200-Level Architecture, Intermediate Architectural Design (Writing-Intensive)


Every architect designs buildings, and my feeling is that an architect needs to understand how he/she designs, their method of design. This method is based on the individual's thinking process. One's thinking process can be refined in school or in practice. So I'm not teaching my students how to think but how to apply their thinking. Writing is part of it. We express our thoughts and ideas about architecture in two primary ways: verbally, through speaking words, and visually, through building models, drawing pictures, and writing words. -- Associate Professor Gordon Tyau


Through varied projects, students learn and apply the theories and principles of architectural design and the building's relationship to the external environment. The understanding of climatic, topographic, and human behavioral factors helps students address the intricate network and effects of good architectural design. The sequence of projects builds on student learning and challenges them to extensive application of their architectural design process. Writing is used to foster thinking in developing and applying a design methodology.

If writing is recorded thought, then drawing, sketching, and doodling are also recorded thought. It's designing.-- Student



On the first day of class, the instructor asks students to write an informal essay about how they think they design (i.e. their own design methodology). Students are encouraged to write about what they already know and what they learned from previous courses.


The initial writing is a non-threatening, easy method of finding the scope of students' knowledge about the subject. The writing also gets students thinking about how they think (metacognition), giving the instructor information about where to begin teaching by drawing upon their prior knowledge. Through this first assignment, the instructor communicates the importance of using writing to think and learn.

Gordon has a strange way of teaching. He wants us to depend more on what we see, to depend on our own common sense. He wants us to be thinking all the time. . . . Sometimes I think of this class as thinking-intensive.
I think we're getting a lot more out of this class that no one can see.--Student


The primal shelter project is composed of a series of assignments leading to the actual design and fabrication of a structure that each student will live in comfortably, and evaluate during a 24-hour period. From the beginning of the course, writing becomes an initial element of the architectural design process, particularly through journal writing and sketching. The project depends on collaborative efforts and then focuses on the individual's design process. Each student prepares three information boards which contain written analyses and drawings of a master site plan, the assembly of the primal shelter (which includes a model), and an evaluation of the design and live-in.

I think the primal shelter project was one of the best if not the best design project I have had to date. It is the first project which dealt with the lay of the land, the relationship between the building and the environment, and the challenge of making the design a full-scale reality. It was fun. We saw all aspects of the process right down to discussing and arguing things out as a group. This stuff is real life. --Student

The entire project gives students the opportunity to not only deal directly with all the elements of architectural design, but also the actual results of their thinking process. Throughout the primal shelter project, students are engaged in thinking, writing, drawing, and talking about their architectural process.


Students must first gather information about the site before beginning the building design. In their journals/sketchbooks, each student addresses the three factors that affect architectural design in notation and/or sketches: what activities must be accommodated? who is the designer? where is the design located? The instructor emphasizes that the most influential of the elements -- activity, designer, site --is the site and the designer's understanding of the relationships between the site and activities.

I've had so many good teachers say that the best way to learn is to hear it, see it, then write it down. Writing gets the eye, ear, and hand working together. Trying to involve as many of the senses helps students to remember what they're learning. That's what Professor Tyau and other instructors have been saying and doing. --Student
The next step is to produce a topographic drawing and a model by working in teams consisting of a surveyor, recorder, and rod man. Together they survey and analyze the actual site (Hoomaluhia Park, Kāne‘ohe) using surveying instruments. Back in the studio, students draw the topographic map, then build a three-dimensional base model for class reference.

Using the teams' base model and his own notes, the instructor initiates discussion on site planning -- the purposes and uses of topographic maps and models. The discussion also includes analyzing the information in their journals including landscape, climate, geography, and their inter-relationships.

When everyone's talking about something, I'll say 'What do you mean by that?' The person will draw, I'll draw, so we're using the same language. We sit together and draw our ideas so that we're having a conversation on a piece of paper.--Student

The writing -- notations and sketches -- are crucial to thinking carefully before designing. By writing and sketching in the journal, the students record their immediate impressions and observations about the site and site-related factors such as climate, geography, and landscape. Their preliminary notations, which can be referred to throughout the process, leads to the production of a topographic map and model.

Professor Tyau says we have to get the ideas out of our brain, down our arms, and onto the piece of paper so we can at least save our ideas. Even if it doesn't look good, it's on paper. Our minds will fail and forget what we're thinking, so putting the ideas down on paper is important. It's thinking and drawing.--Student
Information-gathering is also facilitated through collaboration; for example, topographic work in the real world is also accomplished by a survey team. Class discussion about the use of topographic maps and models becomes relevant and meaningful to the students because they have visited and analyzed the site.

The first presentation board is an individual's Master Site Plan Proposal of the class community of primal shelters. Detailed drawings include the existing topography, flora, zoning, an analysis of the site such as views, climate, and noise, etc., and a plan of the shelters' arrangement. Community design requirements are also written clearly for other readers. When all boards are brought to class for the "pin-up," the group discusses each master plan proposal and selects one proposal to be implemented.

A week later, students submit the second phase of their primal shelter design which includes the design expressed in model form and detailed instructions of their design: a list of materials, approximate cost, the plan, sections, and assembly drawings with written explanations. During the "pin-up" session, each student presents his/her design and together with the instructor, the rest of the class discussed the design. The scale models are compared to board illustrations. Students are permitted to revise their plans moderately from the "pin-up" comments before the purchase and pre-fabrication of the shelter.


Students learn how to incorporate information about topography, landscape, climate, geography and relate these site factors to the social interactions of the community. They must think about the functional and aesthetic qualities of their designs. The goal of combining illustrations, models, and writing is to have students practice how to provide visual information concisely and completely to interested clients.

This stage in the sequence of planning the primal shelter community also promotes group learning. Students must collaboratively select a community site and help one another assess an individual's shelter. The master site plan is selected more effectively by the student group because they have worked together on the topographic model and site analysis, and have discussed the importance of the formation of a functional and pleasant community.


For a week following the shelter design presentation, students purchase their materials and prefabricate as many parts as possible to facilitate site construction. Students must erect their primal shelters within three hours, unaided by their peers, and are then required to live in their shelters for twenty-four hours.

Immediately after the construction of their primal shelter, each student records in his/her journal reflections on the actual building process as compared to his/her original plans: what were differences between planning and building? what were their expectations as they prepared their designs? as they prefabricated sections of their shelter? as they built the shelter? Throughout the day, each student records comfort levels within their shelters, climatic data, and any other landmark changes that affect their comfort.

We've been keeping journals since our first year as architect students. You get a lot of ideas about design just walking around. It could be the stupidest thing like a leaf falling to the ground, but even that could be interesting in a design idea. Keeping a journal allows you to flip back through it later and use some of the ideas to apply to a different project. I have four journals! One for architecture, one for the stuff I read which I copy down and write my reactions; one for all my architecture notes; and another just for anything I think of." --Student
During two "open house" periods, students visit each other's shelter. Student-visitors write in the student-designer's journal his/her personal reactions to the living space comfort and architectural design. The students return to their own primal shelter and read one another's comments. Throughout the day and in the evening, students continue to write in their own journals their analyses and feelings about the experience.

Keeping a journal is a valuable tool for maintaining a record of one's intellectual and personal growth. Students are encouraged to constantly return to their journals for thoughts and ideas and to develop them. The journal promotes writing/drawing to think and thinking about writing/drawing. The practice of writing one's reactions and observations about his/her peers' constructions invites personal reflection and community dialogue. Keeping the journal also prepares students for the next phase -- personal evaluation. (Although the use of journals is not required by the school, the instructors' frequent encouragement and reference to writing/drawing in the journal throughout the four-year program helps students develop a life-long habit. Many architecture instructors also model the usefulness of journals by keeping journals themselves.)


The day students return to the classroom after their live-in experience at the campsite, they begin the evaluation process of the primal shelter project. The instructor asks each student to read from their journals "open house" comments. He also reads from his notes for comparison. Together they reconsider and relive phases of their design process.

Students then prepare the third presentation board which illustrates in writing and drawing an evaluation of their primal shelter design and the "live-in" experience. Ideas on revisions may be included if they had to do the design again. The evaluation boards are brought to class for the last "pin-up" and discussion session.

The instructor asks them to write at home an evaluation of the project and its importance to them as architecture students. A student writes about the project:

"I felt that this shelter was a very good one, since it included the actual fabrication of our designs, which is something we can't expect to do with any of our other school projects. Fabrication seemed to be the next step in the design process. Since it incorporated the function-al aspect of the design, the very real cost of materials, and the decisions which involved the development of an efficient, and more importantly, buildable design.

The most difficult part of the process for me was the transition from model to full-size parameters. That was when I was forced to think about design in a more realistic way, with real problems like the weight of the structure, the cost of the materials, what type of framing to use, and how to connect everything together.

I chose to use PVC piping for my framing system, and since I had arched forms in my design, I had to curve the PVC to those dimensions. I found this to be really difficult because I had to form the PVC and I had no idea how hard PVC was to bend! I think I got a full workout just bending those pipes . . . ."

The evaluations are non-graded and read only by the instructor. (However, in the next semester, his students read the project evaluations on the first day of class after he has explained the primal shelter project. Reading these past evaluations arouses their curiosity and interest in the course, and provides a preview of the first project.)


Asking students to evaluate their own learning is a natural step in the learning process. The evaluation discussion makes public their general concerns about the group experience, but the individual writing forces the student to analyze his/her own learning. Another goal of evaluation is to encourage student and instructor revision. The display boards not only give students an opportunity to review their schematic design but also the opportunity to receive feedback regarding their designs from the instructor and peers. The instructor can use their written evaluations to modify the assignment for new students.

Professor Gordon Tyau talks about his class (excerpt from an

The course goal is really to have the students develop and recognize their own design methodology. We give a series of exercises we call 'projects.' The project is separated into phases so that each phase gives students experience in addressing parts of the process, which then evolves into the design methodology. Every architect designs buildings, and my feeling is you need to understand how you design. I maintain that if architects know how to do something, they get better at it. That's the purpose of the course.

All of the design studios are different from any other discipline or profession at the University because we're teaching students how to put all their information together. The method of design is based on the individual. One's method of thinking is also given, but one can learn how to refine it in school. So I'm not teaching somebody how to think, but how to apply their thinking. Writing is part of it. We express ourselves in architecture in many ways -- verbally, with the hand in writing words, and by drawing pictures.

In order to understand my students, I used to give them a project, quiz them, ask questions, give lectures, and at the end of the semester, I began to understand them a little better so I could help them develop their design methodology -- then they moved on to another class! Now I have students write an essay the first day of class on "how I design." Most of them don't know how they design. The few that do know how to design don't know what to put down on paper, so I got a lot of rambling. But at least the writing forced them to think about their design process.

I use writing to get the students loosened up and thinking about how they think by trying to express just that. The second way is much more structured in terms of learning how to gather information correctly, determining what kind of information is needed by asking the right questions, or even by planning ahead where to go so they can ask the right questions. Then I try to show them how to translate thinking to writing to drawing -- the reality. That's what the primal shelter project is all about. This is the only time they're going to get a thought to the writing, drawing, designing, building stage and beyond, which is the evaluation of the reality.

I have the students write evaluations about the importance of the primal shelter project because I want to know if I should give the project again. They write their evaluations at home because I find that it's really hard in studio to do much other than going around and evaluating their designs. Students tend to socialize more in class ,and that's part of learning.

I find that the students who put their concepts into drawing rather than just talking about it end up with better designs. When I draw on the board or when they do draw for their team, everyone can see what they're talking about.