In 2012, a group of students at the Virginia Tech School of Architecture and Design came together to build Clifton Forge, Virginia, a community amphitheater. As part of Virginia Tech professors (and married couple) Keith and Marie Zawistowski's design/build LAB, the third-year undergraduate students spent an entire academic year conceiving the project and working with the community to bring it to fruition.
Graduates of the Rural Studio, Samuel Mockbee’s pioneering design-build program in rural Alabama, both Zawistowskis are proponents of a more hands-on education than is typically offered in architecture and design schools. Their award-winning design lab is now the subject of a documentary, Reality Check, which follows the 16 students who took part in design/buildLAB in the 2011-2012 school year through their project.
"An architect, for centuries when the profession first emerged, was someone who was on site every day," as Marie says in the film. Yet most architecture students spend their days designing buildings that they know will never be realized.
Co.Design chatted with the Zawistowskis about the film, design/buildLAB, and the importance of hands-on experience in design education below.
How did this film come about?
Keith Zawistowski: In 2011, Architect magazine did a profile piece on Marie’s and my professional practice, which is called OnSite. And Leon [the film’s director] was the photographer that Architect hired to do the portrait to go with that story.
Marie Zawistowski: He came down to Alleghany County where we’re based to take photographs of us, and as we were there, we got to talking about what we were doing with our students in that region. He got really taken by the place and the nature of the work.
KZ: Marie and I lecture about our work pretty regularly. One of the things that's always been hard for us to do is to tell the story from the students' perspective. We always, in the way, feel very awkward talking about projects that we haven’t designed or built. The students, it’s really their project. We’re just there to provide the frame. This idea of him making a documentary film was a really great opportunity to have our students be the voice driving the story.
What is design/build?
MZ: In general, architectural education is very abstract. So students are given virtual projects in studio and they design them at their desk, but they’re just working in abstraction. They don’t have any interactions with craftsman or a job site or anything.
KZ: Or even clients.
MZ: Or anything real. For us design/build is for the students to undertake a real project, with real clients, real people, real social economic context, in a way to remove the abstraction from architectural education. This experience exposes them to the entirety of the process of making architecture—not just coming up with wild ideas but figuring out how to make these ideas real.
KZ: They organize the job site and initiate their actions in building the project with their own hands.
Why do you think it's important for architecture students to be able to follow a project from conception through construction?
KZ: It's really empowering in a way. They can see the thing that they're studying in school is a really useful profession for society. They can get a sense of the positive impact that their work can have.
MZ: It really builds their confidence in their ability. It's a life-changing experience as an architecture student. We know from experience, because that's how we met.
KZ: You get the sense that you can really do it when you see a building come to life and the community embraces that building.
There are many facets of the discipline of architecture that are in a way impossible to replicate in abstraction. One of those is the complexity of human interactions, and working with clients. And the team of people that you need to work with to make a project happen.
In architecture school, typically each student is working on his own project. In the practice of architecture, there are very few people who work that way, because projects are increasingly more complex and require increasingly more people. There’s a skill of collaboration which is a way indispensable and really hard to teach in abstraction.
In school, if the end result is just a drawing, there's never really a means to test the decisions that you made or see the impact.
MZ: We always say that our students will never draw a building in the same way ever again, because they'll understand what a line on paper means. It means a certain kind of assembly or certain width of material, things that you couldn't possibly be aware of if you hadn't gone through the process of making a building real.
Do you think that kind of experience is still very rare in architecture schools?
KZ: It’s increasingly more common. It’s definitely in the minority.
M: I think there’s also a desire from the students to have that kind of experience. So it's developing more and more.