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‘In the end it’s about people. Not buildings or curriculum’

Drawing on experiences in architecture schools across the globe, Peter Cook addresses the curious conditions that shape their legendary status

The cosy condition, long accepted, is that the American Ivy League is the only gateway for the ambitious, that only the Germans and the Swiss really know about making buildings, and that architectural studies are not being taken seriously enough by the business world, so we had better smarten up and all get good degrees. Much of the present scenery of architectural education has grown up with these uncomfortable myths - sad, because the American way allows a few enthusiasts (perhaps hidden away in unimportant places) to experiment, to make things, dream, construct, think ‘outside the box’ and then, knowingly, encourages the best of them to take a master’s degree in a famous place where the performance will need to be intense, impeccably referenced and take the party line of the chosen course.

Then the individuals are good meat for the cohesion of a corporate office sad, too, because the true value of the German and pan-European tradition has been the close link with real architecture. The system of bringing in good architects to be professors, to be prizewinners, to be assistants, plus a healthy element of localism has been generally creative and led to identifiable architecture. It could even be heroic - when in Oslo, Sverre Fehn, the maker, could be parried by his friend Christian Norberg-Schulz, the thinker - or it could be contagious - when Karlsruhe graduates spawned a hundred or more small towers in homage to the looming presence of Egon Eiermann, homage of a kind that we now recognise with Álvaro Siza in Porto or Rafael Moneo in Madrid. It is a pity the British schools have been rather feeble in making it possible for hard-hitters to come inside - although I strongly suspect that career academics would be ready to point out their lack of delicacy as critics, their unwillingness to write reports and inability to be there on a regular Thursday. It remains the students’ loss.

It would be too predictable (and too boring) to pick away here at the Bologna edicts (new international standards for qualification); my smart money is on those institutions that can turn them on their heads. More sinister, is the urge for that precious category - the creative designer-teacher - to feel almost forced to dig in for a PhD, usually just when he or she is really producing great stuff, subscribing to the conspiracy (founded in a mass inferiority complex), that suggests that worked ideas have to be pedantically laundered by written justification and as many philosophical/historical/ethical/referential words as can fit into a heavy tome with (of course) endless footnotes. Five years of this and the chances are you’ve lost the will to creatively speculate.

‘Sinister is the urge for the creative designer-teacher to feel almost forced to dig in for a PhD, subscribing to the conspiracy that worked ideas have to be pedantically laundered by written justification’

Four very different publications sit as my markers. The first two share the title Education of an Architect and document the work of the Irwin S Chanin School of Architecture at the Cooper Union - that of 1971, documenting an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and that of 1985, bringing the mysterious world of John Hejduk’s school up to date. Imagine the atmosphere of New York at that time and then pitch in the comment of New York Times’ savvy critic, Ada Louise Huxtable: that the work was ‘detached from the world around it’.

The simultaneous publication of the Architectural Association’s Projects book was, by contrast, very much the product of (at that time) a very British institution. Edited by the dry and knowing James Gowan - interestingly not an alumnus - it simply worked its way through 80 or so projects, with black and white drawings and a single paragraph of comment by someone other than the author, as if to quietly say, ‘take a look, of course we are the best school of architecture’.

Daniel__Libeskinds_Collage_The_Cooper_Union

Daniel Libeskind’s ‘Collage’. The Cooper Union

The last is my own Bartlett Book of Ideas, which waited 10 years until in 2000 our attack - with things being invented, made, exploded, in fact stuff coming out of everybody’s ears - had consolidated the hit on a formerly ‘worthy’ school. Like the three other works, we could bombard the world with stuff. Ironically, it was that same James Gowan (as external adviser) who had persuaded the Bartlett to take me on and I’ll wager that the crowded, zingy output, with teachers’ comments folded-in as ‘dialogues’, can hardly have surprised him.

Yet the golden period of the AA remains that of Alvin Boyarsky’s chairmanship (1971-90). To his face I repeatedly called him ‘Diaghilev’ - whose entreaties to Satie to compose for Fokine, or to Prokofiev for Massine, might compare with Boyarsky’s own manipulation of Libeskind in the same corridor as Zaha or Herron overlaid with Tschumi - creating an extraordinary chemistry that nonetheless had extra lift-off from the power of creativity, which the 1971 book had celebrated.

Deng__Aiden__Ais_New__York_Automobile_Museum_The_Bartlett

Deng (Aiden) Ai’s ‘New York Automobile Museum’. The Bartlett

Seen from the Bedford Square (home of the AA) of the ’80s it was only the Cooper Union that offered a challenge, with its poetics that were perhaps more coherently linked to the extraordinary presence of Hejduk himself, monitoring the likes of of Eisenman, Abraham, Scofidio or Agrest as tutors, but oversailing them as a seer, a magician, a mystic, perhaps. Every project had a depth of meaning, but formalistically expressed. At the AA we were more disparate, more hustly and, by this time, more international. Yet even if we know - from athletics and motor racing - that being ‘paced’ is critical, in architecture schools we are often more coy or grudging than architects at admitting that anyone else is any good.

Meanwhile, during the last four decades a rather naughty institution has grown up in - you guessed - the City of Dreams. Unashamedly wanting to be the AA of the West, it has actually become something else: a continually creative powerhouse. SCI-Arc (the Southern California Institute of Architecture) has the distinction that every one of its five directors is an exceptionally talented and recognised designer. Founder Ray Kappe (he of the quintessential Californian escape houses, with broad overhangs and lush horizontals) was succeeded by Michael Rotondi (co-founder of Morphosis). The institute was then passed on to Neil Denari (most talented of the Machine Architects), before being placed in the hands of Eric Owen Moss (exotic re-creator of Culver City) and has now been delivered to Hernan Diaz Alonso (juiciest and most ebullient of digital creatives). It’s heady stuff - and worth noting that (so far) it operates alongside teaching staff that are always conspicuous for doing their own things far from the mannerisms of the leader. Where else is the car park consistently crowded at midnight? Somehow, the place has always reflected the city’s creativity in manipulating images, stories, sounds and now software.

‘Most Ivy League schools interpret the digital in a rather dry way, ignore the originality of European work and trade on the avid desire of Asian students to have one of  its  master’s degrees’

Cities that can field several schools are at a distinct advantage - whatever the mythology of a Black Mountain College or a Taliesin West - and the reality is that canny locals can vote with their feet and smart teachers can hover over the smartest kids. So Los Angeles, New York, Tokyo or Mumbai offer real choices and in London these are underscored by the annual exhibitions that oblige even the sluggish brethren to support their position - most evident in the geographically close and culturally intertwined territory of the Bartlett and the AA.

Before the Book of Ideas, one had to raise the Bartlett’s profile, which has since proceeded unabashed, subconsciously drawing on a rarely mentioned British tradition of craft and ‘boffinry’. The sheer delight in drawing, making, honing and downright exuberance took the AA by surprise. In recent years, despite a lively ‘intermediate school’, the latter has revealed a deliberate policy of ‘issues rather than buildings’ and (by its choice of  examiners) nodded vigorously in the direction of - guess what? - the Ivy League. Featuring East Coast examiners, it is coolly and courteously almost becoming more American than America.

The sideways glance from the Bartlett therefore becomes SCI-Arc, where both can fire off their robots to do increasingly daring (but often beautiful) things - one is still building on the old English drawing-and-anecdote magic, the other on the energy of wonderful shapes made from 6 x 2-inch construction, just down the street. Of course, certain dogmatic characters such as Alejandro Zaera-Polo or Patrik Schumacher hate these aspects and vociferously slag off such indulgences, citing for them a dreaded ‘liberal arts tradition’.

Their cynicism unwittingly reinforces a general disease that festers in a world where a few leading figures set the trajectory for both the successfully commercial and cautious mainstream to follow (usually 10 years later). Despite the excitement of the Tschumi years at Columbia when the paperless studio was floated, most Ivy League schools interpret the digital in a rather dry way, ignore the originality of European work and trade on the avid desire of Asian students to have one of its master’s degrees. Knowing this, I stepped inside Harvard, for the first time as a teacher, with some trepidation.

Firing on all cylinders I let it be known that I wanted no quoted philosophy, no diagrams and used slides of animals on people’s heads to reinforce the message. In no British school would you get 400 people staying in the room for three hours without movement - my God, they’re disciplined! I was surprised to receive a surfeit of takers. I was delighted that, after a few sessions, I was able to convince them that I was actually more interested in their ideas and brought no preferred methodology (well, not much anyway). Most of them slowly recalled their creativity and enjoyed themselves. The few others talked about repetition and quotation (which I can also do on a cold night in Boston). So Harvard could actually be OK if it stopped being quite so aware of itself and brought even more Eurotrash over more consistently.

In the end it’s about people. Not buildings, not curriculum (always the seat of blame for over-comfortable faculty), not necessarily location (though that does help). To the discomfort of many, it is about who runs the place, their Diaghilevian skill and maybe, the example - even if you hate it - of what they do themselves.

Lead Image:

Students at work in studios at the Bartlett, UCL. Source: http://bartletthistoryproject.tumblr.com/

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