Architecture, design and embarrassment

As a student of architecture and education you have all the fun and none of the responsibilities of the professional architect/educator.  In June I was given the opportunity by SCABAL to write a brief for their architectural studio’s open day to design a primary school in a day.

Once I’d written the brief, I watched as eight architects discussed, drew and designed my requests for a new school called Treetops Primary, set on the edge of a small town.

Many interesting things occurred during the day, more than I could begin to include here, but two months later what I remember most of all is an outstanding piece of miscommunication between me and the architects, a misunderstanding that I understood only at the end of the day after all the drawing and model-making was over and we were talking about how the brief had been fulfilled.

the scabal charette

I’m not going to explain the background to the misunderstanding in detail, suffice it to say that my understanding was that the architects had designed a school building around three actual trees whereas in fact they were proposing a school building based on the dimensions of three large trees, using the diameter of the tree trunks as a basis for the floorspace.  I was thoroughly embarrassed at the time, as is evident from the transcript below, realising that while I’d understood their thinking up to a point, once we’d stopped talking about the brief and they’d started making models of the school, my imagination and theirs had become completely divorced from each other.

Reflecting on that embarrassment now seems more like a useful gift than a torture, particularly for someone like me whose research  touches on the communication process between architects and clients.  At the time, it was so much easier to apologise for my misunderstanding of their interpretation of my brief rather than to interrogate what had happened and try to investigate what had gone wrong.  And once those emotional responses come into play, communication can become even more difficult – embarrassment and shame tends to envelop the proceedings and cloud any further thinking.

So here’s the transcript – complete with my unexpurgated apologies to the architects – because even though I cringe now when I re-read it, it’s actually one of the most useful experiences I’ve had so far as a doctoral student.

Treetops primary
Transcript of the final session of ‘A School in a Day’.

Speakers:  Architects: A1; A2; A3; A4; Emma (doctoral research student, ex-teacher, non-architect, ‘client’ and writer of brief for the day’s project).

The scene: SCABAL architectural studio, sitting around a large round table covered with drawings and designs made to the brief.  Chocolate, biscuits and tea, relaxed talking.

A discussion is taking place about the brief for a new primary school built at the edge of a small town. The school is called Treetops primary and the architects have made designs around ‘tree houses’, based on the dimensions of exceptionally large trees.  We join the discussion as Emma, the client, who believes that the tree houses will be built in actual living trees, asks a crucial question about the design.

Emma:   My question would be: what would happen if one of the trees died, or what would happen, would the school die?

A1: Oh no, no, no, no!  They’re not ACTUALLY trees?

Emma: OK.  But are those trees part of it, they’re not built around the trees? So those are not trees?  It’s not built around that?

Audible sigh by architects, then laughter

Emma:  OK, I’m sorry. So I failed to understand that.  It’s my fault, not your fault.

A1: This is how we disappoint and bring the client along with us.

Emma: Well I’m glad about that because I was worried.

A1: Because actually our building is now tree-like, as opposed to a tree.

Emma: I understood it that it was the size of the trees but there were growing … that three trees growing, I mean, planted through the middle.

A2: That is a great idea!  I mean, now it is!

A3: It is a great idea.

A4: I was thinking something like that because I saw buildings or …

A1: Well, the the  … certainly it was that.  If you built that school like that and it was called Three Trees school or Treetops and you planted trees around it, eventually those trees would be the size of the school and the school would be, if not a tree, it would be so like its neighbours, the trees, and that would be sort of amazing.

Emma: But I thought that was what you were doing.

A1: No, no, but we are doing that.  But you’re worried about the tree dying and the school collapsing and that’s not going to happen.

Emma: But it’s really interesting from the point of the communication process because I am architecturally illiterate and even though I have been here for 18 months I am getting better but I am from the outside and you don’t necessarily learn those things from just watching.  Especially you … I’ve seen all your buildings but it makes you realise how much you have to say to someone like me from a model what it actually is.

A1: But if we distinguish two of the things you’ve said.  The first one was: to be involved in the conversation enables you better to understand the proposal, as opposed to looking at the proposal if it were sort of presented complete.  And I think that’s a really good lesson.

Emma: And I’ve been in a school where there were architectural plans, but there were plans presented, no architectural models, just plans but I had no idea.  I couldn’t, I couldn’t imagine it in my head, I just, and I may be an extreme form of that kind of person, but I couldn’t interpret it and still find it hard.  So …

A2: But that’s interesting. Because in a way there’s two different … the relationship with the studio is obviously very close and for a long period of time but if it was something, say, more where someone wanted to commission a school, came directly to the studio.  In a way, would that, because this today was also a process of discovery and not just, of exploring ideas and responding to a brief initially and at what point does that become something that you share with a client or with, is it … um…?

A1: Can I just say, we’ve had experience of that.  And the, say, two clear experiences of that.  And one is, we’ve tried to work with a lot of schools and really just secondary schools using a method like this where we wanted the school to start with a tablecloth.  And be able to … and they found it extremely difficult and the more we tried to dismantle the structure of that school, the more resistant they became.  I have to say partly because they became increasingly threatened. The relationship didn’t get stronger.  But with X Academy, who had no idea of what a school was or (indistinct) women, who were being virtually harassed by consultants from the DfE who wanted to get them to a point very quickly where a school was a very specific thing.  So the more we spoke to X, the more willing they were to start with an empty table.  So I’m going to suggest that schools are in fact, there are many aspects of schools that are extremely resistant um … and er, that’s odd isn’t it.  Well it’s not odd, not surprising necessarily, but an odd way to look at educating children.

A2: Because you can imagine some people might get scared when you start talking about trees and building towns around trees, because one’s playing as well and you might scare someone, you know, it’s kind of …

A1:  I think there’s enough cutting and sticking in this to get over the idea of scaring people.  I think people might think, might not, you know they might have enjoyed it but not exactly sure what good it’s done if they have a clear, you know, of a programme of getting from A to B.

Emma:  I think it’s quite scary actually when you have the models .. I mean, it’s really great to see the models but there’s a point in a teacher’s head where they’re thinking ‘Is this what they’re going to do?  Is there any going back from this?’  OK they’ve (architects) got an idea in their head now, but what if it doesn’t … I mean, that’s a really an interesting idea and I’d be interested to see it built but what if it doesn’t work, what’s if it’s wrong?  We’re stuck with it, you know?  That’s a bit scary, that fixing of things, but then at the same time it’s really fascinating to see things, kind of solidify and you need to, you can’t just have this drawing, but I can see why the fear might come in at this point, um, ‘OK. Can I change my mind now?’ Treetops primary
NB  In case it doesn’t come across in the words of the text, I would like to emphasise the architects couldn’t have been nicer or kinder.  The shame was purely my own.

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