First Things First

Presented by: John Linn, Kathryn Brandt, and Elizabeth Dull

To inspire beginning students to see beyond the obvious, to create solutions having coherence and an understanding of the spatial envelope, yet that have a fundamental unity and logic, is frequently one of the greatest challenges of any foundations design program. Add to this, the challenge and opportunity of reshaping an entire design curriculum with a wholeness and logic that animates the summation of the individual parts. In addressing these issues faculty chose to reexamine the premises on which the department's course structure had been developed and to seek a platform for development that united both theory and pedagogy. This was deemed especially critical for the creation of foundational courses in the freshman and sophomores years. Through a series of faculty facilitated meeting, a variety of possibilities for organizing the new curriculum were considered. Continuing with facilitated discussion, faculty were introduced to and investigated the work of Friedrich Froebel, an educational source solidly grounded in both theory and pedagogy; a source that has provided inspiration for generations of students, and ultimately fueled major developments in twentieth century architecture, painting and design, but which has been largely ignored for the past fifty years. Froebel's system of education has provided, and continues to provide, for anyone working with the "Gifts", a methodology for understanding the universe and its components as having a fundamental unity. According to Brosterman, the "…theoretical and practical underpinnings" of Froebel's ideas were based on the concepts of harmony, unity, and reconciliation of opposites (p. 16), concepts that are fundamental to successful design. Accepting this premise faculty moved forward with the planning of the new curriculum. As part of the new premise, faculty also agreed to follow one of Froebel’s fundamental pedagogies and introduce 3-dimensional design problems first in the freshman year and to introduce 2-dimensional design problems as abstractions of the 3-dimensional forms, in the sophomore year.

A qualitative study utilizing case study methodology targeting two new studio courses, one freshman and one sophomore, was used to examine the initial results of the new curriculum. In the freshman studio Froebel Gifts 5 and 6 were specifically chosen for the relationships of the shapes and their containers. Problems using Gifts 5 and 6 were developed to explore the concepts of unity, harmony and wholeness. An extension of the explorations with Gifts 5 and 6 led to the patterning of named spatial relationships. Lecture materials, vocabulary, and exercises in a corollary non-studio course were designed to reinforce work in the studio course. Sophomore year studies began with “bridge exercises” where students extracted 2-dimensional "abstracted" orthogonal projections from 3-dimensional models students had created in their freshman year. In the following fall semester, sophomores embraced Froebel Gift 7, flat tiles or parquets, where further exploration with the concepts of unity, harmony and wholeness included the abstraction of 2-dimensional geometry and the creation of a series of pattern forms. Progressing through the sophomore course, students moved from 3-D to 2-D and back to 3-D for their final project, again reinforcing the concepts of unity, harmony, and wholeness. The summary project of the sophomore semester reintroduced Froebel Gifts 5 and 6 as tools as students developed their final design solutions. Students worked in teams, designing with blocks, translating these basic shapes to perspective sketches on marker boards, and into SketchUp for their final presentations.

Comparisons of student work from these new courses with student work at these levels from the previous curriculum provide findings that validate Froebel's concepts as an important vehicle for teaching introductory design students and justify the faculty's decision to introduce concepts of space and form.


  • Bosterman, N. (1997). Inventing kindergarten. NY: Harry N. Abrams
  • Ching, F. (2007). Architecture: Form, Space and Order. 3rd Ed. NJ: Wiley

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