Cross-cultural Design Studio Teaching: Avoiding the Anthropological Lens

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This paper is about a studio design project for third year interior architecture students, which challenges notions of cultural identity through the milieu of politics. The studio project emerged from a recognition that traditions of interdisciplinarity, especially between the discipline of anthropology and architectural theory, have contributed to generally unreflective assumptions about the cultural identity of building designers and students. These assumptions make cross cultural design teaching problematic. Investigation led to the conclusion that through risky and new approaches to studio projects anesthetised interdisciplinary assumptions can be overcome. The paper focused mostly on the theoretical context for the studio rather than the processes or outcomes within the studio. In that sense, the paper is not so much educational as theoretical and so it sets the scene for the type of studio project described. The studio design project is based on the premise that the Communist Party of Australia, in order to remain financially viable, must adopt the same policy towards capitalism as other communist parties. In short, this means that the Communist Party of Australia will have to become involved in new open-ness, private property and, in short, a commercial venture. The premise is then that the Communist Party of Australia agrees that the only ethical possibility is a nightclub for the workers. This, of course is a western style club in which people go to enjoy each others’ company while listening to contemporary musical performances. To where would such a project lead? At first glance, it seems worrying that politics is being treated here as light-weight, careless and stylistic. But then the issues for design begin to emerge, as follow. The question of the role of political ideologies in everyday life emerges for each student as they move from one country to another. Countries vary considerably in their political social and economic balances. For example, the Australian Communist Party is little more than a private club for the alienated intellectual middle class. On the other hand, in countries such as China, Communism is a major and dominant feature of everyday life. The difference between countries is not only between nominal political systems, but is also between the significance of aesthetic expression in each country. The Communist Party of Australia’s aesthetics are alien to most Australians whereas in other countries, such as China, this is not so. Students in design, who have come from a range of cultural and political settings, have a vastly different view of what politics, especially the question of political ideology, is about. The project offers a way for those differences to become apparent without the trauma of direct ideological confrontation. This takes place within a special kind of harmonious discourse that might otherwise have been impossible. The design becomes a venue for discussion in a way that cannot be done in speech of writing. The source of ideas for each student’s design is their own experience. In this project, the question of each student’s background becomes significant. It is both enlivening for international students from communist countries to see that their experience is valuable for their design work in a western university, but it is also an interesting experience for local students to see that there are other forms of experience than their own, that are important sources of ideas for design. The success of this studio relies upon the establishment of a studio culture assembled from all students’ cultural backgrounds. As such the project is not only cross cultural but deals with the lived “reality” of those cultural differences, rather than seeing cultural difference through the “anthropological lens”, in which difference is treated as an “object of study before an omnipotent and omnipresent “subject”. Politics is a sensitive area precisely because it is important and lively. Providing a safe and enlivened way for this sensitive area to be discussed creates a truly cross cultural experience for design students. This is why politics or more precisely the culture of politics has been chosen as the milieu for this studio project. The paper is structured by briefly tracing the effect of anthropological lens in architecture and what to look for, followed by a short explanation of an example of the project from student work. The general method for the paper is “archeological” in the sense that philosopher Michel Foucault uses in The Order of Things.1 Argument is by association between ideas from which links and lineages are formed and new ideas exposed. At times this can seem irrational, especially where design is discussed. This is because, for the purposes of this paper and for design teaching, design is not a rational activity.
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Loveday, Thomas
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UNSW Faculty
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