Responsable software: thoughts about learing with digital tools in Architecture
Evocative and stereotypical as the image of architects working at their desks with their paralex, their rotrings and their charcoal is, it is certainly impossible to conceive of our profession today without computer aids. This is so much the case that without them, currently, it would be impossible to produce and administratively process all of the required graphic and written documents and in due time and form. But computer tools are not imperative only because they reduce time and minimise mistakes. They also provide new, unprecedented forms of expression.
Therefore, there is no doubt at all about our need as architects to be proficient in computer tools. But how do future architects learn to use them? While it has been 15 years since the first final projects drawn in CAD appeared, compulsory subjects have recently been included in Schools of Architecture’s curricula. Drawing with CAD, modelling in 3D, rendering, photomontage, printing blueprints…are all things that those of us who graduated at the beginning of the 2000s had to learn by ourselves by trial and error, swimming against the tide of opposition from certain professors all the while.
Perhaps as a reaction to this anti-pedagogical position, all recent curricula include at least one subject during the first couple of years on digital tools. Some schools have even begun to have their own digital manufacturing laboratories. Taking a closer look, however, we can see that the great majority of these subjects are merely instrumental, and that what is actually taught, much along the lines of cooking recipes, is to use certain very specific commercial programmes. Those who defend this shield themselves in the position that these are the “most widely used” programmes without even considering the fact that the programmes most common now may well not be in five years’ time when the students graduate, or may well not be in another country, where many students may actually wind up.
In my opinion, this is a serious mistake for several reasons. Firstly, universities should not be giving specific recipes or teaching solutions to specific problems, but rather teaching their students to think and solve real problems by themselves. So there is no added value in a subject whose only reading list is a manual that could be taught by a salesperson. In the end, this method systematically neglects very necessary technologies, alternatives and debates. Secondly, the true goal of any school should be to train independent, critical architects and in no case create future consumers who are totally dependent on products whose only rationale is market-based. Thirdly and most importantly, the tools one uses determine to an extent one’s creative and design abilities. On this count, I am convinced that computer programmes and technologies are tools, and so they must serve their users, not constrain them. Students therefore need to understand not only how the tools work, a knowledge they will invariably acquire with time and experience, but also why they do. This is what enables students to develop their critical abilities, useful in so many areas of the profession as they are in so many areas of life. But above all, students must develop their own criteria so that they can choose the best tools for their specific purposes. And that will depend on the specific problems they have to tackle, their budgets, the time they have at their disposal, and their own skills and abilities. They also need to use these tools optimally.
How can all of this be rolled into a subject? I’d like to be able to say that I have the solution to how to teach these subjects, but I don’t. Not even after having taught Digital Tools at the USJ’s School of Architecture (ETSA USJ) since 2009 have I found the perfect formula. Year after year, I need to make adjustments. Reality is far more complex that what I have just described as there are factors such as the relationship between the market and the University, there is the role that open source programmes (and, in general, open culture, one of FABLAB’s pillars) play and should play, the pros and cons of each… But whatever the case, these thoughts should be taken into account if we want to guide our steps towards a responsible digital culture and move away from a type of teaching that merely produces a-critical consumers.