Educating Architecture Students through Film


Architectural education sets the foundation as to how architects learn in practice and can provide insights into how value systems are shaped. Cuff (1991) insists that architectural education has, for a considerable amount of time, been very much based around learning how to be creative and thinking for yourself; while (Lawson et al. 2003) adds that ‘knowing by doing’ is a readily accepted method of educating within architecture.  A strong criticism of the education system is that “adaptive use is the destiny of most buildings, but it is not taught in architectural schools” (Brand 1994). Most programs emphasis innovation and novelty (Glasser 2000), very little education goes into how to change existing buildings, thus there is little knowledge taken forward from education into practice in this area (Kohler & Hassler 2002).


Dyckhoff (2011) states, “Too many architects design for this moment, the perfect idealised space on the inside, iconic form on the outside. But put the people in here and it just doesn’t work.” The quote suggests that architects tend to ignore the medium of time and how users will occupy and appropriate space over time, in order to concentrate on the ideal aesthetics and performance of a building (Schmidt III, et al. 2010).  The dismissal of time can be seen as highly problematic, considering a building and its demands will continue to change throughout its life span.


It could be argued that this idealised, timeless view of buildings emanates directly from architectural education, where students are able to explore their own creativity to a much greater extent than when in practice (Glasser 2000). This is a critical time for a burgeoning architect and the only time where they can really design whatever they desire (UIA 2005), essentially opening their minds to what could be possible. This educational process is essentially indoctrinated in the visual where architectural students are asked to complete one graphic representation after another for one project after another as a series of design studios aimed at developing a visual portfolio of their academic career exploring the creation of objects in space.  Whilst architectural education produces fantastically free thinking architects in the sense of form, does it actually close the mind of many architects to the idea of time and how a building they create transforms throughout its existence?


Film becomes an interesting intervention for students to investigate beyond the object in space into the complex interplay of contingencies in time.  Dynamic in nature, it could provide a useful medium to expand an architect’s design consciousness. It is not suggested that film should replace other visual aspects of architectural education, but simply taught alongside them as a way to develop an architect’s ability to conceptualise the evolution of a building – a complex perpetually evolving product that is as much a social process as a technical object.


How does the process of producing films help architects envision time better?


It forces the student to bring the building to life – partially through the movement evident in any film (the moments, experiences, intervals, sequences), but also through the story the film tells. Intuitively, even in its simplest form (a sequence of images), a film still shows an account of an event or a series of events (a story). A film can focus a student to look beyond the initial form and function and give the building a timeline in which a ‘life’ can play out. It allows students to think about the building as a series of events rather than just what the building looks like, or how it will function at a single moment in time (how will it transform with users and in space, performance, scale, use, or location?). It allows them to think beyond initial occupation, to query what can happen in the future not just as a linear progression, but also as cycles of time – days, weeks or seasons.  Most importantly it ‘moves’ architecture past its initial form into a more accurate depiction of its spatio-temporal reality.  It embodies  a sense of what Till (2009) refers  to as ‘thick time’ – time is an embodiment of the past as much as the future – moving beyond a simplistic linear production unpacking the immediacy, multiplicity, connectedness, and powerfulness.


Adding scenarios to what was once a singular vision is one of the key advantages to producing films in architecture. Film allows the ability to ask ‘what if’ using different scenarios, which is a question of what could happen over time, not about absolutes derived from an initial brief. Scenarios can play out a variety of ways within the film, illustrating options, changes over time or simply a multitude of futures.  It intuitively creates an environment where the architect is forced to think longitudinally about the building and its context. Architecture should not and cannot be about absolutes.  For example, Norman Foster’s design of the Swiss Re building (the gherkin) in London, Foster is quoted as saying “In the end unless you are doing a building for yourself, you have to let go at some point. So you will come into a building, see the way it is used and there will be shock horror. I don’t think, it’s not, you know a disaster, but you know it could be better.” (Norman Foster, 2011). Here, Foster is essentially saying that the users are using the building in a way that is unintended (in a poor way) – this is partially due to the fact that once complete the building was meant to be fully occupied by Swiss Re, however, this never came to fruition.  On the other hand, it is partially due to Foster’s focus on creating a ‘beautiful’ object for a particular client at a particular moment and not on deriving a variety of possible futures that could allow the building to be successful under a handful of contexts.  If this had been the case, would he have been so shocked by the way the building is being used?  Would he have designed something differently?


This blog entry is an abridged version of an article that will be published in the upcoming issue of cSUR from The University of Tokyo.


BRAND, S., 1994. How Buildings Learn: What happens after they’re Built. New York: Penguin.
CUFF, D., 1991. Architecture: The Story of Practice. USA: The MIT Press.
GLASSER, D.E., 2000. Reflections on Architectural Education. Journal of Architectural Education, 53(4), pp. 250-252.
KOHLER, N. and HASSLER, U., 2002. The building stock as a research object. Building Research & Information, 30(4), pp. 226.
LAWSON, B., 2005. How Designers think. 4th edn. Amsterdam: Elsevier Ltd.
LAWSON, B., BASSANINO, M., PHIRI, M. and WORTHINGTON, J., 2003. Intentions, practices and aspirations: Understanding learning in design. Design Studies, 24(4), pp. 327-339.
SCHMIDT III, R., EGUCHI, T., AUSTIN, S. and GIBB, A., 2010. What is the meaning of Adaptability in the building industry?  16th International Conference on “Open and Sustainable Building”, May 17-19 2010.
TILL, J., 2009. Architecture Depends. Cambridge: MIT Press.
UIA, 2005. UNESCO/UIA charter for architectural education.


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