Formative Reviews, Competition, Ownership

Formative reviews, Wednesday 17th December. Covering 9 projects in 3 parallel sessions with approximately 26 groups presenting.

The December reviews normally mark the halfway point for the Co.LAB module, with each group discussing their progress to date. It is also the first opportunity to reflect on the design process and evaluate its collaborative approach indicating how the liveness of the project has influenced design decisions as well as the manner in which possible solutions are arrived at.

A common topic occurred in many of the projects presented; the role of the client/project partner, with direct reference to the Trends Pavilion and Malvern Outdoor projects. For the record, students were specifically asked to record (or were questioned on) the group dynamics as they worked on their projects, ranging from small working groups of 4-5 individuals, to a larger single group of 12 in one of the projects.

The Trends Pavilion project consists of 2 small working groups for the early feasibility/conceptual stage, with both sets developing a proposal to present to the client. As a result of the autonomy of each group, competition occurs between them as they work towards the same goal, but without everyone contributing to the ‘winning scheme’. Charles Walker’ discusses a similar situation when working on the Summer Pavilions with the AA school (1). Whilst competition can be healthy in motivation, it can alienate students that do not initially work on a scheme chosen to be developed in a second phase. This alienation is a result of a lack of authorship from the students’ perspectives – even if they then need to work on a latter (construction) phase. Apparently, ownership of ideas are developed at very early stages of the design process, making it difficult to breakdown and share the further into the project you get into.

This also generates another condition; restricting the role of the client/partner. With competition, there is a requirement for a jury. The relationship between competitors and jurors are conventional and uncompromising ie. their roles are clearly defined – making it difficult to enable the client (or project partner) to act as nothing but the key stakeholder making final authorising decisions. This relationship may be preferable in some circumstances, for example, an open competition to extend ideas from a standard pool of contributors. However, in live projects, the competitive relationship contradicts the nature of collaborative practice.

Partners need to be brought into the process, empowering their contribution to the design whilst the students act as strategic facilitators as well as designers. In doing so, the control remains with the facilitators, opening up design discussions with partners in an open and constructive dialogue, demystifying the principles of design so they better understand the decisions made by creatives – both specific to the project and in general. Therefore, the impact goes beyond the one project, potentially revealing the opportunity a client/partner can make to enable successful and stimulating proposals.

In case you were wondering about what happens to the tutor in this relationship, the group dynamics for the Trends project were visualised diagrammatically, illustrating the contributions of the main stakeholders (student cohort, tutor and client/partner). As a result of their presentation, it was clear the tutors act as a facilitator, often being a filter or observer in discussions. Again, as a result of the competition structure, the tutor remains detached to the student group, acting as an advisor (or tutor) in the more conventional sense, limiting one of the positive pedagogical impact of live projects in architectural education (2).

The Malvern Outdoor project had a different organisational structure, with a single large group working together to complete one proposal. Negotiation and delegation was a key factor – the postgraduate students had defined roles as communicators and mentors to the undergraduates in the group which produced the majority of the design and research. All communication between the partner and student group was done through the postgraduate students, who then relayed the information back to the rest of the student body.

Even with a unified team structure, a similar issue with the client occurred. Their role was limited and restricted as key decision maker, making the design process a formal mode of production. However, feedback from the partner indicated the final design proposal was reflective of this. Whilst the proposal is developed further, other collaborative strategies can be adopted to engage the client as an integral partner in the design. Engaging end-users and clients in the design process, either through workshops or organised design activities, requires the student group to undertake different tasks from conventional design practices. Transforming the role of the designer to a facilitator to achieve a collaborative and community-engaged result.

These perspectives are unrefined and speculative for the time being – particularly as the projects are not finished yet. But the reflection and evaluation of these practices are essential in developing new tacit knowledge that can be disseminated in future practice.

1. Walker, C (2011) Making Pavilions; AA Press, London
2. Till, J & Chiles, P. (2010) Live projects: an inspirational model – the student perspective. HE Academy, CEBE case study

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