Reflecting on my Independent Thesis

As I wrapped up my Master of Architecture course this semester, this will be the last article on my experience undertaking a master’s design studio. Since a large part of the design process has been covered in the thesis booklet, I’m going to focus in this article on the pre-semester journey and subject experience.

I’m sure many architecture students agree that the final project for their Master’s degree is quite special. It was special as it enabled me to reach out to supervisors, mentors and stakeholders who have been experts in the field of study I decided to undertake. It was also memorable in terms of the specificity of design approaches and the interconnection between architecture and landscape architecture that I could consciously implement as part of the project. 

Choosing the thesis topic & questions (and how stars lined up…)

The consideration of the thesis topic and potential outcome began at the end of the 1st year of the Master’s degree. It became clear over years of study that building my career as an architect in Australia requires me to understand the local Australian landscape and its embedded knowledge – at least, start with the local context. It led me to think that one of the fundamental ways to understand the Australian landscape is to study the Country (with capital C) and how it underpins Indigenous people’s understanding of place. The study resulted in a comparative analysis of the conceptual underpinnings of landscape between Indigenous Australians and Japanese people that I drafted during the summer holiday (fig 1). In hindsight, it became a way for me to see the complex interrelationships between landscape, cultural practices and spirituality that are unique to different cultural (and ethnic) groups. It clarified that the study’s aim is not to claim I know about Indigenous knowledge or to share knowledge (in fact, I’m not in a position to share indigenous knowledge) but rather to identify aspects of the landscape that are significant for shaping site-specific design. This piece of writing became a springboard for me to explore opportunities to engage with Indigenous stakeholders respectfully, with the ability to ask the right questions.

Fig 1: the comparative analysis hasn’t been formally polished up for making available online (currently draft 3) – hoping to get it done sometime…!

If you’re interested in references I incorporated into the comparative analysis, here they are…

Before commencing my design thesis during the winter break, I reached out to Assoc. Prof. Janet McGaw, the subject coordinator of the Design Thesis subject in semester 1. Despite complications around the ethics approval requirement and engaging with Indigenous stakeholders, Janet kindly offered me to be part of her research project with Assoc. Prof. Al Vance and Uncle Herb Patten who have been advocating for the establishment of a healing place for the Indigenous community, especially mental health clients at the Royal Children’s Hospital (see below). In alignment with their research, the design brief revolved around exploring the design of a culturally safe place for Indigenous clients from different Countries to receive mental health treatment.

One of the pieces of advice Janet gave me was to articulate the purpose and merit of the thesis. In particular, learning about the Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation and their recommendation to create this culturally safe healing place strengthened the reason to tackle this design brief. It enabled this thesis to engage with the ongoing conversation that seeks ideas for reimagined architectural gestures. It meant a lot more than mere personal university studio work.

In hindsight, I can not imagine what my thesis project would have been without Janet’s generous offer. It provided a rich complexity to the design brief and the relationship with indigenous stakeholders, the site, displacement and implications on cultural and spiritual identities, and the coverage of ethics approval that were essential for the thesis project. 

Pre-semester work

The preparation for the semester mainly consisted of visiting the site and the surrounding area, researching the history of the place, reading relevant academic literature, and drafting the thesis statement and thesis questions. As the brief had to weave together the ideas of displacement from the Country, the impact of western healthcare, cultural healing practices, Indigenous-led design process and institutional architecture, and how this thesis responds to them, finding a clear focus of the project was particularly challenging. It was also helpful to start setting up a template layout and graphic style guide for the design booklet; having a general idea of the binding method and presentation format helped me develop them with clarity and save time editing the layout during the semester.

Choosing to draw most of my drawings by hand

While I understood that the work productivity established over years of digital drafting experience is not to be disregarded, hand-drawn pencil linework was challenging to let go of as a means of representation. Especially since I knew I lacked experience in drafting presentation-quality orthogonal drawings by hand, this thesis was the last opportunity to embrace its beauty and process in the formal academic context as a student. 

The decision to draw plans, sections, details, perspectives and diagrams by hand (with an exemption of some mapping) was made quite early. The primary motivation to do so came from observing beautiful hand drawings by Fumitaka Nishizawa, Jørn Utzon, Rick Leplastrier, Glenn Murcutt and Greg Burgess that demonstrated various combinations of human experience, landscape and tectonic sensitivity. However, it was also a logical choice for being specific with plant species and the material expression blurring built elements and broader landscape, which was crucial in response to the Indigenous context. It was going to be a challenge, especially time-wise, but I was willing to take on it. After all, despite having a sore hand by the end of the production period, drawing individual plants, timber flooring textures and human occupation was surprisingly therapeutic and eye-opening. 

Architecture and Garden by Fumitaka Nishizawa, a collection of survey drawings. One of the must-have reference books.

Being in a studio of Independent Thesis students

Although I had heard mixed reactions beforehand, the recent modification to have studio classes for independent thesis students yielded a positive experience. I had opportunities to discuss work in progress constructively with other like-minded peers and felt supported throughout the semester. I understand it’s primarily because of individuals in the class who were keen to be open-minded and not necessarily the class setting itself (I saw a different social dynamic in some classes). For me, learning from peers (and not feeling isolated) enriched the experience of undertaking the thesis.

From the final crit. Every class was like this – everyone was involved in giving constructive feedback (and knew each other’s projects well)

Workload & joy of learning

Although the thesis project was the only subject this semester, the intensity of the semester was as high as any other semester. I simply had the luxury of allocating all of my study time to the thesis. However, allowing myself to research and ponder different aspects of the project that are often left out was highly satisfying and rewarding, even if all of them were not visibly manifested in the final presentation. 

For example, the study of relationships between target species and their life cycle in two vegetation groups was not closely related to the final architectural outcome. But instead, they articulated the reasoning behind the positioning and composition of landscape elements – acknowledging that sheoaks need wind to pollinate, the wild lilies need buzz pollinators, and many insects and birds need mid-storey shrubs to inhabit. With hand drawing, these ideas were embedded and didn’t need to be spelled out by words.

Some of more contextual mappings I’ve done:

Some might have said this kind of research had minimal implications on the final architectural design. Still, I thought it was crucial for understanding the landscape and what it means to embed architecture in the landscape. It was a joy to have the agency to decide what exactly I needed to study – especially when I was the one setting the project scope and outcome.

I’m incredibly grateful for all the support I received, both formally and informally. Project stakeholders, mentors, and everyone who supported my project on Instagram helped me intellectually and emotionally throughout the semester. I’m thankful I could do my best within the time constraint without major study disruptions or illness.

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