Revisiting the Architectural Thesis: Five Myths
Recently, the architectural academy adjudicated its most venerated student endeavor—the architectural thesis. Having served on juries at the Catholic University of America and the University of Minnesota during the past week—as well as participating in the restless and emotionally charged faculty conversations that followed—I would like to offer some brief advice for future thesis students.There are many assumptions students have about the thesis, many of which are misguided (I know from experience as a former student), so I offer my suggestions in the service of dispelling particular myths.
The myth of linear process: One day's effort does not seamlessly and flawlessly lead to the next; nor is a project like a documentary film that you record throughout its development and play back in the order in which events transpired. Similarly, research does not occur exclusively in the beginning, and design does not occur only at the end. Both forms of investigation are important throughout the process, and you must constantly revisit the premise of the work as well as its physical effects during every step of development.
The myth of complexity: Don't burden design with richness; find richness through design. Many thesis projects try to conquer the world with ambitious ideas, complex programs, and conflicted sites. None of these aspirations is inherently bad, but a thesis should not merely serve as the design solution for complex circumstances. Architecture is often the result of simple, elegant ideas of sufficient intellectual depth and rich possibilities and interpretations readily emerge as a result.
The myth of the singular, synthetic solution: A thesis does not have to produce a single result. Some of the most compelling projects I have seen offer several potential manifestations at multiple stages of the work. In these cases, the jury is inclined to evaluate the student's thinking process rather than one developed proposal. (I would add that a thesis does not have to have a single author, but may be designed by multiple students working collaboratively.)
The myth of total originality: Innovation is welcomed, but it must be contextualized. Analyze precedents throughout your process, and include them in your final presentation. There are few things more unnerving to jurors than a design that lacks reference to architectural precedents, especially significant and obvious ones. Even if your design departs radically from precedent, adequate references can reinforce your proposal by providing relevant information. Also, be sure to cite your references visibly and adequately.
The myth of playing it safe: A thesis should be about bold experimentation and risk-taking. Polite projects that seek to offend the fewest number of people waste everyone's time. An architectural thesis should make a contribution to the discipline of architecture, and conventional or lackluster strategies won't cut it. Of course, radical approaches are not sufficient without a means to measure them. You must demonstrate an ability to evaluate your decisions and define their implications.
I witnessed some great work presented at thesis reviews recently, much of which demonstrated a depth of artistic and technical skill and covered the walls with compelling imagery. However, I have also seen projects whose authors would have benefitted from avoiding the thesis myths listed above. To recent graduates and future thesis students alike, I offer this humble advice so that in your future efforts you may proceed wisely, and be bold.