Professor Yoon, as you are working towards a cross-disciplinary perspective on architectural education, which are your biggest challenges when coming to terms with a discipline with traditionally well-preserved boundaries?
I think that the architectural discipline is always protected in the fact that it is a profession in need of architects; as long as there are buildings there will be architects. But I think the biggest struggle is with defining and redefining boundaries, both from the inside and the outside. So, from the inside there is always a question of autonomy. That the discipline needs very clear boundaries in order to be autonomous and therefore strong. But my personal belief is that as architects we have weakened our own profession over time, exactly by trying to be so autonomous, to the point that as an architect you need so many consultants now. It’s like you are just a coordinator among your environmental consultant, and your highly specialized parametric, structural engineering consulting firm, and the programmers as well. I think architecture by trying to be autonomous has actually lost some of -not only scope within its own discipline, but also- its power.
Whereas, what is amazing about architecture is that it creates new worlds. It reconfigures what imagination is and translates it into new realities that can be tangible and experienced and packful. That core hasn`t left and that core needs to continue and to be strengthened. But I think to strengthen it we actually have to be open to redefining the edges of our discipline, to building bridges within the internal expertise within our discipline because it has become so specific. I strongly maintain that there is a really important role for architects and, in my mind, an architect is someone that naturally connects bridges, that can bring together imagination and problem solving and create something you could never imagine if you were just problem solving or just being speculative.
So I think it has two challenges, one from within and then from the outside, what I’ve known is that when you redefine boundaries and you take on lets say… open data, ‘what is open data sources and what does that mean for society, and citizens’, and ‘can u take that and incorporate that into some architectural application’…well, nobody minds from the data world, nobody minds from civic media… that’s not a problem. The problem is more with the people that believe in the purity of the autonomy of the discipline.
What is the role of the design studio in this `negotiating` process?
I think that the design studio is the most important space. Because it is a context, a pedagogy that is about experimentation. Like a set of controls in the laboratory, where we define the problem set and exclude certain things so that you can really explore questions, and like you said earlier, it’s not about answering the problem, it’s about asking the series of questions that allow you to engage with the process that builds new knowledge. Although not necessarily knowledge facts, but knowledge that ties speculation with real promise of impact. And I don`t think you can do that in other settings. A lab, for instance, is so driven by pure research, and pure problem solving and it requires a level of rigor. But the studio allows you to ease that part. You can change the problem context pretty loosely as you go, and that is what is so important about the studio. And a critique can be like ‘well, this isn`t working and let`s reimagine the x moment’. So, a studio is a kind of nurturing of the creative process for a whole semester. And, I feel like I’m so jealous of our students who get to be in the studio, because I don`t get that luxury of time to just have the creative process nurturing anymore. In your profession you are mediating between many many things, and you are running and designing very quickly without the luxury of thoughtfulness, like ‘I’m gonna explore this and if it doesn`t work I will think of something else’.
A few days ago, you joined the Fab 11 Symposium on How to Make (almost) Anything. While the idea of cross or non-disciplinary making gains all the more ground, how would you -from an architectural viewpoint- relate the following terms: design-making-artifact?
I think they are much more fluid right now. I think that you can make without designing. You can design without making. I think that the best artifacts though are produced where there is a kind of really intense feedback loop. So, it’s not ‘design and then make’. But it’s ‘design, test, testing it through making’. So, it’s a kind of iterative loop. But, I think that people misunderstand that making is designing sometimes.
In what sense?
That if you are actively engaged with the act of making you are actually designing. Actually, I think that`s not true. I think the design process requires conceptualization, physical manifestation, iteration that happens through critique, and if you don`t have those three things… So you can make without that design process, but I don`t think people that are makers would necessarily agree. They would say: “oh, in order to make that thing I had to design it”. Whereas, I’m talking really about the way we would define the design process in architecture. Which requires not just iteration for improving it as an object from a functional point of view. But also the debates, the new answers, the intuition, the reflection and then, the iteration. So I do think critique is such an important part of our design process and we critique in a way that is very different. Because our criticism ties both the process of making, the act of making, the production of making and the artifact, be it a building, a chair, or whatever, to culture and society. It asks, it necesitates asking, the hard questions of “is it relevant? Is it meaningful?”
In what ways is this perspective reflected in your pedagogy?
Well, this started with introducing the Design Across Scales course. And it was followed up by last semester’s ‘cross-studios’, as part of an experiment to bridge gaps between architectural design, history, and engineering, at MIT’s department of architecture. So, we engaged faculty of different disciplines to work together inside the same studio. One cross studio was on Megalithic Robotics, co-taught by architectural design lecturer Brandon Clifford and architectural history and theory professor Mark Jarzombek. Another studio was Granada: Design with History, co-taught by architectural design lecturer Cristina Parreño Alonso and Islamic architecture professor Nasser Rabbat. This asked the hard questions of how to rethink historic conditions and how to build contemporary architecture in a historical context. And then, the third studio titled Un-Flat Inevitabilities was co-taught by architectural design professor Joel Lamere and building technology professor Caitlin Mueller. The students examined soaring concrete shells, in terms of form and function. Above all, it was interesting to see the students’ response in this. And, I can say that it was surprisingly successful. So, yes, I think that was a promising experiment.