point of view, the limitation of their capacity to generalize and to make analogies about shapes and functions.
As Gero and Purcell (1996) put it “(…) a common and often commented on form of fixation is the premature commitment to a particular problem solution, observed in students and practitioners alike. As in other domains, the designer appears trapped by the characteristics of a possible solution that has been developed or an existing precedent solution. However, in the design domain, the majority of the discussion of this phenomenon is essentially anecdotal and not based on either principled argument or the results of empirical research”.
Oxman (2001) has identified three concepts in architectural design education:  the Beaux Arts Atelier or Studio system, the Laboratory of Design Exercises and the Studio based on the education of designerly thought processes in Design Reasoning and Design Strategies. The first two types of studio are primarily linked to strategies (and sequences) in order to achieve a “professional” product. The third type is concerned with the development and the assessment of reasoning structures. These three types of architectural design teaching concepts feature different principles related to strategies to develop architectural knowledge and to develop architectural design skills. In architecture schools these teaching concepts are not exclusive i.e., they might merge into one “hybrid” mode, and some schools may be even applying them simultaneously. This paper describes the learning experience of 3rd year students without any previous contact with the Cognitive approach. This is an important remark, since De-Fixation strategies were applied as late as in the 3rd year in order to provoke a shift in the student’s cognitive structure. The next sections describe the basic principles of those three concepts.

2.1. Beaux Arts

The Beaux Arts Atelier teaching strategy is problem-oriented and based on typological knowledge. The students learn how to identify and to reproduce designs by trial and error, constantly monitored by the master and/or his assistants who are supposed to give him constant individual guidance and whose language of communication is quite often characterized by ambiguity and subjectivity. During the process, teachers may well invoke building types and/or aesthetical preferences in order to help the student to structure a coherent design. The evaluation normally refers to architectural precedents, in order to bridge the students work to the world of architectural experience. The explicit learning of the cognitive content of design is ignored and left to be gained implicitly through experience. (Oxman,2001) In other words, the atelier’s education method used to guide architectural design production is based on intuitive learning and is not conceptually defined. This way, the Beaux Arts Atelier reproduces strategies deployed   during centuries, in which design is taught and implicitly learned through the master’s experience.
In some schools of architecture, where the number of students per studio usually exceeds the available space, teachers schedule individual meetings. Since such meetings last normally more than 45 minutes, very few students can have their work reviewed per session.  In many cases students would have no more than four review encounters with their teachers during the whole term. Overt discussions are held in panels, whenever the student’s work is prone to receive the teacher’s critique.  The Beaux Arts Atelier has worked quite efficiently as long as the master had few students and many of them took part in the master’s design team i.e., the master could keep a close eye upon his students.
After the mid 20th century, architectural schools have enlarged in size, the number of students in the studios has been multiplied and highly experienced and successful master-architects had to spend longer periods in their practices, therefore being frequently substituted by inexperienced assistants. All these constraints have led to a strong criticism of this type of teaching concept based in the argument that students frequently receive very little pedagogically qualified assistance.  Despite the criticism, the Beaux Arts Atelier still prevails as the main model for design teaching in architecture schools.

2.2. Laboratory STUDIO


The Laboratory concept was derived from Bauhaus’ methods and from the Russian (VKHUTEMAS) experience in design education held in the first half of the twentieth century and later at Ulm School of design. These schools introduced a non-project oriented set of design exercises aimed to the understanding of general design principles and of the formal content of objects. The idea behind this strategy was to develop a broader understanding of the principles of form among the students. Students who attended these schools came from different backgrounds, thus needing a leveling experience towards different aspects of design education such as architecture, drafting, crafts, painting, etc. In order to convey knowledge and skills for these different students it was envisaged that the school should be roughly divided into two halves: in the first half students were to be taught about the “basics” concerning form and its attributes: geometry, light, materials, colors, proportion and other aesthetic principles. They were initiated in the art of fabrication since they had to understand principles of industrial production such as modulation, casting, molding, etc. Students were stimulated to innovate, to create new shapes and new designs, and the individual expression received great incentive as can be seen by Joseph Albers’s (1928) discourse:

The best education is one‘s own experience. Experimenting surpasses studying. To start out by ‘playing’ develops courage, leads in natural manner to an inventive way of building and furthers the pedagogically equally important facility of discovery…Inventiveness is the objective. Invention and reinvention too, is the essence of all creative work (proficiency is a tool and hence is secondary. Instruction in professional techniques hampers inventiveness. (…) we do not want to imitate, we want instead to search our own and to learn to find out things on our own- we want to think constructively.”inventiveness. (…) we do not want to imitate, we want instead to search our own and to learn to find out things on our own- we want to think constructively.”

Albers emphasized creativity as an adequate indicator of the success of educational strategies in design and as an evidence for what the student has learned and not merely been taught. According to Albers (1928), “(…) consciously controlled mistakes sharpen criticism, teach by experience, and promote the desire to do things better an more accurately (…). This ability is acquired by discussing the work almost daily with the students and having them to justify what they have done”.
The Laboratory Concept had a strong foothold in the school’s first half. As the second half was devoted to professional experiences, architecture schools adopted a hybridmodel: in the first half students should work in a more intuitive and playful environment but, in the second half, they were to be taught how to design buildings and cities according to existent technologies and constraints. The Laboratory Concept then gives way, in the second half, to the Beaux Arts Atelier as the adequate “professional” setting to achieve the desired pedagogical goals.  Although some of this approach has generally been incorporated into traditional atelier system (Oxman, 2001)   this often appears as one exercise on shape during the beginning of the term but in the same model of the building theme – the focus is product criticism. In other words, the emphasis in the method of tacit knowledge based on development of professional competence in actual doing of design has remained the same since Beaux Art.

There is no doubt that the Laboratory Concept has played (and still plays) an important role in architecture schools. It is responsible for an important shift in architectural education and gave rise to a series of experiments in design teaching of fundamentals in visual perception, shape modeling and other form attributes. However it did not penetrate into the professional realm of the schools’ second half, which is still controlled by architects who tend to use the critique of the product as their main pedagogical strategy.
The observed rupture between the first and the second half of the curricula has caused an interruption in the logical sequence applied in the learning of skills and in the mode of knowledge acquisition. The disruption, accepted until very recently as an inevitable consequence of the learning process, became under assessment since it has been realized that Design Reasoning and Design Strategies can be developed all along the curricula of the  architecture school. This is the theme for the next section, the Cognitive Studio.

There is no doubt that the Laboratory Concept has played (and still plays) an important role in architecture schools. It is responsible for an important shift in architectural education and gave rise to a series of experiments in design teaching of fundamentals in visual perception, shape modeling and other form attributes. However it did not penetrate into the professional realm of the schools’ second half, which is still controlled by architects who tend to use the critique of the product as their main pedagogical strategy.
The observed rupture between the first and the second half of the curricula has caused an interruption in the logical sequence applied in the learning of skills and in the mode of knowledge acquisition. The disruption, accepted until very recently as an inevitable consequence of the learning process, became under assessment since it has been realized that Design Reasoning and Design Strategies can be developed all along the curricula of the  architecture school. This is the theme for the next section, the Cognitive Studio.

2.3. Cognitive Studio

A new vision towards design studio teaching has been under scrutiny in the last few years. Knowledge about design learning processes and developments in cognitive modeling (Eastman et alli,2001)  have lead to a gradual shift in the goals and targets to be achieved in the architectural studio. A cognitive-based approach is now under way, based upon the student’s exploration and formulation of knowledge structures and reasoning in design (Oxman, 2001).Visual thinking and reasoning started to be extensively explored as forms of acquiring knowledge, and new didactic strategies to achieve these capabilities have been experienced and theorized.
Even though the cognitive approach is focused in knowledge acquisition by the development of visual thinking, it incorporates the experimental method of exercising design principles whenever based on visual and formal contents. Instead of following the paradigm of tacit knowledge, the method stresses the conscious attitude about all knowledge involved in each step of the formal strategies adopted in the exercises. This attitude could be called reflection-in-action, but in the sense that the acquired skills and knowledge need to lead to perform better designs, and not simply qualify the process in itself.
This new attitude constituted the basis for the gradual evolution of design didactic strategies adopted in the 3rd Year of the Faculty of Architecture at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil.  Evolving from the traditional Beaux Arts/Laboratory Studio to the Cognitive Studio these strategies have achieved promising results concerning a number of questions raised by Oxman (2001) on how can design knowledge be acquired and learned, how can internal representations of knowledge be learned and taught and how can internal representational capabilities of the learner be increased.
Strategies for Design Learning were adopted as the central issue of the set of visual thinking and reasoning exercises, in order to develop design capabilities. Exploring different goals, techniques of Functional De-Fixation were developed as to support the students’ ability to generalize and to explore and formulate data structures for the representation of stereotyped situations. The 3rd year Design Studio teaching strategy is divided in a three   sequential stages, described in the next section of this paper.