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My design tutoring approach

I was one of the design tutors in the Faculty of Architecture at the Eastern Mediterranean University. I have developed a different kind of design tutoring approach, which yields better results. The following is a short report of this approach.


The approach foresees a start by building models. At the beginning of a design session possible subjects and sites are given to the students. These are suggestions, students can feel free either in choosing one of the proposed subjects or to make modifications on it, or they can propose a similar subject after their own choice to work on. Same is also valid for the sites; students may choose one of the suggested ones or propose another suitable site. The only restriction is perhaps that their designs should have a certain amount of square meters, determined by the tutors according to the level of the semester. This is to avoid large differences between the sizes of the projects.

After this students are given two parallel tasks to work on. First one is that students have to think about the program of their design subject and their site. I generally do not ask serious analytical work right at the beginning, but they have to make themselves familiar with the subject and the site. At the end of this students are asked to prepare a program (or brief) of their chosen subject. This task has to be done outside the studio.

The second task foresees working in the studio. Students are asked to build sketch models and to make experiments with them. This is a free 3-dimensional exercise, similar to their basic design exercises. It means that students should not build realistic models tied up to their subjects, they should feel themselves free to create some formal ideas, but their models should contain some design ideas or apply and show design principles. One of my colleagues, Dr. Beril Özmen Mayer, has coined the term “thematic models” for them.

The aim of this exercise is to make students familiar with the formal aspects of their designs and to let them find conceptual ideas. Students are encouraged to play around with their models, that is, to make experiments with them. This means a start with models as opposed to the conventional analytical approaches, in which the building of 3-dimensional models comes at a later stage, that is, after decisions are made about the organization of functions and structural systems on 2-dimensional plans. Such an exercise leads to more courageous and interesting, meaning creative, proposals.

After they have experimented enough with their models students are asked to convert the resulting design ideas now into “architectonic models” without losing their initial conceptual and formal ideas. If this is successfully achieved students are then asked to start checking their design ideas according to the site and climatic conditions, according to the structural system, according to the functions that are going to take place in that building, etc. They make necessary changes if their initial ideas do not fulfill or not in accordance with them.

At this stage they are asked to work on more or less detailed plans, sections and elevations as well as advanced models. When all this checking, testing and changes have satisfactory results the design phase comes to an end. Students are then asked to finalize their design ideas, that is, to work on their presentation drawings and models.

This approach yields astoundingly successful results because of its superiorities to other kinds of approaches, especially to the conventional analytical approach. Firstly the students are in control of their designs; they can add new ideas of their own to it and try to develop them. They also carry the full responsibility of their design ideas. Nobody can say “..but my tutor wanted it this way..”

Secondly students learn and understand much more about their design problems when they work with their hands on 3-dimensional models as opposed to start working with abstract 2-dimensional plans and sections. They can see and understand these problems, try to find solutions for them. They can also explain their design ideas in a much better way when they work with 3-dimensional models. In this way they can understand if a design idea or a structural system is possible or not very easily.

Thirdly this approach emphasizes the formal aspects of a design, since it starts with such an exercise. Working only on plans as in conventional approaches, makes students concentrate more on functional and constructional problems. They think it is correct to have only a good functioning building with typical constructional solutions and neglect formal-expressive aspects of their designs. Such an approach reminds them that architecture has to have formal-artistic values to it as well as logical-engineering values.

Another positive point about this approach is that students feel the need to make some research by themselves in order to be able to realize their ideas. This can be about the arrangement of functions by looking at some similar examples. It can also be about structural and constructional problems. Students do not make research just for the sake of it or just to take some ideas from this and apply them. They use the research for problem solving; they try to adapt ideas to their own designs by making some modifications on them. This means they have to think about them and understand them.

Above all students like to work with this kind of design tutoring. It gives them a relative freedom to decide, they get used to the idea of making experiments and they learn not to be afraid of making mistakes, on the contrary, they understand that they can learn from them. They can follow the development stages of their ideas throughout the process and at the end they can see the higher quality of their designs. All of this makes design an enjoyable exercise for them.

After all, it is not surprising that this approach is successful. It is both and old and new way of design. We know that traditional architects were making use of models in order to understand and solve design problems and to communicate their ideas with the craftsmen; they were not relying only on abstract drawings such as plans and sections. Many modern architects are also making use of models to start a design; the way Frank Gehry delivers his designs is the most striking one.

Speaking of contemporary architects and their design methods reminds me of another aspect of my design tutoring approach. Today our students can go around with computers in a much skilled manner, they do not only learn how to make technical drawings in their courses, they also learn how to use many design oriented programs by themselves and apply this knowledge in their projects. My approach does not only allow such kind of work but supports it too, as long as they contain 3-dimensional modeling. I know very well that some students like to work in this way and achieve much better results if they are not forced to make 3-dimensional models or 2-dimensional drawings.

I have been reporting about this design approach in some publications written with the co-authorship of some of my colleagues, therefore I do not want to go into more details of it here.


The aim of architectural studies is to educate students in order to develop their personalities, to make them individuals that understand and solve problems in real life situations. They should not be pumped with some knowledge and skills, which they can acquire later according to their working conditions; they should develop different kinds of competencies. This means that students should be creative, critically thinking, questioning. They should be able to trust their abilities and be ready to take responsibilities. Because of this it is not correct to provide them only with conventional solutions and raw knowledge supported by skilled draftsmanship. They should be able to go beyond this if they are going to be useful to themselves and to their societies later on. My approach allows the development of such competencies during the design process and students are evaluated after them.

I have been working on various levels of design education from second year first semester to fourth year first semester. Each of them asks for the development of different skills. The evaluation of students has to take this into consideration too. For example in the earlier semesters formal and functional aspects may be more in the foreground while in the later ones structural ones may overweigh and more detailed work on the problems of construction may be expected.

Evaluation of design works is not an easy task in architectural education. Each student has a different background, knowledge and experience. Because of this the development of their competencies shows differences. It is not possible to put some expectations according to the semesters or taken courses. Whereas some of them show insight to some problems at an earlier stage some of them may develop an understanding for some primary tasks at a much later stage.

There are many cases in which even relatively good students have difficulties in using sections as a design tool or in delivering good elevations. Many of them do not make use of 3-dimensional models when developing their projects. They think these should be resulting from plans. They tend to finish the plans and then start drawing sections and elevations by just using projection lines and adding them heights. They also think models are only for presentation. It takes time for them to understand that this is a very mechanical way of designing, and is wrong. This also makes it difficult to evaluate their work after an expected knowledge and skill level.

The above mentioned design approach does not foresee the development of a specific skill, especially that of draftsmanship. Students should be able to understand the problems of their projects and should be trying to find solutions for them. Of course their projects should be in accordance with the level of their semesters and show traces of their acquired skills.

On the other side the approach aims to show that design is an enjoyable task. Students who like to work on their design projects acquire the desired level of knowledge and skill by themselves in order to show their ideas. This seems to be the best approach.


Observations show that this kind of approach puts some demands on students. If they were delivering designs in conventional approaches until then, they may act clumsily at the beginning. Some even refuse to work in this way. This difficulty has to be overcome. Student participation is essential in this approach and it takes some time and patience until they are convinced by the positive aspects of this kind of work.

It is demanding for the tutors too. Experience shows that this approach yields best results with the cooperation of supportive colleagues. If the design process can be planned and preparations can be made in advance a smoother running of the design studio is possible.

If a studio can be assigned fully to that semester for students to work in it, better results are obtained. Creating a studio atmosphere is very important and has positive effects on students. Working collectively rather than individually is a much easier and enjoyable exercise. Students see and learn from each other, and this also creates a more competitive atmosphere raising the quality of individual designs.

I generally try to find and propose design subjects that may be interesting and challenging for the students, according to their semester level requirements, instead of repeated and boring ones like “cultural center” or “dormitories for students”. If for some reason I have to give a familiar subject I try to make it more interesting and challenging by adding some kind of specialty to it. This forces students to make some research of their own and try to invent their own interpretations instead of grabbing the next available example and adapting or even copying it directly.

Some of these subjects were a consulate of a foreign country, an animal shelter (where some animals can be kept under the conditions of their natural habitats, can be observed by the visitors as well as studied by scientists), a school for disabled pupils, a school for intelligent pupils, a school with a supporting workshop, a monorail station, a toy museum, an experimental theater, a high-rise building near a historic city center, facilities (cultural center, museum) that incorporate historical buildings or ruins (such as city walls), a large printed matter (books, prints, CD’s) shopping center, etc. One of the most successful subjects was a “museum for moving images”. The whole class (some 60 students) was exited, almost all of the students made extensive research and delivered excellent designs – half of them received the grade of B and higher, which is extraordinary.

At the beginning of a semester I usually give my students a “warming-up project”. It may go on for about 2 weeks and its subjects are more or less playful ones, its aim is to emphasize enjoyable sides of design. It also helps students to adjust themselves to the routine of the design studio after a period of doing nothing during the holidays. It also shows them that different kinds of things can be a design subject. It helps students as well as tutors to overcome the unsettled time due to late registrations too. It can be considered as part of my design approach. Students work better after such a warming-up period.

In short, this approach tries to achieve better results by turning the design process upside-down (starting with a model instead of ending with it). It also aims to accomplish higher student participation by creating better studio atmosphere.

All of these are demanding tasks, require attentiveness and work for all parties. But the results are also very satisfactory and rewarding. Authorities visiting our department, such as Pierre von Meiss and Henry Sanoff, found this approach as being a very good one and did not fail to appraise it too.

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Üstün Alsaç

Originally prepared for the Department of Architecture at EMU after the request of its chairperson on 17 July 2006

Revised in January 2009 for my web page

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