Thursday, September 9, 2010

70. What is important in STARchitecture school (part 3)

When I named The Bartlett school as an example of a STARchitecture school in my first note in this series it started a tiny wave of backlash against us. Simultaneously to our publishing of the article there was an article in the Times (who would want to be an architecture student) that was somewhat critical of the school, a link in the comment section pointed here (to the first note in this series) which seems to have exacerbated it. Later on, a post on Building Blog (link here) discussed the article quoting some of the commentary including the one made by Frank Murray which also linked here as well. The commentators on this Building Blog post also included the likes of Lebbeus Woods among others. The quote below is from one commentator Rob Holmes, who angled his Bartlett defending critique particularly at this blog. I would normally let it go by but I thought it was a particularly thoughtful and very well written comment and I thought I was worthy of a rebuttal. (I love the debate)
Some of the reaction reminds me of the passage from Leon van Schaik's Spatial Intelligence which Dan Hill quoted in his commentary on the Sentient City exhibition:

“To complete with this practical glamour our forebears went to the heart of making in architecture – its technologies of carving, moulding, draping or assembling – when they staked their claim to be caretakers of a body of knowledge for society. The architectural capacity to think and design in three and four dimensions, our highly developed spatial intelligence, was overlooked, and for the profession space became, by default, something that resulted from what was construction … What if our forebears had professionalised architecture around spatial intelligence rather than the technologies of shelter? Might society find it easier to recognise what is unique about what our kind of thinking can offer?”
Interesting that the work at Bartlett is described, essentially, as an assault on the status of the profession as a body of technical knowledge (particularly here, which was linked in the comments at the Times) -- that if you have time to do these things in school and yet still go by the same title 'architect', then that implies that the technical knowledge is not essential to being an architect -- while, from another perspective, the strict delineation of architecture as that body of technical knowledge can be seen as the root of the marginalization of architecture.

That's a very interesting and provocative statement. It is a good statement to put forward in this discussion. It epitomizes the essential premise of starchitecture schools:"
we reject the profession being defined by technologies of shelter so we will redefine it around spatial intelligence"

That's the logical consequence of the question here isn't it?

What if our forebears had professionalized architecture around spatial intelligence rather than the technologies of shelter?

So what we get is a jump form one extreme to the other. The implication is that we have to choose between spatial intelligence or technologies of shelter. Its basically a black and white issue, draw a line in the sand and stand on one side. Well... I don't see the world or this issue in that way. I think in vivid rainbow colors, with multiple hues and shades. I believe there is a place where spatial intelligence and technologies of shelter overlaps, and this is where good architecture exists. I think the proposal as you have it is just as lopsided as the reverse condition. Architecture can not exist as architecture without acknowledging shelter, I would offer a different proposal instead.

What if our forebears had professionalised architecture around both spatial intelligence and the technologies of shelter?

Its not "either you are with us or you are against us on spatial intelligence". You don't have to choose one over the other.

When I agreed with Frank that the Bartlett's teaching methodology is an assault on the status of the profession, I did not come to that conclusion based solely on the argument that it was because students have or spend too much time on rendering or presentation. That was merely a marginal observation. The substance of my argument was mainly that by divorcing or severely depleting basic issues of shelter from the studio projects, you divorce it from architecture as well. When you educate students in such a way and give them architecture degrees you devalue the profession. But of-course if you want to challenge me on the marginal observation, I am happy to discuss that too. My sources who have studied at the Bartlett in Unit 20 (the example I pointed to in the first articles) tells me that they start preparing final images a little after midway through the semester. They are pinned up and discussed, the bad ones are thrown out and the better ones are worked and reworked right up until the end of the semester. This is not to say that the design does not continue to develop after the final images have started, it does. However, the image/renderings becomes the primary determinant and the project develops around it there after. Just under half of the semester is devoted to image making. Does this fact alone then implies that they believe technical knowledge is not essential to being an architect in their view? Perhaps not, but it certainly gives some insight into how much image making is valued in comparison to the other phases in the cycle of the project's development: research, site analysis, concept development, design, structure, etc.

When I criticize the Bartlett for not demonstrating enough rigor in their projects, its not because I believe there is no place for such explorations in architecture school. They do offer value, they are exploring interesting territories of architecture where schools on the other end of the spectrum will never go, they are useful contributions to our profession, it is important that we have them, and it is important that they are supported . As I said they nurture imagination which we need as architects.

Let me make this very clear, when I criticize the Bartlet it is not because I support a world where architects only know how to put tender packages together, or that I understand the profession only as a body of technical knowledge or that I believe in over simplistic conclusions that Bartlett students will go on to make exploded buildings, or any of the likes.

There should be a place in architecture school for students who want to explore whatever they want within the confides of architecture. If that means loosening some of the considerations of basic shelter, fine. However, it should be student led not teacher coerced.

If you say to me that you are a student of architecture and I ask you
"what is your current project about"

...and you say "it is an embassy"
and I say "That's very nice! what are the countries involved?"
and you say "it is an embassy for cyborgs from outer-space",
immediately I will ask "did your professors put you up to this? does he have a fetish for science fiction movies? did you feel as though if you didn't do this you would be in for a hard time in the course?"
...The majority of students with projects like these will tell me yes. Then I will pat you on the back and say there there I know, I understand, your project and your education has been hijacked. The real modern day pirates are not floating around off the coast of Somalia, they walk among you in plain sight in the hallways and studios of Starchitecture schools around the world.

If you tell me "no, no, no, its all my doing, I wanted to explore some phenomenology and I thought that this was the best way to go. And here is why....
I have several projects in my portfolio that demonstrate that I can address technologies of shelter in a meaningful way."
Then I would say "well that's awesome, I am inspired. I hope that you find what you are looking for"

....If you say "absolutely not it was all my doing. This is my passion. I really don't fancy dealing with technologies of shelter. All that stuff is for plumbers, and engineers, and the likes."
I will say to you "son you need to go home to mommy and daddy and have a long conversation with them. You need to look them in the eyes and muster up all the courage you've got and tell them you are going to be an artist and that they should just accept it. You need to tell them that art is a wonderful, wholesome, respectable and serious profession and that they need to respect your decision. You don't need an architect's title at the back of your name to make you serious. The world will have more respect for you if you do that. I certainly will."

Architecture satisfies a program, it involves providing both physical and emotional shelter for human beings, it deals with both real and abstract spaces for the human condition and it is both pragmatic and conceptual. When you forget to confront the physical and tangible part in a clear and comprehensive way, not only does it become art, it becomes artsy-fartsy, because it doesn't know what it wants to be. Conversely when you leave out the imaginative, and abstract parts that demonstrates spatial intelligence it becomes engineering. I am not against spatial intelligence, neither am I against engineering. I am an architect, I am interested in a union of the two.

There are projects whose main point is to comment on society, or explore a phenomenon, or delineate an abstract vision, in doing so they are working more like an artist or a cultural critic. They are a useful contribution to the profession but ultimately it is outside it. An architect solves a program and puts forward a comprehensible solution: not just a critique, or exploration, or commentary on the problem alone. An academic institution can and should provide a sanctuary for exploration, commentary, and critique but this alone in not enough to prepare students for a career in architecture. This strategy fosters a disconnect between academia and the profession; between spatial intelligence and the issues of shelter.

Any good architecture school or architectural practice should always open itself to learn from and be informed by other disciplines, whether its artists, developers, engineers, critics, writers, poets, philosophers etc. Architecture schools should have practitioners from other disciplines come in and inform their students. But it should be clear that if an artist, graphic designer, or film-maker comes into the architecture school to lead a course, that it is clearly understood as an arts course and credited accordingly. If they come in to an architecture studio course it should be to inform the architecture not the other way around.

As a buffer to this kind of criticism, and as a tactic to legitimize art classes as architecture studio courses, I know there are some starchitecture schools (I don't know if Bartlett does this) that separate the engineering and technical courses from the studio courses. So when the institution is questioned about the academic standards in their studio courses they point to the curriculum and say "see we teach structures, we teach environmental technology, we teach all of that stuff". This way they satisfy the accreditation standards while freeing the studio courses from such nasty realities as gravity, economics, overpopulation, environmental pollution, in a meaningful way. These issues are safely quarantined and kept as far away as possible from the ivory tower studio courses. These side classes are often either superficial or overcompensating. They carry less academic credits, they are meagerly funded, and they are more of a necessary evil. They are sometimes referred to as nuisance courses.

This reminds me of the problems that Walter Gropius and company faced 90 years ago when they established the Bauhaus. There were artists who considered themselves as sort of an elitist bourgeoisie class of academics and free thinkers who were socially and intellectually way above the craft worker class. The Bauhaus sought to abolish this class difference and bring them together.

Something similar is happening today among architects. There is an elitist ivy league class of architects who somehow consider themselves above issues of shelter. They want to be free thinkers that focus on issues of spaces and phenomenology and to come up with wild crazy visions and pass it off to the lower class of architects that are more concerned with issues of shelter, economics, construction etc should it be required to be built. The Starchitecture school inadvertently nurtures this kind of class division.

On Building Blog, Geof Manaugh made the remark that "If architecture school is the only time and place in which you can have the freedom to explore that sort of thing, then I don't see any reason why you should be told not to do so."; that student work can often stand on the absolute fringes of incomprehensibility, charged with the energy of poetry, myth, or confrontational politics, even verging on functional uselessness"

I don't disagree, but understand this, if your architectural education is based primarily on projects such as these, where you have not been required to address issues of basic shelter in your studio course project, then your education is incomplete.

Remember architecture schools are first and foremost entrusted with preparing students for a professional career that engages both spatial intelligence and technologies of shelter.

If you are marginalizing technologies of shelter, then you are shifting the burden of education from academia on to the profession. That is downright irresponsible

The architecture field is so wide, there is so much room within the profession for all kinds of diversity. You can go out towards the artistic, critical theoretical end, you can go off and do more engineering or structurally oriented projects, hell if there is not a part that you like you can make one up. But when you go so far off to the artistic side and stop thinking about issues of construction, and shelter, you have stepped outside of it and you become an artist, or critic or commenter or something else (maybe a comedian). Conversely, when you go so far off to the engineering & construction end and you stop thinking about issues of culture, expression, space or poetics, then you have stepped outside of architecture as well and you have become an engineer or builder or maybe a real estate developer.

When you tell students that architecture is boring and you better do the crazy stuff while you are in school, you drown their hopes. It is no wonder they run off and become film makers, and video game developers. If this is what is happening, Bartlett, you have a problem.

We should bring in architects who have learned to realize their dreams in this world that we live in to teach courses on how to combat the forces of capitalistic greed, and commercialism etc to get wonderful things built.
There should be courses on networking, ethics and client management and the likes.

If we continue on this path we will continue to have our brightest minds marching right out of architecture schools into video game design firms, etc. Geof also pointed out the running joke that upon surviving their final day of project criticism, those students "can now get back to designing minimalist boxes." It is no wonder that they would do that. If they make these crazy things and have no idea how they can support them structurally, economically, socially outside of academia etc, then how can they suddenly go out into the world and miraculously make them happen? Maybe if Rem as a student had some courses on how to navigate the perils of commercialism he would have been different. I am not a big fan of Rem but one has to see that he (and quite a few of is offsprings, BIG, JDS, Work, REX) is making an effort to deal with and confront commercialism. He may not have been even close to successful but at least he tried.

The extremities between Rem and the Bartlett defenders reminds me of the scene from Stanly Krubric's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. As Rem is willing to try and engage commercialism, the Bartlett defenders see him as a sell-out of sorts, since he becomes wealthy and famous while doing so. Meanwhile, they are only willing to lament the predicament that the architecture profession finds it self in under commercialism. They ridicule anyone who dares to engage it. They see the task as impossible: If you attempt it you will inevitably become like Anikin Skywalker and get seduced by the dark side. So the only recourse is to huddle together and pass time in the comfort of academia; making idealistic, self-important, art-like projects on paper, with no intention of building anything. Mock and ridicule anyone who dears to build in the commercial establishment.

Another of the commentators reiterated the statement:
"We do crazy stuff when we're young because we know we're going to do boring stuff when we're old."

I have heard this a thousand times before in starchitecture school, always kind of tongue-in-cheek mind you. But it is repeated so often that you catch the drift all right. I find this sad, if you believe the future that the profession of architecture has in store for you is not exciting enough for you, why go into it in the first place? Gosh there is a million and more ways you can go.

To teach students only to criticize, or to bury their heads in a cloud of dreamy and fanciful projects that has no basis in reality, you teach them to disengage from the profession. It is a very pessimistic posture. It says that you have so little faith in architecture or its future that we should side step it. That you believe that capitalistic greed and commercialism is too powerful a force over architecture to overcome so the only recourse is to stay outside it and criticize.

I don't believe you have to go outside of architecture to find things that are interesting. You don't need to go on the fringes of incomprehensibility or verge on functional uselessness to do a project that is charged with the energy of poetry, myth, or confrontational politics for that matter. In fact it is an oxymoron to consider architecture as separate from poetry, myth or confrontational politics. Architecture is interesting and exciting enough on its own, you don't need to devoid it of its functional qualities to do so. Just look at its history and its present. Antoni Gaudi didn't have to leave architecture or be incomprehensible, neither did Louis Kahn, nor Greene & Greene, nor Peter Zumthor, nor any other past or practicing architects that pushes the boundaries and question the nature and perception of architecture. My God, look at Gaudi, this guy way doing fantastic groundbreaking stuff for the time that he was living in and all the while he stayed within architecture. The
Sagrada Família, was based on mathematically precise funicular engineering intertwined with the spatial sculptural imagination that we have come to know and love him for. That's what makes it meaningful, that it was not just some crazy stuff conjured up out of his head alone. Things were there for a reason. If you want to leave architecture and do research or explore a phenomenon, fine, go outside and do it but call it what it is. Le Corbusier painted to inform his architecture but when he painted he called it painting and when he made architecture he called it architecture. When you are done exploring you can always come back to architecture. But don't build and program architecture schools around this exploration and exploit students to do your legwork. Architecture school is about preparing students for the professional world and exposing them to what is wonderful about it and giving them the tools to stay clear of its pitfalls. Researching phenomenology is peripheral to that, not the other way around. I leave you with this interview that charlie rose did with Richard Serra

Richard Serra comes off as a guy with a chip on his shoulder. Clearly he holds architects in lower regard than artists. I don't. Neither do I think artists are above architects. Where I do agree with him however is that there is a clear distinction between what I do as an architect and what he does as an artist and yes, that there are aspects in buildings that deal with the province of sculpture or art or painting, but don't start telling me that buildings are works of art. Vise verse don't start telling me that art works that deal with the province of buildings are architecture because I don't buy it either.

I don't buy the notion of the artist as architect, or film maker as architect, or video game designer as architect, and I don't think society should buy it either. Architecture does not have to become art to be interesting. Architecture is interesting and beautiful and amazing on its own -period.

Conrad Newel

Liberating Minds Since August 2007


Anthony said...


I'm an architect student from Brazil who has been following your blog for the past 2 years or so.

I have to say this is probably the best post I've read on it, and probably the closest opinion to mine on what architecture, architecture school and art are about. Thank you for posting, and keep up the good ideas.


James C said...


Thanks for the best bit of architectural journalism I've read all year.

I had a similar rant with a friend of mine when he started discussing "design architects" and "technical architects" within our practice.

I think that there is a related topic which you may, or may not have touched upon, namely the command of many students over written language, visual techniques and areas like practical mathematics and presentation skills. I find it difficult to believe how many people I meet in the profession say, "I don't really do writing." or "My accountant does the maths." It seems like these people don't have the basic skill set to operate in architecture competently, or appraciate why these skills are important in professional life.

Thanks for the good article.


Anonymous said...

Big Fun.

I keep on ranting about how my Architecture school is not teaching me Architecture, the core and artistic side to it.

Impressive how your break it down, most architecture schools have studio aside from other units taught which would be the theories and histories and sciences involved in Architecture.

Much appreciation.

humanscaled said...

Fantastic post. I'm very pleased to have found your blog.

"I don't believe you have to go outside of architecture to find things that are interesting. You don't need to go on the fringes of incomprehensibility..."

Well-said paragraph and well said. Buildings are not cars, they are not sculpture, they are not chairs, they are not kitchen gadgets. They are buildings, with their unique histories, needs, functions, and notions of permanence and culture.