DIY Like an Architect

DIY Like an Architect: Learning How to Masterplan

Architecture class at Art Center’s Saturday High: last week. My creative teens have practically mastered how to think like an architect, as we are on the final step of DIY Like an Architect: 11-step method.

My creative teens leap into the concepts of masterplanning. Enticing each one of the students to think of their project from a new point of view, as an integral component of a larger system/a neighborhood/a community is what I aim for.

Albert Einstein said: “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” So what problems are we anticipating to solve and what should be different in our thinking? We start by developing a mind map of cooperative relationships from a perspective of FOSTERING GROWTH:

  • Suspending judgment: awareness-instinct-inspiration-innovation-commitment to authenticity
  • Tolerating ambiguity: patience-goals-ideals-keeping an open mind
  • Approaching every project as an adventure: exploration-discovery-evolution-allowing for experimentation-“persuasiveness of the mind”-creativity
  • Thriving within boundaries: immersion-community-support system-cooperation-cultivating a sense of belonging
DIY Architect
Collaging to define a parti

Several writings attributed to Hippodamus (or Hippodamos) of Miletus (c. 498- c. 408 BC), an ancient Greek architect, physician, mathematician, meteorologist, and philosopher, express the idea that a town plan might formally embody and clarify a rational social order and deal with issues of the state. Hippodamus, the inventor of formal city planning, conceives of fostering growth by designing a rigid framework of intersecting streets that form quadrilateral city blocks in advance.

Most visionary and impressive in his plan is the agora, a wide central area, which is to be kept unsettled. He predicts that in time it will evolve into the center of both the city and the society.  Representing a new way of democratic life, the agora is expected to hold its ground while relating to important civic structures within dense urban fabric.

Hippodamus does not dictate the final outcome. He proposes a workable approach to manipulating vast open space with a set of guidelines. He eases the task of starting anew every time by facilitating a certain place of departure and defining boundaries.

As we talk about fostering growth through commitment to authenticity, the plan of Versailles comes to mind. This most massive, yet controlled park of the 17th century is designed and constructed by André Le Nôtre, a French landscape architect and the principal gardener of King Louis XIV of France. At Versailles, Le Notre utilizes a standard plan of a central axis with the palace as the focal point to transform the harsh landscape of the original hunting lodge. The process of shaping unhealthy, swampy site, which has no view and almost no water takes Le Nôtre 33 years, hundreds of workers and thousands of hours to complete.

I encourage my creative teens to imagine this enormous undertaking, to wonder what it must be like to endure and tolerate ambiguity of an ever-lasting design pursuit. I say: “That discussion we had about being prepared for success to arrive in stages is beginning to make more sense, isn’t it?”

I want them to be as intrigued as I am by the concept of approaching every day as an adventure. At Versailles, Le Nôtre thinks big and small while overcoming inherent limitations: the forest is manipulated and crafted into a magnificent garden where every aspect is controlled and carefully manicured, where the trees are cut to focus on the palace, where the sculpted terraces emphasize the intricate design of the palace façade, and where the fountains tie all elements together to create a perfect composition.

Conversely, inspired by Versailles, we can endeavor to allow for experimentation while anticipating and transcending challenges — whatever they are. I am confident that my creative teens will have no trouble relating this information to their own projects.

It’s the same drill. Mind map. Collage. Parti. I can almost feel their excitement as they immerse with every bit of knowledge accumulated, eager to delve into something brand new with its own discoveries and surprises that in turn unravel new questions.

Perhaps making them feel energized each step of the way is the type of impact I strive for? Just like Le Nôtre, they can allow for experimentation while making headway. Just like Hippodamus, my creative teens can devise a framework that turns familiar and tired into something authentic. They can foster growth by sifting through issues as they arise, applying the kind of thinking Einstein is calling for.


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  1. Peter K says:

    I don’t know how to draw, but would like to become an architect. Is it possible? Thank you

    1. Peter, anything is possible if you put your mind to it. Brick by brick, remember?

  2. Dyson says:

    This book is a superb examination of how architecture works and what it feels like. What is gained by centering a piece of architecture around a single node?

    1. One can write a book answering this question. It would probably be about designing a community or promoting of a natural evolution of a community. What do you think?

  3. oakleys says:

    Hi, just wanted to tell you, I enjoyed this post. It was inspiring.Keep on posting!

  4. Marilyn says:

    I came across this blog through Huffington Post. So happy to have found the info on diy like an architect classes!

  5. ray says:

    Saved as a favorite, I really like your blog!

  6. Larisa says:

    Alla, I hope DIY LIKE AN ARCHITECT is not the last how-to book. I really like how you make something complicated so approachable!

    1. Thank you, Larisa! As a matter of fact, I am finishing up the next one, DIY LIKE A HUMMINGBIRD. It deals with design of children’s rooms.

  7. Frank says:

    My brother wants to become an architect. Since I am studying architecture, he is always asking me questions about it. Even though I understand what’s involved, it is really hard to explain in plain language. Your book DIY LIKE AN ARCHITECT saved me!!! Thank you so much for creating this tool that truly helps me explain things to my brother. Too bad we do not live in LA, otherwise, he would’ve loved your Saturday High architecture class.

    1. Thank you, Frank! As always, very happy to be of service. I am glad that you are so patient with your younger brother. Maybe you will have an architectural practice together one day.

  8. Adriana says:

    I gulped this series of blog posts in one seating. Even though I am not that much into architecture, it was fascinating. I really love how you approach teaching!

    1. Goodness! You are so kind, Adriana!

  9. Adriana says:

    How long have you been using this method?

    1. This is my 5th year. But it does not get repetitive. Every group of students is a new adventure.