How to Learn Architecture Software Through Competitions

This week’s blog post is a guest entry by Dongwoo Lee as he shares his journey working on a competition entry and learning new skills along the way

A House of Mies’s Knowledge

A House of Mies’s Knowledge is a submission for a competition titled ‘Mies Memorial library’ by Arkitekuturo. The main challenge of the competition was to design a library that not only preserves the works of one of the founding fathers of modern architecture, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, but to celebrate his life, contributions, and works.

Why I joined the competition

After finishing the first semester of my Bachelor of Architecture at Queensland University of Technology, I wanted to try and develop what I had learned in the semester by joining a competition. As I had already designed a library on a site in Brisbane, Australia, for my final design studio, I was so excited when I found out about the Mies memorial library competition. While the final submission for the Uni project had to be created with a series of hand drawings, I believed that it would be better to learn and create computational 3D modelling and rendering images for the competition. The very first thing that I had to undertake for this challenge was to learn a 3D software program such as Rhino and Sketchup, as well as rendering software.

A section drawing of a Uni project to design a library in my first semester
A physical model in 1:200 of a Uni project to design a library in my first semester

In the semester, I had heard a famous quote a million times by most of my professors and tutors: ‘quantities lead to qualities’. My primary focus of the competition was to try what I had learned in the semester and develop it in more detail. I decided to put most of my effort into the design thinking process to allow the quantities to lead to qualities. In short, I had to kiss a lot of frogs to find a prince during the process.

Design thinking process

The brief introduced three specific sites which were the three green areas within the Mies campus at Illinois institute of technology (IIT), Chicago. For us to imagine a memorial library design, I had to first consider the histories and the context of the Mies campus at IIT, as well as the histories of Mies van der Rohe. Briefly, the design thinking process went like this:

  1. While learning Rhinoceros 3D through an online course and Youtube videos, I researched and read a book about Mies and the context of IIT and Chicago. Luckily, the host of the competition, Arkitekturo, provided us with.
  1. Then I started to draw bubble diagrams to test and organise the given programs and circulation, considering its surrounding context.

3. Based on bubble diagrams, I analysed and developed a series of ideas and concepts, while continually studying and making notes about Mies and his works.

As soon as I settled on several concepts to develop further, I started to sketch conceptual drawing models. Then I began to model them in Rhino. As it was the first time using the modelling software, it took a lot of time at first, but the process accelerated after a few weeks. I repeated and reiterated the process several times until I got the satisfying final result.

A concept of “Universal Space”

To go one step further during the design process, I had to spend time researching materials and structures as Mies put more emphasis on building structures rather than forms or functions. Specifically, he created a significant concept of Universal space to prevent architectural obsolescence. Briefly, in Universal Space, all the walls would not be attached to the ceiling, and they serve only as partitions. The structures which are detached from the walls are the critical components of buildings, and this allows the building to have what we call open plans or open spaces, which are simply turned into venues for other functions.

The final project details

The use of steel columns or structures during the time was quite revolutionary, and a sustainable solution since steel is recyclable, light and durable. However, these days, thanks to advanced technologies in sustainability and development of sustainable materials, like Glued laminated timber (GLULAM), and Crossed laminated timber (CLT) we can reimagine steel structures using modern materials. On top of that, those materials are three times more durable than steel and have lower carbon emissions. I decided to utilise the GLULAM span structures and CLT walls and furniture as they are not only sustainable solutions and durable but also they have a warm colour palette.

The final design draws inspiration from most of Mies’s works where he used steel structures, and they were categorised into boxy glass modern buildings. As I had to design for the obvious and significant figure, Mies van der Rohe, it was more challenging to choose a concept. For example, if I designed something creative but alien to him, I would feel as though I was dishonouring his works and contributions as one of the founders of modern architecture. So I was determined to reinterpret his architectural language with the 21st-century sustainable architectural words, replacing the steel structures with more sustainable and durable materials like GLULAM and CLT.

Since the original site was where the students sit down and sketch important buildings within the Mies campus, enjoying their lunch, playing sports or hanging out with their friends, I introduced outdoor features (L – outdoor bench and deck attached to the building) into my design as they can use the site as they have done or in the better way with the new features.

Image credit: @iitarchitecture @iitmentorgrp5

When you walk into the building, you can see a marble wall, similar to the marble wall in the Barcelona Pavilion designed by Mies. This wall is set free of structural obligation, and it is purely a space-defining element freely located within the GLULAM structures, dividing the main study and reading area, and space for the open collections of Mies’s works on the ground floor. The main study and reading area which is located in the north part of the plan incorporates an auditorium and toilets. The CLT walls of the auditorium serve as partitions so that they can always change into a space for other functions.

I organised administration, research station, and space for Mies’s complete collections on the L-shape mezzanine floor. The brief for the competition described that while students or visitors can freely access the open collections, they are required to get permission before accessing the complete collections, or they can look around these collections under supervision. It seemed reasonable and efficient to organise the programs, whether it is in relation to complete collections or open collections, then arrange the two distinct groups into different floor levels.

What did the competition teach me?

Through this competition, I have learned three vital things. First of all, software skills can be developed and cultivated by joining a design competition. With only a minor or a handful of knowledge on using software, I could create satisfying rendering images and design process diagrams. So it seems better to just do it! Secondly, it was proved that ‘quantities lead to qualities’, especially a new or first-year architecture students like me. Rather than focusing on the final qualitative result, I concentrated on the design process and learning from the founding father’s works and knowledge as well as developing software skills. I believe that it is more important to have takeaways and learn something by joining a competition than to produce something to put into my portfolio.

Finally, yet most importantly, I am getting confident with my design thinking. As there is no correct answer to design something (of course! there is better design), I struggled a lot with creativity and the design thinking process at the beginning of the first semester. I was grown up in a country where the systematic educational system encourages young students to have the correct or the same answers and reasons for anything, hindering students’ creative thinking. However, by joining the competition and engaging hard in design projects in the first semester, I could break the framework in my mind that I had to have the right answer and re-create a new framework that there is no answer in terms of design. In short, I could kill numerous birds by joining this competition.

About Me!

AMy name is Dongwoo LEE, and I am a first-year architecture student at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia.

I have always liked the quote “architects know everything about something, and engineers know something about everything”. Studying architecture has not only taught me how to draw, design and use software, but also the importance of studying people, history, materials, sustainability, climate change and so on. I believe these elements are what make studying architecture fascinating, even though it often requires hard work and staying up late! As I have just stepped into the architecture discipline, I still have a long way to go to learn “everything about something”. But I am ready to groove on the long journey, willing to learn from numerous failures and hopefully successes.

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