A Method for Incorporating Values into Design Instruction

Originally published in , Paper presented at Professional Meeting 1982

During the past four years we have attempted in one section of our advanced architectural design studio to help students explicitly incorporate individual values/philosophies/ principles/prejudices into their own design work. The studio addresses, in a particular way, those subjective, value-laden decisions which are a part of any design process. We accept the notion that design solutions result not only from objective criteria of user needs, site demands, available technologies, economic constraints, etc. but also from an often hidden agenda of designer attitudes or theories. It is hoped that, by making these explicit, students can not only sharpen skills in bringing such attitudes to their full environmental fruition, but also progress toward a clearer, more thoughtful formulation of their personal environmental values.

The structure of the course is intended to raise the student’s consciousness of his/her own background, experiences, and abilities; to illuminate social, political, and ethical inclinations; to elucidate environmental implications of these more general philosophical attitudes and to promote experience in designing places which are consistent with personal values.

At the beginning of the semester a short questionnaire is distributed on which students are asked to document their background, their reasons for deciding to study architecture up to that point, and their general environmental likes and dislikes. They are asked to identify issues in architecture which seem particularly important to them and to specify places or buildings which exemplify their architectural interests. This is a quick afternoon blitz intended to test the depth of personal architectural thinking and commitment.

One should, from time to time, look over the shoulders and under the feet of the conventionally accepted heroes and try to see what went on around them and on what they stood.”
-Sir John Summerson

The next few days are spent trying to help students understand how values and principles influence design so that they can more capably express their own attitudes and understand the implications those attitudes might hold for subsequent design work. Each student is asked to read a treatise or polemic written by a “conventionally accepted hero” and to ferret from it a brief values statement–an outline of principles according to which the architect presumably designed. The student is also asked to draw information from previous history/theory courses about the personal background and experiences of the architect/hero which might have been influential in the formulation of his or her values. Several discussion sessions ensue at this point which serve to present a wide vocabulary of value directions collected from the work of the whole class.

Every architect is… necessarily… a poet. He must be an original interpreter of his time, his day, his age.
-Frank Lloyd Wright

A third exercise at the beginning of the semester requires students to take a thorough, introspective look at themselves and their own previous work. Design products of prior studios are examined to determine whether there are consistent, implicit values within them. Students are asked to reflect on their own character, background, personality, and experiences to discover values implied therein. A sort of archaeological process is performed by each student on architectural projects or products they have admired to understand what attitudes might have provoked them.

The result of this exercise is a personal values statement for each student similar in format to the one prepared for an architect/hero in the previous exercise. This is, in general, an assignment fraught with great pain and turmoil. At age twenty-two, twenty-five, or even thirty (and especially in a period of considerable philosophical change and indecision) students are reluctant to commit themselves in a definitive way. We emphasize the fact that the values statement is a “snapshot”–a record only of personal values at one point in time. It is understood that values may appropriately be flexible and adaptable and need not be intransigent. Even so, the commitment to espouse a given philosophical direction is a difficult act. It requires serious thought and at least a modicum of self-assurance.

Values statement in hand, students begin a rigorous design process consisting not only of the typical site analysis, program analysis, etc., but also an application of the philosophical direction which they have outlined for themselves. The goals of the process are to avoid aimless and arbitrary decision making, to answer the questions presented by the problem with some sense of commitment and direction, and to eschew trends and fads in favor of a more deliberate and considerate philosophical position.

I am consistently amazed at the moral fiber and strength of character which surfaces in even some of the more capricious student when placed under the duress of such a process. When push comes to shove and the implications of various positions are fully understood, the students find themselves quite adamant in their own beliefs. They begin to see their design work in the long-term as being more important to themselves and to society than an ego-trip or making a feature article in Progressive Architecture. In the process of learning something about architecture they also seem to learn a little about themselves.

Beside that, the design work from the studio has been remarkable good and refreshingly varied and original. The following is a brief description of three samples from our fall 1979 class. The project was a rather strange one—the design of a totally hypothetical “Lady Bird Johnson House of Texas Culture.” The building was meant to house a collection of artifacts expressing the cultural heritage of the state as viewed through the eyes of Mrs. Johnson. The site was in a large urban park in Austin. The projected building, as much as the objects, was meant to convey a sense of Texas.

Example Number One. Richard Segars is a 29 year-old graduate student from Lubbock, Texas. He is proud of his middle-class, proletarian upbringing in the American heartland. He holds dear a longstanding appreciation for the big sky, the harsh sun, the muted colors, and the wide open spaces of west Texas. He has a predilection for landscape–but not necessarily of the Colorado, purple-mountain majesty sort. His undergraduate degree was in studio art with a concentration in printmaking. Between undergraduate and graduate school he traveled a lot – in Europe, Asia, and the U.S., living for short periods in many different places. He spent a year, for example, in the semi-wilderness 100 miles from Fairbanks, Alaska. He came back to Texas in 1977 to “find his roots.” He is still not sure he really wants to be an architect–partly because he sees himself as an anti-urban being and architecture as a necessarily urban profession.

In identifying places he admired early in the semester Richard noted an appreciation for the early work of Frank Lloyd Wright (“because of the diversity of material; his reverance and sensitivity to the ‘land;’ his bold visual designs”) and for anonymous architecture in Japan (“clean, simple, austere lines and shapes–hand-made care–richness of materials–relation of building to landscape and garden–underlying philosophy of the relation of man and his products to the Whole of life”). He particularly noted a seventeenth-century Buddhist shrine he had visited in Kyoto where “the entire atmosphere is permeated by a quiet calm and serenity though it is heavily visited and in the midst of an over-crowded, noisy, modern city.” He also liked the Jardin du Luxemborg in Paris for its “feeling of formal organization that conveys a spirit of relaxation and casualness–a variety of enclosure and relief made with both architectural and non-architectural elements.”

When asked to identify issues in architecture which he deemed particularly important, Richard decried the dominance of the automobile in urban environments and emphasized the importance of the relationships of buildings to natural environments”–not only climatic for comfort and economics, but also to the land–both visually and ecologically.” Richard’s value statement emphasized not only the importance of landscape but also of tradition, “sense of place,” craft and direct simplicity.

The building which emerged from Richard’s values concomitant with the “hard” requirements of the project is a modest, appealing place. The exact site he chose within the larger park was an important element in the design.

He describes the building on the site as follows:

To the north the trees grow thick and rich and express the character of the Texas Hill Country, while the vista to the south is free-rolling grassland accented by a lone pecan tree–a perfect example of that specimen. The northern view, flat and wooded, is in direct contrast to the southern view. The dividing line between the two views becomes the long axis for the house. To the south, the lone pecan becomes the focus for the short axis of the house–being framed from within by a large picture window. This framed vista symbolically becomes like a child’s primer image of the Texas landscape. Hence the configuration of the house is strongly site specific, a value which I held essential from the beginning.

My initial intention was to de-emphasize the house to the point that it was barely noticeable in the landscape, so that the site would retain its visual integrity without the “immoral” intrusion of a man-made object. As the scheme developed, this approach was softened to the point that the building expressed man in a compatible relationship with nature, while at the same time expressing the traditions and forms of Texas vernacular architecture. The swooping rhythm and line formed by the canopies of the live oak trees and the swooping line of the hill country horizon suggested the form that the house eventually took. From the north elevation the house rises abruptly from the flat grade, the roofline at once reminiscent of an actual hill and at the same time suggestive of a traditional witch’s hat barn common in this part of Texas. To subtly imitate the flat-top quality of the area’s hills, the peak of the roof turns down in a detail commonly seen on both barns and residences in the area. Hence the roofline concurrently becomes an abstraction of the silhouette of a hill, the line of the live oak groupings at the north end of the site, and a literal allusion to Texas vernacular architecture.

The north face of the house is like a bluff or cliff. The center rises thirty-six feet and proudly announces in Texas fashion its presence on the landscape. Toward the east, west, and south, the roof dips down dramatically and visually ties the house to the ground. The silhouette of the roof embraces the ground like a large bird with outstretched wings.”

It has struck me often how much the building which emerged from Richard’s work that semester looks like its author. There is a warm, relaxed but contemplative feeling to both of them. They are low-keyed and genuine. The world needs more of that sort of people–and that sort of buildings.

Example Number Two. Ron Davis, another of the students in the class, is a 28 year-old graduate student from Lovell, Wyoming. Ron’s undergraduate degree is also in studio art but his art interests seem very different from Richard’s. Ron is an intellectual. He is well read in several different fields and has a real interest in creativity. He has a driving curiosity about the forces behind creativity–especially physiological ones as explored recently in the field of neuropsychology. Ron commented in one of the early exercises of the semester, that his primary interest in architecture was in “the creative process—the experience of taking an intangible mental concept and bringing it into existence in the material world.”

Ron is not, however, an artistic elitist. One reason for his switch from painting to architecture is his distaste for art aimed at a privileged few. He is disturbed by the dominance of architects who are “employed by a small, wealthy, influential and primarily conservative sector of society.” He comments, “That portion of the public who could most benefit from our skills are the least likely to receive our attentions. My negativism in this regard runs generally towards capitalism and any philosophy which places material gain over human values.”

Ron admires the work of Paolo Soleri whom he calls, “one of the few thinking sculptors of architecture in the world today.” But he sees a dimension beyond Soleri’s work which seems particularly important in our current culture. He says, “like it or not, our built environment speaks to us of what we hold spiritually and socially important. The architect should play a major role in bringing about a humane environment that speaks to us of our culture and our heritage, without being simply an imitation of what has been done before. Architecture as an art form communicates. We must consider carefully what we are saying.”

In contrast to Richard’s project, Ron’s design seeks only secondary inspiration from its site. Primary direction comes instead from abstract constructs derived from the building’s function and program. In early stages the plan was a pure cruciform reflecting the four major public rooms required by the program as well as the four major eras in Texas history. Oriented to the cardinal points, the building sat as object on the landscape.

As Ron began to layer more criteria onto the building, its pure geometry was compromised to incorporate a greater range of expression in the various elements. Each of the four major rooms became a literal expression of a stage in the development of Texas cu1ture–the dining room reflecting the period of Mexican dominance prior to 1836, the living room portraying the early Anglo-Saxon pioneer period up to 1850, the hall representing an era of “gentrification” and Confederate/Southern influence around the Civil War, and the library depicting the Victorian boom around the turn of the century.  Specific and literal architectural allusions are used to carry particular messages and to set definite moods. The architectural language is meant to speak to everyman with no specialized knowledge required to get the basic message. The building which resulted is eclectic and formally diverse.

In the final review Ron’s work got “roasted” by my colleagues who decried its “Disneyland” quality. But Ron had managed, I think, to partially achieve a rather difficult set of concurrent value goa1s–to establish a mental construct based on the situation at hand and to communicate that construct to a very broad audience in an architectural language which they could understand. The building tried to embody a statement Ron had made earlier: “An architect must understand and use the language of the local culture and its values.”

Example Number Three. Bob van Buren is a twenty-one year old student from Dallas in the B. Arch program. In his initial exercises Bob claimed a dominating desire to do architecture which would “heighten daily experience and lift the spirit of people who are as much a part of the architecture as the building itself.” He admired the work of Luis Barragan and le Corbusier for their strong experiential dealing with space, color, texture, geometry, ‘and light. He lamented the current lack of direction in American architecture–”the loss of the innovative instinct, the economic straightjackets, the confusion over the place of art in architecture, the inability to incorporate new materials and technology.”

As Bob’s values statement began to be developed he realized a strong general concern for what might be termed “social responsib1itiy” in architecture. He regrets what he views as a “lack of interest in issues that do not directly relate to stylistic or economic concerns,” noting that, “se1findu1gence has clouded over the critical issues of housing, energy, and human survival.”

Bob advocates a set of very basic concerns; physical, social, and experiential which he sees as simply dealing with reality. He rejects current “architectural polemics” which he views as “esoteric backscratching” in favor of an “ethical stance of social responsibility.”

In choosing the specific site for his project Bob differed radically from both Richard and Ron. He sought out a damaged, neglected, barren spot in the park and took upon himself the challenge of what he termed “site repair.” As he stated later, “Site repair takes advantage of a seemingly less desirable location that has the potential to be an enjoyable complement to the building if given sufficient care and attention. This attitude further preserves the already beautiful natural spaces from intrusion by potentially disruptive structures.”

In designing the form of the building Bob was strongly influenced by climatic concerns (the building has no mechanical systems), materials usage, patterns of movement, and psychological response. He sought to convey, “a spirit, an emotion, a definite character.” In his design process he overtly fought undue reliance on precedent. He stated later, “It is, of course, extremely difficult to remove all preconceptions and personal fixations influenced by examples from the past, but an honest attempt to do so provides me with enough of a spark so that when I do return to precedents, I may be better equipped to utilize them in an enlightened manner.”

The design which resulted from Bob’s values and the problem given is visceral and original. Bob uses the elements of form to communicate experientially with the occupant, conveying an awareness of environmental basics. The complex collection of sensorily varied and largely independent spaces is bound together by a huge sheltering roof. One feels bits of pioneer ruggedness alongside flamboyant and expressive display. The literal and intellectual allusions which Ron employed are almost totally absent. The senses rather than the mind digest the messages.

In reviewing the work of these three students, one is struck by the powerful influence of philosophical attitudes. The ultimate form of their projects is heavily dependent on the values inherent in the design decision making process. In the absence of values, decisions become flaccid and arbitrary. The presence of well-defined values gives control to the design and can equip the solution with immense cultural power.

The greatest frustration I see among advanced design students is in their inability to deal with the subjective, value-laden decisions in design. The brightest of them spend hours spinning off an abundance of ideas and directions, but are often thwarted by a failure to judiciously select among them. The weaker students are stymied by the baffling question of “how  to get started.” Where do ideas come from? How does one formulated an approach? A partial answer to all of these frustrations lies, I think, in a greater awareness of values.

The most important reason for a greater emphasis on values in teaching design, however, lies in the potential benefits to the built environment. We should not be continuing to produce “knee-jerk” architects who consistently fail to comprehend both the implications and the potency of their own work. The reversals and lamentations of even some leading architects over the past decades point to a loss of commitment–a failure to set direction. The bright, ambitious student generation now must be given the power of control over their own work and the realization that the direction they set does make a difference

Thinking about Life as an Architect
Originally published in , Paper presented at Professional Meeting 1982