Teaching Landscape To Undergraduate Student : An Experience With The T.Y.B.Arch Batch Of Rachana Sansad’s Academy Of Architecture, Mumbai
Talk given at the “Landscape architects retreat,” December 2015; Yacht club, Mumbai organised by SPADE and PBB
In 2011, I was invited to teach landscape architecture to B’Arch Students. Part of this invitation, centered on re-imagining and re-writing the curriculum of the landscape architecture subject to make it more relevant.
This essay will briefly talk about the process and the discussion and that led to a new reader. It will talk about the subsequent framework for the syllabus and some of the typologies exercises that were developed. It will also try to examine what it did and, more importantly, what it did not achieve in four and a half years it was executed along with other observations that were learnt the hard way.
So, being an ex-student from this college and not having enjoyed the landscape programme back then, I took to this new job with a little more enthusiasm than was required.
The first thing I did was look at the landscape syllabus as it hitherto stood, and one could quickly notice a few issues.
The course had not evolved in the past ten years and had not kept in touch with the outside world.
It addressed only bare minimum, random, requirements of landscape knowledge.
Most students had a difficult time engaging intellectually with this course and aspects of open space designs.
(Most students I knew too, found landscape boring and tedious) “
I also noticed that there was no real documentation of the motives behind teaching what was being taught. Other than the fact that the university syllabus required. What that did was create a discontinuity between the previous ways of doing things and myself.
Establishing a framework
The first thing I decided to do was to write everything. A Google document was made and managed to approach a few friends whose opinions I respected to give me feedback on a skeletal framework of the syllabus that was working on. (Chief among these were annul daga, sriganesh rajendran and sandip patil)
This talk resulted in a list of exercises and two essays titled “reader on the landscape syllabus” which talked about what we intended to teach and why we were teaching it; and “mode of discourse” which talked about how we intended to carry out this class.
At its core, the syllabus had two agendas
Skill set upgrade: understanding open air spaces, site analysis, understanding aspects of plant design. Being acquainted with prevalent landscape ideas and project – And
Designing in the open-air environment. Being able to have an informed discussion on subjective aspects of landscape design.
The second agenda was Exploring the profession of landscape architecture. The idea was to help future architects, understand the scope, intents, and issues that landscape architects engage with. So that, as professionals, they could approach complex designs in an informed manner
What these two agendas implied was that we were required to engage with a wide range of landscape topics albeit not deeply in order to cover the world of landscape architectural design. So the framework of the syllabus took the following shape.
Crafting the exercise
After establishing the framework of the landscape syllabus, it was time to shift our attention to crafting the exercise.
I had read somewhere “the good teacher was not necessarily one who knew everything, but one who was able to transmit his passion for the subject to his students.” (Not an exact quote)
On the advice on my wife, I attempted to have three different typologies of exercises. The idea was to get students to not only learn a new skill set, but to also be able to critically engage with the subject of landscape architecture.
Thus, there were three kinds of exercises. The workshop exercise for learning skills. Studio exercises. In addition, exercises centered around debate and discussion for developing critical thinking about the landscape.
A studio exercises student work by Areeba Siddiqui (the drawings seem to be poor, but what is interesting is the engagement with the sculpting of the space using the placement of the blocks and the using of various typology of trees. these parameters of this exercise, allow for an architectonic engagement of the open space design
A workshop exercise student work by gautam, vaishnavi, Riddhima, Tanmayi, Pratima. In this exercise, a photograph is supplied to the groups who have to run a series of exploratory investigations on the topic. these included, sky study, datum study, 3d model study, spatial analysis etc.the exercises are easy and the students have to go thru the motions of these exercises to get acquainted with aspects of open space.
Two D&D exercises student works by aditi and naveeda (temple of ancient virtue); and vaishnavi and sanchi (taj mahal) [analysis of open space around a famous structure]. Some of the exercises highlighted here were a result of discussions had on the table. Some of these exercises were unique to the individual study and specific to the student’s points of view. These exercises resulted in an intimate engagement with the landscape surrounding the architecture and an investigation of its impact on each other.
The slide below gives a good indication of how each typology of exercise stacked up in terms of what is achieved. Graded out of 5 points for skill set v/s critical thinking.
The workshop exercises and the debate and discussion exercises worked well in tandem. Workshop exercise (5/5 for skill set upgrade & and 0/5 for critical thinking), and D&D exercises (0/5 for skill set upgrade and 5/5 for critical thinking) seemed to balance each other off and it seemed like a happy marriage. However, there was a problem.
The D&D exercises do not have a good documentation process and workshop exercises do. Final sheet documentation boosts the morale of everybody, the students, the faculty, and the principal. What this did was it cultivated doubts about the D&D exercises, which have slowly mutated into workshop style exercises compromising the very aspect of a discussion.
Workshop exercises, which were shorter and had a pre-defined product outline, had better results. The assignments collected from this category literally beefed up the student body of work at the end of the year.
At first, this was very gratifying. There was no denying that these exercises looked impressive. Later on, we relied on these exercises more at the expense of other exercises.
But later on, I started feeling a little disillusioned with them. Workshop exercises, (an important part of the core competency upgrade), were not cerebral or design related exercises.
Debate and discussion exercises were the most rewarding. We made a point of discussion not in terms of right and wrong; but instead a free-for-all sharing of points of view. So whereas we got the students to focus on completing work at home, it was the discussion across the table that was the crux of the exercise.
In addition, managing a discussion forum among a class of students is actually really difficult. And, generally needed a very carefully intuitive understanding of the class dynamics and flow. The most difficult part however was that there was no real documentation of the debates and discussions in class.
The studio exercises do not seem to do well in either category. These were the biggest disappointments in terms of portfolio quality. We had horrible drawings quality (on the whole) and bad application of of previous exercises.
Most upgrades we saw were a direct result of compartmentalizing objectives and making them central to the marking system. (Eg contours, parking, retaining walls, plaza spaces, vegetation design etc). Most students lost their time dealing with the technicalities of levels, contours, depiction of retaining walls etc (which was disconcerting when you come to think about it.)
Even today, we are still struggling with a mature balance for the studio exercises that will have technical challenges and engage the students with critical design thinking.
What I noticed most often, was if the exercises were so designed that technical correctness and the formalities of documentation could be set aside, there were very interesting and fresh ideas that students had about landscape architecture and open space design. But that it was a challenge to set aside, or overcome these “competency requirements”
The most difficult news was that the students still struggled to find means of application in architectural design process. And although it is true that most exercises make sense much later on, it was also true that there was no instant gratification of learning a new skill set.
(the principal told me that some students did go on to use some of these learnings and use them in their thesis drawings. but he was specifically referring to three or four students. still it is interesting to note that the application were related to place making with the use of landscape design.)
We wanted to elevate the stature of landscape architecture in the college, but that really did not happen. It is a subject that is still struggling to find enthusiasm among students.
I came to the slow realisation that successful academic programmes are not a function of a landscape programme or an established design process, but is more dependent on the charisma of the landscape faculty.
That is to say, we really did not have enough of it to captivate a classroom and change the way they thought about open spaces.
I would argue that this is a one of the largest problems facing landscape architecture pedagogy today. There are differing points of view on this. One senior mentor I opined to about this completely agreed with me while another senior professor disagreed saying that it is fundamentally a communication problem. I am not sure how much I agree with communication being that pivotal to the success of a class.
Both professors however hinted that one of the evils of these phenomena was idol worshipping that students are known to be susceptible to. Although that is true, I feel that is a problem of progress and is a happier situation than students being uninterested in the subject.
I would like to end this note on a small list of suggestions for future landscape programmes especially for the undergraduate architecture students.
Make a manifesto, write everything down. It articulates what you are teaching and why you are teaching it and it is information that we owe the students. It is also important for future teachers to build on what you are teaching today.
Keep a strict balance between competency upgrade and critical design discussions on landscape architecture. (As opposed to theory v/s design) this is important. If we are only teaching skills and techniques to students, we run the risk of making automatons that are unable to think critically. Students of architecture have to see landscape as a field of design that can be rich in ideas and deep in its engagement.
Make interaction and dialogue with students the cornerstone of the landscape syllabus. (Especially in places where the syllabus is not a preparatory step for an exam.) I do not refer to interaction as banter, which I notice is what most popular teachers do with students. I refer to interaction as discussion of landscape as something wonderful and enriching to engage with. As a teacher, this part has been a very rewarding experience and I would recommend it to anyone who wants to teach.
Be mindful of faculty personality. Having a class star is not such a bad thing despite the ill effects of idol worship.
Reconsider covering too many topics in one year. Instead, consider a single theme and more depth for each year and develop smaller projects around that single theme. There are many themes that landscape can explore, and picking a set is just limiting.
(note: credits for students works given in the text. all works are from students of AOA, mumbai TY batch of 2011. photos printed without the permission of the college or students. regarding any objections, do feel free to contact me.)