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Making Design Ideas Real

Johan Swart, Department of Architecture, University of Pretoria, discusses whether practical ‘making’-experience should form a part of architectural curriculum. Through a recent collaborative workshop hosted by University of Pretoria’s Architecture Department and RAW Studios, Swart reflects on the benefits of such exposure.

The student workshop, held in partnership with RAW Studios, a Pretoria-based design collaborative that develops and manufactures furniture systems through the digitally controlled manipulation of engineered timbers, encouraged Swart to focus primarily on the oft-lamented interrelationship between the activities of ‘design’ (on paper or screen) and activities of ‘making’ (by hand and machine).

The RAW workshop

Over the course of the seven day workshop, altering between studio days on campus and prototyping days at RAW Studios, students were guided on how to design and develop working prototypes within specific technological parameters such as modular and adaptable furniture systems that could be used within the constraints of container-sized microliving units.

Swart finds ‘the more thought provoking discussion emerges from the workshop’s generative explorations of technological processes and consequent understanding of it in relation to the current circumstances, i.e. of architectural practice and pedagogy.’

He highlights that ‘the ability to integrate design and making as an iterative process seems to remain beyond the reach of most architects. Students might regularly build scale models, but these are not working prototypes. Practitioners, on the other hand, have access to manufacturing industries, but these are removed from the design office and invariably excluded from the design process.’

The RAW workshop convinced students and lecturers alike that a closer interaction between design and physical testing leads to more immediate educational benefits, as well as to more successful and refined design products. In the broader context of design-make relationships, it seems that increased access to manufacturing technologies and open-source design networks might elicit questions about the traditional practice of architecture.

Swart argues that all of this relates more to product designers or to the hobbyists of the maker movement. He suggests we consider our workshop as an example: the outcomes were furniture-design products, but these were conceptualised as systems which combine to form living units. These units can be developed, using mostly the same limited palette of materials, as serviced and weather-proof options for housing. He goes on to say the ‘conceptual limits of this argument could even suggest an urban-development model, and its challenge – or, rather, invitation – to architects is thus seemingly direct.’


Another aspect of the workshop, which is cause for introspection, is the value of gaining mastery over very specific materials and technologies. The workshop limited students in terms of materials to flat sheets of birch plywood and, in terms of construction, to dry-fitted joints.

The consequence was enthusiastic student engagement and a narrow focus which, perhaps counter-intuitively, led to a great deal of innovation. This encouraged students to gain a far better understanding of material properties and 4 5 manufacturing processes than that which is gained from months of formal coursework.

Swart wishes to communicate that rather than promote a specific material, the workshop should rather illustrate a process of engagement with benefits that might apply equally to other materials and technologies; think of Tadao Ando’s absolute control over concrete, or Tom Kundig’s mastery of steel detailing.

He further speculates that a lack of focused engagement with materials and technologies is evident in our built environment. Swart questions whether:

1. A generic nature of architectural output, not point to details and specifications, will allow the designer to get away with being less knowledgeable of materials?

2. Does a lack of design cohesion not stem from architects entrusting technical control to engineers and product suppliers?

There are valid reasons in both academia and practice for the education of the architect as generalist, but Swart says his ‘involvement with the RAW workshop has highlighted the viewpoint that a more direct and passionate engagement with specific materials and technologies is to the benefit of the designer and the discipline.’



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