Students VS Structure

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At least one subject a year, sometimes two, in architecture school involves structure and/or construction. In early years it’s simply learning the basics, and later on you learn how to detail construction or design structure. I also come from a TAFE background, and working with builders, so I have a tiny bit more exposure to this side of design than the average architecture student with no work experience. I wanted to talk about structure as it was something that came up in last semester’s review for studio, not with mine personally but with others and the critics made some comments.

There was a structure subject that I absolutely hated, basically we had to calculate the loads on the columns, use formulas to calculate beam sizes and basically do what engineers do. It frustrated me in a way where I felt as I though I shouldn’t be doing architecture because I couldn’t wrap my head around the equations. I had to keep reminding myself that this isn’t what architects do. However I understand the importance of architects, particularly architecture students, having a solid knowledge base of structure. Let me explain….

It’s often seen where an architect would hand a design over to an engineer, completely void of structure, and the engineer has to basically insert columns and beams. That seems to be a stereotype. Or they may inform the architect to thicken up walls or turn facades into full-height trusses. There seems to be this belief or idea that architecture and structure are two separate entities, and this is what the guest critic was getting at. The guest critic told the student (and I’m paraphrasing) that structure shouldn’t be something you add in later, effectively structure is apart of the architecture.

When you present a design, especially as a student, and it has no structure it’s probably fair to say your entire design relies on the purity of the form. I mean that could be a reason why you avoided structure, as it could have ruined your section or that particular perspective render. The idea of putting in large columns and beams to support your glass cantilever box might make you physically ill, but as a student should you ignore structure?

I’ve always maintained the idea that as students we shouldn’t be judged on the structure, meaning we shouldn’t be expected to have the exact dimensions of our beams. However as students we should always be aware, understand and appreciate structure in our building, even if it’s not 100% accurate. Take my project for example, I don’t know if the concrete columns are spaced properly, I don’t know if the concrete walls are thick enough or the beams are large enough for the spans but they kind of look like it works. I have seen a lot of student projects where they have a 150mm thick concrete roof spanning 15m, or worse they have a rooftop garden with grass and trees sitting on this 150mm thick concrete slab.

I don’t even know why students avoid structure, why do they? It seems that ‘structure’ is a dirty word in architecture school and not to be spoken of. It could be that when students think of structure the image of a “boring gridded plain-looking” building springs to mind, and they want to avoid that at all costs. When done properly though, structure becomes a part of the architecture. I mean have a look at the recently completed Taichung Metropolitan Opera House by Toyo Ito, and more importantly look at photos during the construction process, the structure was integrated into the architecture and the result was such beautiful. The building was more-than-likely conceived with the idea of structure embedded into the architecture but no doubt engineers helped with the thickness, detailing, spans and so on.

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Personally when I see student projects that shun structure, or show unrealistic structure, I do think their projects are unresolved and that they don’t understand their building. I wouldn’t expect architecture students to sit down and go through dozens of equations and formulas to determine the beam size but if you’re spanning 30m, you’d need more than a 150mm slab on top of a 150mm beam. Typically with my projects I tend to lack on the abstract ideas or conceptual thinking, so I try to make up with it with resolved structure and detailing, so much so I can trace it back to my first studio project in uni where I tried to resolve the mechanics and structure of a sliding shipping container. I was working out how much steel was in each box and the weight of it, how thick support beams are and how big the sliding tracks would be. Now of course how accurate I was is completely different but for me I needed to resolve this before I felt the project was “finished”.

The reaction from some students when asked about structure can be somewhat cringe, but for me it’s something I love about architecture. For my journey thus far it’s been heavily involved in structure, whether it’s precast concrete modules or steel sheds at work, or gridded concrete structures or cantilevering shipping containers in studio. I do believe that while a student may choose to hide structure in their design they should at the very least know, understand and represent how the hell their building is going to stand up.

2 comments on “Students VS Structure”

  1. I think it has to do with which uni you go to, some definitely push more structure on you while others are more conceptual. I really noticed a difference when I got to Unimelb for masters – they didn’t really seem to care whether your project was technically feasible. I think one of the major flaws in architectural education is that they never make you do a cross-major project with engineering students etc. The way you work at architecture school doesn’t translate well to the working world.

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