The Start of a Design Thesis

This article sets out to understand the start of a design thesis process. By comparing University of Malaya’s (UM) approach with that of one local university (Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM)), where the author has had a few years experience working there from 1991-1994 and the Cooper Union (CU), one of the top architectural schools in the United States.

In a Design Thesis process there is a Start and an End. When does the journey start and when does it end?

At the Cooper Union, the design thesis must start with a lot of things to decipher and make coherent:

“…the students would have a substantial portfolio of work that is comprehensive and coherently organized. The portfolio will contain: books, folders, sketchbooks, diaries, drawings, diagrams, photomontages, CD-ROMS, DVDs, using any and all modes of description or representation that explain the breadth and richness of the research and the sophistication of the architectural proposition(s)…” (Vidler)

At UM, we don’t ask that of our students. We just asked them to come up with two proposals. Actually we should be rigorous like the Cooper Union, but I believe CU can expect their students to come up with those many items. Like getting ready all those years – a research box of stuff about their design thesis. Each of the CU units from 1st to final year has a research approach to design. The culture to keep books, diaries, photos and all those items were thought in the beginning and maintained throughout the years. There is a vision of rigorousness throughout the school’s learning processes.

UM is similar to UTM. Example of UTM’s requirements of its final year students:

“…unique opportunity for students to pursue their own interests in architecture and the built environment through the medium of a building or a complex of buildings of their own choice from preparation or investigation of brief to design proposal, and accompanied by a full documentation of investigations, findings, alternative decisions and conclusions…proposal is either: issue-, approach-, -site-specific, -client, -etc. oriented…” (Tanggam)

In the Cooper Union, as conducted by Vidler, you can see that there is a lot of research at the beginning of the project where it is so important:

“…the FALL SEMESTER we thought about how architects research and draw PROCESSES, how they DRAW LIFE, and how in relation to the LIFE of an architectural project the “site” could be interpreted as “milieu,” “genius loci,” “place,” ‘”space,” “environment,” “surroundings,” “context,” or “ecology.” Part of the semester was devoted to exploring when and how and in what way these notions emerged, in for example the “biosphere” in the 1920s, ecology in the 50s, and again in the 70s, etc., and how they were represented or “embodied” in architecture, to introduce a way of understanding “green” as more than a pop buzz word and ecologically thinking as obligatory…” (Vidler)

For the last three years, I felt that we should go for CU direction, in a way we have people who can do that, but the Department sees otherwise. So, I feel now that these things can only be done in ‘individual’ projects and when UM school have the vision to do so, as rightly a research university and its architectural school should.



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