Philosophy on Design and Teaching Architecture




As both an architect and teacher, I am a believer of Winston Churchill’s saying “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” My goal as an educator is to awaken within my students the reality of this ethical situation and promote an existential awareness of their surroundings. It is particularly vital to ask how the architect’s design decisions will affect human experience and behavior.  To achieve this one must teach students to think about design philosophically through an environmental psychology lens. As a result, this approach has led me to embrace design, research, and pedagogy that focus on improving the interconnectivity between architecture, culture, spirituality, ecology, and human experience.

As I reflect on my personal architectural education experience, it centered on learning by doing. As Confucius advocated long ago, “Tell me, and I will forget. Show me, and I may remember. Involve me, and I will understand.” I am passionate about the design process and believe that architectural education is about cultivating imagination, celebrating the creative process, encouraging conceptual exploration, and promoting innovative problem solving. I engage my students in experiential embodied learning, such as thinking with their hands and drawing in their minds, to foster discovery through investigation and help refine their craft.  I teach students to express their unique worldviews during the design process but also encourage them to surrender their ego and be open to new horizons, challenges, and modes of discovery. From my own experience, learning through involvement is essential in not only the design studio but also for seminar and lecture alike. I ask my students to remember that building is a means of testing theory as well as an act of embedding knowledge, so the design process must be rigorous yet open to inquiry.

Most importantly is the goal of helping students gain the requisite skills necessary for success in professional practice.  I consider the role of an educator to be both a privilege and honor.  Working closely with the next generation of design professionals is demanding yet inspiring. Principles that guide me in these efforts fall under four important themes.


Design with Beauty

As advocated by my mentors Juhani Pallasmaa and Alberto Campo Baeza, I am a proponent that the ethical task of architecture defends the authenticity of human experience by addressing aesthetics, culture, beauty, and time.  Stemming from one of Vitruvius’ three pillars of architecture, it is my objective to help students learn to design with beauty – to transform chaos into cosmos.  Designing with beauty requires understanding timeless design principles, patterns, proportions, geometry, and spatial relationships inherent in nature and the cosmos. Qualities of beauty are often embodied in sacred spaces around the world and in traditional or classical theories of architecture.  While the baseline of architecture is to protect the public’s health, safety, and welfare, designing with beauty enables architects to transcend those expectations and produce extraordinary experiences that remind us of the beauty of ordinary life.  I have taught my students that in harmonic design the whole and the part may be based on the same geometrical pattern, giving the composition an inner harmony or a reference to unity which is the key to beauty. Consequently, a large component of my design research and scholarship analyzes how architecture reveals the phenomenological qualities of beauty and subsequently affects human experience, perception, and behavior.

Defend the Authentic

Architectural education must help students learn how to defend the authentic – the real.  There is a definite authoritative difference between architecture of fantasy, simulacra, and kitsch when compared to buildings that defend the authenticity and autonomy of human experience.  Likewise, buildings must not be ignorant of their context but rather adapt a cultural sensitivity or anthropological perspective regarding the spirit of the place.  Authenticity ultimately lies in preserving and honoring culture, tradition, memory, and history. To be authentic, students need to learn empathy, compassion, and humility in order to be wise stewards of the built environment.  I have sought to help my students understand these concepts by giving assignments that require them to learn about a place and its culture, tradition, and history before designing. Precedent analysis allows them to build upon the best ideas of the past, give authority and meaning to their own designs, avoid mistakes by learning how their predecessors solved problems, and design sensitively by relating their proposal to existing contexts.

As a part of the hermeneutical cycle of reception-theory and critical historiography as outlined by Lindsay Jones, I have given my upper division course students assignments requiring them to take a democratic approach to case study analysis. I encourage them to consider not only the original design intentions of the architects or interpretations by academics but to be receptive to indigenous (insider) and non-indigenous (outsider) perspectives to balance their reading of a particular building, place, or space.  I also encourage my students to visit and experience architecture firsthand (if possible) to enable them to move beyond the ocular-centric experience of photos, renderings, and representations to the kinesthetic embodied knowledge found in the buildings themselves.  All of these efforts are aimed at the objective of helping students learn to defend the authentic.

Build for Time

The contemporary aesthetics of speed and newness force designers to continually strive for innovation, yet a lack of attention on durability, longevity, authenticity, and timelessness remains unaddressed. Designers must think of architecture, as architect Travis Price argued, as the archaeology of tomorrow. One of my objectives for my design students is to not only help them understand the value of building for time as a sustainable practice of wise resource management but comprehend how the act of building embeds knowledge, beliefs, and ideals.  Tomorrow’s design professionals must build with time in mind, especially since their buildings may inform history by serving as a cultural artifact and text. In previous courses I have taught, one particular objective I have promoted has been to help students understand the importance of architecture as a historical text. Using theoretical frameworks to inform their written architectural analyses and graphical interpretations of case studies has been one successful method; meanwhile, another approach involves accompanying students to the actual buildings in our course of study, such as Italian palazzos or the Roman Pantheon. The opportunity to visit these edifices enables students to learn about their historical contexts and materiality firsthand in situ.  Such an encounter memorializes the building in their mind and becomes a suspension of time as well as a form of deep experiential learning.

Inspire the Spirit

Meaningful architectural design aims at eternity by inspiring the spirit and enriching the human experience. When thoughtfully produced, architecture can move beyond prose into poetry and become a rich language of symbols and meaning. Vitruvius labeled this architectural phenomenon ‘beauty,’ meanwhile Louis Kahn dubbed it the ‘immeasurable,’ and Le Corbusier branded it the ‘ineffable.’  In my experience, spaces with life-changing extraordinary architectural experiences are those that were designed with beauty in mind, defended the authentic spirit of the place, and were built to last the test of time.  I prepare my students to produce such inspiring environments by leading them through a creative process of self-discovery and self-awareness.  I teach my students to think about how the built environment has influenced their own human experience as well as increase their awareness of the important role they will play as architects. I encourage my students to bridge the gap between the needs for innovation and flexibility while simultaneously celebrating and building upon precedent to highlight the spirit of the place. Ultimately, my desire and goal is for each of my students to leave at the end of the semester knowing that they can make a difference in the world through design.

While my teaching philosophy for architectural education may appear idealistic, I consider it successful when my students’ learning experience results in them catching the vision of architecture’s ability to shape human experience. I am confident that as my students design with beauty, defend the authentic, build for time, and inspire the Spirit they will find their role as an architect both fulfilling and ennobling.