Design Exercise in "Minimal Existence"

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Prahl, Sigrun
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At the beginning of design studies students should think about the minimum we need to live or exist. With this in mind I designed a one-week-assignment called "Minimal Existence." This assignment crossed borders between architecture and landscape design, product design and technology, it walked the line between the vernacular and high tech. With this in mind students designed a minimal object that went beyond architecture. It could be a tool, a machine, a device or a cover - a "thing" or "medium" to ensure minimal existence in the extreme condition they were designing it for. The four driving factors behind the design approaches and solutions were: climate, placement, movement and activity. In this context students imagined extreme scenarios. They considered different climates dominated by heat, cold, rain, flood or drought. They designed for sites and places in water, under water, in the earth, above the earth, moon, sky, universe. Assumed movements one needs to survive were going, running, swimming, flying depending on the place. And the basic activities sleeping, eating, communicating, covering and also moving had to be accommodated. Students had to prove that their design allowed and supported all of the described necessary factors (climate, place, movement, activity) or better go beyond them. The purpose of this assignment was to expose the student to methods of inquiry that seek to clarify the relationships between human behavior and the physical environment; to expose the student to a diversity of needs, values, behavioral norms, and social and spatial patterns that characterize different environments, and to expose the student to basic organizational, spatial, structural, and constructional patterns. Students thought about design and architecture in a rigorous, creative, and imaginative way, were stimulated to explore an innovative approach, and to examine alternative ways of seeing, alternative ways of designing, and alternative technologies. During this week they were also encouraged to develop their own capabilities, to set their own goals, and to clarify their own values and commitments in an atmosphere that encouraged a combination of skill, critical judgment, energy, and (self-) motivation. In this context students also considered whether minimal existence could be seen as a design problem and how they as architects could play a role in this context. Therefore this approach goes beyond an academic exercise. It can generate a certain mindset. And as we can see in the daily news there is a need for help, for shelter and for cover in many regions in the world that are struck by natural forces.
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