Dwayne OYLER on his recent studios at SCI-Arc, the benefits of a hands-on approach, the expanded role of academia today, the role of (professional) practice in architecture education, and much more.
*image: Jie YANG, concept model. Fourth-year Undergraduate studio, Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc). Dwayne OYLER, instructor.
images, clockwise from top left: Jie YANG, study model; Jing Yan, site drawing; Chris NIELSON, site drawing; Chris NIELSON, site model. Fourth-year Undergraduate studio, Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc). Dwayne OYLER, instructor.
suckerPUNCH: Could you tell us a bit about the recent studios and seminars you have taught?
Dwayne OYLER: During my time at SCI-Arc (Southern California Institute of Architecture) I have taught a pretty wide range of courses, but most regularly I have taught an undergraduate thesis studio as well as a graduate-level drawing course.
Recently, I was also a co-advisor for the Solar Decathlon studio, and I taught the fourth-year undergraduate design studio last year (which might best be described as a sort of “option” studio for undergrads).
sP: Could you talk a bit about your experience with the SCI-Arc solar house? How do you see the possibilities of full-scale fabrication affecting the architectural learning process? What do you see as the role of fabrication technologies and craft in education today?
DO: This was SCI-Arc’s first time participating in the US Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon competition, and Wes Jones and I co-taught the studio. The format was essentially a year-and-a-half long studio, with Wes and I taking turns teaching until the final semester, when we both taught together. Overall, it was a pretty amazing experience on many different levels. The performance aspects of the project put an interesting pressure on the design process—one that obviously isn’t always required in this type of academic setting. But clearly these types of issues are a reality in practice, and they’re an opportunity for innovative design thinking (as opposed to just innovative technical thinking).
My partner Jenny Wu and I have always argued in our practice that there is an incredible benefit to taking a hands-on approach to the work. On the most basic level, the students in the Solar Decathlon studio learn how to put a building together and learn to operate with a confidence about building that equals their design skills. But I think the approach is much more that just acquiring a technical expertise, it is about acquiring a more intimate relationship with the materials, with the connections, and with the experiential aspects that are revealed during the design process. In the case of the Solar Decathlon, a full-scale mock-up was constructed in the SCI-Arc parking lot that greatly impacted the kinds of decision that were made for the final scheme. It also compels a level of decision making with regard to details that sometimes has a tendency to be overlooked with a less hand’s on approach.
Having said all that, it’s important to recognize when the hands-on work simply becomes mindless labor. Striking the right balance is important. I don’t think any of us see the fabrication as necessary at the moment it fails to yield new ideas about the design direction, greater refinements, or a keener understanding of the outcome.
sP: How do you see students’ relationship to technology and its present speed in terms of transferring information? What about its relationship to the disappearance of the lag time in technique and design between contemporary practitioners and students?
DO: Well, in general, I think SCI-Arc has been amazing at putting any technology that seems even remotely relevant within arm’s reach. And the school has been able to make the decisions quickly—the Robot House, for example, took about one year from conception to being up and running.
It seems there was a time when the innovations of practice were shaping academia on almost all levels. Academia was always there to push buttons and to provide conceptual frameworks, but now it seems as though its role has extended to include so much more. Issues of representation, scripting, software development, formal interests, and even material advancements are now either coming out of academia or are the result of collaborations between practice and academia.
I can’t speak for most schools, but I find that the relationship of instructor practices at SCI-Arc is so tightly knitted to the work of the students, and most of the time it’s in the most productive, mutually beneficial ways. There is a culture of experimentation, and a sense that we’re all, both students and instructors, learning from one another.
sP: How do you see current studies in architecture in relation to other areas of study and pop culture? What do you see as the role of outside contaminants?
DO: Given the cultural role that architecture plays in the world, the issues are obviously of critical importance. Personally, the idea of “pop culture” makes me a little uneasy, but there has been some pretty interesting work that has come out of what might be classified as pop culture.
In an academic setting, I tend to be pretty open about the kinds of cultural ideas that shape the work. Those ideas are what push us in different directions, so I like to encourage students to bring them to the table—be it art, politics, or whatever.
My only insistence is that the work address architectural issues, and sometimes identifying those issues within a field of cultural ideas is a challenge unto itself.
sP: What do you see as the role of history and theory in architecture education today, especially in a context where “research” is more often understood as graphic-informational rather than theoretic-historical?
DO: Well, I don’t think it’s an either-or. The two together are far greater than the sum of their parts.
There was a time when I was constantly insisting that the “design research” catch up with the ideas. It was a call to get students to put pen to paper and to make things that pushed the ideas forward.
I rarely have to ask for that anymore, but I think the problem has shifted in the other direction. The role of history and theory is now an area that needs to be improved upon, and that could be used to strengthen arguments and to provide a platform from which new ideas might emerge.
sP: What do you see as the role of (professional) practice in architecture education today? How do you see your teaching influencing your practice?
DO: The impact for Jenny and I is most apparent when we reflect on the kind of practice we would have been today if we had not been teaching. I think the work of the students, combined with the desire to “practice what we preach,” has kept us on our toes. We also feel lucky to be a part of a faculty that is pretty extraordinary, at a place where there is a mutual sense of respect for one another’s work. So, both students and faculty are influential in the shaping of our work.
sP: What positive and negative baggage do you see current students bringing to the table?
DO: I see an excitement, enthusiasm, and creative spirit in students that I haven’t seen in a long time—but I first began teaching in 1997, so I can only speak for a relatively short time period. I’m not sure I see what could be described as “baggage” in students today, but I’ll always have a wish list of what I would like to see more of. I think what makes a great student is someone who finds the right balance between knowing when to listen, absorb, and just give it a try, and those who feel an obligation to test their own set of ideas on what they have been given. Nothing beats a student that is incredibly positive, open-minded, and willing to put everything they have into an idea that they are unsure of. But at the end of the day, the student that truly tests the idea and comes back having built the work into something all their own is the student that will win me over. And I think that’s true for nearly all instructors.
sP: What significant differences do you see from when you were in school?
DO: I think there is a greater sense of obligation to nurture great ideas into great design work. There was a time when a great idea seemed to be enough (though my instructors from that time will undoubtedly disagree). My feeling has always been that the point of an idea was it generated an architectural outcome equally as provocative, interesting, or unusual. Certainly we don’t always get that, but it seems a reasonable academic objective.
sP: Are there any weaknesses or tendencies at schools today that you would like to see shift, or anything you hope comes into focus in the near future?
DO: I’d like to see the role of drawing find its place again in the design process. I think there has been a period where we’ve all questioned what it’s new role might be—as it went from rendering, to analytical, to graphic, to perhaps an end of drawing. The last couple of years have produced a wealth of incredible drawings, but what they might mean beyond their graphic qualities remains to be seen.
I’d also like to see the role of technology within schools move well beyond the things we can make on a small 3-D printer, laser bed, or four-by-eight-foot CNC mill. These are technologies that nearly everyone has at this point, and which many have had for more than a decade. It would be great to see more of a merging of advanced fabrication technologies with representational technologies (which is what most of those tools are used for in schools).
And, of course, I’d like to hear more articulate, well-constructed arguments about the work being produced by students. I’m throwing this one in as a default—it has probably always been the greatest thing we could build on in schools.