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Summit - or nothing?

Berlin’s International Education Summit discusses ‘New Directions’ in architecture but makes little headway with its headline agenda, education, writes Steve Parnell

How should we teach the next generation of architects? Should architectural education be about more than just the production of architects? What is the difference between education and training? These vital questions, and many more besides, all remained unasked at the Third International Architectural Education Summit, which was long on architecture and short on education and favoured instead asking that ubiquitous old chestnut, ‘what is architecture?’

Taking place in Berlin on 13-14 September, it seems the only thing that architects agreed upon is that there is no agreement. Director of SCI-Arc Eric Owen Moss’s talk, ‘The Model of No Model’ argued this very point:‘There is no recognised hypothesis,’ he diagnosed, ‘there is more narrative of tools than of that upon which they stand.’ He described how architecture moves over time not through some kind of Darwinian evolution, but in radical, cataclysmic jolts. Then inexplicably his talk radically and cataclysmically jolted into a gratuitous show-and-tell of his work, complete with backing track. The audience became as lost as the plot.

If the summit reinforced one thing, it is that there are as many architectures as there are architects, but they are nearly all served by a single model of architectural education. Out of the many countries represented, only Hitoshi Abe could outline a different type of educational model that Japan employs to train its architects. It is healthy to reflect critically on what one does, and how one does it, and Abe is right to request that all students of architecture wake up every day and ask the question ‘what is architecture?’ But unless architects can agree on some answers between themselves, it will continue to go the way of the blacksmith as Chris Luebkeman, Arup’s Director of Global Foresight and Innovation, warned.

3rd International Educational Conference

Third International Educational Conference

The title of the summit was ‘New Directions in Architecture Education’ and there was much discussion about New Directions, much argument over Architecture, but little focus on Education. Architects are ever preoccupied with the new. This is understandable, because the new presents opportunity. The idea was a running theme over the two days. A talk by the University of Pennsylvania’s new chair Winka Dubbeldam was entitled ‘The New Normal’ and Dean of Rice University’s School of Architecture, Sarah Whiting, claimed that ‘tomorrow will be better than today, one judgement at a time’, but Matthias Böttger of raumtaktik questioned whether the new is necessarily better. Like updating a computer, he argued, some things improve, while others get worse.

According to this assembled group of high-level architectural educators, doubt in fact seemed to be the new normal. Architects are constantly questioning and doubting. When expressed within a group of other doubters, this eventually results in a kind of paranoia, summarised in Böttger’s last slide, ‘Why does nobody listen?’ Hubert Klumpner, Dean of the Department of Architecture at ETH Zurich, who refreshingly talked about the reality of money, suggested that it was because of architects’ propensity to preach to the converted and to discuss interdisciplinarity within a room full of architects. But this wasn’t a fair point in a summit whose aim was to ‘provide a platform for exploring approaches to address new directions in architecture education’. It wasn’t supposed to be about exploring approaches to new directions in architecture (or even architectures) but architectural education. Or educations.

discussion panel

Discussion panel

Another reason why nobody listens could be because of architects’ willingness constantly to throw the discipline into a state of crisis to the extent that they are no longer sure of what is at the core of architectural knowledge. Once upon a time it was the production of buildings, then the production of the space within and around them, then the production of society, and then the production of ideas and futures, validated either as representations or as realisations.

Architecture’s tendency to gradually dematerialise and disavow its once solid object of attention in favour of the peripheral has resulted in questions being perceived as more important than answers. Joachim Declerck of Architecture Workroom Brussels asked ‘what sort of education is needed for a design practice that doesn’t build?’ and argued for architects designing the right questions, rather than providing answers to other people’s questions.

While he also demonstrated this approach in his practice, the shift to designing the immaterial would imply that the skills an architectural education can offer are as valid and relevant to the real world beyond the construction industry. This implies that either an architectural education doesn’t have to be merely the first step in the production of architects for the construction industry, or that an architectural practice can find work outside the construction industry, and in the design of policies or systems, for which Luebkeman also pleaded.

The metropolitan Lab

The meeting of high level architectural educators suggested that doubt may be the new normal

Architects’ impulse to deny building was demonstrated by Mark Wigley, Dean of the GSAPP at Columbia, with his Deconstructivist trick (circa 1992)of conflating the positive and the negative. In the same way that architects are the most likely to cast doubt on what it is that they do, he opined that ‘architectural educators are the least likely to know what architectural education is’. If that is indeed the case, then the wrong group of people were assembled, which perhaps explains why they continued to ask the wrong questions.

But it is not surprising that architectural educators don’t know what architectural education is because they are mostly trained in architecture and not education. The idea that good architects also automatically make good teachers is rarely questioned and yet an understanding of pedagogical theory should be as important to teachers of architecture as an understanding of architectural theory. This point wasn’t broached until literally the very last question of the summit, when it was too late to explore.

‘Who needs architecture?’ asked Nikolaus Hirsch (Director of the Städelschule in Frankfurt). ‘First and foremost, it is the architect!’ he answered, suggesting the predominant idea is authorship, and the creation of architectural culture its prime motivation − rather than previous concerns with the improvement of society, or even the reinforcement of money and power. But Henk Ovink, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in Washington DC, reassured us that architects are desperately needed and shouldn’t be so harsh on themselves. He expertly moderated the sparkiest, final panel on ‘Collaboration Between Architecture Education and Non-Academic Partners’, not letting the panellists get away with sidestepping his questions like the politicians he is no doubt used to dealing with, and pressing them for straight answers to straight questions.

questions from audience

The summit entitled ‘New Directions in Architectural Education’ spoke much about new directions and much about architecture but the summits primary agenda of education took a back seat

Ovink encouraged Michael Speaks, the new Dean of the School of Architecture at Syracuse, New York, and Alejandro Restrepo-Montoya, Professor of Architecture at the Pontificia University Bolivariana in Medellín, Colombia, to enliven the debate. While Restropo-Montoya fascinatingly articulated how his school was integrated into the political and social system in troubled Medellín, Speaks talked about the work he’d done at the University of Kentucky in getting corporate sponsorship for an architecture studio in which students designed and built energy-efficient social housing in collaboration with a near defunct company that built bespoke houseboats.

While this was possibly the project with the greatest social impact presented at the summit, Speaks claimed that his agenda was completely not social. In contrast to the well-endowed Ivy League presence, his poorer state university had to find its own funding, and Speaks claimed that money drove the project. This was a provocative statement in the opposite direction to the other more worthy provocations of the two days and hid the fact that the real motivation was actually to provide a quality educational programme for the students, and that entrepreneurship was a way to achieve that. It was probably the most comprehensive position shown at the summit that had been realised (rather than theorised) in the developed world and enabled Speaks to attack the parametricist images that Xu Weiguo (Professor of Architecture at Tsinghua University in Beijing) and Winka Dubbeldam showed as ‘fluff’. To paraphrase Gil Scott-Heron, the revolution will not be scripted.

The great strength of the summit was the variety of programmes presented, from Jhono Bennett of 1:1 working with townships in South Africa to Eugene Asse’s new MARCH school in Moscow, from Neelkanth Chhaya’s participation in Ahmedabad to Atelier Bow-Wow’s Yoshiharu Tsukamoto encounters in Tokyo, and from Sheffield University’s Tatjana Schneider’s call for social engagement to the ‘fluff’ of the parametricists. All were passionate. All could have been longer.

In the concluding discussion, the slyly amusing Michael Monninger (Professor of History and Theory of the Art of Building and Space at Braunschweig University of Art) noticed that there had been many sermons from many mounts and questioned whether we were all at the same summit, or whether we had all scaled different peaks. Perhaps future summits could seek instead to find some common ground rather than break new ground, and acknowledge that there are several distinct flavours of architecture, each with unique strengths in employing architectural methodologies, and not all necessarily producing practising architects. That really would be a Radical Pedagogy.

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