ed allen

No one has had a bigger influence on what I’ve taught and how I’ve taught it than Ed Allen, whose death earlier this month was announced by the Building Technology Educators’ Society last Friday.

As an undergraduate, I had a copy of the first edition of Fundamentals of Building Construction and remember appreciating its patient, explanatory tone. Allen came from a practice background but after making the switch to teaching he took technology pedagogy seriously and his book (six editions later) is now one of a handful of his publications that show up in tech classes and, often, dog-eared and well-loved, on studio desks.

Ed was a key figure in the BTES’ founding in 2006. He was a mentor to dozens of us who, like him, wanted to take what we’d learned as practicing architects and apply it in studios and classrooms. Most of us had technology courses that were separated entirely from design classes–banished to the basement, in grad school–and followed his lead in trying to make tech more design-based and to bring structure, environment, and materials into studio as the vocabulary and grammar that underlay most thoughtful design work. Ed volunteered his time to give our inaugural keynote–I don’t think we could afford to cover his travel, much less pay him an honorarium–and he set the tone for the whole organization as a supportive community that has always shared ideas willingly, kept the bar high for teaching and research, and made time for drinks and dinner after conference sessions.

When we began putting our tech coursework notes together as a textbook in 2004, Building Construction Illustrated was our model. I don’t think we’ve cut into Ed’s sales any great amount, but it’s heartening to see Design-Tech on the shelves as an adjunct to his books–in the same spirit but with a broader focus, and our notes consistently point to his publications for students who want to go deeper. In 2009, when we began overhauling our undergraduate technologies curriculum, Ed flew out to spend three days workshopping with us (we did cover his travel for that), and on his way out he gave us copies of his self-published booklet of aphorisms on teaching and design. I still read from it like a book of zen koans–it’s consistently brilliant and correct about so much. In his honor, two of my favorites:

Design: If you get the form right, the math will follow. Teaching structures as a design discipline rather than an engineering discipline was fundamental to Ed’s pedagogy. Understanding principles, especially why structural shapes are the way they are, is key to good design, and if you understand those and are fluent in them, the calculations are rarely surprising. During my Nervi research I ran across any number of instances where Nervi, essentially, said the same thing. Mathematics are structures’ tactics. Design is the strategy.

Teaching: Your job as a teacher isn’t to cover the material. It’s to uncover a small corner of it and let students’ curiosity lead them to find the rest. Exhaustive lectures covering every possible permutation of structural design, or deriving every single formula, waste time and turn students off. Using that time to go deep on one instance, showing how beautiful the principles behind it are and giving students routes to finding out more turn the tables–instead of us teaching structures, we’re setting up the conditions for students to learn structures, which is more effective–and far more meaningful.

I last saw Ed at the IASS conference in Boston in 2018. As he did with every teacher or architect he met, he remembered me right away and we had a long, warm talk about how our program was doing, the reprint of Nervi’s Aesthetics and Technology in Building that I’d just helped bring out, and a half dozen interesting papers that he’d seen on digital teaching and design. He was in his element, surrounded by people he’d mentored and ideas that challenged him. More than his books and his teaching, that friendly, engaging, and utterly genuine love of the community that he was such a big part of is his great legacy.