Reflecting on Studio 02: Barbican – Masters Studio E

It is a strange feeling to find myself writing yet another article on my reflection on the master’s studio experience – though this one is the last studio subject in the Master of Architecture degree with prescribed site contexts and the building typology.

I was fortunate to receive the studio of my preference – Studio 02: Barbican run by Rennie and Oskar, the studio known for the exploration of both phenomenological experiences and the tectonic expressions. It is a studio I had encountered as a 2nd-year undergraduate student during MSDx (the end-of-semester exhibition), where the exhibition space in the hanging studio was beautifully curated, with complex drawings and crafted physical models. I still remember taking note of the studio number and the names of studio leaders in my journal, to remind myself in the future to put Studio 02 on my balloting list. As my timetable enabled me to select it this time around, I was elated to find out that I could be in Studio 02 and learn from Rennie and Oskar.

I made four models in total between week 6 and the final submission – lots of love and effort went into hand cutting foam core, mount boards and acetate sheets.

Expectations and Transparency

It was clear from the beginning of the semester that it was going to be a challenging one for everyone. The programme (semester schedule) provided outlined pretty much every single deliverable for each class (twice a week) – almost every class had yellow highlighted notes saying “Pin-up” or “Presentation” or “Submit”. Each assignment was introduced in the class accompanied by an outline with requirements, key dates and references, everything was clarified from the beginning. It was quite overwhelming at the beginning, especially when it came to attention that we were going to work on three assignments (site context drawings, site model and the presentation on the curatorial research and direction for museology) simultaneously in three weeks. However, being aware of expectations for weeks to come helped me pace my mental and physical resources, making sure that I have enough energy to produce expected deliverables for each class. Of course, there were lots of ups and downs – working on deliverables on Sundays on campus with classmates, or until late at night after 12am – but at least we knew what had to be done and it was possible to achieve. This degree of transparency and the provision of relevant references is something I had never experienced at the master’s studio level, and I very much appreciated the clarity of tasks and engagement with the theoretical framework.

Studio Culture

The term ‘studio culture’ is often used to describe an environment where students can thrive in the studio class setting, supported by tutors, subject coordinators and the faculty at large. It is something heavily influenced not only by the subject curriculum but also by the social dynamic between students and tutors / among students. Studio 02 was possibly the first time I felt that everyone in the class supported each other, knew each other’s work so well and kept the studio going. There was no sense of competition – we gave each other feedback during and after classes independently, marking up drawings on the wall, sharing good precedents… It was such an amazing example of how on-campus studio was way better than online studios, and I felt so proud of being able to study with my caring and generous classmates. It has definitely become one of the highlights of the studio experience.

Setting a Unique Brief – Inclusion of Phenomenological Profile

While it is common in design studios for students to write their own return briefs to set appropriate scopes and narrow down the themes explored, they tend to become a list of spaces and functions with pragmatic needs rather than the overview of intended spatial qualities. For my project in Studio 02, I learned to create a matrix of the characteristics that make key spaces distinctive from each other. This ‘phenomenological profile’ included not only the functional roles, but also acoustic experiences, tactility, light and shadow, temperature and humidity, public and private, visibility and connection, and access. It helped me consider the intricate relationships between pragmatic and sensory aspects of spaces before coming up with designs – in other words, I had a clear idea of what I was intending to achieve through design, and therefore this brief became an anchor for making design decisions. I knew if the design was going off track when it wasn’t responding to this brief. I printed out this phenomenological profile in A4 and utilised it throughout my design process, always reminding myself to go back to the basics whenever I got stuck.

Drawings as compositions

I still remember one of the studio sessions when we focused only on section drawings. Rennie has pulled out a red sharpie to draw a dash-dot line on the pinned-up drawings to highlight the symmetry of the drawing composition. With another student, he asked one to come up and draw a parti diagram based on what is shown in the section. It was a revelation for many of us that the composition shown in the section is as significant as the elements composing the section. Here is one of my journal entries on the abstract drawings:

One would say an architect does not build anything, but draw spaces. Architectural drawings aim to communicate the complex network of ideas, formalised into sensory, spatial experiences. The act of drawing goes beyond simply utilising techniques and mediums that visually compose drawings. Lines, colours, shapes, hatches, fills, gradients, and points are fundamental components of architectural drawings. However, as illustrated in the book Manual of Section by Lewis, Tsurumaki and Lewis, these elements together should serve a greater purpose, generating the whole that is more than the sum of all elements. The juxtaposition of elements can create tension and relationships that would not have otherwise existed. Ultimately, drawings are the assemblage of tangible and intangible, permanent and transient, tectonic and sensory aspects of the space an architect imagines.

Learning to ‘draw’ plans and sections begins with treating them as compositions by themselves, not just vertical or horizontal sections cut through a building. The ongoing trend in BIM design and the favouritism of 3D modelling over 2D drawing diminishes the power of drawings, especially sections. A ‘section’ created by slicing a 3D model is not a section ‘drawing’ because it does not necessarily embody the considerations and meanings within its composition; instead, it is an outcome of the design rather than what drives the design. While thinking in both 3D and 2D is useful, drawing plans and sections needs to start not from a digital model but by moving a pencil in hand. 

The composition of a drawing by itself symbolises the nature of the space. When one sees symmetry in a drawing, with an imaginary red dash-dot line running vertically through the centre axis in mind, the drawing starts to mean more than just the built elements. Often associated with authority, power, permanence and frontality, the symmetry can infuse symbolic significance that one did not intend to incorporate into the design. In other words, the composition of drawings informs how viewers should interpret and understand the spatial experience; it is not always about the design itself but how the graphic representation communicates the design.

At the same time, drawings are by themselves a design tool for reflecting on the gap between the design intent and the produced spatial experiences. As one designs architectural space, it is an exercise of questioning the linkage between the design, site contexts and the original design intent in an attempt to identify and justify the roles of individual elements in the shaping of the space. It is where the act of drawing comes in to aid the thinking process by visualising how components interact with each other in specific locations, from tectonic details to overall massing. It is both the action of drawing and the reflection on drawings that enable different types of thinking. The act of drawing focuses on the relationships between specific elements and their consequences while reflecting on drawings through pin-ups and mark-ups is for seeing the composition as a whole, analysing how different elements speak the same language underpinned by the consistent conceptual approach. After all, treating a drawing as a composition maximises the effectiveness of the communication, elevating it from a mere view of the sliced building to a comprehensive depiction of a temporal, phenomenological experience.

After learning to see drawings as compositions, now I question more than ever- what does this vertical height difference mean? What is this void doing? How does this edge condition work? Why is this wall so thick/thin? Why is this volume stacked? … The question is no longer ‘where do I cut?’, but ‘what do I want the section to imply?’.

The Portrayal of Human Occupation

One of the new drawing approaches I learned is to ‘make a mess’ in the drawings. It is not about decreasing the legibility of drawings, but rather showing the traces of occupation created by people and the environment over time. For example, it could be a pile of leaves alongside the buildings, a spread of used plates and cups on the kitchen benchtop, or misaligned tables and chairs of a cafe. These subtle details do not directly impact the proposed architectural design itself, but they enable viewers to see how spaces would be occupied and become part of people’s everyday life – it suggests that architecture becomes a whole once people start taking control over spaces and leaving marks behind them.

In Summary…

There is no doubt that Studio 02 demanded a consistent quality of outputs throughout the semester and it was quite overwhelming at times, especially earlier in the semester when one needs to get used to the pace. However, the learning I got out of the studio, just in one semester, has been notable and extremely rewarding – paying attention to every line and hatch, utilising people in effective ways, detailing key elements to reinforce the architectural ideas, treating drawings with care (and be bold and generous with mark ups, both to oneself and to others)… And being able to study with such enthusiastic and caring classmates was a luxury. It became a memorable semester, and I’m thankful for the challenging but fruitful time.

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