Talking Shop

This one has to be about architecture school – a general survey of the role of architecture education. Pondering through another letter-swamp of project placement on archdaily I found myself immersed in a mass of architecture school-yak links. Architecture media talks about schools a lot. Isn’t architecture the discipline that pumps its education the most? I’ve never heard of aerospacedaily or carpentrydaily or jurisprudencedaily. Marketing of architecture schools is subtly fused into the existence architecture has in the media. If someone invests a lot into convincing you they can teach you, then there’s room for uncertainty as to whether they actually can. V.

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A good idea! Until now I’ve stayed away from the topic of education, probably because it’s too close to home. I shouldn’t really. This blog only exists because of me, students and education. G.

  • Back in 2011, The Twisted Education of Architects post depicted the frustration a student can develop at an architecture school if they were blind unreceptive to the early twentieth-century abstract imaginal design generation. 2011 is six years and a bachelor and masters ago. Me, I enrolled in 2011 but what did architecture school learn in the time it takes a student to graduate? 
  • In technology, places like MIT are praised and mentioned but usually for the virtue of research work and usually on the topic of that work.
  • In medicine, teaching hospitals are often places where treatments and therapies are pioneered. There are no Harvard GSDs in medicine.
  • What technology school or law school or medical school should teach its students is an interesting question that would have solid and definite answers. “What architecture school should teach its students”, on the contrary, seems to be a slippery ground, despite 100 years in service.

Soon to have 100 years of abstract architecture school (Bauhaus 1919, VKhUTEMAS 1920). We can expect a lot of anniversary recapitulation and probably the wrong conclusions. Don’t forget that Bauhaus only began to teach architecture in 1928, under Hannes Meyer, and then as building science. In a draft for an upcoming post titled “Models of Instruction” dealing with the history of architectural education, I insinuate that Gropius was copying the Montessori style of education that had evolved 20 years earlier, with its emphasis on learning by direct handling of materials. He was to follow Ms. Montessori in exporting it to America, along with himself as a similar innovator in architectural education. 

Bauhaus is accepted with respect and credit. Should it have brought a revolution in human habitat, being the first architecture school totally connected with modernity? The spread of modernism definitely happened after the school’s emergence. Gropius’ genius was to later blur the boundary between himself, architecture, architectural education, and what was actually taught at the Bauhaus under Meyer. The four were always linked via the Dessau building but never in the same place at the same time. Of course, having Mies on the other side of Meyer made it easier to forget the building science bit in the middle even though it was “the meat in the sandwich”.

Mass industrial housing emerged and its virtues outweigh shortcomings, given most of these buildings continue to shelter people. But is it correlation or causation, in relation to school’s existence? Modernism was an inherently cheaper way to build so would probably have happened anyway. J.J.P. Oud and the Dutch were already making it work in The Netherlands. Ernst May provided 15,000 housing units between 1925 and 1932 and independently of whatever was or was not happening at The Bauhaus.

If we take the 20 most renowned architect names, how many of them would be Bauhaus alumni? Meyer, Gropius and Rohe were not immediately displaced by mighty new youths they taught. I had exactly the same thought yesterday. How many people passed through Wright’s office or Le Corbusier’s office and what happened to them? With LC, the two who became most known both left his office after six months and went on to do their own thing rather well. Another three, three decades on, did what Gropius did and promoted themselves as having had special access to privileged knowledge. But what was that knowledge? Or did they just trade off anecdotes? (“Well what Corb would have done was …”) Sure “Bauhaus style” spread around the world, but it is a convenient tag and not what was invented in the school or by its alumni in the field. Exactly. I think that to call something a style is to neuter it. I blame Johnson and Hitchcock, as you know. 

BXYTEMAC [VkHUTEMAS – it took me a while to get what you did there!] taught Ivan Leonidov, who immediately became a poster boy to wrongly attach “constructivism” tag to. After his graduation, Ivan Leonidov led a very tragic life of a person who never acclimated to his context. The fact it was a menacing bloody context is worth mention. Still, the divide between nonconformism for the sake of decency and illicit tragism in everyday life is slippery.  Yes – I worry about this all the time. =) That aside, Ivan Leonidov graduated as an architect inadequate for what lay immeditely beyond the school door. And it did not go shitty just overnight, to be fair.

Andrew Burov was another BXYTEMAC graduate, who shone as a “talented young man”. He abandoned the OCA organization as soon as the sour winds blew and put on the social realist, neoclassical revivalist’s shoes. [I shall investigate. Did he become one of those “Post Constructivists” – those proto-post modernists?] He never showcased any regrets for that and lived a long continuous career, no matter whether flat roofs or gypsum facades, or flat roofs again he was asked to provide. He managed to appear borderline between an actual person and servile rat despite his preference for food, shelter and job before his personal values, if these existed. It’s odd you mention Burov. Less than an hour ago I found this photo of him enjoying a cigarette break with Le Corbusier and Alexander Vesnin in Moscow, 1929. It’s the only photo I’ve ever seen with LC holding a pencil. Why is everyone but Vesnin wearing the same glasses?

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The two cases of Leonidov and Burov might be just two person’s characters, irrelevant to the school itself. I’m not so sure. They may have been one-offs but if they even inadvertently showed others the mechanism of how to leverage buildings to become famous, it was still the birth of modern architectural education as a closed ecosystem of teachers and students. Everyone wanted Leonidov on their team and he was pulled along by events but it sounds like Burov went whichever way the wind was blowing.   

This abstract imaginal education was formed as to “zeitgeist” of early 1920s, with enormous uncertainty over the ashes of a world war and hatching mass machine civilization. The locations where the two schools emerged are not surprising – both Germany and Russia had been mauled by world war and revolution. For each, “machine” became a fantastic entity which would undo the calamities by wonders of invisible mechanisms. It was an ontological drug to endure the hardships of life there, using sorcery of floating transpatial rectangles painted on a canvas, or spiralling pieces of wood forming an antenna for a newly found socialist hivemind. Coping means are good until you make these central pieces of your life – what only indicates how tragic your tragedy really is. Speaking of architectural education as abstract imaginings, this was in an Unbuilt Moscow feature in today’s Guardian. I saved it because I thought the caption was iffy. I find it hard to believe that, with The Russian Revolution not even three years gone, emphasising themes was more important than realising them. Suspect.

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Nikola Ladovsky [VKhUTEMAS instructor], 1920. The spiral structure of Ladovsky’s design emphasised the key Communist party themes of progress and communal living intended to revolutionise family structures.

But having grown up in Australia, I never felt such weight of history. When I was an undergraduate at UWA, I discovered Shinohara’s first book of houses in the library and, impressed, wrote him a letter saying how much I envied him for having had such a spectacular and worthwhile tradition to interpret, or act as a base, or something. In time, I received a short letter back saying that I would surely find my path if I just continued questioning. (I pinned it above my drawing board next to an image of Richard Meier’s Douglas House.) Forty years on, I’m still questioning and I think it’s time for some answers.   

Apparently, the price humankind paid to enter the era of geometrical freedom of free-floating masses put together in light was never seen prior to the non-freedom of humans put together in camps and frontlines. Unprecedented control of mass was brought forth by unforeseen human-powered machines of violence. I think the Futurists have a lot to answer for. Perhaps newness for its own sake supplying “the missing ingredient that allowed Modernism to happen” was never the answer. It may have merely been the missing ingredient that enabled rampant capitalist (and then endless neoliberalist) churn for its own sake. The powerful only need buildings to remind everyone who the powerful are. 

The reliance on abstract composition in schools may only be a means to retrofit the appearance of organic emergence into modernist architecture, whose history is not as clear and actually poorly documented. My new cognitive bias goggles have help me make sense out of a lot of things. Any attempt to introduce abstraction into architecture furthers a neoliberalist agenda where buildings exist for the sake of architecture and not for anyone who might happen to use them or even pay for them. We can backtrack from Patrick Schumacher and the neoliberalist architect dream of an architecture beyond reason, interpretation or criticism, and go back a bit further to Rem Koolhaas and his 1979 “Development is good!” thesis, re-articulated by Bjarke Ingels with fewer words and more pictures in “Yes is more!”) “Abstract painting gave birth to abstract architecture” sure sounds convincing, but actually may be an instance of pareidolia, the desire of human mind to see a pattern where it may not be the case. Probably. Mies’ “Brick Country House” was five years after van Doesburg’s Rhythm of a Russian Dance yet the two often appear on the same page of history books. van Doesburg even made it easy for Mies by demarcating inside and outside.   

What could have been just someone’s thesis statement became useful to form a consensus of persons who could sustain their agenda for the longest using this thesis as a cosmological myth. There wasn’t that much mid-20th century abstraction happening but perhaps De Stijl’s van Doesberg was the first to get there. Some say it may even had been Wright who first hit upon this cheap way to build. 

The fact that the architecture as something with pretensions to being art and not building science suggests it was better at furthering the agenda of its proponents (and clients) by claiming to be so. We don’t remember Peter Eisenman, Mies van der Rohe or Frank Lloyd Wright for their contributions to building science.  Traditionalist architects blame modernism for speaking a “bird language”. Once you knew their complaint and read any piece which featured use of word “space”, you’d never see it the way you did before. Overusing the word “form” is also a symptom. 

In science, 10 years after your graduation is when you have to focus on your research, because you may make studies and discoveries only while your brain is still fresh and regenerating. Your career after 35 is mostly you living off that foundation. My use of word foundation is misleading. This work is not what you stand on, doing your job later after you’ve acquired it, but the actual most valuable work you produce. Which you may later only tinker with or modify. My evidence is James Watson claimed it in his own memoir, he also wrote it was consensus thinking. Interesting. Worrying. I still have a couple of early ideas I haven’t monetised yet. Last week I received an email saying the commissioning editor at XXX had decided not to make a publication offer in response to my book proposal. 

In architecture, a fresh graduate may face their uselessness in the office for them being “that ignorant fresh graduate person” that just graduated from fascinating enterprise which is contemporary architecture school. More often than not, they will toil until their fifties, about which time, they’re told, architects “bloom”. Architecture in many ways is an archaic trade. One of signs of that is the gerontocracy in the upper tier of it. People who think of themselves as sentinels of undermined beings spent a lot of time praising the late ZH but the actual ill social composition existing in the profession, they never question it. The demise of Russian communism was foreshadowed by escalating gerontocracy a  few decades ago. Is architecture heading to the same direction? I suspect so. Experience is good in the case of the integrated design, operation and maintenance of complex systems such as railways but, with architecture, experience seems to be defined more narrowly as people who have simply clung on to fame for the longest.  

Relationship of education to work outside that of “self-referential circle of recommendations and funding” was not yet mentioned in this list yet. It should be. Already on the case in a separate draft. Le Corbusier’s former employees visited the US and were immediately made Professors of Architecture.

Sure, the basic framework never changed and the imaginal conceptual focus is the king. After all, the whole twentieth century saw architecture’s dilution with appearance of structural engineering as a separate trade, and inhabitability systems (i.e. HVAC) consultancy as yet another trade. With two thirds of dreary firmitas-utilitas-venustas trio taken out of the solution, architecture became a fine arts homeopathy. When I read this now, I see now that what you wrote is exactly where I took the Myths post [Architectural Myths #23: Architecture] post – you arrived at the same conclusion well before I did! 

Taking imaginal sophistry out of the curriculum would leave the vessel empty and no one would know what to fill it with. Would we have any abstract-faceted-sculptural sentiment if the first years were “performance design” instead of “affect design”? After a few years of low-level fundamental study would one see any charm in any other design approach? 

Also remember your frustrations with pupils unable to imagine a form, not to mention to document or present it in a projection? In shortcomings of teaching graphics to students you’ve defined a vision. I always like to look for reasons in things. If students can’t draw, or imagine things, then it’s because nobody is asking them to develop these skills that (quite frankly) most of my students will never be asked to use. Education adapts to its market surprisingly quickly. 

Media images melting reality into an post-causal mush you’ve bashed back in Smoke and Mirrors – and in Rendering Ethics on commonedge. The unintelligibly real prospects in form of images are hyper-lurid and captivating. The amount of work required to produce the images gave birth to dedicated visualization industry within the profession. This has only become necessary in order to feed the image digester. In its photo credits, ArchDaily includes visualisations and credits them as if they were photographs. I can’t help thinking something important is being lost. Reality? Online resources get bigger and bigger view counts across a reducing number of domains, and popular ones rule, as to law of accelerating returns. Instead of a multitude of opinions, mindsets and methods, the online architecture that actually emerged appeared to be a hybrid meta-mush of proven modernist tropes (or just stupid lazy design?) and a few recent design effort indicators like shuffly windows. This hybrid nests in an information platform accessible from any connected place. The farther the place is, the more charming the international newsfeed seems. What we have in the end is “archdaily (dezeen, architizer) epidemic”? Internet for ideas, good or bad ones, is what airlines are to viruses. I’ve often wondered about that. You see the same house in Korea or Chile or Bregenz. This trope is a hybrid of Fallingwater and Savoye – a media vernacular for our modern times.

For hundreds of years, the sole key to mastery was a long apprenticeship and recurring repetition – or at least we were told by literature that it was so. Within accelerating and escalating monopoly of the image, we end up having many designs as mere vehicles to create a final presentation image (your phrase). The rhetorical pair of substance vs image appears to have committed an incestual act, as image is the new substance, apparently.

The isolation of architectural academia is not yesterday’s news. Together with starchitecture firms they form a symbiotic circle running in a hermetically sealed cleanroom of waste-free production – potential students are lured by image of creative architectural practice, they enroll into a school, usually in exchange for hefty tuition fees, to be, in the best case, taught in personal studios of ones whose image charmed you in the first place. Somewhere in the middle, school builds a background of “successful student appreciation”, in form of articles with words “workaholic”, “creative” and “over hours”. In the end studios receive creative over-hours workaholics they can underpay because you’re so creative I see you didn’t come in the industry for the money did you? Sometimes these workaholics even paid to enter the job – via a school and personal studio that is. Credit to architectural industry to monetizing a perfect opportunity and wrapping their practitioners around a finger, to their own excitement and gratitude. This is all true and not cognitive bias. Just as education has adapted to what little is being asked of it, so has architecture. The idea of an architecture reflecting the priorities of the global economic elite is not such an absurd one. The International Style certainly came to “represent” progress to local populations as they were colonized by American businesses. OMA and ZHA are the new face of that. We should be pleased Schumacher has made the link between architecture and neoliberalism more obvious to more people. I’m beginning to think that starchitects are created and sustained by the system in order to sustain it. Think about it. If the buildings of a certain class of architect are granted automatic legitimacy regardless of the location or political culture or whose lives it destroys or with whose money it was built, then of course starchitects are going to get called upon to legitimize the unlegitimizable whenever there’s a need. It’s no accident the buildings they get called upon to legitimize tend to be in the dodgier countries, or that rich rulers and property developers (or rich-ruler property developers, or property developer rich rulers) are the clients whose edifices most require legitimizing.

Those currently in school are mostly millenials, who grew up in the presence of internet and the cultural transformation it entailed. One effect of which is “culture” became less about foundational notions and more of a coarsely ground mush of ideas, notions, emotions, and opinions based on such pesky sub-structure. The relationship between content, screen time, attention and worldwide connection naturally selected the most entertaining and least elaborate material which could be provided in a constant dopamine-gratifying stream. “12 books about urbanism”, “13 definitive movies for architects to watch” and whatever other list you can imagine on any topic beside architecture create an appearance of a broadly covered spectrum on a topic of interest, what satisfies the users and makes them believe in their becoming an informed person. The concept of Everything is Architecture is a new way of justifying this. Social media seems to function as a way of reminding people that one is interested in architecture. Putting stuff out there to share for our benefit has in some debased way come to be identified as education.   

What results is a culture of erudite idiots, precisely because long-term programs are not about immediate content. This idiocy is implicitly understood, what is indicated by recent abundance of a word “expert”, which is used wherever to separate audience from the speakers who have an oratorical monopoly. Becoming an expert is then a media vehicle, and there are many people who would help one to become an expert in exchange for money. Yes, we need to monetise this! =) 

• • •

The uncertainty about architectural education may result from profession’s ongoing decomposition. 20th century cemented the dissociation of structural engineering and habitability engineering from architectural design practice, at least in big architecture scene. The role of 20th century architecture school in that has yet to be scrutinized.

  • Decomposition of imaginal public relations practice of perception-management happens along the lines of imagery production competences, one recent case of the process is emergence of architectural visualization as a separate self-contained trade. Bashar once told me he saw an job listing for an “environmental graphics technician” and It amused us to think it meant those people who draw those airflow lines all over building sections. I was recently disappointed to learn it’s the new term for signage and wayfinding.
  • Decomposition continues for the material of architecture as a discipline which engineers a public relations envelope, a desired image for projects built around development gain or the concerns of image itself, as are many “cultural centres”, a typological trope beloved by both architects and their students.
  • Decomposition is an exotermic process. Once it stops, we’ll see stone-cold mineral remains of previously organic discipline. But decompositional heat can be mistaken for metabolic heat, creating a vision of a vibrant living system. hhhh I don’t know why I should be laughing … the analogy is all to apt – this mistaking of energy for life.  

Hazy conceptual soup remains in the profession, but we soon may see “design philosophy consultant” as a next big thing in architecture. We’ll have to watch for Design Philosophy Consultant Masters Program banners on architecture web outlets. It’s only a matter of time. Those three words already occur together in the similarly abstracted field of economic policy. 

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Design philosophy consultants may already be walking amongst us, for what’s a design philosophy consultant but a person who uses misleading narratives for perception management? If such people were to exist, they would make pre-emptive announcements of current concerns in anticipation of “proof” by projects only they know are in the pipeline. Those planted pre-emptive narratives would soon, invariably, come to be seen as prophetic.

• • •

To all architecture students out there,
best wishes and good luck!

8 thoughts on “Talking Shop

  1. Alia

    I find myself looking for any meaningful books / monographs about current practices. Not any practises. The ones that successfully applied unusual thinking process into their buildings. Not necessarily the proper Misfits – for example Bernard Tschumi would do. I’m tired of the usual 4 types of architecture books:
    1) architectural theory at its best – funny to read in a way crosswords are funny, especially when English is not your first language. Same goes for native publications anyway.
    2) architecture album – Taschen style or what not
    3) architecture musings – Rasmussen & Zumthor style books
    4) architecture in detail – Details, El Croquis, Phaidons dry facts is all
    It is too rare for architecture books to actually delve into any kind of architecture issues in a straightforward, more scientific approach. Ever since I started getting interested in architecture – and I was 15 at a time!, I marvelled at the pure form / no meaning idea of architecture books. Architects tend to keep their secrets to the grave I guess. Or there are no secrets most of the time. Simple design rules of money, law and Clinet The God. I do realize 99% of the time architecture is just wokr & craft and nothing more. And probably 99% of architecture books are eye candy only, but why is it so hard to find any delightful read these days? Am I too picky or what?
    I enjoy Volume magazine though, your blog too, and rare guest lectures when the starchitect actually aimed at something more than presenting his latest projects.

    1. Graham McKay

      I sympathise with your problem. We have to accept that anything in a book these days is probably going to be published because a publisher sees a market for it, rather than because it might be a worthwhile thing for someone to read and/or learn from. Self-promotion is probably the one thing that’s killing architecture right now. If there’s one thing worse than an architect presenting their latest projects, it’s an architect letting us know what their current “preoccupations” are. You might enjoy reading this. Graham. Good luck. If I find anything, I’ll let you know.

      1. Alia

        Thank you!
        I decided to reconcile with edx.org and learn about Asian architecture for the time being… Funny how European architecture history books pretend East never happened.

      2. Graham McKay

        That’s so true. The “history of architecture” is always presented as “the history of western architecture”. Perhaps it’s true. Other countries just had a history of buildings that they cared about and thought were important, and didn’t think of them as “architecture”. The whole concept might just be some dubious concept marketed as something to want – like MacDonald’s, or Hollywood. Other cultures had buildings that were important to them, but without any of the cultural baggage of what we know and is taught as architecture. The European history (as it is taught) assumes that other cultures thought the same about their buildings as we do ours. That’s not a correct assumption.

      3. Alia

        But taking care of holes in my education doesn’t count as “current preoccupation”, ok? ;)

  2. Robert Hart

    Architectural education is likely to continue along a misfit course until it becomes disciplined by a study of how we, human beings, actually experience the places being designed for us, and why we respond the ways we do.

    We’re taught about architects and buildings, but not about the people who see, hear, etc, use, judge, tell stories about, bond with, are thrilled or depressed or confused or comforted by what we build.

    Yet today’s sciences of human life — evolution, ecology, and the neurosciences — have matured to the point where we can begin to understand, with some confidence, what’s likely to be going on in a mind and body as they encounter architecture, and why.

    Our outdated intuitions are often proving wrong.

    I’m one of a number of architects — and there are a lot of educators — who are assembling and interpreting what some very smart scientists are learning. And I’m just beginning to see my book, “A New Look at Humanism,” addressed to young architects, applied in schools. I’ve been using it and more academic ones in practice.

    The inward-looking profession, though, wanting to believe that “architecture is an art,” doesn’t accept that art is in the eye of the beholder.

    1. Graham McKay

      Hello Robert – yes, I’m looking forward to your book arriving. I’m beginning to see architectural theory as a dehumanising agent. I’m more inclined now to trust my senses and, if that means the resurgence of building science rather than architectural representations of intellect or even beauty for its own sake then I’m happy with that. I think it’s time for a simplification of both architecture and education and a real humanism (rather than a representation of it) seems to be what’s needed.

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