Beatriz Colomina surveys radical strategies of architectural pedagogy, asserting that the discipline can best be changed by revolutionizing the way it is taught
Pedagogical experiments played a crucial role in shaping architectural discourse and practice in the second half of the 20th century. In fact, the key hypothesis of our Radical Pedagogy1 research project is that these experiments can be understood as radical architectural practices in their own right. Radical in the literal meaning from the Latin radice, as something belonging or relating to the root, to its foundations. Radical pedagogies shake foundations, disturbing assumptions rather than reinforcing and disseminating them. This challenge to normative thinking was a major force in the postwar field of architecture, and has surprisingly been neglected in recent years.
This was a time of collective defiance against the authority of institutional, bureaucratic and capitalist structures; a geopolitical landscape further transformed by the Cold War and the Vietnam War; a domestic environment built out of consumable plastics and objects of mass-produced desire; and a utopian technological prophecy foretold in science fiction now realised in a brave new world of computation, gadgets and spaceships. Architecture was not impervious to such shifts. The discipline sought to stake its claims amid a new territory by articulating its relationship to the technological, socio-political and cultural transformations of the time.
Highly self-conscious, the architectural radicalism of this era revealed the anxieties caused by the discipline’s awareness of its indeterminate identity in a transformed world. For architectural practice, the question of architecture’s socio-political efficacy in the light of its complicity with capital came to the fore and the discipline was forced to examine the margins of its own disciplinary protocols. While some forms of radical practice celebrated architecture’s integration in a larger cultural milieu, others responded with a retreat to an investigation of formalism. A shared understanding among these varied radical practices was that a new modus operandi for the discipline could only be created if traditions were questioned, destabilised, undermined or even d-estroyed.
Education became a vehicle for these subversive actions. Urgent concerns provoked radical upheavals in academic institutions, while alternative visions of the discipline were generated through progressive pedagogical initiatives. Pedagogy operated as an active agent in the processes with which it was concerned, rather than through modes of detached or complacent reflection. Radical pedagogies challenged conventions at different scales. They relentlessly questioned the institutions of education, probed architecture’s disciplinary assumptions and aimed to disturb architecture’s relation to social, political and economic processes.
Radical architectural pedagogies aimed to challenge the status quo by attempting to destabilise the very institutions they depended on, and in so doing they generated forms of institutional critique. The 1968 student revolts of the Unité Pédagogique No 6 in Paris, which rejected the pedagogy of the Beaux-Arts School, constitute a landmark. They accused the school’s curricula and teaching methods of being incapable of addressing architecture’s relationship to contemporary social and political maladies, and demanded that their vision of a new social order be reflected in the very basis of their studies. Similar demands triggered revolts in architecture schools worldwide. The 1969 burning of the Yale School of Art and Architecture, allegedly by students, symbolised the sudden unrest within the bastions of disciplinary authority. But in other cases, the dissent was a slow burn. The 1967 upheavals, led by students and faculty at the School of Architecture in Valparaíso, Chile, arose from similar concerns, yet their demands were based on a legacy of 15 years of destabilising the traditional structures of the university through pedagogical practices that obliterated the boundaries between learning, working and living.
Pedagogical institutions were also questioned more broadly by the larger architectural community. In the 1972 symposium The Universitas Project, organised by Emilio Ambasz at MoMA, New York, architects, historians, writers, artists, philosophers, scientists and educators − including Denise Scott Brown, Umberto Eco, Jean Baudrillard, Hannah Arendt, Octavio Paz, Suzanne Keller, Henri Lefebvre, György Kepes and Gillo Dorfles − offered speculative proposals for a design education in a post-technological society. In other cases, the building of the academic institution itself became a site to rethink pedagogical structures. Take, for instance, Giancarlo De Carlo’s radical proposal for a decentralised university (1962-65), the mobile network of academic structures designed by Cedric Price in his Potteries Thinkbelt (1965), and Candilis, Josic, Woods’ open-system building for the FU in Berlin (1967-73).
Some radical pedagogical experiments not only challenged, but obliterated, institutional platforms. Such was the case of Global Tools, a project initiated by the so-called Italian Radicals, 1973-75. Defined as ‘a counter-school of architecture (or non-architecture; or again non-school)’, this negation was paradigmatic of postwar Italian radical movements, with the term ‘Radical Architecture’ coined precisely for them by Germano Celant. Other independent pedagogical experiments exploited the resources of established pedagogical institutions to forge their alternative frameworks. Consider the nomadic summer workshops of the International Laboratory of Architecture and Urban Design, first led by Giancarlo De Carlo in 1976 with members of Team X, which were held at different Italian universities, in addition to roving sites with unique urban conditions. Meanwhile, the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies (IAUS) (1967-84) had its own pedagogical programme run by a core group of scholars and practitioners, many of whom held positions within academic institutions on the East Coast of the USA.
Questioning the discipline
In the midst of this relentless and global institutional critique, the status of architecture itself was challenged. A disciplinary self-reflexivity emerged which interrogated not only the historical and formal bases of Modernist traditions, but the means by which they were disseminated in academic and institutional contexts. Rethinking the core of architecture transformed its teaching. The group of architects known as the Texas Rangers at the University of Texas School of Architecture (1951–58) and, later, John Hejduk at Cooper Union in New York (1964–2000), placed an emphasis on addressing the formal language of architecture, considering it the very root of architectural creation. The architectural historian Joseph Rykwert and theorist Dalibor Vesely aimed to redefine the foundations of architecture on the basis of phenomenology and the hermeneutic tradition in the masters level course they led at the University of Essex (1968-78). A de facto school of architecture emerged in the work of their disciples dispersed around the world, including Daniel Libeskind, Robin Evans, David Leatherbarrow, Mohsen Mostafavi and Alberto Pérez-Gómez.
The exploration of external methodologies became another aperture through which to question architecture. Methods borrowed from disciplines such as linguistics were employed, perhaps paradoxically, as autochthonous tools for conceptualising, reinterpreting and redesigning architecture. Different schools around the world became hubs for this work throughout the 1960s to ’80s, from Ulm to Princeton. Similarly, in the design studios led by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, and more broadly in the pedagogy promoted under Charles Moore’s tenure at Yale from 1965 to ’70, sociological techniques were imported to situate the discipline in the architectural language of popular and vernacular culture.
Questioning the outside of the discipline
Radical architectural pedagogy further aspired to transgress its disciplinary limits and destabilise social, political, economical or technological conventions. Whereas building practice was entangled in the questions it tried to answer, the microcosm of pedagogy offered an experimental space between instrumentality and conceptual speculation. Buckminster Fuller’s dome-construction workshops, for example, responded to global problems such as resource management, by wielding architecture as a universal technological apparatus. Although the Southern Illinois University at Carbondale functioned as his central platform during the 1960s, Fuller globalised his teaching by visiting countless schools around the world. The Architectural Association in London leveraged the global dimensions offered by the postwar expansion of transport networks to become the first jet-age school, comprising an international body of students and faculty, with a menu of innovative subjects and techniques to choose from. By the late 1950s, Charles and Ray Eames had developed a new pedagogical programme for design education in India, based on their 1952 Art X experiment with George Nelson and Alexander Girard at the University of Georgia in Athens (Georgia, USA). In their 1958 report to the Government of India, they recommended the implementation of a communications-based design training programme to assist in the country’s industrial development.
The technological dimension of radical pedagogy was often charged with an ideological mandate. Nicholas Negroponte’s Architecture Machine Group, which carried out radical experiments with cybernetics and artificial intelligence at MIT in the late 1960s, promoted a synthetic relationship between man and machine by forging alliances between architecture and an expanding world of computation. One of the most famous design schools of this period, the Hochschule für Gestaltung Ulm, utilised sociology, philosophy and mathematics to advance the functionalist design ideology inherited from the Bauhaus, as an attempt to negotiate technological innovation with a desire for the democratisation of postwar Germany.
The College of Environmental Design at the University of Berkeley sought to transform the architect into a political agent, deploying an interdisciplinary approach integrating sociology, policy making and regional planning in the curriculum. Likewise, Giancarlo De Carlo, who had anarchist affiliations prior to the ’50s, called in the early ’60s for a new architectural pedagogy that promoted activist intervention and would itself be a form of political activism. The role of the pedagogue was to transform the student into an intellettuale dell’architettura, someone who understands an architect’s ethical and sociopolitical role.
With a typically short lifespan, these diverse experiments often found one of the following ends: abandonment or dissolution; assimilation into a generic mainstream education; or termination due to financial and/or political constraints. Many radical pedagogies trace an arc typical to avant-garde practices, from radicality to conventionality, from subversion to institutionalisation. And yet much of the discipline’s strength came from these experiments. They affected the institutions that swallowed them up and they lie within the discipline, waiting to be reawakened by another generation, like a dormant virus or a monster in a horror film.
Architectural pedagogy has become stale. Schools spin old wheels as if something is happening but so little is going on. Students wait for a sense of activist engagement with a rapidly evolving world but graduate before it happens. The fact that they wait for instruction is already the problem. Teachers likewise worry too much about their place in the institutional hierarchies. Curricular structures have hardly changed in recent decades, despite the major transformations that have taken place with the growth of globalisation, new technologies, and information culture. As schools appear to increasingly favour professionalisation, they seem to drown in self-imposed bureaucratic oversight, suffocating any possibility for the emergence of experimental practices and failures. There are a few attempts to wake things up here and there but it’s all so timid in the end. There is no real innovation.
In response to the timidity of schools today, the Radical Pedagogy project returns to the educational experiments of the 1960s and ’70s to remind us what can happen when pedagogy takes on risks. It’s a provocation and a call to arms.
1. Radical Pedagogy is an ongoing multi-year collaborative research project by a team of PhD candidates in the School of Architecture at Princeton University, led by Beatriz Colomina and involving seminars, interviews and guest lectures by protagonists and scholars. The project explores a remarkable set of pedagogical experiments of the 1960s and ’70s that revolutionised thinking in the discipline. Each student is working on one of these experiments and collectively mapping the interconnections and effects of these experiments towards a major publication and exhibition.
The research team includes Anthony Acciavatti (Charles and Ray Eames’ India Report and the National Institute of Design at Ahmedabad, 1957-80), Cristóbal Amunategui (Oswald Mathias Ungers, 1965-77), José Aragüez (Cooper Union, 1964-85), Joseph Bedford (Joseph Rykwert and Dalibor Vesely’s Essex Course, 1968-78), Esther Choi (IAUS and Princeton University, 1965-75), José Esparza (IAUS and the Art Workers’ Coalition, 1967-84), Britt Eversole (Giancarlo De Carlo at the IAUV, 1962-65), Daniela Fabricius (Frei Otto and the Institute for Lightweight Structures in Stuttgart, 1964), Ignacio Gonzalez Galan (Valparaíso School and Institute of Architecture, 1952-72), Vanessa Grossman (Grupo Arquitetura Nova at University of Sao Paolo, 1967-72), Evangelos Kotsioris (Laboratory for Computer Graphics and Spatial Analysis at Harvard GSD, 1964-91), Anna-Maria Meister (Hochschule für Gestaltung, Ulm, 1953-68), Federica Soletta (Texas Rangers at University of Texas School of Architecture in Austin, 1951-58), Federica Vannucchi (Politecnico di Milano, 1967-74).
The research included the participation of Craig Buckley (Unité Pédagogique No 6 and the 1968 Paris revolts), Beatriz Colomina (‘Learning from Las Vegas’ and ‘Learning from Levittown’ studios by Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi at Yale University, 1968-70), Eva Diaz (Black Mountain College, 1933-57), Kathleen James-Chakraborty (University of California, Berkeley), Peter Eisenman and Lucia Allais (CASE at Princeton University and IAUS, 1965-84), Diane Lewis (John Hejduk at Cooper Union, 1964-2000), Jorge Otero-Pailos (Jean Labatut at Princeton University, 1928-67), Gianni Pettena (Global Tools, 1973-75), Tim Rohan (George Howe, Louis Kahn, Paul Rudolph and Charles Moore at Yale University, 1950-70), Felicity Scott (Media Lab at MIT), Molly Steenson (Nicholas Negroponte’s Architecture Machine Group, 1967-84), Irene Sunwoo (AA under Alvin Boyarsky, 1971-90), Anthony Vidler (Cambridge University, 1956-66), Mark Wigley (Harold Cohen, Buckminster Fuller and John McHale at Southern Illinois University, 1955-70).
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