Unveiling the experiential dimension of field/work in architectural pedagogy

Salama, Ashraf M and Osbourne, Lindy (2009) Unveiling the experiential dimension of field/work in architectural pedagogy. In: Field/Work 20009, AHRA: International Conference of Architectural Humanities Research Association, 2009-11-20 - 2009-11-22.

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Fieldwork has always been an integral component of architectural pedagogy for the purpose of acquiring and assimilating knowledge necessary for the overall intellectual development of budding professionals, and in particular, for meaningful design practices. However, there has been — and still is — a continuous debate among architects and educators about the role of knowledge and research in architecture as a discipline, and as a profession. Many in architecture still think of researchers as people in white smocks and thick glasses searching for the mystery and the unknown. In response, scholars and educators have emphasized that research should be viewed as part of everyday actions and experiences. They argue, and rightly so, that traditional teaching practices have long encouraged students to develop design manipulation skills by emphasizing intuition, reflective observation, and concept formation. However, these practices are hypothetical; largely unconcerned with real life situations, neglecting equally important skills that can be enhanced through experiential learning and structured fieldwork. In traditional architectural pedagogy, architecture students are typically encouraged to engage in site visits and walkthrough the built environment in order to observe different phenomena. Unfortunately however, research indicates that these visits and exercises are simply casual and are not structured in any form of investigation or inquiry. Moreover, in large classes, the proposition of a site visit is often met with logistical difficulties, with little opportunity for individual student mentoring. While architectural educators strive to impart the requisite knowledge necessary for successful practice, the approach to this is often divergent, depending on the priorities and ideals of the educator. What and how knowledge is transmitted therefore, has significant professional and social implications. Two major idiosyncrasies continue to characterize teaching practices of lecture based modules in architecture. These can be labeled as a) science as a body of knowledge versus science as a method of exploration and b) learning theories about the phenomena versus getting the feel of the behavior of the phenomena. Concomitantly, there is an urgent need to confront issues that pertain to the nature of reality (what) and the way in which knowledge about that reality is conveyed (how). With the ultimate aim of overcoming misconceptions and idiosyncrasies of architectural pedagogy, this paper adopts the premise that fieldwork is a form of critical inquiry that could take place either in a learning setting or in a real-life situation. It advocates the involvement of students towards a more research orientated mindset, by introducing a framework within which experiential learning and assessment research can be incorporated into architectural pedagogy. This research explores the value of a more rigorous approach to the experiential aspect of field work, which is articulated through the development and implementation of two innovative mechanisms. The first mechanism, ‘Virtual Fieldwork’, brings the field to the learning setting through the introduction of a number of in-class exercises, which foster active and experiential learning in a classroom setting. The second mechanism, ‘Physical Fieldwork’, positions the students in the field by introducing two structured experience based exercises, namely “contemplating settings” and the “walking tour.” The two mechanisms are validated through the implementation of similar exercises in different educational contexts in Australia, the Middle East, and the United Kingdom. The findings suggest an urgent need to incorporate experience-based structured fieldwork into learning, which will help to engage students in a critical approach to fieldwork, while overcoming inherited misconceptions that characterize traditional architectural pedagogy.