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Learning by Building

Live projects are growing in popularity worldwide. In this essay we visit NTNU in Trondheim, Norway, where this teaching method is an essential part of the curriculum

Two of this year’s shortlisted projects for the Mies van der Rohe Award were made by students from, or architects straight out of, NTNU’s Faculty of Architecture and Fine Art. Adding to this the worldwide publicity given to the works of TYIN tegnestue Architects who gained prominence while still students, and works built and published by some of our other students, we ask ourselves whether the teaching approach by the Faculty of Architecture & Fine Art has anything to do with it.

I think it does, but perhaps only indirectly. The Faculty only opens up ‘academically’ for the student proposals. Then the students do it more or less on their own −sometimes even outside the formal academic structures. The challenge is therefore to structure these learning processes within a university framework while heeding calls by students that the more experienced (ie, the staff) shouldn’t take over.


Tyin tegnestue Architects already have realised projects - Boat House, Aure, Norway Shortlisted for the Mies van der Rohe Award 2013

The success of this approach lies in the responsibilities the students take in preparing for, and realising their projects. Our role as ‘teachers’ is transformed into ‘mentors’, and teaching is made a function of learning, rather than the other way around.

This allows the students to learn about architecture through the experience of building, in line with what progressive educators have long been advocating. But change takes time, especially in academia. The bedrock of our re-thinking education lies in the writings of Juhani Pallasmaa, recent developments in the field of embodied cognition, and through insights gained from the experience of students.

We can vouch for its learning efficiency and how it shapes the way students understand architecture and the role of the architect. What emerges is − to paraphrase John Turner − a realisation that it’s not (only) what architecture is, it’s (also) what architecture does. Let’s not forget that neither Le Corbusier nor Frank Lloyd Wright went to architecture school. Peter Zumthor was trained as a cabinet maker. They all learnt by building.

The first semester sees student build get hands on experience of building their designs

The first semester sees students get hands on experience of building their designs

We start out in the first semester where students build full-scale wooden structures on campus. This experience has proven pivotal. Not only do students gain practical insights and skills, but more importantly the experience of handling materials and creating spaces build an ‘architectural self-confidence’ that underpins many of the later ‘real’ projects that students do. They dare do more because of this experience, so they tell us.

The following four years of ‘learning-by-building’ may comprise building workshops, often conducted abroad, ‘live studio’ and ‘localised planning’ courses throughout Norway (and currently also in Uganda), and not least, the independently initiated student projects. Buildings have been realised throughout Norway and around the world. These projects constitute a real architectural practice and give an experience beyond what the first semester courses can achieve. Now students have to manage constraints in funding, time, skills and access to materials and tools etc.

a group of students built this viewing platform in Ringve, Trondheim (2007)

A group of students built this viewing platform in Ringve, Trondheim (2007)

Equally important, they have to deal with real people, clients, neighbours, bureaucrats and decision makers, and become personally responsible for what they do. This has proved to be an exceptionally efficient mode of learning, in developing communication skills and in understanding architecture’s strategic capacity.

A case in point is a project three of our students did in the Philippines a couple of years ago. Engaged by an NGO to build a study centre for street children in Tacloban, they first engaged the children and the mothers who helped them to overcome the reluctance of the fathers, who were out at work during the day. Engaging the fathers was crucial in grounding the project locally as well as drawing benefits from their individual skills during construction. The students’ design was a simple structure rigid enough to embrace the individual contributions by the parents and children.

The building is much used and locally appreciated − and published internationally.

Students are actively engaged with local communities in design and construction stages for this study centre in Tacloban, Phillipines

Students are actively engaged with local communities in design and construction stages for this study centre in Tacloban, Phillipines

There is more to a comprehensive architectural education than comes from our emerging ‘learning-by-building’ approach. Our professional challenges are wider than this approach can cover. Is this therefore merely a cop-out from the challenges of the market? Or does it contain an essence that will help our students to confront them more strategically? This remains our challenge. Whatever the case, some important insights emerge from our learning-by-building experience:

● It raises the self-confidence and is powerfully didactic.

● Students enter a world where they have to work with others, at times even depend on others. This interdependency and the constraints that come with it, aligns with Leonardo’s dictum of ‘strength is born from constraints and dies in freedom’. He should know.

● Architecture is in part a societal strategy. It is about people and about making the world a better place.

What can be a more important architectural experience? 


Faculty: Faculty of Architecture and Fine Art
Location: Trondheim, Norway
Photographs: Pasi Aalto

Readers' comments (1)

  • Definitely good. Similar as an experience to the 'Ghost' campuses of Dalhousie University, Halifax, Canada, founded and run by Brian Mackay-Lyons, and already published in the AR:

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