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Form follows worldview

Following The Big Rethink campaign, Peter Buchanan reviews Earthscan by Rob Fleming, an address to sustainability in architectural education

To progress towards sustainability requires a much broader approach than almost all architects and academics acknowledge, drawing on areas of expertise and experience typically not touched upon in architectural education. This useful book discusses how architectural education might expand to address the complexities of sustainability, drawing on Integral theory (described in The Big Rethink series published in the AR last year and this) to ensure rigour and, by highlighting areas still often overlooked, comprehensiveness.

So, for instance, the usual ‘triple bottom line’ of ecology, economy and equity expands to include experience and become the ‘quadruple bottom line’. (In Integral theory’s AQAL diagram, ecology and economy clearly belong to the objective Right Hand quadrants while equity largely belongs to the cultural, Lower Left Hand quadrant and experience is clearly in the Upper Left Hand quadrant.)


The AQAL Diagram, shown here in simplified form, communicates core themes of Integral Theory.

The book consists of two parts, the first setting sustainability in a larger frame than usual and the second presenting specific pedagogic proposals to update and improve architectural education. This latter part is the better and will probably have the more immediate impact − if the complacency of architectural academe can be overcome − not least because its proposals are pragmatic and immediately realisable with limited resources. It is less the ideas in the first part that are problematic than their presentation. This is a pity because they are of longer term pertinence than the more immediate relevance of the second part.

Exploring the rubric ‘form follows worldview’, the first chapter outlines how the architecture of each epoch reflects its underpinning mindset. It is illustrated with diagrams adapted from Sim van der Ryn (who has helped advance green design in the USA, not least as architect in the Bateson Building revisited in AR February 2013). These diagrams are potentially illuminating, but the accompanying annotations and captions are much too cryptic, especially as to fully understand them requires familiarity with the ideas of Jean Gebser, on whom van der Ryn has drawn. But although Gebser is a key antecedent to much 21st-century thought, few have yet to read him and become familiar with his terminology.

Sim Van der Ryn's Three Ring Diagram

Sim Van der Ryn’s Three Ring Diagram

The second chapter explains a distinction the author (along with others) makes between green design, which is in various ways and to varying degrees merely ameliorative, as opposed to sustainable design, which is more rigorous and inclusive in both its approach and performance standards. It also introduces the useful expansion of criteria to a ‘quadruple bottom line’, thus giving some attention to the subjective that is largely excluded in the triple bottom line’s primary focus on the objective.

The problem here and throughout the book is that the experiential is largely reduced to the aesthetic and ignores, or severely undervalues, other dimensions of the psycho-cultural realms. Yet these are crucial to quality of life, including the sense of belonging and experience of multiple relationships with the world around that help us to feel at home, and so must be part of sustainability. However, this overly-exclusive emphasis on form and aesthetics is a much commented upon characteristic of American architectural culture and the author acknowledges that the book is very US-centric.


To those with a grasp of Jean Gebser’s work on human consciousness, Flemings developed Three Ring Diagrams offer potential for an inclusive sustainability education model

But this leads to an impoverished view of sustainability, one not inspiring enough to excite action towards its realisation, and the curious paradox that the book introduces an Integral means to architectural education in pursuit of ends that are considerably less than fully Integral because they ignore so much of the left quadrants. Chapter 3 briefly introduces Integral theory − or at least the four quadrants of the AQAL model − and then the ‘values alignment’ models that British consultant and writer Richard Barrett has overlaid on these and Maslow’s hierarchy of needs model. The clarity of these models makes them powerfully useful and one day they may impact architecture and its education.

The rest of the book then introduces several ways some architectural schools are already working towards this. For instance, to increase the range of expertise available to students, some schools might appoint a practice rather than individual to a teaching post, or even split the post between an architectural and an engineering firm. These then send their most relevant member to teach that day. And adopting a method used in practice, some schools now use the ‘integrated design charrette’, a brief and intense process in which a range of experts offer input in the early stages of a studio project. Sometimes two units or class groups might be combined with the money for the tutors of one of them now spent on the charrette and having its members available for occasional consultation.

Drawn from ideas of Jean Gebser, a philosopher on the structures of human consciousness.

Assuming a wider knowledge of the subject area, diagrams may appear cryptic to the uninformed reader

Another useful innovation, exploiting contemporary technology, is the ‘flipped’ or ‘blended’ classroom. This inverts the current system whereby an expert would lecture and students would then do a homework assignment in their own time. Instead students can now listen to a pre-recorded lecture, perhaps from an archive, in their own time and then meet the expert for interactive discussion. This shifts the emphasis from mere acquisition of knowledge to honing mastery. And there is much else of relevance in the latter part of the book including discussion of the jury system, competition versus collaboration in the studio and current ways of rating green performance.

As usual with an Earthscan/Routledge book, it is over-priced. The editors there need to learn to distinguish those atypical books on their lists that if realistically priced would sell well and be profitable. But such books would also need the guiding attention of a knowledgeable editor who would spot the weaknesses of the first part of the book and see they were rectified, and also that those acronyms and other terms, which may be familiar to Americans, are explained to a non-American audience.


Author: Rob Fleming
Publisher: Earthscan from Routledge
Price: £29.99

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