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    Options Recap - And The 'Individual Genius' Myth

    Quilian Riano Jun 13 '08 15

    The trip to La Prusia, Nicaragua is finally over and our team of Simon Bussiere MLA, Christine Canabou MArch, Aron Chang MArch, and moi are finally at home. Over the last two weeks and a half we have worked in the design and construction of three projects (maybe four). These projects are a continuation of our 13-person semester-long studio project and I will not describe them here as they are detailed in our blog:
    http://nicaestudio.blogspot.com/



    OPTIONS RECAP

    With this trip, the official part of my option studios is over, although the projects from both semesters are moving forward. The La Prusia, Nicaragua project moves forward to design development and construction over the next few years. The book from the River Tajo, Spain project will be presented in a couple of weeks in the Zaragoza Water Expo. The presentation has also been traveling around Spain.

    THE 'INDIVIDUAL GENIUS' MYTH

    Now that options year at the GSD is over, I have been wondering what I have learned. The first thing to strike me is that the entire year has been has been marked by group projects from studio to most of my other classes. I chose my studios like this on purpose because I have often thought that design education needs a revamping. We are currently mainly taught to hone our personal and individual design skills, with the expectancy that eventually one of our great insights will change the career.

    It seems that this system conflicts with the reality of the profession where collaboration and group design seem to be the norm rather than the anomaly. In many circles, and here in Archinect, people often complain that the academy is out of step with the realities of the profession and often the culture in general. I wonder if the 'individual genius' system of education, better suited to individual expression, is part of that problem.

    But what how can this change? Also, is this change acceptable at every stage of education, for example at the beginning studios of a new design student?

    As I began to argue in this thread, I think that the 'individual genius' is appealing as a story because it is easy to tell. It is easy to say that X architect with a personal narrative is designing these buildings and then go from there. It is hard to explain how a lowly intern may have done the design that took that architect in a new direction, or how most of his or her buildings are really designed by a committee. The personal narrative is also one that allures designers who are often struggling and underpaid and to whom having their name 'out there' may be the reward for years of work.

    The key, I think, is to make the process and structure the story, while allowing individuals to keep personal authorship over at least sections of the work. I saw very strong structures in these semesters and, quite frankly, every once in a while I saw chaos. The best groups had strong leadership (at the faculty level, but also delegated to all students but at different times of the process) and a clear and transparent structure/process for working. The MIT workshop system is also interesting. There they have a long-term, well-funded project in which students can plug in for a semester give their expertise and pass on to the next class.

    Either way, I think that developing systems, processes, and structures for true collaborations at the academic and professional levels will be key to stop the 'individual genius' myth, a myth that is damaging to the profession although not for a few professionals.

    On to thesis...

     

     
    • 15 Comments

    • Orhan AyyüceOrhan Ayyüce
      Jun 13, 08 4:41 pm

      interesting. i would also think, in the system you are proposing, there would be some clear and present dangers for the individual genius based education. like, 'divide and conquer,' is a good system to keep students apart and stop any kind of group insurgency effectively. education castles are highly guarded properties. instead of dealing with fluidity at that level, they seem to prefer calling an individual genius designed wall/floor plan fluid... interesting transfer of the words, to illustrate my argument.
      i am just voicing in the extreme sampling but moves are much more subtle. however, i stand by the overall diagnosis.
      credit for individual work system is a good place to start and makes the group work rewarding. and makes room for discussion at in the area of labor.
      i like your post a lot... even tough, i sound a little too anti.

      nsproductions
      Jun 14, 08 12:15 am

      the stuff you guys have done over there is cool

      nice post

      will gallowaywill galloway
      Jun 14, 08 1:06 am

      brilliant.

      the work, i mean.

      the group aspect is interesting. your take on it i don't quite agree with, though i understand the reasoning. starchitects are not all asses, and to be honest i really think the big names understand collaboration better than most firms. i would even argue that it is the mainstream firms, where collaboration is often touted as the backbone of the type, that the egos are more harmful. rem doesn't care if its his idea or some kid who just walked in that came up with the super concept. the same is true of ito and sejima. they do a kind of quality control and can certainly over-work their staff but the idea that it is a one-man show i don't buy. maybe for meier or ando that is the case, but they are old-school in my opinion...

      i think too there is something about leadership involved in architecture or any endeavour and it gets acknowledged regardless of ego. it is part of human nature. you do it even in your blog. why do you recognise teddy cruz at the very start unless you agree that there is a hierarchy and it is worth having?

      sometimes great things (and awful things) only happen because of ego. somehow i prefer that we all aim high, even if it isn't always fair.

      Nam HendersonNam Henderson
      Jun 14, 08 6:01 pm

      Q,
      I would really love to see or buy the River Tajo Studio book will i be able to?
      I assume you will have one so maybe i will just have to wait till i visit...

      As for the discussion around collaboration and ego vs starchitecture.
      I think that education in general is more effective and better prepares one for the workforce when it is based on group work and collaborative learning.
      And it does seem that design professions in particular face a challenge in that names become to easily associated with a object/style.
      One way to avoid this i guess is by having not a name/sole designer but a firm/brand.
      This is think is related to Jump's point about offices, their about and quality control.
      I do think that most practices (even in big name offices) these days both within the firm (in the design team) or between a firm and other disciplines (LARCHs, Engineers, planners etc) working on a project is the norm or at least fast becoming it. If only because the scale and scope of projects these days...

      The genius and attraction of the design discipline(s) for me, has always been this fact. The idea that the designer is creating but almost as importantly is managing or serving as a coordinator between the variety of disciplines involved.

      Carl Douglas (agfa8x)
      Jun 14, 08 8:49 pm

      With poorer students, group work can potentially provide a way to slip through an architectural education without ever actually developing the personal skills needed. There are tricky pedagogical challenges in balancing collaborative and individual skills.

      aml
      Jun 16, 08 10:26 am

      q, congrats, looked at the nica blog - a fantastic project.

      about team work- i'm having my students work on small teams of 2 and 3 right now- they are intrigued and happy so far [they hadn't done it before]- it works better when they are taking advantage of different strenghts. they are working on a large area though, it's more of an urban design project.

      after midterm i'll reduce the scale and i'm not sure if i'll break them down to individual projects or let them push forward as teams. but i'm enjoying the group dynamic so far- it immediately becomes more of a conversation and less of an ego thing.

      futureboy
      Jun 16, 08 2:12 pm

      Q,
      really great project there....
      now onto the interesting potentials and issues of group work. my own experience on this has shown me the pitfalls of group work (if unstructured, it is a very easy way for people to just not do anything), but also have seen so many times where it as an approach would be a huge benefit to the students. one place where it seems like academia could really begin to utilize group projects to more avail are 3rd and 4th year building system integration and urban integration studios...These typically are so daunting for a single student to undertake well, but if the projects allow different students on the team to tackle specific issues related to how a building interacts at a systems level or at an urban level, you can nest individual projects into a larger investigation...so i totally agree with you.
      i've been wanting to teach a studio based on these ideas for a while now......

      Mark_M
      Jun 16, 08 3:53 pm

      From a student perspective, group work is great but from our class experience it has made some individuals weaker. Our particular class has worked on group projects since our first year. I will be entering my fourth year and I have only worked on four projects by myself. Now this might not be the case for every class but we have realized that most of our projects are collaborative, dealing with urban issues and as mentioned before these tpe of projects can be a "daunting task for one individual." Our team work is great but we noticed that when we split to work on individual design projects some students had a hard time adjusting. Some students design traits were not as strong as others. Mainly because some “choose “ to fly under the radar rather taking initiative. We rely on each other for help and that certainly makes for a healthy studio environment. Exchanging ideas has become easier and egos don’t really exist in our studio. I give working in groups many ++++ and maybe -- due to its similar nature to the work world of designing. However, it is our own responsibility to define our own design process rather than relying on teamates.

      Nam HendersonNam Henderson
      Jun 17, 08 3:32 pm

      A couple of additional points.
      It seems as everyone here agree that group project sand collaboration are very useful and can help students in that they generally replicate the real world situation as it exists in the profession (re: collaboration). Especially when dealing witht he larger scale issues of urban design etc,.
      The key complaint seems to be that it allows younger or less developed/strong students to fly under the radar.
      I think that a resolution for this would be to emphasize group work only in the last fe wyears f undergraduate education and especially at the graduate level.

      One final thought, how does this dicussion relate to the growing use and role of BIM?
      It seems as if BIM allows for additionally levels of collaboration especially between disciplines as it helps to produce a more transparent design (wherein information is shared particularly about the relation between various components of the project/building design). It seems to me as if BIM is very good at generating meta-data?

      Will BIM and its growth help to encourage collaboration in the design process?

      CorBooBoo
      Jun 20, 08 11:56 am

      Hey Quilian,

      We met at NOMAS in Florida last year - I was on the Cornell team.

      Coming from a school with a heavy undergraduate background I have to admit that individual expression and "genius" is definetely the main model here, and for good reason. For one thing, it forces all of the students to engage in all the levels of the work, from conception to development to production - you are forced to address all of these things without the luxury of outside expertise and these are simply basic skills that all architects ought to have. I tend to agree that if anything, groupwork should come in the later years when students are a little more flexible in their talents and don't get stuck in a corner. Even then, I feel that in an undergraduate situation where many people are still feeling out their major/life, you get students who have really given up on architecture and are just trying to do the least they can to graduate - I understand their position, but it sure doesn't help the group dynamic. You also have a much lower level of responsibility and maturity in general, and definetely less professionalism - in a 3 person group it only takes 1 slacker to cause utter anguish and frustration. The projects suffer, and thus the students get less out of their time in school, focusing most of their efforts not thinking about design but instead how to get their groupmates into the studio...

      Working at a "starchitect"office currently, I find that amongst a collective of strong individuals these problems don't really exist. Its not like all these years of ïndividual projects have hindered our abilities to collaborate. Instead we can feed off of each others'ideas and not worry about someone leaving at 5 pm the day before a deadline. I also sense a refreshing lack of hierarchy and that everyone's ideas are valuable and useful, and get used - as an intern I feel like I've contributed to project design in a meaningful way, and that's what really matters, not who gets credit for what. At the same time, to dismiss or discard the experience, insight, and "genius" if you will, of the "starchitect" would be just as ignorant as blindly worshipping and praising it. Sometimes you will be stuck at a problem, and the boss will take one look at it and come up with an idea that you kick yourself for not coming up with yourself. It happens just like that and there's no denying it, just learning from experience.

      Cheers!

      -Gary

      toasteroven
      Jun 20, 08 12:38 pm

      Some industry and academic mags credit the entire design team - which is good, but in terms of the general media, you rarely, if ever, see any acknowledgment of a design team - they need that charismatic individual to sell their paper/glossy mag/etc... some papers never even credit the architect on a project unless they are a big name.

      When I was in school we were told "if you see a good idea - steal it, but always give that person credit." we didn't do a whole lot of group projects, but we often found ourselves talking about a conversation we had with a fellow student in our reviews. just that mention to a critic did a lot to help encourage positive and collaborative studio culture and trust among peers. A lot falls upon the instructor to model good behavior, but it can be instigated by students as well... I think the same thing should happen in an office - as long as people are recognized for their work, they'll do good work.

      I do think that people management skills should be taught in architecture schools, though... good management is the backbone of any successful design practice - more so than individual design skills. I've encountered too many really awful bosses in this field to think that it is an isolated problem. I think discouraging the individual genius mindset in schools might help combat this...

      ryanj
      Jun 20, 08 7:44 pm

      I think the idolatry of celebrity status architects is a large contributor to the attractiveness of the individual genius in the minds of architecture students.

      It's a shame that it has taken business school (for me) to correct the starkly modern individualism/ego-driven mentality rampant in the culture of architecture school. I think what Quilian is talking about, an understanding of the inherent benefits to a collaborative environment, is something that the current paradigm of architectural education could learn a lot from...if they were open to it.

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