The Learning Anatomy: A Performative School of Architectural Bodies

Hero Landscape Nicola Chang
Welcome to our performative school of Architectural Bodies

Architecture schools use the framework of the design process for students to experience the thinking of an architect – communicating the narrative of their design from concept to refinement. The process seems simple, but there are hidden complexities of experimentation, problem-solving and critique that blur the process and perception of architecture schools into a mysterious uncertainty. Social Theorist Donald Schon stated, “One of the things that really bugs me about architectural education is that a lot of things are really implicit, remain under the surface and are not talked about.” Further, Architect Rivka Oxman stated there is “a neglect of attention to thinking in design as a legitimate pedagogical content.”

Though uncertainty seems intimidating when the building outcome is expected, it can also be viewed as an opportunity to explore the physical and playful actions of design thinking that strengthen the process and the building design. Arguably, architecture school teaches the performance of design thinking. The Learning Anatomy: A Performative School of Architectural Bodies seeks to demonstrate how the physical body and its movement can be a learning tool to perform design thinking and how the interaction with these learning tools can craft an alternative architecture school to experience the design process collaboratively.

This research is a progressive body of work, from focusing on an individual’s physical senses of the design process, generating wearable tools to share those experiences in an installation space, and then introducing an interactive pedagogy of architecture design with performing bodies. This research does not seek to design a fixed form of an architecture school yet argues that the form of an architecture school is defined by its participants working together as a bigger acting body to bloom various approaches to teaching architecture design.

The concept of perceiving the physical body as a learning tool was inspired by my first design course, HOTMess (2018). This course was an unexpected start to approach architecture design. Without a site-specific brief, the tutors challenged me to improvise with random materials and found trinkets to make imaginary body extensions to inform a spatial drawing practice engaging with a 1:1 space. They stated, “We try to predict where we will end up, before the creative process has even begun, without a particular destination in mind, we might uncover previously unimaginable directions.” I realized that my body is my design tool to sense my spatial surroundings and respond with visual marks that develop a full-scale drawing. This was my initial impression of performing design via drawing in which the body was modifying, generating and designing a space in the moment of movement!



This research consists of two making stages:

Performative Drawing Tools:
A series of drawing tools interpret Nikolaus Gansterer’s poetic texts of performing the artistic process with interdisciplinary actions of choreography, drawing and writing. They are accessory-scaled, worn on various body parts (from head to toe) that evoke the learning experience of performing the design process. Materials of cardboard, paper, threads and found trinkets were used, and their properties were challenged.

Constructing with Character:

The collection of these drawing tools explores the term ‘Architectural Body’ as a costume embodiment of an architecture student’s learning identity. It is developed by the learning experiences and memories of the design process, resonating from the drawing tools. Sculptural and technological explorations of the human body by artists Rebecca Horn and Lucy McRae inform characters of science fiction and fantasy that inspire students to push their learning identity beyond the physical and gender limitations of their bodies. Making an Architectural Body draws parallels between architecture design and costume design, with steps of conceptual sketches, model-making, construction, and documentation. From this, the character costumes are developed – Spectre, Noughts and Crosses, and Multi-Fool Eyes, who personify the stages of the design process. Student performers were interviewed to express their feelings while wearing the costumes.

These help to discover how the learning experiences of the design process are projected by the physical movement of an architecture student’s body, further developing the character and form of an architecture student’s identity.


Finished Product

A performative school, The Learning Anatomy, is constructed by Architectural Bodies. Each body creates a built classroom installation to teach the fundamental stages of the design process – ideation, development, and refinement. Each performer presents a spatial activity with simple instructions of ripping design outlines into collaged briefs, tracing old sketches, engaging in a verbal debate, and making models from a mess to enact in each design stage. This sequence of activities helps build up their thinking process. Throughout a series of workshops, participants use their bodies to perform their thinking and enter the design process as a spatial event. The approach to learning architectural design was unexpected to the participants. It went beyond the formal studio format.

At the end of the event, the performers and participants provided feedback on what could be applied to their school studios. It facilitated a teaching style – visual-spatial learning where students observe and engage with the visual elements of their environment. The activities expressed their design-thinking affecting the visual conditions of the classroom installation.

A participant remarked, “Once we kind of invite the more interpretive, the more freedom of expression, the more conceptual, I think it proposes a new kind of teaching.”


Critic's Text

The focus of Nicola’s thesis is exploring the body in space, enhanced and amplified by prosthetics, as a tool for educating architects. It is uncommon and challenging territory. The methods employed included sewing and crafting, sketching and annotating. The final design work came about through a led workshop involving other students; this provided rich material to test the material being developed and included collaborating with others. The thesis digs into design processes, beginning with Nicola’s own experience in an early years design studio. This is critiqued with the added hindsight possible to demonstrate the importance of the focus of this past experience. The thesis suggests ‘characters’ to highlight phases and stages of the design process as a way of developing thinking in regard to teaching and learning design. This is a sophisticated and innovative thesis which contributes to pedagogical approaches and considerations of the architectural body.

-Marian Macken, supervisor