Teaching first year design poses many challenges. Students lack basic knowledge, have limited skills and are not familiar with design methods. As a result, novice designers tend to be research driven, believing that the more they know, the easier it will be to find the “right” solution. They have yet yo discover that there is no “right” solution. This challenge is made even more complex when trying to introduce concepts related to urban design. Normally projects intended to introduce concepts of urban design are simply smaller versions of more advanced projects. However, by limiting the scale and reducing the variables, students often miss out on learning valuable lessons, occasionally dismissing urban design as unimportant. To avoid this trap, I decided to start with basic principles of infrastructure, shared space, formal relationships, composition, and quality of the environment, and invented a new kind of project: a tree.
The project begins with each student being given a piece of wood and being instructed to design a branch with some limited specifications: maximum length, minimum width, and a 3cm hole drilled in the wide end. They do not know what the purpose of the hole is in the beginning. When all the branches are finished, students then assemble them on a pole to create a tree (the basic infrastructure). Once the tree is assembled, students are then assigned a new branch on which they are to design a small building. After the buildings are designed and placed on the tree, students then must revise their designs to maximize connections with neighboring buildings. The project provides an excellent introduction to the complexity and importance of urban design. By working in three dimensions, adapting themselves to other people’s work, and seeking to create a unified whole, they learn fundamentals of urban design without loosing a sense of its complexity and relevance.