Jaws in space

jaws in space

This is the 4th of twenty-one lessons for design students, gathered from the combined experience of being a student, and teaching students. I will published one lesson each weekday until they’re done.

4. Jaws in space

It is rumoured that big Hollywood film studios have the attention spans of goldfish. When pitching a film therefore, a director is required to distill all its majesty, nuance and complexity into a single soundbite. It is also rumoured that when Ridley Scott did so for his 1979 classic, he said:

“Alien will be like Jaws in space.”

What I love about this story, true or not, is how evocative it is. Think about Jaws for a second: the terror of a great white shark coming for you while you’re stranded in the water. You’re in his domain, and he’s purpose-built for killing. There are grizzled surfer types who are called upon to save the world, there are screaming bystanders, outrageous action sequences and plenty of gore. Is there any idea more terrifying than the unexplored depths of the world’s oceans?

Well yes, it just so happens there is. All you need to do is swap the cold, deep waters surrounding the island of Amity with the colder, deeper vacuum surrounding the metallic hull of Nostromo.

Jaws in space tells you everything you need to know about Alien, not the plot or the characters or the detail, but the big picture, the sweeping gesture. With extraordinary frugality, Scott capitalised on the recent excitement of Jaws (released just four years earlier), then vividly promised something better. Jaws in space was really another way of saying Jaws only more dangerous, more exciting, more lucrative.

This is a lesson I impart to my students repeatedly, so much so that I’m certain they grow sick of it. I ask them to begin every feedback session with their own Jaws in space project description. It forces them to distill their ideas to their essence, and to do so both efficiently and vividly. If a student can’t reduce all the complexity of her project into a few words, then it means she don’t understand it yet. And if she doesn’t understand it, then how can she develop it?


Image source

  1. Jaws in space, author’s own image.

Site analysis uses the language of your ideas

site analysis uses the language of your ideas

This is the 3rd of twenty-one lessons for design students, gathered from the combined experience of being a student, and teaching students. I will published one lesson each weekday until they’re done.

3. Site analysis uses the language of your ideas

You site down with a site plan spread out in front of you. You draw in the north point, solar paths, access routes, wind direction, desire lines and views. Your site analysis is full of colour and rich in detail. With all the knowledge that it contains, you are ready to begin massing in your building.

But this site analysis is rudimentary at best. It might be sufficient if you’re in your first or second year of study, but if you’re my student (and hence well into your Masters), it represents only the tiniest fraction of exploration you need to undertake. Much of what you’ve just drawn is already known to me. I know where the sun rises and sets, where access paths and viewlines are likely to be. Your analysis needs to be specific to your project, to tell me things I can’t work out on my own.

Site analysis, curiously enough, begins with ideas.

I recognise the catch-22 of this comment: you need to finish your site analysis before you develop your ideas, but you can’t do your site analysis until you’ve had some ideas.

If your project is an interfaith centre combining Synagogue, Church and Mosque, and your ideas are about the weaving of these separate faiths into a cooperative whole, then your site analysis should be concerned with acts of weaving. Are there geological strata that can be teased apart? Or view corridors that overlap and intersect? Can you identify massing opportunities based on idealised paths of pedestrian travel? Or programme arrangements based on threads and knots?

If your project is a retrospective architectural biography of Wikileaks, and your ideas are about secrecy and transparency, then your analysis should interpret your site in these terms. Can you intervene in your urban site in ways that are hidden or transient? Can you hack the city to steal the resources you need to build? Can you reinterpret existing typologies, subtly modifying them to accommodate your new insertions?


Image source

  1. Site analysis uses the language of your ideas, author’s own image.

Good research is essential

good research is essential

This is the 2nd of twenty-one lessons for design students, gathered from the combined experience of being a student, and teaching students. I will published one lesson each weekday until they’re done.

2. Good research is essential

At the beginning of your project, you are eager to begin designing. Some of you might sketch in the obligatory solar paths and circulation routes over your site plan, but then you impatiently dive head first into design. Some of you might even read up on the latest architectural theories floating around the internet, but you too are impatient to get started on the good stuff.

But design is fundamentally about problem solving. How can you hope to design an appropriate solution if you don’t know everything there is to know about the problem?

If good design is a house, then good research is its footings.

Good research is much more than site analysis. It means researching the best examples of your typology from around the world, together with its history and its proponents. It means understanding the theoretical, political, cultural and social context of your project. It means reading books, journals and newspapers (and not just the internet). It means testing ideas over and over again, via esquisse model or diagram. It means visiting your site many times, getting a feel for it and speaking with the local community. It means getting away from your computer for a bit, and out into the world to see what’s there.

Most importantly, good research is about questions not answers. Start the process with hypotheses, not theories. A theory will give you the answer you’re looking for, but you’ll have no way of knowing whether it’s the right one. A hypothesis leaves room for the research to drive you, to produce objective and ultimately useful answers.

Richard Leplastrier, one of Australia’s great master architects, is famous for camping on his sites for weeks before he starts on design. His tent is essentially a drafting table with a roof, allowing him to sketch within its shelter while he watches the weather, feels the wind and immerses himself in the environment. He sketches what he sees, and what he can’t see: the invisible forces that shape the land. By the time he packs up to go home, the place is in his bones.


Image source

  1. Good research is essential, author’s own image.

Be open to the unexpected

be open to the unexpected

This is the 1st of twenty-one lessons for design students, gathered from the combined experience of being a student, and teaching students. I will published one lesson each weekday until they’re done.

1. Be open to the unexpected

Getting started on a design project is an intoxicating experience. You are excited and restless, both inspired and daunted by the blank pages waiting for you. You have heard from an array of studio leaders and chosen your preferred topic based on your interests and expertise. Ideas are already beginning to fill your head.

Whether you realise it or not, your design project has already begun. It began before you received your project brief, even before the start of semester. You are a designer, so you see the world as a canvass upon which to paint your architecture. This is a blessing, the source of any architect’s vision, but it is also a curse, binding you to an idea before you even know how it will be used.

Frank Lloyd Wright observed that it takes a good architect to formulate a strong idea, but a great architect to know when to throw it away.

Throwing away an idea is hard work, it requires courage. But it is crucial to resist the ideas that form too early, they will shape your project in ways you can’t control. Throw away preconceptions, agendas, fixed positions, or any picture whatsoever you have of the end game. Hold onto your openness as long as you can, and be prepared to let your project surprise you.

As a student, I had a great weakness for early ideas. I would sketch bits of building on the very first day of semester, and spend the following twelve weeks defending them. This is fine if you want to finish where you started, but it undermines the whole point of spending a semester developing a project. I see this happen regularly with my students, clinging to an idea for fear of falling backwards, even when they know it is crumbling around them.

What I realise now is that the first sheet of yellow trace you fill has almost no value. I say almost because it does have one important purpose: to lead you to the next sheet, and to the next and so on.


Image source

  1. Be open to the unexpected, author’s own image.

Lessons for design students

lessons for design students

Dear design students,

Let me share with you an important piece of hard truth: most of you will not produce a great design project this semester.

While I hope that you will all begin with aspirations of greatness, I know that many of you will stumble somewhere along the way. In the past four years of teaching a masters level design studio at the University of Melbourne, I have witnessed this with my own eyes: students who never quite get it from day one; and students whose work shows early promise only to unravel down the track.

A great project is a marathon not a sprint. It relies on getting a very long list of things very right.

I say this with the understanding that I did not always get this list right. Looking back on my student years, I am surprised I managed to get good marks at all. I swam blind through the design process, only fractionally more self-aware than a tree, and committed most of the sins I now know to be essential ingredients in the recipe for failure.

With the combined experience of being a student, and teaching students, I have gathered a few insights about what it takes to produce a great project. For ease of navigation, I’ve split these 21 lessons (okay more than a few) across the stages of the semester:

  1. Getting started
  2. Refining ideas
  3. Design
  4. Design production
  5. Presentation
  6. The finish line

Some of the ideas address big picture issues, others the minutiae. My focus will be on architecture, but most of what you will read is equally relevant for all creative disciplines. Starting tomorrow, I will publish one lesson each weekday. The series will also be archived under the tag, lessons for design students.


Image source

  1. Lessons for design students, author’s own image.