Back at the WSA

Last academic year 2020-2021 I was invited back to the WSA, Cardiff University after almost 15 years away from the ‘Diff as a guest design tutor for Architectural Design Module for first year. There was hope and expectation that with lots of precautions, sanitizer, fresh air and face mask this would be in person. It didn’t quite pan out like that and I learnt how to teach design and drawing via zoom; sketching live, digitally is challenging. Communicating scale and the architectural staple concepts of plan, section and elevation to a student who might be thousands of miles and several time zones away was both challenging and rewarding.

Teaching first year design constantly reminded me what I take for granted; how I could communicate to clients effectively, the power of sketching in real life, with a pen and some trace in order to work through a design conundrum. The importance of knowing why you are designing something. That there are no wrong answers and there is power in conviction.

I witnessed fresh ideas and developing skills, fretted with tutors and re-experienced crit nerves: would they have done the work in the week ? Had someone persevered and found a way to communicate their design ideas clearly? What if they misinterpreted a comment and went off on a tangent? What would the guest critic think?

This year, practice commitments and workload at DKA (we’re busy; come and join us!) has meant that I’ve stepped back from teaching but I have returned as a guest critic. Excitingly this has become in real life in the newly refurbished and expanded WSA at the Bute Building. Originally when I studied at the WSA, the Bute building was shared between Architects and Journalists. Now it’s a crisp conversion incorporating digital labs, workshops and hybrid studios. For last week’s crits, the project brief was a food kiosk to be sited along the board walk adjacent to the Millennium Stadium. Students were challenged to think about both the workers and the customers, the integration of the urban realm and sustainable opportunities through careful selection of materials.

The crits mix student’s digital presentation, on Miro boards, with physical models and hard copies of their drawings. Having critted during first semester it was great to see skills developing and emerging as students took their initial explorations and steps into architectural thinking to develop an emerging set of technical drawings, maquette sketch models and final models on display as well as verbal presentations as one by one the students explained their schemes and design ideas. Particularly impressive was the group site model which showcased all the schemes, to scale and clearly communicated their individual design approaches.

The opportunity to mix the digital crit boards via large scale AV screens with the physical experience of holding and sharing a model whilst presenting in person creates a hybrid that reflects the modern world we live in. Gone are the days of pinning up physical sheets of paper but the joy that physical objects and their importance in exploring 3D spaces and the user experience is key.

As well as the student voice, being a guest critic offers up the opportunity to meet an array of visiting critics from a range of academic and practical backgrounds from across the UK (and sometimes beyond). Their views on pedagogy and design agendas are varied and fascinating. How they individually analyse a design, its process and their priorities challenge me to clearly define my own design agenda and what I think is important in delivering good architecture.

It’s a rewarding process and I’m already looking forward to seeing what the next first year project crits will bring at the end of March!


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