A Beginner’s Mind allows us to get to the source of creativity, selfhood, great design, deep insight, innocence, joy, and alike. An Expert Mind allows us to bring into reality whatever has been gained from such source. The former gives and the latter develops. One generates and the other critiques. One offers and the other chooses. One creates and the other takes responsibility. Both are absolutely necessary. And yet, greatness lies in accessing the Beginner’s Mind.1
Beginnings are about perception and meaning; learning how to develop an appreciation for visual experiences, phenomenological awareness, and deepening of our dialogue; learning the formal concepts that affect how we see and think about the world; and complexity as an effective concept for understanding and evaluating the world. Beginning design involves discovering and discussing beliefs and purposes in society and the creation of a philosophy, defined for our purposes as “a set of coherent generalizations which allow a person to organize his/her overall behaviour both systematically and with a minimum of inconsistency and self contradiction.”2 It is incumbent for educators to have the discussion of how to inform and teach beginning design students in a setting where pluralism and divergent doctrines are instigated by instantaneous access facilitated by technology. As a consequence, it is critical that the discussion of beginnings in a foundation program considers the initial thoughts, naïveté, and the development of a method and process of the student.
From a period that is framed from the late 1990s to now, a unique condition has emerged that is antithetical to the circumstances that defined twentieth century creative output: an absence of dominant didactic “isms”. Unlike the previous century that was inscribed by the influences of the formalism of Beaux Arts ateliers, the Modernist veneration of the non-figurative, the Post-Modern criticism of academicism and penchant for imitation, and the syntactic architectonics of the Deconstructivists; prescriptive edicts for how we process, conceptualize, and manifest designs are absent. Without the singular arbiters of formal expression and methodologies as emphatic as Walter Gropius, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, Peter Eisenman, Greg Lynn, Zaha Hadid, and numerous others who reside in the pantheon of architectural history who transmuted theoretical dictum into imperatives; the questions becomes: How do we begin? How do we learn? In what language do we build?
Rather than relying on a categorical “ism” to help navigate the methods and products of design, we are now increasingly motivated to consider paradigms as opposed to dogma. Design has become situational and contingent. The role and responsibilities of a designer has now expanded to cultural interpreter because,
it is impossible to give an adequate description of the [world] today without taking into account economics, public policy, sociology, art, civil engineering, history, literature, politics, and religion; yet each of these disciplines by itself only tells part of the story. [Design] is well positioned to offer such a synthetic overview.3
Design has accrued a position of prominence and accountability, compelling us to be equally resilient and pliant in order to respond to contextual vacillations with certitude and deftness.
The current century is beset with fluctuations necessitating inclusiveness. To maintain relevance a shift to a new paradigm - a pedagogy of multivalency - is mandatory. When discussing our current times, architectural theorist Charles Jencks declares that, “If there really is a new paradigm in architecture then it will reflect changes in science, religion and politics.”4 Jencks notes the potentials of an architecture of inclusiveness and observes that “...as architects have lost most conventional iconography, they now hope to find through a process of search and invention, some emergent metaphors, those that amaze and delight but are not specific to any ideology.”5
The responsibilities that educators are entrusted with include the necessity of questioning, postulating, mediating and configuring how design can respond to our present and our future. Architecture and design hold the potential of deciphering and aiding in our comprehension of the circumstances informing this new century. Juhani Pallasmaa, states in his book The Eyes of the Skin that a component task of architecture is that it “enables us to perceive and understand the dialectics of permanence and change, to settle ourselves in the world, and to place ourselves in the continuum of culture and time.”6 Design has the capability to expand its influence by acknowledging the persistence of change by interpreting the world as enduringly amorphous.
The onus on the educator and the student in a beginning design studio is to implement as part of their development the fluency to not only adapt a multivalent approach in the attempt to formulate understanding, but the synthesis of this content and the skill to adjudicate disparate elements and influences. This necessity and acumen to formulate possibilities and transfiguring them into form is inextricably reliant on the rudimentary act of questioning.
The process and conceptualization of design commences with the requirement to give up need to control and to always be in command of the results and expectations of the requirement of a project. Sötö Zen monk and teacher Shunryu Suzuki states, that as opposed to the customary reaction for a student to be compelled to ascertain control and commandeer the variables, “it is about relying on our conscious attention and feedback, an observance of what is naturally unfolding moment by moment.”7 In his presentation at a conference on the Beginning Design Student in February 2005, Univeristy of Utah Professor Julio Bermudez expounded on this notion and observed that, “The message is simple and clear, it is possible to give full response to a situation without fully understanding it.”8
One may compare the mind of the beginning design student with the development of a child. The first years of a child’s life are crucial to brain development. The brain absorbs and parses a multiplicity of stimuli and information at once, constructing new connections and associations, and making sense out of all the new and unfamiliar sights and sounds that bombard their senses. Suzuki contends that, "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few."9 Similarly to a child who is beginning to process their environment, the mind of the beginning design student is unencumbered, it is free, tolerant, unregulated, and open to new experiences.
In beginning design it is important to align concept, method, and the active inquiry of learning to define problems and by posing questions. To foster a critical discourse that allows the design discussion to be opened up to a greater understanding of process-oriented thinking, analogous methods, and collective problem-solving initiatives. Rather than aiming for the mastering of answers, the Socratic Method supports the formulation of new questions that are critical to an extension of the architectural discourse of innovation and experimentation. The Socratic Method as described by political science professor Rob Reich,
...is better used to demonstrate complexity, difficulty, and uncertainty than to elicit facts about the world. The aim of the questioning is to probe the underlying beliefs upon which each participant’s statements, arguments and assumptions are built. The learning environment is characterized by ‘productive discomfort’ not intimidation. The instructor does not have all the answers and is not merely ‘testing’ the students. The questioning proceeds open-ended with no pre-determined goal.10
Every design project undertaken should begin with a question in which the student must learn not only how to answer the query but to also define and formulate speculations as to the content of the question. This is especially evident in beginning design studio where the student is usually searching for the “right and acceptable response”. The Socratic Method focuses on fostering critical thinking, it is about dialogue between instructor and student, initiated by the continual dialectical questioning by the instructor. It involves a concerted effort to explore the underlying beliefs that shape the students’ specific views and opinions, to ascertain potential biases, identify preconceptions, and mitigate pre-existing schemas. Pallasma observes that,
[Design] needs to be emancipated from a preconceived sense of purpose, goal and path. When one is young and narrow-minded, one wants the [design] to concretize a preconceived idea, to give the idea an instant and precise shape. Through a growing capacity to tolerate uncertainty, vagueness, lack of definition and precision, momentary illogic and open-endedness, one gradually learns the skill of cooperating with one’s work, and allowing the work to make its suggestions and take its own unexpected turns and moves.11
This educational paradigm is not founded on the necessity of pursuing and attaining a static resolution incapable of addressing fertile, yet dormant contingencies; rather, it is about fostering a critical discourse of innovation. The focus is not on the participants’ statements but on the value system that underpins their beliefs, actions, and decisions. For this reason, any successful challenge to this system comes with high stakes — one might have to examine and change one’s life, but, Socrates is famous for saying, “the unexamined life is not worth living.”
The goal of the education in a beginning design studio is to develop a method of questioning as a mode of process within each student. Critical to the development of a foundation level student is the capability to transpose this paradigm of questioning to facilitate their abilities to engage and synthesize increasing complexities and myriad influences. When students are provided with an environment that facilitates the formulation of rigorous responses refined by persistent questioning and a mindful process, they become more capable of producing work that moves beyond trend and pursues relevance.
The beginners’ mind requires vocabulary, historical knowledge, and a diligence for exploration in order to complete a design that is formally refined and conceptually robust. The purpose of the design studio is to foster a setting for the student that allows for the deliberate and accidental, the opportunistic and the situational, the exploratory and contrived, exposition and the implied. The beginnings of the design project should implicate them in the responsibility of unrelenting questioning and the relevance of process that are endemic in the endeavor of architecture and design. It is neither the strongest nor the most intelligent of the species that survives, it is the one that is the most adaptable to change, a form of Academic Darwinism It is not necessarily the smartest or most skilled that will excel, it is the one who is the most dexterous to adaptability. This applies to both students and educators. It is not necessarily the most experienced or knowledgeable who will provide stronger scholarship to their students; it is increasingly becoming more dependent on the ability to access information, to persistently question, and committing to learning concurrently with them.
The contemporary design studio is more akin to a design laboratory as opposed to a Beaux Arts atelier of production or a technical workshop. Simultaneous with the pursuit of questioning is the act of testing. Ideas cannot be dormant, they must be perpetually materializing and persistently actionable. The process is an Ouroboros where materiality and actualization is constantly in a state of emergence.
Designers need not plan in advance, however, in order to engage complex environments effectively. Parallel and complementary approaches can be used that allow problems and solutions to emerge without such rational analysis. This is particularly relevant in the pursuit of innovation, where the end goal is not explicitly defined at the outset of the process. For instance, many elegant designs are the result of tacit lessons that designers have learned by continually testing their intuitions and aptitudes as they experiment with alternate solutions. This approach to design is significant in that it echoes the concept of “local optimization” that scientists use to explain the development of form in the natural environment. In both cases, the design process may appear to be random and open-ended, but it is still path-dependent in that each step of the process inherently limits the range of possible subsequent steps.12
By reconstituting the expectation of a results-centric production by instigating a process-centric praxis, projects are conceived as a snap shot of a certain moment. Within the full range and possibility trajectories of the realization of a project at the time of the deadline, what is presented is a moment frozen within that continuum. Pallasmaa asserts that, “Design is always a search for something that is unknown in advance, or an exploration into alien territory, and the design process itself, the actions of the searching hands, needs to express the essence of his [sic] mental journey.”13 An accomplished project is embedded with latencies and prospects. It is a palimpsest that inscribes the inflections of the trajectories, archives the deviations and devinitions, and speculates the ontological confluence of intent and form.