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One of the most onerous but beneficial parts of architecture school is presenting your work to a panel of guests, faculty and the rest of your classmates. I remember these reviews being the source of great anxiety before hand and sometimes angst and sometimes joy afterwards. Having to put yourself out there was an emotionally harrowing experience, but one that taught us how to learn from criticism and input for the rest of our careers.

Last week Friday I was a guest reviewer at ASU for a fourth year architecture class, taught by one of my former teachers, Scott Murff. Scott’s probably the teacher who influenced me most, with his quiet and supportive teaching style that always manages to bring out the best in his students, challenging us while bolstering our personal voices.

What I found absolutely fascinating and delightful about the class I was reviewing was that it expanded the definition of architecture to include, well, things that aren’t necessarily about designing buildings.

The year-long assignment the class was given, of which this is the second semester, was to research a topic pertaining to food and to analyze the larger forces behind global and local poverty, food distribution, food sustainability and so forth. The students were then asked to narrow down a focus and propose a solution. This was a design problem assigned to the entire 4th year of the Design School, not just the architecture students, but to other disciplines including landscape architecture, interior design, graphic design and industrial design as well. Part of the reasoning for this was to foster cross-disciplinary collaboration.

The group of reviewers I was a part of was tasked to critique projects that dealt with food issues in the developing world. One of the projects I reviewed included a proposal for public toilets that turned human waste into compostable manure located in the informal settlements of Manila. Another proposed shelter for community cooking that would also harvest rainwater for a village in Africa. Yet another proposed making a traditional wet market in Saigon into an attractive destination for tourists and ultimately for residents who are more apt to admire new Western-style supermarkets.

It’s true that the projects I saw did end up proposing some kind of building or structure to a food problem. But the way the students got to this solution wasn’t simple, straightforward or assumed. They started by researching a problem, on both the global and local scale, and through rigorous analysis carefully came up with a proposal to help solve that problem.

This process is in stark contrast to almost every single assignment I ever got in architecture school more than a decade ago which presupposed a building or a structure. We weren’t expected to question that part of the equation, but to design the most appropriate, the most beautiful, and the most cutting edge building or structure we possibly could.

So what does it mean not to presuppose a building or a structure as the solution to a design problem? It means that we are expanding our definition of design not as a product-oriented endeavor, but as a way of looking at the world. It takes great honesty and courage for an architect to come to the conclusion that perhaps the solution to a design problem isn’t a brand new beautiful building that will make the front cover of a design magazine. And that perhaps it’s a minor tweaking of an existing space, or implementing an education program, or maybe even clearing out a patch of land in a village in hopes of creating a community gathering space.

So many times we’re taught that the best solution is the big gesture, a Frank Gehry-like form which will stun the world with its beauty. But this particular class turns that principle on its head and questions what truly is needed to solve problems, not what is needed to boost the ego of designers.

I’m thrilled to see this shift in design education to include social innovation along with the basic tenets of design, which in architecture have to do with understanding light, composition, materials, form, context and the rest. Perhaps this shift will mean that designers come to the table as collaborative team members with politicians, NGOs, community leaders, and others to solve problems around issues like housing, poverty, food distribution and education. This is a very good thing because designers offer such a unique and valuable perspective that almost any problem-solving conversation would benefit from it.

Image credit: Image from Innov8Social.

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