When is a tree not a tree?
When you give a bunch of landscape architecture students and teachers the task of making a tree from scrap pieces of 1″ x 2″. In this case a tree becomes a lean-to, a passage way, a vertical lattice, the beginnings of an innovative sub-structure, a shed and goodness knows what else……..anything but an actual tree.
For the second exercise of my intuitive building/participatory design workshop at UCDavis last week, I asked the teams to make a tree from the various pieces of wood we had lying around. Normally I don’t start a design process with such a concrete object or idea but given the formidable task presented by the administration to facilitate the prototyping of a shade structure for their patio, an unwieldy group of over 40 designers and extremely tight time constraints, this was the best option. A tree provides a simple starting point, a readily understandable vehicle (common language) for group communication, site exploration and an initial point for innovation. In theory the challenge provided every team the right amount of constraint to be successful within our tight schedule, enough freedom to innovate and a common enough building language that they could visually communicate with, and learn from one another as they built. After building and reviewing each team’s trees (siting, scale and structural innovations- among other things it had to stand up unsupported on concrete), we would then adjust, shift and begin to join them; discarding inappropriate ideas and pieces while joining and building upon the best ones…….allowing the structure and the group to get ‘smarter’ as we built. I’ve used this method before with my white disks with great success at the National Building Museum, so it should have been a piece of cake, right?
Wrong. Instead, I found myself pacing nervously as the aforementioned unworkable stand-ins for trees started popping up everywhere with a rapidly approaching deadline looming over the horizon. What the heck happened? Did they not understand the challenge? Were they being stubborn and charmed by their newfound ability to buildbuildbuild!, now making whatever their hearts’ desired?
‘In school, they always teach us to abstract things and that’s what everyone has done with your tree. They’ve programmed us to be anything but literal.’~a student participant
I pride myself in understanding the capabilities and outlook of the people with whom I am designing or learning–it is one of the cornerstones of my work–but here I clearly had not anticipated this simple potential difference between working with community members and design students.
As you can see by the structure above, we got things sorted out and this wonderful, unanticipated learning moment was one of many great things that occurred during my workshops and lecture at UCDavis last week.
What was so great about the entire affair?
Well, to start with I had the individual teams prototype an adventure course/ playground/obstacle course in twenty five minutes as a means of rapidly accelerating their understanding of the materials at hand, their site and team capabilities. Giving them the problem of building challenges that test such things as balance or agility also from the outset instilled an attitude of relentless ‘doing’, testing, failure and play- a mindset and process that are critical tools in allowing me to quickly get great things out of people. The results, given the twenty-five minutes they had to design and build them, unsurprisingly appear a little crude but were incredibly effective and in some cases, absurdly hard. When it came down to the adventure race itself I found myself handily defeated by a student who used to be a Marine. He pulled out some pretty impressive diving and rolling…..I did not. Quite frankly I am okay with that and particularly all right with the fact that for many students, this activity was one of their favorite parts of the day.
Baubles included, the shade structure prototype is remarkably gorgeous and structurally sound, despite having an early tendency to literally walk across the patio. More importantly than aesthetics or a cool space, I could not be more blown away by the reaction from the students and faculty for whom ‘making’ really did provide a real opportunity for thinking critically about how they design, collaborate and learn.
Thanks guys. Can I come back next week?