The Big Rethink Part 9: Rethinking Architectural Education
Detached from the ferment of epochal change, the groves of academe are failing to engage with current critical realities
Apart from pleading for blunt and long overdue critical comment about various architects − some starchitects are nominated repeatedly, you can easily guess who − the most common request in the private emails received in response to these essays is to discuss architectural education. This too is a subject provoking strong opinions, though with rather less consensus. The unease, and often dismay, felt about architectural education is unsurprising and has been long festering. A primary theme of these essays is that we are in the throes of massive epochal change that must profoundly impact architecture.
Hence the urgent necessity for The Big Rethink to which these essays are a tiny contribution. Yet to visit many architectural schools is to enter a time warp where the ‘anything goes’ postmodern relativism of the 1980s persists, and tutors and lecturers pursue their own interests regardless of any larger relevance. Indeed, it almost seems that the more overwhelmingly urgent the looming crises provoked by systemic collapse of interdependent aspects of our global civilisation, the more frivolous the pursuits of academe. Even sustainability is reduced to a much too narrow, peripheral subject added on to the curriculum rather than forming the core of a radically restructured education.
But quite apart from not preparing students for the very different future in which they will practise, schools are struggling to keep up with changes that are already transforming architecture. These include the proliferation of ever more materials and new modes of manufacture, assembly and construction management, as well as new software bringing novel modes of analysis to such things as structural stresses, ambient conditions (light levels, air movement and wind pressure, temperature, humidity and so on) and even movement patterns of pedestrians and vehicles (as with Space Syntax).
This complexity puts demands on architects at the leading-edge of practice that are increasingly beyond the capacity of any individual. Hence architects collaborate with a widening array of consultants in multidisciplinary design teams in which even the architect component is made up of individuals of differing expertise. In contemporary parlance ‘we have moved from the age of genius to scenius’. Yet architectural education is still geared to producing the solitary genius, rather than today’s collaborator − although admittedly such teams might still benefit from the genius-type for guidance and final judgements.1
Often after lecturing at an architectural school and showing the computer modelling and analysis informing some contemporary design, as well as the techniques used to coordinate construction and so on, professors privately admit despair at the impossibility of finding the skilled people to teach such things, let alone be available for students to consult with. Yet a few of the schools dismissed as ‘provincial’ by those who see themselves as the metropolitan elite, reputedly give a good and more or less up to date technical grounding. Even in one or two of the elite metropolitan schools, it is possible to get excellent technical tuition and call on first class consultants for guidance during development of student projects − that is, if the student is so inclined and the unit master permits it. Confusingly, there is at least one ‘elite’ school whose graduates are much in demand by practices when recruiting, despite weak technical training, simply for the work ethos inculcated.
If practitioners moan about students unprepared for practice, a complaint consistently voiced by students, teachers and some practitioners is about the grip on architectural education of postmodern relativism, although that is usually not the terminology used. As explained in earlier essays, postmodernism initially brought great benefits. Its criticisms of modern architecture, such as for its contextual insensitivity, brought the new maturity found in the best contemporary buildings.
Even postmodern theory was initially useful in broadening discourse and drawing attention to the semiotic dimensions of architecture. And what has become its excessive relativism was initiated by validating previously repressed voices, such as those of women and the colonised. The multiplicity of perspectives this alerted us to are important in breaking the grip of modernity’s too narrow certainties, so facilitating epochal change. But like modernity, postmodernity has hung on too long and the benefits it brought are now outweighed by its toxic downsides.
The relativism that characterises postmodernity rejects hierarchies, so cannot prioritise, and sees all forms of ‘reality’ as arbitrary constructs, so dismissing of science as just another narrative. The postmodern mindset has thus become a major block to both dealing with urgent issues, such as environmental collapse, and embracing more contemporary modes of thought, many of which are powerfully relevant to architecture. It is like a vaccine inoculating against the many new currents of thought.
A Romantic image of a settlement providing rudimentary shelter for a nomadic community by Joseph Henry Sharp
It resists the Big Picture thinking necessary to understand where we are in evolutionary and historical terms − essential to gaining insight into the problems we face and their potential solutions − and the developmental modes of 21st-century thinking and their science-based strategies of action. Besides bringing about the increasing irrelevance of architectural discourse, it has dramatically narrowed its concerns. Even many teaching in architecture schools complain the schools are not even participating in, let alone leading, the necessary debates of our time. Hence postmodern theory is exactly analogous to scholasticism at the end of the Middle Ages, which in its obsession with arguing over the number of angels on the head of a pin did not notice the Renaissance burgeoning all around.
But as we all know, the postmodern mindset dominates history and theory departments, home to PhDs who appoint other PhDs who, in knowing more and more about less and less, are not a natural fit with a generalist subject such as architecture. But these are the people who boost the research ratings and so the funding of schools, no matter how worthless that research to the practice of architecture. Hence some schools are staffed by disproportionate numbers of such scholars who lack the skills and experience to contribute much to the rest of architectural education. Besides, too often, studying for a PhD can ruin promising students, leaving them fit only for a career in architectural education. Hence many professors admit in private that a university is probably not the best home for an architectural school.
Theory courses tend to be more concerned with such things as literary theory and French philosophy than anything to do with architecture and mistake obfuscation for profundity, dressing up the most banal of observations in obscure language. But students and other staff seem to simply accept that theory courses tend to be irrelevant and taught by people with a limited grasp of architecture and even less ability to discern quality − which of course infringes postmodernity’s taboo against hierarchy or ranking.2 But this irrelevance tends to be tolerated as relatively harmless: instead it seems more students are upset by the often poor teaching of history, recognising that this should be an important and really useful subject.
Again, the problem is relativism as some lecturers, instead of teaching a thorough and rounded history course, discuss selective themes through the narrow lens of some personal interest. Ask a theory or history lecturer who has outlined such a course what might make it among the top 1,000 topics students should devote their limited time to and the question is dismissed as preposterous as the answer is obvious: well that is what interests ME. Yet besides improving the teaching of conventional architectural history, there is now also a need for courses reappraising architectural precedent with an eye to the lessons worth carrying forward to inform the process of ‘transcend and include’ (ARs May, June and September 2012).
Such courses can only be conducted by architects with a more rounded and pragmatic understanding of architecture and design than have most history lecturers. The postmodern ethos has infected criticism outside the schools too, so that patent nonsense by starchitects escapes censure. Probably the most frequent complaint about the latter is the over-emphasis on concept − as consistent with postmodern art and architecture’s central concern being the representation of some theoretical position, concept or scenario. These are usually quite arbitrarily chosen, and typically at the expense of any grounding in larger realities, including that of the patient honing of craft through which the art work and the artist/architect acquire depth.
Students also complain of the pressure in some studios to come up with a concept in the early stages of design rather than letting one emerge from research or design development. Worst of all though is that one concept is deemed as good as another, a patently preposterous notion, and for a visiting critic to point out flaws in a concept is seen as inhibiting a student’s creativity. Rather than relevance, what is sought is startling originality, no matter how spurious. A related problem is the pursuit of personal interest as the basis for design and research. All this fuels the fragmentation of approaches characterised as pluralism, the mask that attempts to camouflage confusion and uncertainty as to relevance.
These problems are further compounded by the unit system, a neo-liberalist way of subcontracting out studio teaching without taking much responsibility for it − so long as units attract students. Thus each unit strives for a distinct identity, further fragmenting the range of approaches, usually by pulling away from any useful common ground and exploring the often rather esoteric and inconsequential interests of the tutors, from which the students may leap off into even more obscure realms. In these circumstances, any notion of a coherent curriculum giving a fully rounded grounding in architecture becomes unthinkable − and many academics would dispute the need for any such thing.
Integral theory and cultural values
A key portion of Integral theory not mentioned yet is the association of particular epochs and their mindsets with particular cultural values and even personality characteristics. Remember that a key assumption informing the AQAL diagram (AR March 2012, p70), and one of its most useful insights, is that development in one quadrant − progression up a line, another subject not yet explored − is matched by corresponding developments in the other quadrants, in this case cultural development (LL) matched by psychological development (UL).
Thus the ethos and personality associated with postmodernity is often referred to as ‘caring and sharing’, concerned with the wellbeing of others, respectful of their opinions and always seeking consensus − all upsides of relativism. Hence it is also associated with interminable meetings and ineffectuality, both on display in academe. Some businesses apparently use psychological profiling to screen out such types. Anyway, the downside of this personality is that while respectful of the views of others, he/she expects similar respect and acceptance of his/her views, and if these are questioned there is a relapse into narcissistic anger (‘who are you to question my interests? To force an agenda upon me?’) Postmodernity’s unquestioning tolerance leads to lecturers offering courses on the most abstruse of subjects, merely because it is a personal interest.
Postmodernism might have exacerbated the proliferating fragmentation of intellectual pursuits that is characteristic of our times, but this fragmentation starts with the origins of modernity, as explained in an earlier essay (AR February 2012). The two key innovations, differentiating modernity from every cultural mindset that preceded it and on which its powerful effectiveness depends, were both fragmentary in impact. One was positing an objective reality, independent of us. Underpinning modern, materialist science, this dualistic notion excludes and alienates us from a progressively disenchanted world and, together with its correlated modes of reductive analysis, erodes the cognitive and experiential relationships between things so that the world fragmented into isolated objects and unrelated fields of knowledge. This, and the downplaying of the subjective, along with religion and the spiritual (Friedrich Nietzsche’s Death of God), undermined the underpinnings of culture, which once explained our place in the world and our relationships with other people, our origins and all else.
The second key innovation initiating modernity was that what had been the organic unity of the Great Chain of Being was differentiated into the three major fields of the True, the Good and the Beautiful. This was a distinction that had already been made by Plato, but now led to the separate fields of Nature and Science (the True), Culture and Morals (the Good) and Art and Aesthetics (the Beautiful).
This differentiation brought powerful benefits in allowing these disentangled fields to be developed independently. But, compounded by the privileging of objective reality, differentiation gradually led to a pathological dissociation and further fragmentation into multiple silos of expertise. In turn, this left us blind to the relationships between these fields and the negative consequences of ignoring these relationships, which are dismissed as mere side effects, externalities and collateral damage.Modernity’s power thus became its destructiveness and has now brought us to the brink, yet postmodern relativism is powerless to effect fundamental change.
This highlights the urgent need to devise a sustainable, trans-modern (post-postmodern) culture. But the cultures of the past were grounded in a religion or spiritual tradition. Once this was eroded, art had to substitute for religion in offering spiritual and psychological succour. This was a challenge the first wave of modern masters were able to meet (in large part because they were the last generation properly schooled and grounded in Western classical culture). But it could not be sustained and has led to the vacuity of postmodern conceptual art and architecture − as well as, without an integrative culture to bind them, the progressive segregation of the different kinds of art. Thus architecture is no longer the Mother of the Arts, the frame for and completed by the sculpture and painting that were utterly intrinsic to it.
The fragmenting impact of modernity also led to the now too extreme separation of the fields of environmental design and their education: architecture (often taught in an art school); urbanism (particularly planning, where no understanding of architecture might be taught); and landscape architecture (which might be taught in a horticultural school). Yet, as we will see, much of what should be the essential foundations of sustainability must lie in what should be the overlaps between these three major fields of environmental design. So what might a radically rethought and updated architectural education be like, one adequate to the challenges we must face and that gives sustainability its central role? There is space here for only a few suggestions, although future essays will offer more.
To properly integrate sustainability into architectural education, a much-expanded vision of what it entails not only needs to become the core of the course but should also be that of a year-long foundation course shared by students intending to become architects, urban designers and planners, and landscape architects.3 (Perhaps product designers and engineers should participate too, although this might result in a fragmenting loss of focus.) This would ground all these in the now generally neglected areas of knowledge and expertise they should share, deepening and broadening their education and creating a common context and mutual understanding facilitating future collaboration. It is a common experience that you learn more about another specialisation through collaborating on a project than from a course of lectures.
Among the subjects studied would be an introductory course on evolution and ecology, which would then lead on to human ecology and the history of human settlements to provide a very necessary context for understanding all forms of environmental design. Allied to this would be a course on the relationships between climate and differing cultural adaptations to it, such as in types of shelter, settlements and agriculture, and the consequences for all these of climate change. Another key subject would be to look at the flows of materials, energy, food and other resources through our globalised world, from extraction through to waste. Although architects are already using more recycled materials, the use and flow of resources is a key subject ripe for radical reappraisal, impacting on all forms of environmental design.
All these courses, with their primarily objective orientation, would provide the necessary expanded context for understanding the challenges in creating a sustainable culture. But so too would introductions to the more subjective realms of psychology and culture. Starting with the psychology and mechanics of perception, which should inform aesthetic theory and judgement, there would also be introductions to phenomenology, environmental psychology and the psychological need to bring order to our environment, for ritual, the projection of our psyches into space, and so on.
Theories of cultural development, such as Spiral Dynamics (the subject of a future essay), will be introduced and their implications for creating urban environments that serve differing kinds of cultures (such as found in our multicultural cities) and individuals of differing ages and stages of personal development. Other courses would introduce the human need to create meaning (depth psychology) and ways of communicating it (semiotics), as well as criticism and criteria of judgement.
As important as these lecture courses, would be visits, experiential exercises and ongoing debate. A common complaint of architects hiring graduates, as well as of their teachers, is that too many students today think that having seen a building on the internet constitutes knowing it. So students would visit, explore and write about buildings, urban areas and landscapes, experiencing first-hand works of their chosen discipline as well as those of future collaborators. To heighten experience they would be asked to undertake various exercises, such as pretending to stalk in a landscape or urban area, so strengthening peripheral vision and sense of place, or conducting a fast, non-stop verbal description of what is seen, so forcing students to see and feel more and make and articulate finer distinctions as even inert matter becomes more alive around them.
Other exercises would introduce the purposes and processes of design. From the Big Picture vision conferred by the lecture courses, students would grasp that the most elevated purpose of design is to be mankind’s way of participating in evolution, using the vast knowledge we have acquired to be guided more by choice than by chance. Ongoing discussions would reappraise the various purposes of each of these fields of environmental design, after the debasing of them by modernity and postmodernity, to inform design and inspire it with the deepest and most ennobling visions. Thus a purpose of architecture is to shape a physical setting in which to unfold into full humanity, as now understood by drawing on insights from sources ranging from depth psychology to ancient spiritual traditions.
This too is one of the most ennobling purposes of urban design, in shaping the city that is the crucible in which consciousness and culture are forged and constantly evolve. And landscape architecture is not just to provide a decorative smear to the unused and unloved leftovers around and between buildings, nor even to only provide for recreation and the regeneration of body and soul in a beautiful setting. It now has many vital ecological functions, protecting biodiversity, providing wildlife refuge and corridors, improving air quality and the microclimate and repairing hydrological cycles.
Probably the most important of these ongoing discussions would be around the entwined themes of what it is to be fully human and what is the good life, who in our depths do we really want to be and how can this be brought into alignment with what the earth wants, or can afford, us to be? These are fundamental questions, the answers to which should inform all environmental design disciplines; but after modernity and postmodernity, we have lost our way when it comes to answering them.
In large part this is because these still current mindsets are underpinned by a vision of a dead and meaningless, mechanical universe against which we build a defensive wall of consumerist goods and distract ourselves with addictive behaviour. But if we move beyond postmodernism to embrace science’s new vision of a living, creative universe, then we want to disencumber ourselves and engage with and participate in it. And in the background of all this is perhaps the most urgent and difficult challenge of our times, the design of a new global culture, or ecology of cultures, because the present dominant culture has lost the roots in spirit and nature found in pre-modern cultures, which is why it has become pathological and destructive.
Yet studies in cosmology, evolution and ecology are introducing, through leading edge science, a spiritual view of the world, as found in the wonderful writings of cosmologist Brian Swimme and eco-theologian Thomas Berry.4 It is also important to note that none of the above is a purely intellectual issue; they are fundamentally ontological. To grasp them and progress towards realising the visions implied requires personal development. Here schools of environmental design have a lot of catching up to do, not least in employing techniques now widely used in business management and performance coaching.
Fully human design
Such a common foundation course may seem like an idea whose time has come, a way of starting to get all these disciplines back on track. But it seems very unlikely to happen: is there any university or institution really serious about an education apt to and drawing on the potentials of our time? It doesn’t take a cynic to answer no. Without such a foundation course, the ideal would be that everything discussed above would be part of the curriculum for an architectural education − again unlikely. They were outlined mostly to give some flavour of how different an architectural education adequate to the emerging epoch should be.
Lack of space precludes discussion of what the whole course might be like, which in any case would be shaped by all sorts of contingencies such as available resources. Like the foundation course, it would benefit from explicitly drawing upon and being shaped by Integral theory, including those aspects yet to be explored in other essays. Yet simply using the quadrants of the AQAL diagram to guide the selection of subjects to be studied, the most mundane of applications, would ensure a degree of completeness and coherence, clarifying the relationships between these subjects.
Let some brief comments suffice to give some idea of what a Four Quadrant curriculum might be like. The Upper Left quadrant is realm of what has been called Delight, that of intentionality, psychology, aesthetics and personal experience. There are several contemporary forms of psychology that would have much to contribute here, including developmental psychology (studying the stages through which we develop and mature) and those studies of creativity (offering many insights in how to enhance this) and perception. The latter has much to contribute to aesthetics − understanding Gestalt psychology’s insights into perception (such as the preference for verticals and horizontals and perpendicular crossings that minimise the number of angles defined) explains why even if exciting, Parametricism’s forms are also fundamentally alienating. Phenomenology also belongs to this quadrant, enhancing any discussion of aesthetics and how we relate to the built environment.
The Lower Left quadrant is that of Decorum, of culture, its world views and the meanings they confer as well as the subjective dimensions of community. Many contemporary fields of study beloved of postmodernists belong here, but once properly placed in relation to other fields, as the AQAL diagram does, and grounded in Depth Psychology, they cease to become little worlds of their own and so are useful rather than problematic. These include such things as semiotics and hermeneutics, and possibly even, to some degree, Cultural Studies.
Other areas of study that belong here and also offer useful insights to architects are anthropology and proxemics, and Depth Psychology with its studies of symbolism, ritual, myth and archetypes. Particularly relevant to our increasingly multicultural world, are such studies of cultural development as Spiral Dynamics. Some aspects of aesthetics also probably belong in this quadrant, such as theories of proportion (although this is debatable) and propriety, as does much of architectural history, particularly that to do with the evolution of styles and the relationship of this with cultural development.
Much of what belongs to the Right-Hand Quadrants is territory modern architects are more familiar and comfortable with, because this is the objective realm of such things as function and construction and such systems as ecology and economics. The Upper Right Quadrant is that of what was once called Commodity, and covers behaviours (as studied by detached observation as in Behaviourism), or as architects refer to it, function − the modern term for commodity. The old category of Firmness applies to this quadrant too, but also to the Lower Right, and many aspects of construction fall under both Right-Hand Quadrants so that it is difficult to place them exactly.
Subjects belonging to the Upper Right that should be covered in an architectural curriculum would include such things as ergonomics and space standards, determining and analysing a brief, and determining functional linkages, much of which would be largely learnt in the studio. Probably taught in lectures, as well as researched in technical studies exercises and applied in the studio, using new modes of computer analysis (which properly belong in the Lower Right quadrant), would be the manipulation of all forms of ambient conditions (including lighting, temperature, ventilation, humidity, CO2 levels and so on) and their impact on use and comfort standards − which would also involve studying the physiology of sense perceptions. An increasingly important topic to deal with here is health impacts of contemporary materials and construction, a truly scary subject on which research has barely started.
The Lower Right quadrant is the realm of systems, such as ecology, economics and finance, sociology and social psychology, all of them important to architecture. Here too would be study of the principles of structures and mechanical services and all the logistics of construction, from sourcing of materials through to their eventual recycling, and the interfacing of a building’s various systems. Belonging here also are computer skills, such as predictive and parametric modelling, business management, legal matters such as professional conduct and so on. Some aspects of architectural history belong in this quadrant, such as the impacts of technological and social developments, as well as environmental history, which offers valuable perspectives in an age of ecological collapse. Sustainability tends to be taught today as a primarily Lower Right concern, with impacts on Upper Right aspects of buildings; but properly understood it is very much an all quadrant affair.
Integral theory’s AQAL diagram provides the perfect matrix for understanding how these courses relate to each other and provide a complete and coherent grounding in the various subjects necessary to be an architect in the emerging epoch. But lectures are only part of any architectural course which, rightly, is dominated by studio work where this more passively acquired intellectual input is tested and synthesised. But in many schools, the lecture courses cover the subjects it is conventionally assumed architects should know, but are not closely tied in with studio work.
This often results in a lackadaisical attitude by the students towards the lecture courses, the relevance of which they don’t always grasp. Nor are studio projects devised in deliberate sequence as a structured course giving students an all-round grounding in design. But the key role of architecture in advancing towards sustainability in the emerging epoch suggests the relationship of lectures and studio work, and the nature and sequence of the design exercises, needs radical restructuring.
A new paradigm for pedagogy
An instructive precedent was the architectural course devised in the mid-1960s by Roelof Uytenbogaardt, a teacher of genius, and only partially implemented at the University of Cape Town when he was first year studio master. A key idea was that no lecture course would start until the need for it was discovered in the studio and students demanded it, now understanding its relevance and motivated to study it. To set the process in motion, the first design project was for a camp on a featureless site.5 Here the same number of people as made up the class would pursue an unspecified common interest for three weeks, the same time as allocated to the project. As design research, students were to observe how their social interactions, their experience of them and the meanings they ascribed to them, were shaped by the physical environment in which the class was conducted.
To heighten their awareness of this, the physical settings for study, socialising and so on were to be constantly rearranged. Hence the project would be introduced with the studio masters standing behind a counter on a raised dais and students in rows behind desks; but the next day the desks would be along one wall and the chairs in a circle with studio masters dispersed among the students; and the day after that everybody would stand around casually in the studio. Similarly, in the cafeteria, the small tables were to be initially separated so that groups of up to four occupied them; then one day the tables would be jammed together so that incipient cliques met each other.
Students observed how such things influenced group dynamics, the quality of discussion, how comfortable or ill at ease they felt and so on, and also where else in the building − in corridors, on stairs, in the washrooms − they met and interacted with each other and how these conditioned their exchanges. The point was, students were deriving a design vocabulary from personal experience and the observation of both others and themselves − the latter fostering a degree of self-knowledge as the basis for self-development. But, subtly guided in their discussions by the studio masters, one of the first things discovered was that they had somewhat different observations and interpretations of these interactions. This sparked demand for the first lecture courses, on the mechanics and psychology of perception − which were waiting, already prepared, to be delivered.
Some students’ initial response to designing the camp was that they would let rip their imagination and impress with their ‘creatively’ fanciful shelters. But wouldn’t the time taken for novices with no construction experience to execute them distract from pursuing the common purpose for which they had met? So by contrast, most students sought speed and spontaneity and suggested offering sleeping bags or tents to be dispersed as campers wished, so granting what they saw as freedom of choice. But what if one person preferred to be alone and placed his/her tent or sleeping bag in a remote corner of the site, only to find him/herself joined by others, spoiling the solitude and negating the supposed freedom of choice? Yet if the tents were fixed in a circle or portion thereof, a seemingly rigid solution, then the occupants could open the flap towards the centre and be part of the group, or close that and open the other flap to enjoy solitude. Thus one of the first and most profound architectural lessons is learned: that it is fixity and constraint, the seeming removal of some freedoms, that liberates choice and freedom.
Observing how the school setting influenced their interactions, the students then explored where to place such things as the campfire, kitchen, place for pursuing the common purpose, washing facilities and latrines and so on. The campfire − centre of eating and socialising, such as late night storytelling − usually wound up close to the tents, and if these were in the circle, perhaps at their centre. But would that also be the place to pursue the common purpose, or would that devalue it? Eventually most chose to make the meeting place special by setting it at a distance so that campers would process there, in small groups or individually, building anticipation and getting into the proper mood, as if on a mini-pilgrimage.
Thus students learn that meaning can be conferred simply by the spatial relationships and distances between events and nothing more, another profound revelation − and a key to properly understanding the modern free plan such as that of Oscar Niemeyer’s project for a yacht club for Rio de Janeiro (AR May 2012, p86). And at this point students, again prompted in discussion led by the studio masters, become curious about architectural parallels, such as in the free plan, and precedent, such as how tribal peoples organise their settlements, and how communal events might have been elevated in status or had sacredness conferred upon them simply by their placing.
Thus the call for architectural history lectures, although of a different sort to that usually offered in architectural schools (in this case both of modern architecture and a general history starting with the very origins of architecture). And once the construction of the tents or other shelters was being investigated, came the demand for lectures about materials, and the principles of structure and construction, particularly simple methods of jointing.So the project and subsequent ones progressed, spinning off lecture courses seemingly at the demand of the students who thus somewhat got the impression they shaped an education tailored exactly to them and so were motivated to make the most of even the lecture courses.
Of course this was a deliberately contrived illusion, the nature of the studio discussions and the demands these would precipitate having been carefully choreographed and precisely anticipated by Uytenbogaardt. Indeed, he eventually found himself disappointed that everything worked out so smoothly, just as he had planned, and nobody had rumbled the system. So as students left the final session at the end of the first year, he handed each a lollipop (sucker in South African parlance), a silent koan or slap from a Zen master, whose disciples all immediately and shamefacedly got the message.
The careful structuring of studio projects and their relationship to lecture courses was designed to persist through the whole five-year course (interrupted by the year out), but this was never implemented. The idea was that from a seemingly simple project like the camp, which raised a very broad range of issues for discussion and design exploration, the projects would become gradually narrower in focus and spin off more specific and advanced lecture courses until the year out.
In the final years leading up to the thesis the projects would then progressively broaden in the range of issues they raised as the lessons of the various lecture courses were drawn on and synthesised in fully developing the design proposals. Of course, in those days architecture was both simpler than now and thought of in simpler terms, and the five-year curriculum could give a pretty comprehensive grounding. That might not be possible any more, hence the divergent emphases of different schools or units which only prepare students in certain aspects of architecture.
‘The laissez-faire, neo-liberalist approach − what Alvin Boyarsky referred to as the compost heap approach: pile on enough, and heat and steam will emerge − found in several elite schools is inadequate’
No doubt many, particularly those of a postmodern persuasion, will recoil in horror from the notion of such a tightly constructed curriculum as that devised by Uytenbogaardt. But architecture is becoming increasingly complex and we face challenging times requiring new kinds and more comprehensive skills and modes of thought. In the face of this, the antithesis of such a structured curriculum, the laissez-faire, neo-liberalist approach − what Alvin Boyarsky referred to as the compost heap approach: pile on enough, and heat and steam will emerge − found in several of what consider themselves the elite schools is almost certainly inadequate. At least the first few years would definitely benefit from being more tightly and thoroughly structured to ensure a proper grounding. Besides, architects are designers and should apply their design skills to more than buildings. Why not to the curriculum?
Yet this draws attention to one of the many other things critical to success as an architect that is not taught in schools − besides that architecture is also a business, and the best architectural practices are often well run as businesses so freeing the architects to perform at their best. This missing factor is that many of the best architects design not only buildings but also their careers − if not in detail, then at least in outline. By having some idea of what they want to achieve, they increase the likelihood of doing so, not least because they spot the opportunities that lead in that direction.
IIllustrations from the 1930s camping manual Camp and Trail published by Woodcraft Folk, a British educational children’s charity who draw conscious inspiration from Native American organisational traditions to design their pedagogy
Quite a few even deliberately shape the persona they present, including the way they dress and the name they assume. Architects who fail to apply design thinking so broadly tend to be less successful or become academics.6 The trick is for the designed self not to be phoney, but true to who the person really is and the fulfilment of their personal potential. There is now a vast amount of theory and technique hitherto unapplied in architectural schools that can facilitate such personal development. These are now relevant for more urgent reasons than ensuring personal success.
Many, including various Integral theorists, attribute our inability to act effectively in progressing to sustainability to a lack of psycho-cultural development. Too many in power, including in education, are stuck at ego- and ethno-centric levels of psycho-cultural development. But we cannot truly understand, empathise with and act effectively to deal with our increasingly global problems, compounded by the complexities of the many kinds of cultures they impact upon and who must collaborate, until more of us reach world-centric levels of understanding and development. Architectural education has always dealt to some degree with the psycho-social development of the student, which together with the honing of judgement is a primary legitimation for the length of the course. Yet perhaps it is time to draw on some of the knowledge and techniques blocked by postmodernism to deal with this more deliberately. But to understand what is implied involves introducing whole new areas of Integral theory, the subject of another essay.
Also the subject of another essay will be the teaching of design, and how to design, subjects currently often poorly handled in the studio. This is because the best way to teach design is in an apprenticeship situation, by letting the student watch someone who has mastered the skills, who knows how to think with his/her fingers, drawing on both conscious skills and what has become unconscious bodily knowledge, so integrating head, hand and heart. Nevertheless, there is a lot about the processes of design, which tend to be somewhat overlooked in architectural schools, that can be explained fairly clearly. Because this series of essays is coming towards its end, that may have to be an independent essay.
Pause for thought
Peter Buchanan will be giving a keynote address at the World Architecture Festival in Singapore 3-5 October. Therefore, The Big Rethink will return in the December issue.
1. Subjects I addressed long ago in ‘What is Wrong with Architectural Education? Almost Everything’, AR July 1989. Little has changed.
2. I’ve been railed at by theory professors for daring to pass judgements as to the relative quality of buildings. What are these people doing teaching architecture?
3. This idea was in part prompted by ‘Trouble in Paradise’, by Michael Sorkin, Architectural Record, August 2009. Reprinted in Michael Sorkin, All Over the Map, Verso, 2011.
4. From the vast literature of this sort now available, let a few titles suffice: The Universe Story by Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry, HarperCollins, 1994; The Dream of the Earth, Sierra Club Books, 2006 and The Great Work, Harmony/Bell Tower, 2000, both by Thomas Berry.
5. As I remember it, the idea of the project came from a similar exercise set by Peter Pragnell at the University of Toronto. Although I was only a student then, Uytenbogaardt discussed his evolving theories with me and I helped write up some of the ideas.
6. When I have taught master classes to professors, part of the last day is often devoted to exercises exploring such matters and the general response has been deep regret that they did not engage in such matters as students.
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