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Models of Instruction

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LinkedIn and Lynda have cornered the market for delivering software credentials to job-insecure technicians [c.f. Learning Curve] but the delivery systems for architectural design skills remain primitive. This is because nobody’s really sure what architectural design skills are, let alone how to teach them. It’s not for lack of trying.

The Beaux-Arts

Over the centuries, many worthy architects received their education at the École des BeauxArts in Paris. The first American to do so was Richard M. Hunt who introduced the idea of the studio apartment to New York with his 1857 Tenth Street Studio. Henry Hobson Richardson was next back off the boat.  

Hunt sucessfully used the allure of the artist lifestyle to launch a new and useful housing product into the contemporary New York housing market. [c.f. The 1+1/2 Floor Apartment] Richardson’s contribution to American architecture is huge in a different way and his 1887 Marshall Field Store is a Chicago School classic.

For most architecture students, a Beaux-Arts education is disparagingly spoken of as copying the works of acknowledged masters, and to inevitably result in the heavily ornamented neoclassical architecture known as Beaux-Arts style.

Hunt and Richardson show that learning how to creatively apply knowledge to new problems is all one can ask of any education. Until 1968 it was possible to have a Beaux-Arts architectural education.

The Bauhaus

The curriculum and teaching methods of Gropius’ Bauhaus are often contrasted with those of the Beaux-Arts but rarely compared with the educational model Dr. Maria Montessori had been developing since 1897 (and which she successfully exported to America with the first Montessori school opening in 1930). Instead of being given direct instruction, Bauhaus students were encouraged to learn concepts from working with materials. They also made their own, well-documented fun.

Because the Dessau Bauhaus activities occurred in and around a piece of architecture, architecture students the world over since believed the people in these photographs are architecture students. Not so. Gropius continued his own architectural work while director of the Bauhaus but it never occurred to him to teach it. It was Gropius’ successor Hannes Meyer who introduced architecture into the Bauhaus study plan. Gropius and his reputation as an architectural educator arrived in America seven years after the first Montessori school opened.

We know more about Dessau Bauhaus teaching staff and where they went and what they went on to do than we know about any of its former students. No alumni famously benefited from this famous education spring to mind so, on this basis, The Bauhaus model of instruction wasn’t a success. We can also say the same for the Bauhaus under Meyer, and also under van der Rohe.

VKhUTEMAS is the name of the Russian state art and technical school that existed in Moscow from 1920. It’s called the Soviet Bauhaus because it had an architecture curriculum that taught architecture as shape-making but this is simply wrong because when Meyer introduced architecture to the Bauhaus curriculum he introduced it as building science.

Again, more is known about the VKhUTEMAS instructors than its students. What’s remarkable about the (Gropius) Bauhaus and the VKhUTEMAS models of instruction is how far they spread. We automatically assume this is testament to how good they were but it may just have been testament to how reactionary yet apparently modern they were. To this day, architecture departments in universities around the world have introductory courses with exercises in pattern and shape. Instructors still tell students to “play with it” in the hope something workable eventuates.

Taliesin and The Fee-Paying Intern 

Frank Lloyd Wright went and formed his own technical school, for that’s what it is when students pay fees to learn a trade. I suspect Taliesin was called a fellowship and not a school to avoid licensing and accreditation rules by having to deliver an approved curriculum. All the same, Wright must have delivered something of value if he could charge students to do his work for him. The graduate we hear most of is John Lautner. That’s him sitting down behind FLW in the image at right, above.

Le Corbusier’s office

Wright’s workers paid for the privilege but Le Corbusier’s worked for nothing, thus solving the age-old argument of who was the more progressive. José Oubrerie I’ve already mentioned [c.f. Career Case Study #9: José Oubrerie] along with Léonie Geisendorf who spent maybe six months in LC’s office as an intern but returned to Sweden in 1938. Would we look at her 1970 Villa Delin in Djursholm, Sweden, any differently if we didn’t know that?

Albert Frey began working in Le Corbusier (+ Pierre Jeanneret’s) office in 1928 as one of two full-time employees. Frey’s wiki claims Josep Lluís Sert as a coworker but this contradicts Sert’s wiki, so the other full-time co-worker may have been Kunio Maekawa as it was unlikely to have been the angelically objectifed Charlotte Perriand.

The charming Ms. Perriand, objectified.

Frey is said to have worked on the Savoye house that, in 1928, was stalled and going nowhere. Frey was however, and left in the middle of this masterpiece to find work in the USStaff turnover was high 1928-9. Kunio Maekawa arrived in 1928 as a full-time apprentice and fresh graduate from Tokyo Imperial University but returned to Japan in 1930 to work with Antonin Raymond who’d been a student of Wright’s. Maekawa established his own office in 1935 and was a key figure in post-war Japanese architecture. If you squint at some of Maekawa’s concrete buildings you can see a Le Corbusier. Equally, we can see Unité d’Habitations in Maekawa’s own house from 1942.

José Louis Sert already had an office in Barcelona in 1929 when he received a call from Le Corbusier to come work for him for no pay. Le Corbusier wasn’t in the office much 1928–1933 and in 1929 alone had seven projects on the go, not including completing VS and Volume I of his complete works, competition work such as for Palace Of The Soviets, and putting together a masterplan for Moscow on the side. 1929 would have been a bad year to be left running the office and it’s easy to understand why Sert was back in Barcelona within twelve months. Sert moved to America in 1939 to begin urban planning for South American cities. In 1952 he had a visiting professorship at Yale, from 1953-1969 was Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Design, and from 1953 had his own studio famous for many buildings and not just at Harvard. He received the AIA Gold Medal in 1981. [condensed from W.] I get the impression Sert would have had an outstanding career anyway. 

Jerzy Sołtan went to work in Le Corbusier’s office from 1944–1949 after being released from a prisoner-of-war camp. Soltan was invited by Sert to be a visiting critic at Harvard GSD in 1959 and made Professor of Architecture soon after. [How does this happen? I want to know.] He served as chairman of the Department of Architecture from 1967 to 1974, and stayed another five years after that. This obituary in Harvard Gazette states that “Throughout his tenure at the GSD, Soltan was an enthusiastic advocate for the design philosophy of Le Corbusier, which he summarized as “an architecture of imagination, metaphor, poetics.” Many of his students were to become well known architects, amongst them Michael Graves. At least one house (in Laconia, New Hampshire) exists from a two-year partnership (Soltan and Szabo) with another Harvard GSD professor, Albert Szabo.

Guillermo Jullian de la Fuente arrived in 1959 and (his wiki claims) was for six months Le Corbusier’s only employee after he’d fired all his previous collaborators. He was in the office for Carpenter Center, Bagdhad Stadium, and Venice Hospital, with work on that continuing at Atelier Jullian (and not at Le Corbusier’s atelier as I had imagined). He moved to America in the mid-1980s and had a successful later career combining teaching and practice

I mention all these people because this notion of education by osmosis seems to be the dominant paradigm today even though it’s hard to imagine what realtime design action there is to watch and learn from if everything is go-go-go in the office and every now and then the creative force breezes through on the way to somewhere, curating ideas along the way. 

Although much of the grunt work is outsourced today, starchitects still need trusty lieutenants to run the office just as much if not more than Le Corbusier ever did. The drill can’t change much. A new project comes in and a bunch of lowly-paid interns are asked to generate concepts that are unique yet at the same time identifiable as an office product but also fit with a projected marketing arc. This model of production is not world’s apart from the Beaux-Arts purported model of instruction by copying.


It’s a sad endgame for architectural education when architectural ability is harnessed for purposes so crass as corporate perception management but this new model for architectural production is perfectly suited to serve architecture’s new clients and provide a media sideshow for the rest of us. What a student-employee gains from working for a starchitect is learn how to replicate the same thing for themselves. At LC’s office, Sert and Maekawa soon realised they were overworked, underpaid, and underappreciated. The moment any employee realizes these three necessary and sufficient conditions to move on are present, they do. It’s slightly different with the modern starchitect office. Once someone has figured out how the system works and how to replicate the magic oneself there’s simply no point staying. The system obviously works for never in the history of the world have we had so many famous architects at any one time. They are replicating very quickly.

Universities have no part in this new system of architectural replication yet unwittingly validate it by having famous practitioners teach or give lectures. One would think famous practitioners would prefer to remain in the office teaching and nurturing their own employees either directly or by example but no. They’re not in business to educate or nuture the skills and talents of others. They are in business to exploit those skills for commercial advantage, along with other attributes such as enthusiasm and the willingness to believe in the eternal magic and mystery of architecture. It’s a basic business contract both parties enter into in expectation of mutual benefit. Once the skilled enthusiastic people are busy at work, the practioners can go off around the universities teaching. It’s an odd situation where nothing takes place where you’d expect it to. Students are exposed to big aspirations and expectations they don’t have the ability to comprehend or the skills or opportunity to apply but are impressed nonetheless. Employees, on the other hand, have the skills and the opportunity to apply them but only within a very narrow set of aspirations and expectations. Such a system places more value on high employee intake than on high employee retention, ensuring maximum “fresh idea” yield per square metre and for minimum payroll.

Never having revealed any interest in imparting architectural knowledge to anyone but Brad Pitt, Frank Gehry is doing his bit for architectural education with his new video course that costs US$90 for lifetime [his or yours?] access to 15 video tutorials. Internet delivery of video instruction gets top marks for accessibility and speed but fails on fundamental teaching methods such as interactivity and questions and answers that we’re encouraged to see as archaic. Having been around since at least the time of Socrates, questions and answers most definitely are archaic, but they’re not redundant. The absence of any need to read, take notes or even think critically about the content is also worrying. It says “FRANK GEHRY TEACHES DESIGN AND ARCHITECTURE” but teaching ought to imply learning and it’s difficult to see how students will be taught to creatively reassemble knowledge in order to solve new problems.

That doesn’t seem to be the point anyway.

“I have tried to give the students [!] insight into my process – how and why I did things,” Gehry says. “I hope this gives them the wings to explore and the courage to create their own language.”

The sole stated course learning outcome is for students to create their own language – hopefully. I suspect that that “I hope” is a legal disclaimer. If not, it’s an admission that expectations are low. The teaching methodology is similarly fuzzy. [bolding mine]

In his 15-part online course, Gehry will discuss his unconventional philosophy on design and architecture using case studies, progressive models and storytelling. He will also share his insights on the universal lessons he has learnt throughout his career as an architect and an artist. The course will also offer students glimpses of Gehry’s previously unseen architecture models and access to his creative process. 

If the actual instead of the virtual glimpsing of models, and the actual participation in real discussions of design philosophy, and actual access to (supposed) insights into (supposedly) universal lessons were sufficient to empower people to create their own language, then surely we would expect some of Gehry’s former employees to have done so by now. No name springs to mind. Gehry employees design in the style of Gehry with Gehry either tweaking their designs or sometimes even changing them completely! Again, we have a return to the Beaux-Arts model of instruction by imitation. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, only that we should call it for what it is.

The only aim of videos such as Gehry’s is to represent a concern for nurturing architectural creativity. The aim isn’t to instruct so one may as well spend one’s time flicking through Oeuvre Complete. Besides, any knowledge of substance is not going to be given away for a one-off fee of US$90 when it could be formulated into course learning objectives and then into a curriculum that could then be approved and accredited and six hundred times that amount charged per person over a five-year period. If something can be packaged and taught then it can be learned and evaluated. Gehry’s not spending his weekends grading submissions.

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  • Well said Graham. Last night, after reading your response to my impossible-to-answer question, I synchronistically read the following passage in the book, VISIONARY CREATIVITY: How New Worlds Are Born, by John Lobell: “The abilities of creatives are native to themselves… Either they have mastery, talent, insight, and creativity or they do not.” Wright said much the same thing about teaching someone a sense of proportion who lacks it (i.e., it can’t be taught). All of that might seem more than a little discouraging for those of us who want to develop those qualities, but as you said, we will have to define greatness for ourselves. And it also means we will have the opportunity to create our own models of instruction in order to actualize that definition.

  • Thanks for your post, but if past and present “Models of Instruction” did not and do not produce great architects, and they did not learn how to create architecture from a teacher, nor were they themselves able to teach anyone how to create architecture, what then is a Model of Instruction that would enable one to acquire that ability?

    • An excellent question David and one I’m still trying to work out the answer to. Targets, evaluation criteria and outcomes are all very well for the things that can be packaged and taught, but the important intangibles are extremely resistant. As you say, the question of where “greatness” (leaving aside for now how we’re going to define that) comes from, remains unanswered and I suspect it’s not going to be something that can be taught. Whether for teacher or architect, the object of any model of instruction shouldn’t be to create someone in one’s own image. I don’t think current models of instruction are all that bad. The ability to inspire and encourage are important. Students who know they want to contribute to the built environment are a good start. Good instructors can inspire and encourage students but good students that want to be kept challenged and learn can inspire and encourage instructors in a fantastic feedback loop. Those students will define greatness for themselves.

      This is the best I can do David, but I won’t stop thinking about this.

  • says:

    Thank you Mr. McKay for this post. Although I would need a bit of more time to read the whole content, albeit to it read leisurely.

    I am happy that the VKhuTEMAS is having an almost equal footing with The Bauhaus in terms of its impact on today’s design education. Some of my design colleagues has dismissed the impact of the said Russian school in its place in design history. But I teach it anyway, because I think it is an important part of history.

    More success to you and your wonderful blog!