COMPASS MAGAZINE #14
COMPASS MAGAZINE #14

Innovative architect uses technology to craft a new way of teaching

For the past decade, award-winning architect Kerenza Harris has developed automation systems that integrate processes from the earliest concept stage through fabrication and construction. Now, she is passing that knowledge to future architects as a faculty member at Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc). 

COMPASS: How has your professional experience influenced what you teach in your classroom? What are the major forces affecting future architects?  

KERENZA HARRIS: My professional experience, in relation to my academic experience, has always been quite linked — they inform each other.  

I first started working with advanced and parametric design software as a project designer at Frank Gehry’s office, and for the last decade I’ve been at Morphosis, where I serve as director of Design Technology. Both of these firms are known for pushing the boundaries of technology and innovation, in a constant re-evaluation of architecture and the practice itself. For me, that lends itself perfectly to academia, because these same impulses and forces have always driven the next generation of architects, who are looking to redefine architecture, to find new technologies and new ways of thinking about and practicing architecture.

Recently, there has been a huge focus on immersive technology. For example, augmented reality and virtual reality, which enable immediate interaction with a design to reveal new aspects that aren’t obvious in conventional design software.

The second transformative force is the evolution of more sophisticated software platforms that allow designers to integrate performance criteria earlier into the design process, rather than as a last minute add-on. Considering energy performance early on, for instance, means solar panels could be carefully incorporated into the design of a building rather than slapped on after the building is constructed. And this design intelligence can extend beyond construction too. In my seminars, the students learn that the constructed building is no longer the end of a line; the rich model and data can continue to inform smart building life-cycle and operations. 

How has your teaching evolved since your first class? 

KH: When I first started teaching, it was very much about sharing my knowledge with the students. But I became more flexible and understanding that a creative – and sometimes innocent – approach can create things that I could have never imagined. So I changed the way I taught. I’m providing the students with the perfect incubator for all these ideas to flow through. We can evolve together; a symbiotic approach to teaching is more effective. 

"A LOT OF STUDENTS WERE BASING THEIR MODELING PRACTICES ON SOFTWARE THAT DID NOT HAVE PARAMETRIC TECHNOLOGY, SO EVERY TIME THEY WANTED TO DRAW SOMETHING NEW THEY’D DELETE AND START AGAIN FROM ZERO. IT’S A BIG ‘AHA’ MOMENT FOR THEM TO REALIZE THAT THE PLATFORM MODEL HAS A LIFECYCLE.” 

KERENZA HARRIS FACULTY MEMBER, SCI-ARC

What do you mean by the “perfect incubator”? 

KH: SCI-Arc is always seeking to redefine architecture, looking toward other industries or for new technologies to find ways of rethinking problems. We give the students a starting baseline of knowledge, using professional software platforms to walk the students through a standard set of parametric tools and real-industry applications.  

Once these fundamentals are ingested, then I push a little bit forward and look at, ‘Okay, you guys are evolving in a very dynamic environment. You have some flexibility in the way you create things. You now know that your geometry and the forms that you’re creating have intelligence; they relate to each other and they understand certain relationships between these elements. So let’s see how we can use the platform to push these parametric relationships and transform them into architectural components.’ I keep it open to creativity and for them to find their way through it. 

Globally, I’m trying to get them to a point where they come out of school with an understanding of how to use these powerful technologies to make architecture. But I think the more interesting thing is what more they do with it and how they begin to be more creative within that environment.

How have you created a hands-on experience for your students? 

KH: The parametric design platform has so many different applications and ways to use it. I thought it would be helpful for students to address the whole workflow of a project on the platform – the conceptualization, design, optimization and visualization. 

I found that the students responded well to one-on-one discussions with me or other professionals, so I teamed up to create a one-day workshop with an organization called Mars City Design, which is looking at designing architecture on Mars in the near future. Since we can’t be on Mars right now, the students used immersive technology to simulate the Mars environment, design the architecture and communicate the vision to a panel of designers and scientists, and then get their constructive feedback. 

“THE MAJOR DIFFERENCE BETWEEN ANY SOFTWARE THAT I’VE EVER TAUGHT AND THE CLOUD-BASED PLATFORM IS [...] THE FEELING THAT THE SOFTWARE IS ALIVE RATHER THAN JUST THERE.” 

KERENZA HARRIS FACULTY MEMBER, SCI-ARC

Since it’s practically a full delivery package that the students are putting together in my seminar, having that one-day workshop where they were able to really apply each of these applications and then have feedback directly from professionals in every area was really helpful. Teaching through the parametric design platform is actually in itself an experience that allows us to break the mold of the traditional format of learning in architecture.

by Rachel Callery Back to top
by Rachel Callery

For more information on how SCI-Arc creates a hands-on experience, please visit https://go.3ds.com/Wwe