Experiential Learning in Architecture and Environmental Design education

Learning architecture by experimentation


This symposium focuses on Environmental Design education in general, and Architecture education in particular. It tackles the issue of experimentation in architecture and experiential learning as an educational method for architects.

The hypothesis of the ExpLearn symposium is that, more than ever, experiential learning and hands-on education have a key role to play in the education of planners, architects, engineers and builders of the future. Experiential learning seems to have a significant potential in basic architectural design education to raise spatial awareness among untrained individuals. At a higher level, spatial and building experiments appear as effective tools to prepare future professionals to meet today’s challenges, in complement with theoretical teaching.


The cognitive sciences input

David C. Kolb once defined experiential learning as an education based on dialectical coupling of practical experience and critical analysis leading to abstract conceptualization: “Experiential learning is the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience. Knowledge results from the combination of grasping and transforming experience” [1]. Other educators such as Beard and Wilson have completed this primary definition with the notion of bridging reality and knowledge through action: “Experiential learning is the sense-making process of active engagement between the inner world of the person and the outer world the environment.”[2] But as John Dewey puts it as early as 1933: “we do not learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience”[3].

The ExpLearn Symposium will be an opportunity to clarify the differences between experience, experiments and experimentation as well as the differences between learning by doing, learning through experimentation and experiential learning when applied to architecture education. Online contribution by keynote speaker David C. Kolb himself will prompt the symposium participants to clarify the theoretical issues that the confrontation of experiential learning and architectural design training raises. Exchanges with other experts in cognitive sciences and psychology related to spatial knowledge will help faculty members in the audience to define exactly what are the specificities of experiential learning applied to the education of architects.


Past and contemporary hands-on education experiments in architecture

Prominent speakers will report on attempts made in different schools of architecture and environmental sciences departments to develop learning-by-doing educational programs. They will expose the exercises and the counterintuitive experiments that they have invented to implement out-of the-box thinking in freshmen or non-professionals minds. They will explain how surprise, amusement and joy can help people to set aside the traditional rationalist linear thinking or the ancient initiatory “Master-to-Pupil transfer method” and create a new state of mind better adapted to multidirectional design thinking. More than twenty years ago people like Samuel Mockbee in Alabama[4], Brian Mackay-Lyons in Nova Scotia[5], Manfred Hegger in Darmstadt[6], Patrice Doat and Hugo Houben[7] in Rhône-Alpes have started design-build programs in universities and schools of architecture. Today the trend has picked up and many universities are proposing design-build programs. Some of them are developing places equipped for architectural and building experiments. Hands-on education is slowly but surely making its way up into all major universities curriculum.


Symposium objectives

In the light of the theoretical inputs and practical examples given during the symposium, participants will be invited to discuss how experiential learning can be more deeply implemented in architectural education in the future, and how experimentation could be further developed in the field of architecture and environmental design in order to create a strong R&D activity related to sustainable development of human settlements, and to define the remaining questions to be addressed by the participants of the 2017 next edition, organized on the basis of a call for proposal.


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[1] David C. Kolb, 1984, Experiential learning: experience as the source of learning and development, Englewood Cliffs, USA: Prentice Hall. xiii+256 p.

[2] Colin Beard, John P. Wilson. 2013: « Experiential Learning. “A handbook for education training and coaching”. Kogan Page. London. Philadelphia. New Delhi.

[3] John Dewey. 1933. “How We Think. “A restatement of the relation of reflective thinking to the educative process”. Revised edition. DC. Heath. Boston

[4] Samuel Mockbee founded the Rural Studio in 1993 as an undergraduate program of the University of Alabama at Auburn to help the black community of Hale County to design and build affordable housing by all means including the recycling of existing materials.

[5] Brian Mackay-Lyons founded the Ghost Architectural Laboratory in 1994 as an educational summer design-build program to promote the transfer of architectural knowledge through direct experience - project-based learning taught in the master builder tradition - with emphasis on issues of landscape, material culture, and community.

[6] Manfred Hegger developed the Passiv-Haus concept at Darmstadt University of Technology from 2001 and led two German teams to the victory in Solar Decathlon 2007 and 2009 editions.

[7] Patrice Doat and Hugo Houben founded the CRAterre in 1975 that participated in the “Mayotte Experience” between 1982 and 2005 and actively participated in the creation of Les Grands Ateliers de l’Isle d’Abeau (GAIA) in 2001 to provide a technical platform for experimentations for French schools of architecture, engineering and art.




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