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Existential Anxieties

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I’m having a bit of a time in my current BArch course. On the one hand I love design, I love the built environment and studying it. On the other hand this course is giving me the shits. It’s not so much the course is hard or the workload is high. It’s more the point that we are being schooled to think in specific ways that aren’t flexible and shut down critical thinking. It’s all about lauding Corbusier and taking the word of century old ideas as being gospel and please don’t criticise anything about our Gods and Masters etc.

I think I ran into trouble when we were asked to choose a beautiful building from a list of Priztker Prize winning architects and I couldn’t find a single building I liked or thought was beautiful. So I just chose one and did that and to hell with what I think. And I’m having to do that more and more as I progress, saying to hell with what I think.

What I’m questioning is why am I paying $30,000 to learn to throw all my ideas out the window and be schooled in how to think by people who haven’t come up with anything interesting for 100yrs. I don’t really care [right now] about being able to call myself an architect so I suppose I could just dump this course and study on my own what I like. But a part of me is saying, well have a good look at this formal education at least and then throw out what you don’t like about it later. But at least be educated.

Any insights?

There’s much that’s not right about architectural education and even ignoring the huge differences between schools, no-one’s really sure what makes a good architectural education anyway. Many schools for example will say they encourage critical thinking yet do everything to suppress it, or at least everything other than their version of it.

CommonEdge recently featured a review of the book Making Dystopia: The Strange Rise and Survival of Architectural Barbarism by James Stevens Curl. The phrase “critical assessment of Modernism” doesn’t actually mean much these days but it seems that this assessment of 20th century architecture is actually critical and controversial because at last some of those entrenched beliefs are being challenged and some skeletons aired. I’ve ordered a copy. You should find one too. Here’s another review. The book seems to polarize – reviewers are either for or against its argument. Let’s hope its “40 pages of preface and acknowledgments, 58 of dense endnotes and 42 of bibliography” go some way to balancing, if not unpicking, the legacy of Philip Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcock and their slim thin book. [Update 15/01/2019: I’m currently halfway through and amazed at how much I’m not enjoying reading a book about something I’m basically in agreement with. I’ll expand on this later.] In the same vein, another book you should find is Malcolm Millais’ “Exploding the Myths of Modern Architecture.” Here’s a link.

There’s nothing wrong with not wanting to believe the same things everybody else does. I’ve always believed not fitting in is healthy and that you can’t trust your instructors or your institution to give you the education you want. It’s essential you do your own exploring and shape your own. The Post-Modern Student is the working title of one of my current draft posts. The gist is that the post-modern student is more concerned with creating a successful representation of being a good student than in actually being one. This of course wouldn’t be possible without The Post-Modern Instructor who values this more. When the two meet we get exactly the situation you identified.

You’re quite right to think the sensible thing to do is stick with the “education” and just discard what you don’t like later. That way you’ll have a better chance of being in a position to make a difference. The built environment needs more people like you. Good luck with the rest of it.

• • • 

I’m not sure I want to become an architect. 

Dear Student,

That’s okay – you don’t have to call yourself one! It’s more important you like buildings and have a sensitivity to the whole range of things buildings are and can be and do. In primary school [I was perhaps 7 or 8] Friday afternoons were Art class and one Friday afternoon our teacher asked us to draw pictures of us doing what we wanted to be when we grew up. I drew a picture of a building and me in a car driving by – this is my memory of it.

When it came my turn to explain to the class what I wanted to be, I said I wanted to be a businessman and that this was me on my way to do some business. I didn’t yet know that buildings existed because it was somebody’s job to design them. The one that had made such an impression on me was the old Rothmans‘ offices on Great Eastern Highway – Australia’s Route #1. We lived on this road and we were always driving by this building in the family car as it was the way into town. My re-creation lacks the crayon of the original as well as its innocence. I won’t apologise for the one-point perspective as it’s not something one can unlearn (despite more and more students out to prove me wrong.) The building was a single-storey glass box on a three-foot brick plinth set on the expanse of lawn that existed before the highway was widened. A boxy black frame supported a shaded perimeter terrace. I liked the arrangement and the effect for what it was. In 1963 I never thought of it as a curious or even a skilful mashup of PJ’s Glass House and LMvdR’s Farnsworth House but, even now, I prefer it to the other two for it seems more like what they wanted to have been. The Rothmans’ building never pretended to be an idea that was a house and I still respect it for that.

The first real source of architectural information that shaped my likings was the Sunday Times’ “House of the Week” corner that featured an image of a house and a plan along with a few paragraphs of description. From this I learned the difference between Colonial, Conventional and Contemporary suburban houses, about the advantages of L-shaped vs. H-shaped plans, what was more suited to a corner block or capable of extension, and so on. Matti Suronen had still not invented his Futuro House so my dream house was an A-frame chalet with a spiral staircase.

When I was 14 or so, my mother used to bring home secondhand copies of Reader’s Digest magazines for me. In one I learned about Kenzo Tange and the upcoming Expo ’70 in Osaka. There was an image of his 1964 Tokyo Olympic Stadium and I thought it the most amazing thing I’d ever seen. The photograph I remember had the mound at the lower right as its foreground.

And so I tailored my education to become an architect, learning technical drawing after school and getting into the maths-science stream and at the same time reading all the architecture books in my local library. Most were general histories so, when I entered university I was thrilled to discover the library and how many more books and dimensions to architecture there were. I wasn’t a miserable student but I spent a lot of time in that library and, before my first year was over, had developed a definite thing for modern Japanese architecture, and had read all the back issues of Japan Architect, as well as Casabella and DOMUS. For much of my second year I carried around a copy of Kazuo Shinohara’s first book 16 Houses and Architectural Theory.

I applied for and received a Japanese government scholarship and did a master’s at Shinohara’s lab at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. I worked, didn’t work, worked, didn’t work, didn’t work some more, almost 20 years after graduating finally worked as an architect, and then a writer, and since 2009 have been an instructor and a blogger more or less concurrently.

My advice is this: Even if you don’t become an architect, it’s okay to like buildings and to learn about them and have ideas about how you would like them to be and to get yourself into some position where you can make a difference. This is all it takes to make you more of an architect than many. Good luck with the rest of it.

• • • 

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Comments

    • I never saw that connection but it’s definitely there, along with all those other Australian cottages with verandahs on at least three sides. The black verticals, the sliding doors and the outdoor walkway make me see a bit of Japan in it but I don’t think I mentioned that in the post and I certainly didn’t see it at the time. Whoever the architect was couldn’t have not known of Farnsworth House and Glass House but (only having recently seen some images again) perhaps it was the Paul Rudolph beach houses in the back of their mind.For me, knowing all this came later so the building still exists for me as a definitive thing that is all and none of those.

  • Hello I’m Nid, from Malaysia. Got to know your blog through Kevin Mark Low. and I’m settling up with my third year in Architecture. for all these years doing my diploma and degree i learnt not much. and it is as what you have written above. EXACTLY! designing for the grades. not designing for a proper content. They focus more on quantity instead of quality. You fulfill the requirements, then you’ve got an ‘A’. So basically, theres no deeper understanding on the projects and critical problem solving there. Its just so sad that the education system has become all upside down, and the ability to create a person who could produce a very good work has all been washed off… Sometimes i feel that in what ways am i able to apply what i’ve learnt all these while, even though knowing that it might not make any difference out there in the future.

  • says:

    Thank you for this post, I´m graduating in December and have the same doubts.

    Cheers,

  • Thankyou so much for these blogs. The spirit and content must ripple out and touch a lot of people both inside the profession and make its way into the built environment all over the world. I went to architecture school in the 1980s in St. Louis and worked my way over on a tanker to work for Sverre Fehn and then bounced around Paris and London and New York in my journeys – sometimes doing stints for other great names but most of the time doing “bread and butter” work and living life as best I could. I also had a brief experience for about two years teaching in architecture school as well as attending crits.
    Like your blog, posing the question why? is so important in todays world (and not only in architecture). It expresses ” I care” and “I believe” and in some cases ” I love” – all of these things that are essential and at the heart of our profession in making a better world yet somehow do not get qualified either in our professional systems or in many cases our schools.
    Unfortunately so much of our built environment manifests itself through other means and expresses the polar opposite – I dont care – I dont believe – I dont love – In this sense Architects and designers and their institutions have much to answer for regarding letting this happen, the state of our built world and its effect on the natural environment. Obviously in this sense, Architects and designers have failed and something needs to change.
    In my opinion, we need more people asking “why” in architecture schools and architecture programs to support them and we need more people to fight the good fight in making as Charles Eisenstein writes – The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible.

    All the best –

    • Thanks Robert – I sincerely hope so, although it’s only through feedback such as yours that I ever get an inkling. I’ll do this anyway but it’s nice to know that such people as yourself with equally non-linear CVs are out there enjoying architecture as well. I think everyone suffers from a perceived lack of options for ways to do it. It’s everyone’s built environment. I’m no grassroots populist – I just believe that people who care about the built environment should be the ones that shape it and I’m not convinced that’s always the case. Good luck your end!

      Graham