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William JR Curtis on Architectural Education

William JR Curtis

The renowned architecture critic argues we should take architectural education back to the buildings

No two people can agree on how best to educate architects. Matters are not helped by the perpetual interference of politicians who impose short-term ideological agendas on educational institutions that should be thinking in the long term. The confusion is compounded by the lack of clarity about the aims of the discipline. We are not in the position of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, or even of the Bauhaus, both institutions which taught clear methods for analysing problems and translating ideas into forms. Architecture schools today stumble around in a jumble of opinions posing as dogmas, and dogmas posing as opinions (referred to in PC jargon as ‘discourses’). A phrase of TE Lawrence comes to mind: ‘A desert whose fringes are strewn with broken faiths.’

One can draw a distinction between ideas of architecture and architectural ideas. A lot of students’ time is taken up with the former in ancillary subjects such as sociology, theory and history − or at least history the way that it is too often taught, as a minority subject remote from the studio. Architectural ideas, on the other hand, are the very essence of the conception of projects and should stand at the centre of any curriculum worthy of the name. They have to do with imagination, spatial thinking and the capacity to visualise and realise architectural intuitions and images. The development of such ‘architectural thinking’ is probably the hardest aspect of architectural education because there are no fixed methods and much relies on the skill of the teacher in encouraging the right balance of inspiration and rigour.

Architecture schools tend to resemble schizophrenic families in which violent dogmatism is disguised behind smiles, and it is the things that are never discussed which have the most impact on conduct. What a strange experience it is to visit the same school at decade-long intervals, especially to inspect the end of year exhibitions, which are scarcely disguised promotional exercises. Years ago it was neo-Rationalist or Postmodernist clichés copying historical precedents. Then there was a period of invoking so-called ‘French theory’ in a totally arbitrary fashion. These days you are more likely to encounter tables strewn with computer-generated exercises defended with the obscurantism of ‘Parametricism’ or bogus science.

This is a caricature, of course, but it is too close to the truth. Architectural schools are only too often the victims of intellectual fashions. Then there are the cults of ‘star’ personalities who behave like snake-oil salesmen pushing their instant remedies. How refreshing it is to find students who break the mould, or whose talent shows through the politically correct uniform. But all this still raises several obvious questions: why the lack of rationality, social relevance and common sense? Why the lack of integration of structural and historical knowledge? Why the recourse to trendy images at the expense of substance? Why the brain-washing and jargon? Why the mimicking of postmodern thinkers instead of the construction of theories pertinent to architecture? Why the lack of historical perspective? Why the failure to see that architecture relies on unfolding traditions, both modern and ancient?

There are no short cuts to architectural knowledge but surely one of the best ways to learn what architecture might be is to experience and analyse existing buildings of high quality, both modern and ancient. This presupposes the ability to see, and to capture the dynamic experience of buildings and their sites in drawings, sketches, models, or some other medium which concentrates perception and reflection. Rather than being a marginal option, the history of architecture should be at the centre of any architectural programme, for if it is taught properly it is one of the instruments for acquiring basic architectural knowledge and penetrating to the level of generating architectural ideas.

Lectures, facts, books and analyses there have to be (although it would be nice to spare Palladio from further arid computer diagrams), but these should be accompanied by visits to works of architecture themselves in real not virtual space. The deep reading of buildings is an art in itself. The invention of new forms is inspired and enriched by the understanding and transformation of past ones but at a level far beyond the outer trappings of style.

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