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    the end of thesis?

    Tim Do
    By Tim Do
    Aug 2, '08 1:53 PM EST

    as some of you may know, i am in my graduate thesis semester and this week marks the beginning of the final stretch for our final presentations which will take place in a little over a month. i'm a little freaked-out, but i figure i would offer up a discussion that may help divert some of the anxiety...or maybe i'm just procrastinating.

    the discussion relates to some issues brought up by sylvia lavin, professor and former chair at UCLA, during her recent visit and talk with thesis students here at SCI-Arc. i would describe the talk as being either very poignant commentary on the current state of architecture and architecture education OR the most demoralizing pep-talk i've ever been a part of. either way, i thought the issues that were brought up warrant discussion here.

    her main argument was (and i'm paraphrasing) that within the current state of the profession today, given its highly collaborative an non-authoritative nature, there is no longer any relevance for personal theses. she likened the thesis student to an american tourist who expects everyone to speak english wherever they go, which may have been acceptable in the recent past, but today people need to "speak the fucking language", meaning the more and more that a student delves into the highly-nuanced, bottomless abyss that is thesis, the more and more they lose their ability to communicate with the outside world and the profession at large, thus losing their relevance in discourse overall.

    her secondary critique related to matters of method, or in other words, too often she has seen that during thesis presentations, the comment "it's a good project, but there is not really a thesis." comes up, leaving both the student and the jury in a state of confusion and frustration. i am not exactly sure what she meant by this comment. does it mean students today lack the skills and discipline needed to formulate a poignant argument, or is the world no longer interested in what these arguments have to say?

    before i get into my response, i should point out that SCI-Arc is one of the few remaining graduate schools (Princeton and Harvard are the only other two i know of) that still require a final thesis semester. most schools either offer it as an option or have phased it out all together. it should also be noted that sylvia was responsible for ending thesis at UCLA during her time as chair, and even our own thesis coordinator, hernan, is a proponent of ending thesis as well (which is why he was given the position of thesis coordinator).

    my conclusion is that although much of what sylvia says is proving to be true...

    1. thesis is an inescapable blackhole that consumes your life and everything around it...check

    2. thesis causes a disconnect and inhibits our ability to communicate with the world around us (just watch me in social settings with non-architects)...check

    3. formulating a thesis that is relevant in this day in age is an extremely daunting, and perhaps impossible task...check

    ...i still believe that it is something that every architecture student should experience, and this is not because i am a sadist, but because i think it is an important aspect of our profession, that is, the highly personal and nuanced expression of what you, the architect, feel is important in the world, and although this view may not ever be correct, i still feel that act of expression is what drives a designer.

    i can give an example in the real world based off my own experience where i found myself in a design meeting at an office where although it would be considered a collaborative process, the vibe of the meeting was highly contentious, and it was often the most outspoken and passionate people (with the work to back it up) who had their ideas pushed through in the project. it's not to say it was because these people were geniuses, but because they had the strength, rigor, and balls to communicate their personal ideas in the best way possible, no matter how absurd.

    i think this also belongs in the broader discussion that orhan had with peter cook, where mr. cook highlighted the fact that it is the individual and sometimes strange student that the education system should cater to, and not the student that merely copies the instructor's interest, no matter how skilled they are at it, because this just perpetuates a system in which architecture becomes highly predictable and often disposable.

    that said, i think thesis should continue on...


    • moratto

      Tim, interesting topic. I agree, I think she makes a good point but I do not see the relevancy to graduate school.

      Graduate school is an escape from the real world. The point of spending all that money is to formulate your own ideas. I see it as a means of internal communication by making your own conclusions of your ideals, values, etc...

      The real world will always be around and architects are just inherently bad communicators (thats why we draw).

      I'll be starting at SCI-Arc in a couple of weeks. I look forward to seeing all the thesis presentations.

      Aug 2, 08 2:55 pm  · 
      MArch n' unemployed

      good luck with everything dot, it sounds all too familiar - especially point #3. Berkeley also still does a thesis, which i just finished in May. i also agree with you that i think it's an important experience for a student - if only to learn how to craft and argument and successfully follow through - time management was my biggest problem, knowing when to stop designing and thinking is an impossible task it seemed. my project definitely suffered from that but i learned so much about myself, what is important to me, what my architectural agenda is that it was totally worth it. all too often students can't figure out their own voice and methods because they are too busy catering to a specific studio and/or professor.

      enjoy and good luck!

      Aug 2, 08 3:08 pm  · 
      Say No to Student Loans

      Good, polemical post dot, and thanks for summarizing Sylvia's remarks on the architectural Thesis.

      Michigan also has Thesis- a semester long with a fall prep course. So schools with theses: SciArc, UC Berkeley, Princeton and Harvard; anywhere else?

      Lavin's third point, in your post, seems very relevant. And with her other opinions, she seems to have a thoughtful, contemporary take on the thesis, when too many professors/academics, seem to be living in the past (maybe when they were students) and trying to play out personal fetishes through the student's work. Even if this isn't direct, I sense that a lot of students, tailor their stance and work to get attention and praise during reviews- they know what their professors like by that final semester. Also, I see over emphasis on the narrative side of the thesis- that first sentence is pivotal, but the actual work should be sexier.

      ^ these are from my impressions after attending thesis reviews at SciArc and Michigan

      Break a leg with your thesis dot!

      Aug 2, 08 4:25 pm  · 

      Great post. I can understand Lavin's point, especially considering the necessity of collaboration within the profession. Academia has a history of promoting individuality, especially in architecture school.

      At Tennessee, fifth year students have the option to pursue either an individual thesis or a collaborative thesis. However, students interested in an individual thesis must submit their thesis proposals for evaluation, and only the most relevant/interesting submittals are accepted. This eliminates, to some degree, the problem of ridiculous theses that waste both the critics' and the students' time.

      Good luck with your thesis

      Aug 2, 08 6:41 pm  · 

      cooper spends and entire year on thesis. I think the first semester is used to eliminate the bad / ridiculous ideas and projects. I don't think any student should be without a thesis.. the best thing someone should learn is how to work for and by themselves.

      Aug 2, 08 9:07 pm  · 

      interesting that the debate is going on.

      we did lots of collaboration in my school, and i often worked with teams of four other students for all kinds of things. but thesis was done on my own and forced me to set out and answer questions without relying on class-mates. There is no denying that doing that project was useful as reference for when i began running jobs. collaboration is part of architecture, no doubt, but at some point you have to lead and take responsibility. So even if it is fake and slightly absurd thesis is useful practice...

      i do think however that lack of academic rigor tends to lead to a lot of slightly silly thesis projects that in fact have no question and no answer. Those projects should be stopped by the profs and if the critique is coming up then the profs are not doing their job (which is to teach students how to set up a testable question that no one has answered before).

      at my uni we did thesis in three stages. first a proposal. if the proposal was not good then the students were sent back (theoretically), then there was a prelim presentation to show progress half way through and to give feedback. finally a last presentation was given and the student judged on merits of the question and how it was answered. we also had to hire structural and mech engineers to take the project to a slightly higher level of completion than most students are used to. So collaboration was def part of the deal in any case. Just that we collaborated with professionals rather than with other students...which is in fact quite valuable experience, even if limited.

      so am not happy to hear that students at any uni will be denied those positive experiences. what can the goal be? to make more drones?

      Aug 2, 08 9:25 pm  · 

      Thank you all for the great responses and well wishes.

      I think i should clarify that my post is merely my interpretation of what was discussed and is based on my recollection of a conversation that took place almost a month ago and lasted over 2 hours, so all the citations may not be completely precise.

      A faculty member has even emailed me to chime in. they asked me not to post the entire email because they discussed very specific examples, but i though it was important to share this point as it clarifies some of the historical context within which this conversation takes place:

      Sylvia wasn’t exactly against thesis. She was against the thesis as the expression of an individual—which is how it has been in the recent history of architectural education. Now this talk was kind of a mini-historical moment at SCI-Arc because this school itself is the product of the individualistic expression ideology of 70ies

      from what i have seen in the past 2 years of thesis presentations, most projects can be categorized into two 2 camps. 1. well executed projects that don't really say much and result in discussions that do not go beyond the execution of the project and 2. highly idiosyncratic projections that have a lot of heart, but the work is often incomprehensible and do not necessarily result in a project.

      Very rarely does a thesis achieve both so i think the sentiment at SCI-Arc is that since more and more theses turn out to be just 'a good project' what is the point of having thesis at all, and not just another studio?

      I think many thesis students set out to do both, but once the reality of executing the project within the amount of time given, students are usually left to make a decision between the two.

      Aug 2, 08 10:11 pm  · 

      Oh my, I was teaching at UCLA 2005 when Sylvia decided to get rid of thesis, I probably sat on the last thesis projects of that school.

      lets just reword the idea and call it final degree project. because that is what it is, ITS NOT A THESIS.

      Aug 3, 08 12:43 am  · 

      call it what you want, after 17yrs out of b.arch i still feel that thesis was a necessary part of our program. even then, though, the faculty at tulane felt there were structural problems with how it was managed and some wanted to scrap it.

      i agree with all of ms lavin's points as reasons that thesis might not be working now, given her and hernan's points of view. but i'd argue that maybe thesis isn't the problem. if a more collaborative approach should be taught in order to align more directly with practice, it should be taught throughout all studios.

      the particular value of thesis is that it gives an individual an opportunity - a very RARE opportunity, really - to spend a focused period of time beginning to figure out what that individual would like to set up as a path/trajectory for a career: what will be my interest? my focus? my goals? what do i hope to explore? where do i want to go with this architecture thing?

      thesis necessarily amounts to a lot of hand-wringing and non-production sometimes. and sometimes a thesis (like mine) fails to come to a satisfactory result. whatever happens, it's this opportunity to spend the time that matters. generico reacts to calling it 'thesis', as if it should be measured against the production of research papers from other disciplines. so maybe parallel it instead to a therapist's end-of-education self-analysis. it's the culmination of an intense period of learning and change and the preparation for a completely different kind of intense learning and change.

      knowing that he/she has a position, or a goal, or at least a rigorously studied point of view just may help a young student from becoming demoralized in those first years of internship - having something to fall back on in a frustrating time and something to keep thinking about for years.

      my (again, completely unsatisfactory) b.arch thesis raised issues for me that have been touchstones in my thinking about architecture for the past 17yrs. maybe not every student will be able to say that - but it was certainly worth doing.

      Aug 3, 08 7:32 am  · 

      I feel as if many of the commenter's (ie: moratto, Steven etc) pointed to a key aspect of the thesis's role in both undergraduate and graduate education.
      I did one for both and i feel that it enabled me to not only develop a very strong internal communication/awareness and dialog about your profession specifically but also more generally just intellectually.
      I know although i may not ever go back into the specific field i was in at the graduate level again, getting my MA made me who i am today, specifically in terms of how i think about the world and process information etc..
      Additionally i know that it was only after getting an MA, that i was able to realize the idea of me continuing on for a PhD in that subject was unrealisitic, if only because i saw the contours of my future professional life and moaned with horror.

      Re: architectural education and the thesis, i think it would be great if schools could figure out a way to make the education itself more collaborative but I think the thesis does need to be a solo mission, if kept. Re: the thesis degenerating into fluff, mental masturbation etc, i think the whole reason one has a team of advisors is to prevent that from happening. At least that was my experience.

      Aug 3, 08 10:42 am  · 

      The whole "it's a good project, but there is not really a thesis." argument from Sylvia I get, because it gets harped on again and again during the first semesters Thesis Prep segment. And yet, when all is said and done, very few of the projects I've seen ever ended up having a 'if, then' type deal, which is what a thesis is. Too many simply focus on technique without any established reasoning.

      At Sci-Arc tho, I frankly feel this is often at fault with the system that leads up to Thesis, and perhaps less with the thesis system itself. More projects seem to have 'gotten it' at the end of Thesis Prep, but then revert back to typical studio projects by the terminus of production.

      Aug 3, 08 1:40 pm  · 
      bryan boyer

      The teamwork/collaboration argument is a funny one because it puts all of the pressure on thesis itself. What about the rest of the time you spend in school? At Harvard there is not a single core studio project that is completed in a group. Columbia at least has a housing project which is group oriented and I'm sure plenty of other schools have similar programs. I understand and agree with many of the reasons for killing thesis (especially the fact that most "thesis" projects actually have very little in the way of an argument) but it seems a bit lazy to put all of the blame on the last semester or two of one's education. Core (or foundation or whatever you school calls it) is equally as important, if not more so, for setting up good habits.

      Aug 4, 08 12:21 am  · 

      for the record, the RICE m.arch program also spends a full year on thesis.

      Aug 4, 08 8:17 am  · 

      To add to the list... MIT, UBC and University of Toronto all still have thesis.

      I can kind of understand making thesis optional -- allowing another studio in lieu of it, but it seems a shame to drop it altogether. I agree with some of the posters above... better to fix the problems than throw it away.

      I don't know what the criteria for judging it was, but at my school they were just starting to put some students after thesis prep into upper year studios, but they were expected somehow to go farther than their other classmates... somewhere between studio and thesis. Another idea floated by one of the profs was to start assigning two architects to each student at the beginning of thesis prep and ask them to flesh out their ideologies and then, I guess, propose their own in either opposition or agreement... might be a productive way to jump start the process.

      The crisis for me and most of my friends seemed to come at the moment of switching from thesis prep into thesis -- applying our ideas to a design project -- guess that sounds like the whole point of thesis to begin with, but somehow it was mostly forced and not often successful... not sure what needs to be done to change that. In the end, I know if I'd been given the chance after thesis prep to bail on thesis and just do a final studio I'd have taken it.... and in hindsight that would have been a terrible mistake for me... thesis kicked my ass but was great in the end -- an experience I'm really glad I had.

      Aug 4, 08 5:18 pm  · 

      As jump explained, UManitoba also still has a thesis. It starts in the fall semester, when a proposal is due. That can be worked on up until near the very end of the first semester. Studio work is also happening at this time, and it should obviously be aligned with whatever direction you want your thesis to go.

      During second semester is when the real work starts. One or two 'drafts' are due, as progress is directed. Engineers are 'hired' and are a requirement for a passing thesis project.

      At the end of the second semester, the work is presented. The jurors meet immediately after to discuss what needs to be worked on over the summer - maybe more technical drawings, maybe some photos, etc. Then the student has about three months to finish the final document, and then in July everybody gets back together to do the presentations all over again.

      It's a huge, long, frustrating practice (or so it seems) but it also looks worthwhile. In my design undergrad, our thesis started halfway through third year (research and proposal) and continued for the entire graduating year. Well worth it!

      Aug 5, 08 10:14 am  · 

      I agree that SCIArc should replace thesis with an end on the year show but they should also try to match the intensity and creativity of the Bartlett Shows. The main problem at SCIArc is not necessarily trying to reconcile between thesis and a project but the homogeneity of what is required to get through thesis prep.

      Not to mention the stagnation that comes from professors who have been pushing the same agenda and form typologies for years with no alteration.

      Aug 6, 08 12:09 pm  · 

      i agree. honestly, i thought thesis prep was a joke. having to meet professor requirements often times got in the way of doing original research.

      Aug 6, 08 2:59 pm  · 

      I'll start off with the samples that hit me deepest--and a big "props" to Paul et ALL for creating one of the best SCI-Arc thesis "failures"... Go Archinect :)

      jump - "if the critique is coming up then the profs are not doing their job (which is to teach students how to set up a testable question that no one has answered before)."

      Steven Ward - "the particular value of thesis is that it gives an individual an opportunity - a very RARE opportunity, really - to spend a focused period of time beginning to figure out what that individual would like to set up as a path/trajectory for a career: what will be my interest? my focus? my goals? what do i hope to explore? where do i want to go with this architecture thing?"

      namhenderson - "I know although i may not ever go back into the specific field i was in at the graduate level again, getting my MA made me who i am today, specifically in terms of how i think about the world and process information etc.."

      Appleseed - "I frankly feel this is often at fault with the system that leads up to Thesis, and perhaps less with the thesis system itself."

      Chris,Teeter - "i think creating a 'thesis' to do architecture is perhaps uneccessary and even a waste of time, but to do a thesis 'to find your opinion' perhaps necessary at least to feel satisfied with your own thoughts."

      formwhore - "I know if I'd been given the chance after thesis prep to bail on thesis and just do a final studio I'd have taken it.... and in hindsight that would have been a terrible mistake for me... thesis kicked my ass but was great in the end -- an experience I'm really glad I had."

      dot - "having to meet professor requirements often times got in the way of doing original research."

      Aug 8, 08 2:31 am  · 

      And now the "contemporary collaborative song & dance, of which, every student of architecture should take heed"...

      Melody: Thank you to Mrs. Dora Jones
      For introducing me (us) to the CATTt at SCI-Arc.

      Harmony: More Wisdom from the masses

      Rhythm: Core, Verticals & Thesis
      Please do not change the flow of SCI-Arc's Grad Program. The institutional ideals SCI-Arc was founded on should not be changed by what some feel is "more contemporary". The rhythm of SCI-Arc is its call to individuality, and the making of individuals, some of whom will choose the path of collaboration on their own, is its product.

      Dynamics: Your Manifesto
      Long after thesis, many students of this academic metamorphosis at one of the most unique institutes in the world will look deep into their journey and find the roots of a manifesto calling them to make their own calls to the institutions of architecture: new worlds for the masses, masses for new worlds, new worlds for the asses, asses for the masses, or just plain ol' masses for the asses.

      And now... a little tune
      Without a manifesto, the latter becomes increasingly further away from the former, and much closer to what you are able to sustain as an architect in this "brand new world of collaboration that is so much better than an individual thesis". It's telling that institutional advocates often tear down individuation and the natural horizontal connections that come post-thesis. Thesis is the hyperlink, and thesis at SCI-Arc builds fluid albums of tracks that define new territories. Not every album is full of great music, nor are the title tracks always the best. It's the B-Sides that will be played by the great DJs of our culture after digging through years past... LONG LIVE the culture of Thesis.

      Aug 8, 08 3:01 am  · 

      One could easily turn Lavin's arguments around and use them as a critique of herself and other professors who have made a career off of using highly nuanced language and thriving off of their own personal and individual critical positions. Lavin expects the student to give up on notions of singular authorship and embrace collaboration while simultaneously taking an authoritative position as the critic.

      Perhaps I have not followed her career closely enough, but when was the last time she had to collaborate or take a supporting roll in a large design team in an office environment? Would she be so quick to give up her own "authoritative" status as an intellectual?

      She also forgets that an important aspect of the thesis is the student challenges themselves to maintain a level of self discipline, commitment, and focus to organize and complete a project on their own.

      Those attributes are key to being able to be a operate effectively as both an individual designer, as well as a member of a design team.

      Aug 9, 08 1:57 am  · 
      chatter of clouds

      this wouldn't be out of character, since she is part of a concession for "performative archictecture" group that also includes Berlage's director Alejandro Zaero Polo (FOA) who had explicitly criticized typical architectural education as being centered around the individual's interests and ambitions and offered Berlage, under his directorship, as a counterexample where the students contribute within a wider, and what he would see as being more relevant, field of research. its a funny combination of communism (anti-individualistic, socially machinic..) and capitalism (opportunism: material, financial, cultural...)

      Aug 13, 08 11:45 am  · 

      It's probably not fair or relevant to characterize these people in terms of their personal political alignment, but i find it intriguing or at least ironic that Alejandro Zaero Polo, who is responsible for such a polemical challenge of authority through the yokohama design, also happens to be the nephew of Francisco Franco (so I've heard).

      Aug 13, 08 5:24 pm  · 

      I realize this is an old discussion, but I find it extremely relevant to my pending grad school decision.

      I am weighing the value of completing a thesis in my graduate education (SCI-arc vs. UCLA), and strongly identify with the position that in school, students should be encouraged to develop there individual design sensibilities.

      However, I am not buying into the logic that by not completing a thesis, you are a homogenous drone. Could someone who has gone through a non thesis program please comment. Any UCLA grads out there?

      Apr 10, 09 4:35 pm  · 

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