MAKING RIDICULOUSNESS RELEVANT:
Tips on how to make even the most unconventional architectural thesis resonate within the conventions of standard design practice
Your thesis is labeled as unconventional – own it. When the skeptics start asking questions about why your project matters to the architectural profession, here’s how you can respond:
Where’s the architecture? There is an inherent assumption that an architectural thesis must include a building with a typical program to be considered architectural. However, a fundamental part of the argument could be that architecture is missing or disengaged when it comes to reconciling some of the most pressing and controversial issues of our time. I don’t know of many architects volunteering to design a beef processing facility, do you? But it should matter that architecture and design excellence (in a traditional sense) begin to intersect with the networks of countless externalities and unsustainable conditions that extend beyond immediate awareness.
What’s your agenda? Architecture is ubiquitous. Practically anything can be linked back to the built environment or the user experience and as architects we gain inspiration from a plethora of sources – history, art, natural sciences, technology, culture, politics, forms, and materials. Architecture is agency through design and it doesn’t end at the building envelope. In a thesis, there is the opportunity to redefine what constitutes the built environment beyond permanent structures. One can embrace notions of temporality, resilience, ecosystems (social, natural, or otherwise), etc. Push your agenda, at whatever scale from community down to a wall section detail, in favor of a broader public agenda, using programs, policies, spatial relationships, workflows, fabrication processes, and materials or systems as mechanisms for change.
Are you a vegetarian? My thesis may have been about industrial beef, but truth be told, I’m not a vegetarian. Being passionate about a topic is a plus, but not a requirement to deliver an impressive body of work. You can make the project interesting in other ways by approaching whatever the problem is with curiosity and rigor. I chose beef because it was ostentatious and encompassed relevant themes of cultural overconsumption, the serious immediate and long-term ramifications and costs of sizeable industrial processes, and lack of transparency. I wanted to inject an architectural lens into a place it had never really been to make a point about the segregation of production and consumption practices and spaces. The focus could have just as easily been some other resource or commodity like petroleum, water, or electronics. Once I got started diving deep into research, I wanted to become a mini expert.
How will you apply what you’ve learned in the profession? I’m always surprised about the positive response my thesis arouses. I may never design a transparency tour, but as an architect, I feel it is my responsibility to consider equity, safety, health, wellness, sustainability, and context in order to design with intent and impact. Working on my thesis broadened my perspective and helped me to improve design and representation skill sets, which has allowed me to find a niche in my firm where I can be involved in research and developing tools or workflows that integrate all stakeholders throughout the design process. Two years after completing my thesis, I’m still getting a return on investment from the creative energy I put into it. It’s exciting to see the conversation continue.
What if unconventional was the new normal? It seems that some of the most revolutionary ideas are deemed crazy at first. If everyone took an unconventional approach to thesis, whether it be the topic or the process, imagine how much we could contribute to the profession. Even if your thesis isn’t buildable, that doesn’t mean you can’t grab the attention of a practicing architect. In fact, you have to differentiate yourself to make a statement or nobody will notice you have something to say. If you start a conversation, whether with architects or other disciplines, you might motivate implementation/adoption of an idea or collective action towards a solution to an issue. What was once considered unconventional, may just become the latest trend and a future design standard.
Don’t take thesis too seriously (seriously, though). You’ll get a lot more out of the endeavor if you factor a little bit of ridiculousness into the equation.
For an extended version of this post with additional tidbits of advice I have based on my experience, plus a look into my “unconventional” thesis, The Meat You Haven’t Met, check out the following links: