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Digital Empowerment for the "Experimental Bureau" Work Based Learning in Architectural Education

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This paper describes the concept of thè`Experimental Bureau'' as a didactic environment aiming to deal with real-life design tasks within the framework of architectural education. Its main focus lies on the specific opportunities for digital empowerment of students who learn about the design process-sometimes even in the role of contractors-in real-life oriented project work. Thus the following questions come under scrutiny and discussion from an angle of work based learning: What kind of design problems are tackled in a meaningful way by students through the utilization of a digital strategy? What kind of software (or software mix) is chosen and what problems are addressed by the choice and handling of these digital tools? These questions are answered in a different way applying the format of the Experimental Bureau, driven by its real-life projects and client communication, in comparison to largely artificial tasks confined to the academic realm.
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Digital Empowerment for the “Experimental Bureau
Work Based Learning in Architectural Education
Kulcke Matthias1, Bob Martens2
1HafenCity University Hamburg 2Technische Universität Wien
1matthias@kulcke.de 2b.martens@tuuwien.ac.at
This paper describes the concept of the ``Experimental Bureau'' as a didactic
environment aiming to deal with real-life design tasks within the framework of
architectural education. Its main focus lies on the specific opportunities for
digital empowerment of students who learn about the design process - sometimes
even in the role of contractors - in real-life oriented project work. Thus the
following questions come under scrutiny and discussion from an angle of work
based learning: What kind of design problems are tackled in a meaningful way by
students through the utilization of a digital strategy? What kind of software (or
software mix) is chosen and what problems are addressed by the choice and
handling of these digital tools? These questions are answered in a different way
applying the format of the Experimental Bureau, driven by its real-life projects
and client communication, in comparison to largely artificial tasks confined to
the academic realm.
Keywords: design education, real-life case study, stakeholder communication,
real-world experience, didactic approach
1 INTRODUCTION
One of the central issues of architectural education
in an academic setting is its artificiality on one side
and separation towards real-life conditions on the
other side. Students usually work on design exer-
cises in a rather controlled environment, receiving
feedback from the academic staff. They have to trust
their supervisors/tutors/teachers, who will specious
supply them with second hand experience, espe-
cially in regards to the virtual demands and needs of
clients. Since the translation of these requirements
into spatial concepts and subsequent architectural
solutions is one of the main traits of the architects
work a certain degree of contact between students
and clients/stakeholders deems more than desirable
as part of the curriculum in design education. The
term “didactic laboratory”, although it has been used
with different connotations (see e.g. Amirante et al.,
p. 14), suits the concept of the Experimental Bureau.
In this paper, selected case studies from two
different educational sites are presented and ex-
pounded, i.e. HafenCity University Hamburg and
Technische Universität Wien. Both sites are carrying
out design studio assignments nonetheless with a
different scope and setting. The main focus of is the
the elaboration of “digital empowerment”- in other
words, how do students develop their skills to act
with an increased ability to steer the design process.
Challenges - EDUCATION AND RESEARCH - Volume 1 - eCAADe 37 / SIGraDi 23 |117
2 THE DIDACTIC LAB ENVIRONMENT
This paper explores the concept of the Experimental
Bureau as a didactic approach within the educational
settings of a design studio. The format of the work-
ing context can be described as follows: Students are
learning while working on a real-life architectural de-
sign project with actual/tangible principals in a pro-
cess moderated by a professional architect and/or
academic staff. In this regard the term “experiment”
requires further elaboration in an academic context.
Experiment as a term is hinting at the secure
perimeter surrounding e.g. an individual, the Greek
“peri” translating as “around”, while suggesting a
leave of this secure perimeter. This necessarily con-
tains the element of risk, which can be derived from
the Greek “rhizikon” that among other translations
has means “cliff”. The cliff in this context signifies tak-
ing the risk as a step towards daring to leave secured
perimeters (on risk and daring see e.g. Hahn 1958
and Röhrs 1966), heading into the unknown. Topo-
graphically it may also be the separation between
land and water. To move safely in water cannot be
learned fully on land. These reflections may be trans-
ferred into architectural and design education as the
didactic format of the Experimental Bureau.
2.1 Exercise and Experiment
One significant difference between a design exercise
within a protected context and an experiment within
a controlled environment, is the element of risk. Safe-
guarding is more extensive if one declares a number
of performed tasks an exercise, making the process
the prime objective, aimed at the one completing the
task and not so much at the outcome. An experiment
is primarily concerned with an outcome which is be-
forehand unknown, the setup is conceived to con-
tain and control possible risks, which, due to the very
nature of true experiments, cannot be as safely lim-
ited as during an exercise. The predominant risk in
the case of the experimental bureau in architectural
education is the professional exposure, which is re-
duced again to a certain degree by academic super-
vision within the accompanying design studio.
2.2 Taking the Experimental Risk
Felix von Cube has discussed the relationship
between risk and security in his publication
“Gefährliche Sicherheit” (dangerous security) and
pointed out, that human beings strive for both. The
learner is intrigued by situations he/she cannot yet
fully control, there is an attraction at least to a certain
amount of risk. There is an intrinsic notion to turn
this risk into security, to gain control over the situa-
tion (see von Cube 1990, p. 26 and Warwitz 2016).
The Experimental Bureau attempts to use this mech-
anism among others to trigger an intrinsic student
choice of digital strategies by enhancing motiva-
tional risk through real-life tasks.
Return of investment is, however, a risk factor for
an involved professional architect while supervising
students e.g. at the HafenCity University to work on
an authentic project situation. Integrating students
in a real-life design task may result in time losses, e.g.
through essential educational processes and prob-
lem/solution discussions. On the other hand there is
the possible gain of valuable future employees, the
acquisition of a contract through academia and the
prospect of dedicated project presentations in the
media. On top of this, the issue of competition be-
tween work based learning and professional archi-
tects needs to be addressed by way of a win-win-
strategy. This applies also to the working context of
TechnischeUniversität Wien, where (local) stakehold-
ers, such as municipal/communal mayors, councilors,
merchants etc. input an investment of time. During
the intermediate and final critics the panel may be ex-
panded with professional architects and governing
officials. A participation of 20+ students delivers an
adequate bandwidth of solutions. Furthermore, the
exchange of views and opinions in a public context
has proven to be fruitful.
When taking a closer look at digital strategies as
part of the design process several lines of implemen-
tation can be identified. First of all a noticeable en-
hancement of a (classical) one-man/woman-setting
needs to be mentioned. The power of computing
allows to expand the “productivity” of a single per-
118 |eCAADe 37 / SIGraDi 23 - Challenges - EDUCATION AND RESEARCH - Volume 1
son, for example by way of the generation of alter-
native design solutions. However, individual design
work takes places within the setting of a larger stu-
dio group. Collaborative activities can and will be
set out by way of common access to data and the
creation thereof. The issue of subsequent sharing is
especially important regarding the representation of
the surroundings of a building plot given. A sur vey of
the existing location/situation will most likely make
use of digital data and is linked to the creation of a
3D-model of the surrounding context along with ex-
isting building structures. It may eventually lead to
the delivery of a digitally fabricated physical model,
where the participants in the design studio can in-
sert a partial model of their design. The central avail-
ability of low threshold tools - such as laser-cutters -
is around nowadays at most university locations and
their handling is manageable. Although working in a
scale (i.e. not 1:1) the relationship between “design-
ing” and “making” receives upwind. Overall, the ex-
change with a larger group of studio members can
work out fruitful and be expected to raise further de-
velopment on the individual design work.
On top of this, the communication takes place by
way of imagery, created by the students themselves,
along with transformations of for example analogue
drawing entities superimposed by digital sketching
and eventually further manipulation.
3 CASE STUDIES IN AN EXPERIMENTAL
CONTEXT
By using test cases a collection of digital necessities
as a basis for this didactic format is gathered and dis-
cussed. The design programs stem from two differ-
ent universities. Although different framework con-
ditions are given, a number of communalities can
readily be identified.
3.1 University Location A-HafenCity Univer-
sity Hamburg (HCU)
Since 2009 student competitions have been de-
ployed by Kulcke et al. to integrate external part-
ners into design-studio work. Especially impromptu
design tasks, where students have to come almost
ad hoc to solutions to be presented within the time-
frame of two weeks in front of the jury, have been
utilized for this strategy. The external partners e.g.
companies, institution, NGOs and others are invited
to take part in the task development, feedback ses-
sions and most importantly in the final jury. And they
supply the need, their real-life task.
Over the last ten years about 70 of these com-
petitions have been organized this way at the HCU
and the demand for a follow-up program has grown
over the years. This demand is not only driven by stu-
dents who took part in the competitions, but espe-
cially by the external partners. In the first case, which
also involved the Hamburg University of Technology
(TUHH) a follow-up project has lead to the realization
of an interior design by two students (TUHH) at the
International Building Exhibition (IBA) in Hamburg
Wilhelmsburg in 2013 (fig. 1). The development of
the didactic format of the Experimental Bureau stems
from this demand and the experience gathered with
such follow-up projects.
Figure 1
Students Philipp
Popp and Ingo
Höfert standing in
front of their IBA
interior design
A student competition from the same year was re-
lated to the ”Rathauspassage”. This second case
study proved that the format of the Experimental Bu-
reau can significantly contribute to public relations
strategies of the academic institution in charge. The
students’ rendering was in the end decisive for the
Challenges - EDUCATION AND RESEARCH - Volume 1 - eCAADe 37 / SIGraDi 23 |119
editor to publish the concept in an extended article
of the main city newspaper Hamburger Abendblatt
(fig. 2).
Figure 2
Article on the
project
“Rathauspassage”
in Hamburger
Abendblatt
13.06.2013,
rendering by Oskar
Görg and Ferdinand
Leser
In the third test case “BHH Sozialkontor”, the student-
driven choice of digital strategies within the real-
life task of designing the entrance area of a psycho-
physical therapy facility has been even more con-
sciously integrated into the didactic approach.
Figure 3
Collection of
aspects as a result
of a group
discussion on
digital necessities,
students: Sandra
Luu and Tom Ehlers
In this case the choice primarily concerned the digi-
tal collaborative workflow and the use of computer-
aided parametric design.
At first data to discuss the use of digital tools in
this didactic strategy has been generated within the
format of a moderated group discussion with the two
participants of the initial launch of the Experimental
Bureau, explicitly labeled as such, as a didactic format
with a focus on digital tools (fig. 3).
The group discussion consisted of several parts.
In a starting session, the students were asked at first,
what kind of digital support and tools seemed nec-
essary for them to work in a conceptual environment
like the experimental bureau. The second part of the
starting session focused specifically on software is-
sues. The students mentioned several CAD software
solutions known to them through their curriculum
and their work experience so far, while comparing
traits that mattered to them and their work in gen-
eral.
For projects worked on in this format it is vital
that they are conducted in a real environment and
with a real contract, only in this way the necessary
sense of risk can be established, which supplies the
format with its experimental character.
Regarding the implementation of digital strate-
gies student versions for CAD software are in cer-
tain cases out of the question, since the software is
commercially used. This applied e.g. to the project
“BHH Sozialkontor”. On the other hand the projects
are small scale, among other reasons so as not to go
into competition with professional bureaus, and thus
don’t justify the purchase of expensive digital tools.
3.2 University Location B - Technische Uni-
versität Wien (TUW)
The main theme of the study cases is related to the
structural vacancy of abandoned buildings. The lo-
cal community is not necessarily the owner of these
buildings, but has a dedicated interest to shift the
potential decay. Within the setting of a design stu-
dio, approx. 20-25 students are working on a project
theme and this delivers an adequate band with re-
120 |eCAADe 37 / SIGraDi 23 - Challenges - EDUCATION AND RESEARCH - Volume 1
garding the solution space (pool of ideas). The focus
is laid on building program development on one side
and to support decision-making processes regarding
future use on the other side. Besides at least one local
visit an exchange with on-site potential demands can
be identified and translated into a design concept. In
addition the communication with local representa-
tives culminates on the occasion of the midterm and
the final critique. After the termination of studio work
once again an on-site presentation of a subset of the
created designs takes place and intends to keep the
discussion in the local community alive. Eventually
realization as an option may occur.
Risk has another dimension in this regard. For
the participating students there exists a risk not to
complete their studio work with a sufficient grade.
However, this type of risk is in other studio settings
existing as well. On the other hand, the local com-
munity may consider risk in the sense of unsatis-
fied expectations, uncontrollable reactions from the
part of the local residents, or simply waste of time of
decision-makers. This type of studio work has been
executed for a number of years and the work with
20+ students (level: master studies) did not lead so
far to bitter disappointments at all. The aim is not
to bypass professional architects, but to take up de-
sign tasks, which are otherwise neglected (too small;
not paying off etc. in a professional office environ-
ment). However, when it comes to realization several
options exist to link up participation students with
professional architects.
3.3 Digital Necessities as Part of the Design
Process
In regards to teaching digital strategies and work-
flows in architectural planning, the strength of the di-
dactic format of the “Experimental Bureau” lies first
and foremost in being a catalyst for intrinsic prioriti-
zation and choice of the digital tools deemed neces-
sary by the students (fig. 4 shows a workflow gener-
ated within case study example III). This process can
be moderated and supervised by academic staff but
it is primarily fueled by the reference to the necessi-
ties that are inherent in the real-life project and the
needs of the external partners. Thus the pressure to
decide what software and hardware is put to use is
based on real needs, thus adding motivation on part
of the students in getting to know and implementing
them, and not a curriculum that may be looked upon
by them as artificially imposed.
As an element of meta learning, or as Bateson
called it deutero learning (Bateson 1978) students re-
Figure 4
Digital workflow
necessities in the
Experimental
Bureau
Challenges - EDUCATION AND RESEARCH - Volume 1 - eCAADe 37 / SIGraDi 23 |121
alize (if guided accordingly) that a choice of digital
tools may be sensible in regards to one project and
futile in regards to another. In the following exam-
ples this variety of prioritization of digital necessities
per project becomes obvious.
Example I: CAD / CAM Strategies - “IBA Muster-
wohnung” (HCU / TUHH). The process of realization
of the interior design of the “IBA Musterwohnung”
called for digital strategies involving among others
computer-aided manufacturing by CNC-milling ma-
chines. The authors of the winning concept in the
student competition had to deepen their knowledge
about CAD/CAM APIs to see their design ideas mate-
rialize.
Example II: Public relations by digital imagery -
“Rathauspassage” (HCU). Setting out to design the
interior of the “Rathauspassage”, a social workplace
right next to the Hamburg’s city-hall, but under-
ground with no immediate contact to public space
on the surface, it soon became clear, that the cus-
tomer not only wanted a design solution addressing
this problem, but also imagery to use in a public re-
lation strategy. This was communicated to the stu-
dents by the customers themselves and further dis-
cussed within the group that wanted to take part in
the preliminary student competition. As expected,
the group with the best pictorial communication, as
well as a high quality design, succeeded with the jury.
Finally their image, as a result of 3D modeling, ren-
dering and collage technique in image refinement
software, was used as intended by its creators to com-
municate the customers intentions.
Example III: Digital workflow / parametric design -
“BHH Sozialkontor” (HCU). Digital strategies, which
were agreed upon by the group and put to use in
the course of the design-development were e.g. dig-
ital enhancement of sketches and 3D models (fig. 5)
with image refinement software and 3D modeling
and rendering (fig. 6). These techniques were used
in different stages of design development and cus-
tomer communication.
Figure 5
Coloring of a 3D
model with image
refinement
software (digital
sketch)
Figure 6
Rendering of the
situation presented
in fig. 5 by Tom
Ehlers
The curvature of the facade of the entrance area justi-
fied the application of parametric modelling in Rhino
and Grasshopper (fig. 7).
Figure 7
Parametric design
for curvature and
grid of the new
entrance facade
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Example IV: Use of laserscan data - Design Studio
“Wine & Space” (TUW). In many places, wine cel-
lars have lost their original function. Many a “Keller-
gasse” (Austrian expression for a lane or hollow way
lined by wine cellars on one or either side) is on its
way to dereliction, as most of the cellars are no longer
in use. How can the abandoned premises be put to
best use? How can they be filled with more daylight,
which might be needed for new functions? Looking
at the site from a design perspective also had to in-
clude issues of zoning and developing economically
viable concepts of use.
A building survey comprising of plans etc. did
not exist and it would have been rather cumbersome
for an individual student to work this out.
However, surveying data is rather meaningful to
support the design process of the relatively complex
geometry and allows to explore a common ground
when working out design alternatives and solutions.
For this reason a laserscan (fig. 8-9) was carried out in
the beginning of the term and made available to the
participating students.
Example V: Walkthrough representation of a final
design (TUW). This design program focused on the
old smithy at the centre of Mühlbach am Manharts-
berg in the Weinviertel region. While the location
is certainly attractive, the building has long ceased
to fulfill its original function and has been vacant for
quite some time. The first task was to devise a mean-
ingful use for the building, but also think about how
to animate the entire centre of Mühlbach in the vicin-
ity of the local castle. The design concept is not to
end at the outer walls of the smithy but should make
an impact on the village fabric including the impres-
sive castle grounds.
One of the participating students developed a
presentation of his concept in a walk-through envi-
ronment (fig. 10), in order to facilitate the under-
standing of the design by laymen.
Figure 8
Raw data of the
laserscan
Figure 9
Result of the
laserscan - digital
representation of a
cellar corridor
Figure 10
Exploration of the
design by way of a
walkthrough-
representation on a
tablet (TUW -
Alexander
Schaukowitsch)
Challenges - EDUCATION AND RESEARCH - Volume 1 - eCAADe 37 / SIGraDi 23 |123
Figure 11
Example of an
A3-sheet used in a
plenary
presentation (TUW -
Oliver Pöll)
Example VI: Visual communication of early design
stage concepts (TUW). At the very beginning of de-
sign studio a typical issue is to engage all students. It
does not surprise that watching and observing what
others are doing is more than tempting instead of a
pro-active attitude to develop design concepts. For
this reason a novel start of the design studio was de-
veloped by way of a mandatory assignment. Preced-
ing to the first supervision meeting students have to
work out an A3-sheet with a comprehensible concept
idea (fig. 11). This document has to be submitted to
the e-learning environment before the meeting and
will be projected on a large screen. Although the pro-
cedure sounds too easy it has proven to be beneficial
as anybody has to participate and cannot “hide” with
for example a small sketch. Overall it leads to engage-
ment and common discussion. This step may be - de-
pending of the overall design assignment - repeated
once again, if needed. From here on individual super-
vision takes place in the setting of the whole group of
participants, i.e. presentation and review one by one.
4 CONCLUSION AND OUTLOOK
In this paper the laboratory environment of the “Ex-
perimental Bureau” aiming to explore and steer real-
life design tasks has been elaborated by way of ac-
cumulated experiences at two different institutions.
Several different types of assignments in the context
of architectural design have been presented in order
to show the meaningful implementation within the
context of a design studio. The overall aim is not to
completely replace previous “abstract” assignments,
124 |eCAADe 37 / SIGraDi 23 - Challenges - EDUCATION AND RESEARCH - Volume 1
but to achieve a balanced mixture between fictitious
and real-life exercises. Particularly issues of scale and
dimension require sincere guidance as the accompa-
nying framework conditions are predeter-mined and
adaptation is restricted.
The process of self-organization - with a certain
degree guidance - serves the teambuilding within
the group students and does not ignore the require-
ment of delivering individual contributions. Sharing
data, but also common model building (typically: ur-
ban fabric model) play a central role. On top of this,
the settings do reinforce the intrinsic choices of dig-
ital tools as well. The issue of software usage is sen-
sitive especially when a commercial context comes
into place.
Within the group discussion an exchange on the
effect of imagery (“idiosyncratic impact”) and the
communication with stakeholders delivers invalu-
able insights regarding perceptional phenomena.
The inquiry into the characteristics of each exam-
ple from the viewpoint of digital necessities required
to solve real-life design tasks, mainly identified by the
students confronted with these projects, may be re-
garded as a qualitative study on digital strategies in
architecture and design. It reveals first and foremost
that the digital necessities are diverse and their di-
versity is the result of the individual framework, de-
mands and needs related to the project as well as
the digital strategies to tackle the task are chosen ac-
cording to individual characteristics of the team de-
termined to meet it.
Within the format of the Experimental Bureau
supervisors can positively confine themselves to the
role of coaches and moderators - as questions arise
on how to proceed they can reference the real-life
problems and settings of the projects as well as the
stakeholder statements during critiques and discus-
sions.
The motivation to work on the real-life design
task is more directly devoted to its problems that
need solving - it is less attached to grades, titles and
the desire to meet the teachers’ expectations. If an
actual customer is convinced of the helpfulness of a
design concept, among others through the choice of
the right digital strategy, a different kind of profes-
sional confidence can be learned by students. Digi-
tal empowerment in this context means also that, ac-
cording to Bateson reflections on deutero learning,
students not only learn to work with digital tools but
to chose what they need to learn at the time they
need to learn it.
To trigger this kind of learning the Experimen-
tal Bureau resorts to real-life, even adventurous ex-
perience (see on the didactic potential of experience
and adventure e.g. Boeger et al. 2005 and Miles et
al. 1990). As contracts with customers are involved,
so is an individualized learning which has been de-
scribed as characteristic for contract learning (Gilbert
1976, p. 25). Although Gilbert refers to an individ-
ual agreement between teacher and student, con-
tract learning may serve as a base for reflection on
customer contracts within the format of the Experi-
mental Bureau. Digital empowerment in this context
is also a reference to empowerment education (Shor
1992) and its underlying concept of a democratized
pedagogy as teacher and student mutually investi-
gate and solve problems at hand.
All in all it is hoped that the readers of this paper
might be encouraged to explore similar educational
experience at their institutions.
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Contract learning provides an effective way to structure the learning process to address individual educational needs. This learning method has now been applied successfully across a broad range of fields and levels within undergraduate education. In this paper the method is described, and the educational advantages of its use are examined. The role of the faculty member using learning contracts is discussed, and the applicability of the method to various student audiences is suggested. With the contract learning method students become interested and eager, since the learning process can truly be tailored to their individual needs.
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IPER (hypertext for the knowledge of building patrimony) is the result of a research developed with C.N.R. (National Research Institute). The aim of IPER is to provide the knowledge, the description and the management of one or more historical buildings for public or private institutions. IPER allowed us to improve our methodology of building analysis, covering various disciplinary fields, in two different systems. (1.) the first one, synthetic and suitable for a group of historical buildings, (2.) the second one, complex and particularly made for monumental buildings. // This experience is related to the new regulation of teaching architecture in Italy made in 1993. The main novelty is the introduction of the laboratories with the contemporary presence of two or three teachers of different disciplines, working together with the students on the same project with different approaches. This opportunity allowed us to introduce the "knowledge engineer" as a teacher in the laboratory of building technology. IPER is given to the students with the aim of experimenting and solving the theoretical and practical difficulties that students of different years may encounter in the knowledge and representation of buildings and in the organisation of all the data from the case study.
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