Conversations with students, part 2: tangible design
As a followup from last month post, I will continue discussing the Studio Site Design for our second year students landscape architecture. I have been responsible for this studio for 12 years now. A somewhat daunting realisation I had last week. And it might be my last year, because we made a few radical shifts in our teaching program. I will be more involved in first year bachelor teaching and additionally in the third year: regional design. The regional scale better fits my research theme of landscape machines, that I develop with last year MSc students.
Now, before discussing the work of the students I will shortly comment on teaching in the bachelor. There is a relatively new incentive for assistent professors like me within the confines of the university. This is different from polytechnic universities (HBO in Dutch) or art-related educations. The so-called tenure track position is the only means for new assistent professors to get a position at the university. This means that you own a PhD title and may continue to develop towards a ‘personal professorship’ in intervals of 3×3 years. Every three years you are evaluated for your progress as a publishing researcher, as a successful grand or subsidy extractor and, to a lesser account as an excellent teacher. I have experienced that the boards that evaluate discourage to teach on a bachelor level and additionally see to it that the teaching load is fairly limited in general. As a result, bachelor teaching is not popular amongst university teachers, although this is where novice souls need to become resonant. A career unpopularity may also be the reason why older employees, like me, who joined university with a love for teaching, end up as the teaching tigers; feeling responsible for the most fundamental BSc skills.
These unbalanced circumstances are even more clear in surrounding groups that are responsible for expertise in soil, vegetation and historical geography. Within these groups, the teaching tigers are retiring and replaced by new tenure trackers. The new teachers are in many cases hyper specialists that can claim their domain more easily when it comes down to publishing and funding. For example, new vegetation specialists regard planting from a DNA perspective rather than field observations; or historical geography is no longer aiming at Dutch local knowledge, but more general socio-psychological theories within human geography. As a result, many of the general BSc skills regarding soil, vegetation and history are now attuned to hyper specialist and more abstract theoretical perspectives, instead of the broad, local and integrative perspective of ‘know it all’ teaching tigers.
I do not know if you get what I intend to describe here and maybe this does not sound problematic to you. It may be a necessary step towards a more specialist type of education and research development; but for the moment it feels like a loss of education stability. To me, education is not a traineeship towards a fixed set of competences (see one of my earlier posts). Only about 20% of our students actually become landscape architects. I regard university education as a sophisticated part of a life-long learning trajectory that enable students to become independent, critical, pro-active and co-creative. Especially bachelor education is part of a final phase of growing up, away from parents and family ties, seeking new friends and alliances and discovering new individual skills. The tenure track university policy is revealing a more corporate stance, instead of an educative perspective on a developing sense of self. I prefer what my former teachers advised me while interviewing them: ‘You have to let them believe in something, for a while’ (Meto Vroom); ‘You are more concerned with developing a certain culture than with teaching what is already written down somewhere’ (Dieter Boland).
SO NOW, LET’S EAT THAT PUDDING AND PROOF BACHELOR POWER!
What did our students do after the one-week workshop landart?
We offered them a one-day maquette workshop by Arjan Karssen, who wrote a fantastic book on model making. We set the scale for the ‘tangible design’ to 1:50, so a tree is really 30 to 40 cm tall and tangible. And we framed it as a 10-day design competition. The winner would be allowed to actually built the project with the help of the volunteer group, guided by our client Leo Goudzwaard. So the design had to be cheap (only 150 euro extra expenses), made with local materials and manageable within three days of work by a group of five volunteers. The program was to develop a narrative and practical addition to the current redevelopment of the ‘Oostereng’ towards an arboretum. Narrative means, spatially indicative of a selection of prior events on a specific site within the arboretum. Practical means, accommodating for more visitors and more varied use of space.
The students had to select one of the three types of boxes we developed for the 1:50 models. So this limited everyones site-intervention to a comparable scale. One box to show a panorama (with a round background), one box with a rectangular view into the distance and one long box to be able to capture a long lines. Of course, after three days of designing, everybody extended or enlarged their box to fit their specific design.
We also asked them to prepare an elevator pitch, no longer then three minutes. For which they were offered a mini-workshop by a professional drama teacher (with whom I collaborate for a while now, scroll down here to see our upcoming workshop on storytelling in the landscape). All bachelor skills were present in this set-up: graphic skills, a site specific design, smart analyses, spatial design by model making, client empathy, competition craze and a personal presence by means of a pitch.
The final presentations were staged outside the university, to highlight that their work really mattered beyond the boundaries of the ivory tower. And boy and girls, were they ready to rock and roll! We are still very enthusiastic about the results. Below are a few images. Three designs were selected by the designers from H+N+S landscape architects, who hosted the final presentations and our client handed the first prize to our exchange student from Norway (Denise Peters). Her design will be realised this spring. Additionally, our client also asked Joost Andrea (see below) to continue discussing his design because he so liked his suggestions.