The Faculty

Tom Jones is drifting in a reverie of nostalgia for the days before he became a tenured member of the Department’s faculty, and before the computer became such a fixture. He longed sometimes for those frequently crude drawings from beginning students, before TABLET and its predecessors enabled them to produce such thorough sets of presentation documents so rapidly. All too often lately, he felt his students knew more about architecture than he did. And, he missed the frequent contact he had had before. Now his design studio met together less often, and frequently took on the feel of a conference call as many students chose to attend class electronically rather than face the heavy cross town traffic from their residences or work-places.

Another student preliminary design comes up on the large PORTFOLIO screen in the seminar room, and brings Tom back to the moment. His own TABLET sits on his lap, already connected to the large screen so he can perform the traditional critique electronically. Professor Jones class is acting as a test site for another ACSA generated “expert system” program. This program combines pattern recognition capability with designer preferences and scores a student’s design according to various categories of values that are frequently used to define “good buildings.” After four years of subjecting a number of well known architects with distinct personal styles to lengthy interviews in which they evaluated an enormous variety of building plans, elevations and sections, the ACSA sponsored research had developed a useable program. It would recognize student (and professional) designs and evaluate them on scales against the criteria of diagrammatic clarity, pattern, solar orientation, energy efficiency, functionality, simplicity of circulation, use of current technology, use of materials, clarity of structure, economics, natural lighting, and form. Scores are updated continuously on the on-screen scoreboard.

Because he had contributed to the development of the program in a minor way Professor Jones was asked to help test it. Within a very short time of introducing his class to it, three things were obvious. First, the program was going to have a hard time recognizing and rating highly the truly innovative design. The best students would have to work around the program’s limitations, and not take its scores so literally. Secondly, despite the inevitable glitches, and inequities, in the new program, his students loved it. It had the appeal of a fine video game, in which feedback from all the mistakes encourages smarter play, proficiency rises very fast, and additional responses are learned as the game gets more complicated. Students responded to the scoring by trying to exceed their personal bests, searching for improved (i.e. higher scoring) arrangements of plans and elevations.

Third, Professor Jones noted that class discussions of solutions almost immediately became discussions of values. When faced with the need to compromise a design in order to achieve higher ratings in several categories simultaneously, students scored highest in those areas which they most valued. In each student’s commitment to a set of values lay the basis for serious discussion of what was important and why Professor Jones may have felt nostalgic from time to time, and occasionally he may have resented the need to become proficient on the new technology, but it was partly in response to the intensity of his class. The students spent far less time in class, but, with an occasional awful exception, they produced more work of higher quality than previous classes. Professor Jones himself spent far less time giving critiques or specific instruction on low level problems of design because the computer put all the basic reference material in the student’s hand.

There was still the need to talk about architectural ideas and to critique designs at a high level, but the image that was beginning to form in his mind was of Socrates, TABLET in hand, sitting under a tree with his students arrayed around him while he raised serious questions of values and philosophy for them to consider. He had yet to realize how much more things might change.

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