Teaching Modern Architecture

Friday, July 20, 2012

For the last two years I have been teaching Modern Architectural History from William Curtis’ text Modern Architecture since 1900.  The text is great, AND I’d really, really like the students to actually do the weekly readings…but each year my attempts at ‘encouraging’ them to read by letting them know ‘how much they will learn’ doesn’t really do the trick… shocking, I know 😉 Between the level of English and the conceptual ideas put forward it is a VERY challenging read, and lets be honest, as a busy student, assigned readings are the easiest thing to procrastinate on in lieu of other activities.

Attempt years #1 & 2 – Each week I attempt to run a discussion with the students to discuss the ideas and review the architecture.  They are graded on both their involvement in the class discussion and written responses to questions based on the weekly reading.  With 26 students in my second year of teaching the class, and given the reading levels of the students, I reduce the number of papers to 6 per student for the semester.  Papers were almost always late and the majority of the students refuse to talk. These initial attempts only work minimally to get the students to read and actually discuss the ideas.

This year I get smarter.  The only way the majority of the students seem to actually be ‘motivated’ to read is if you give them an option of a ‘test.’  Each week they have a short writing assignment at the beginning of class based on the readings.  I have given them all the questions for the entire semester in their syllabus, each week they can prepare for the questions without knowing which one they will have to write on.  This works soooo much better on several levels.  Giving the written test at the beginning of class = students arrive on time!  By having to prepare for questions from all three chapters they are reading more (I’m not naive enough to think they are reading the entire chapters, but they are reading more!).  Because they are actually reading and discussing the ideas together before class it is accomplishing the goal of getting them to think about the topics presented in each chapter. Finally, as I raise new questions in class they are much better at answering because they’ve actually done (some of) the reading – this is a totally new feeling for me….

After the first two weeks of this, I have found that simply discussing the ideas in class is beginning to feel a bit one-sided, especially as we run short of time in class and I rush to finish the chapters.  Additionally, since they are actually prepared this year, the discussions have the potential to get much deeper – wow – was not prepared for that!

On Tuesday I decide that we should run a debate, and we are in the perfect location of the book to do this.  Chapter 6 sums up 4 of the early debates that were running through the Modern Architects of the early twentieth century – What should the ‘new’ architecture be based on?

  1. Arts and Crafts of the past.
  2. Art Nouveau and the individualist expression
  3. new Materials (reinforced concrete, steel, glass…) should yield the new forms
  4. (that the above ideas are ridiculous) and the new architecture should be based on ‘Type Forms’ (Deutscher Werkbund) or good ideas that can be massed produced and elevate the entire population.

Official debates are common here so the students already know the general rules, I randomly divide the class into four groups, give them some time to prep and pick their first, second and third speakers.  Their debate topic is that the ‘New Melanesian Architecture’ should be based on _____ (insert assigned topic).

The students take on their topics with enthusiasm and some initial, uncomfortable giggles.  The winners on Tuesday are ‘Arts and Crafts’ and ‘Type Forms’ which face-off on Friday.  In the final team both teams present great arguments and successfully debate the other teams reasoning.  The class is divided on the official winner.

The thing is, is that teaching history can be about presenting buildings from the past and asking students to regurgitate dates, designers, locations or it can be about the ideas and how they apply to us today as designers in our design process.  (How do we use these ideas?  How do they make us better designers?)  How do you measure success of the latter?  How do you know when the students really understand conceptual ideas?  For me it’s when they can apply it, when they can use their own words to make it relevant to themselves.

As Chris pointed out after class, this is a culture of debate, but the debate is usually on politics – a never ending topic that gets nowhere – but apply it to class topics and perhaps we gain more, at least in our learning goals.

As a student and as a teacher class discussions have often felt forced, but get students to argue in a competition and you can watch them take on ideas, you can see them understanding the relevance.

Teaching is just another design problem, and like design, it takes time to develop appropriate responses that work with your style and your students…the minute you think you’ve got it figured out though, you don’t.  That’s the challenge, that’s the fun.





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