Category Archives: Education

The Formalist Canon

We all know what The Canon is but no longer know whether it’s taught because it’s important or important because it’s taught. Even the teaching is iffy if it refers to the perfection of ideas rather than the messy and imperfect realities of the buildings that represent rather than physically embody the grandiose claims made for them.

By perpetrating the notion that architecture is about the display of artistic genius, The Canon is about art and not architecture anyway and is thus invalid. I therefore propose The Formalist Canon (a.k.a. The Misfits’ Canon) as an alternate canon consisting solely of works by architecture misfits identified so far by this blog. All buildings in The Formalist Canon embody spatial or tectonic qualities unique to architecture. They don’t mimic those of sculpture, pretend to be those of music or allude to those of painting.

The misfit architects themselves are formalist in that they were preoccupied with buildings and their design, development and provision, and not with the fame and branding that characterises the non-architecture worlds of fashion, pop music and art. It is telling that none of these buildings or architects are “taught” today, or that it’s even thought they have anything to offer. To state the obvious: Formalist architects produce formalist architecture – buildings with characteristics that are unique to architecture. Everything else is churn for the sake of froth.

The Type F Apartment, Moisei Ginzburg and STROYKOM, 1927
Lesson: How to use minimal building resources to enclose useful building volume
Lesson: Imagining all aspects of the user experience

How to enclose useful space with the minimum of building resources will forever display the application of spatial and architectural intelligence. Vernacular examples abound but the Type F apartment illustrates how architects can apply themselves to the problem even if today’s conditions differ in elevators not being as prohibitively expensive as they were in 1927. If we are serious about the application of architectural intelligence to the problem of global resource depletion and how to manage what’s left, then we should be learning how to extract the maximum spatial and social benefit from the resources we have. The importance of the Type F is not that it can be objectified as a perfect object from its time and place but that it can teach us how we should be thinking.

How the floor and ceiling joists alternate to save building height and mitigate noise transmission is an example of how building construction can produce volumetric economies yet still embody consideration for the people who will live there.

The 20K House, Rural Studio, 2005–2017
Lesson: Incremental design improvement
Lesson: Economy of means
Lesson: Maximum efficiency of each element
Lesson: Integration of all components and elements
Lesson: Conventional technologies and standardized parts
Lesson: Design for minimal waste
Lesson: Identifying inefficiencies of process
Lesson: Architecture is about making life better for others

That’s a lot of lessons. These simple houses have much in common with high-tech fieleds of endeavour such as aircraft or spacecraft design that we are so proud as a society to associate ourselves with. These houses are prototypes but the incremental improvement of anything is not something that is or should be particular to any field. I only mention it because it’s curiously not a characteristic of architecture as we currently know it.

I’m told Rural Studio’s Andrew Freear is currently Loeb Fellow at Harvard GSD. The recognition is nice but I can’t help feeling homogenization at work. GSD students should be going to Auburn University rather than Auburn University instructors going to GSD.

Frais Vallon Housing, André Devin, 1955
Lesson: The application of spatial intelligence to produce variety within a system

I’m still not 100% certain I can attribute the design of this housing to André Devin but Devin was there at the right time. These plans are pure genius – a simple configuration enables four dual-aspect four-bedroom apartments to be accessed from a single corridor while leaving open the possibility of creating studio, one-bedroom, two-bedroom and three-bedroom apartments. Moreover, all bedrooms are on one side of the building and all living rooms on the other.

This building has much to teach. Like the Type F, it shows how the application of spatial intelligence can produce building configurations in which minimal space (i.e. resources) is used to access apartments and to move around inside them. Again, this has implications for resource management but what’s also noteworthy here is that all apartments are decent and none is better than any other in any way. The only differences are whether one goes up to the living room or down to the living room, and whether the stairs enter the 4 sq.m of necessary circulation space at the living room end of the apartment or at the bedroom end. It amazes me that such a perfect configuration never found wider application, or even wider recognition. This project sets the standard for the social and humane application of spatial intelligence. People need to be taught to appreciate what this building is doing, in the hope that it will encourage some gifted student somewhere to aspire to someday improve upon it.

Casa Borsalino, Ignazio Gardella, 1952 
Lesson: How to reconcile construction expediency and enhanced spatial experience

Gardella is the master of extracting every square centimetre of tangible and intangible value from a plan. Architecture “grasshoppers,” look and learn! In Gardella’s Casa Borsalino, the angle of every wall and the placement of every window and door makes perfect sense. Nothing is gratuitous, nothing is accidental. Notice how naturally bathroom and kitchen items find the angles the need to accommodate them? See how walls are angled to guide people through the spaces exquisitely contrived to be wide where they need to be wider and narrower where they need to be narrower? These spaces are alive – they breathe. They are at the same time minimal spaces in that they are no more than what they need to be. It’s just that Gardella had a different idea of what they needed to be. It might even be the case that these slight angles subtract from the net amount of space to achieve some net economy of resources but I can’t tell where or how.

Lassen House, Knud Peter Harboe, 1954
Lesson: The beauty of generic solutions
Lesson: The intelligence of planning for modules and repetition
Lesson: Designing for simplicity and clarity of construction
Lesson: Rejecting the “cult of craft”

To be honest, this house would probably not have been the same without Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House or PJ’s Glass House putting the idea in people’s heads that small houses could be architecture too. There the similarity ends because Lassen House doesn’t exist on infinite property and is not the result of precious materials such as travertine or contrivedly precious mechanicals and construction processes that don’t actually work. We look at houses like this and think their humanity comes from a bit of polished timber or painted brickwork, but it goes deeper than that.

E1027 Eileen Gray, 1927
Lesson: All architects aren’t men.
Lesson: Vernacular construction is fine.
Lesson: Solar orientation has a sensual aspect to it.
Lesson: Good things happen by not being so uptight about architecture.

Eileen Gray – the original femisfit. E1027 – the house that so spooked Le Corbusier that he set up shack behind it so as to faciltate stalking it and its owner. I’ve always struggled with the psychology of that, especially the bit where Le Corbusier defaced the house with his dubious murals.

I guess one man’s wanton vandalism is another man’s non-consensual defilement. No-one’s asking, but if they did, I’d like to see the house restored to a time prior to the murals but what I expect is that they’ll be restored and presented as “part of the story of the house”. Apart from the moral wrongness of this, it’s also a crime of educational negligence because the story of E1027 is a distraction that teaches nothing of actual use and deflects attention from the many useful things the house itself can teach us. 

Aligning a house so bedrooms face east and main rooms face south is the right thing to do. Illuminating the living room by a shaft of horizontal sunlight signalling the day’s end (and alerting anyone still napping on the day bed) is a thoughtful and poetic thing to do.

The old maxim “Don’t experiment on guests!” refers to new recipes and dinner parties but the same applies to architecture. There’s a relaxing comfort to be found in tried and true methods of vernacular construction, and sun and ventilation control. These don’t need reinventing.

Casa alle Zattere, Ignazio Gardella, 1958 
Lesson: Respect what’s already there
Lesson: Lose the ego, do your job well

An essay* I wrote about a year ago began “Not many architects are asked to build in Venice …” Ignazio Gardella was one of the few and he took that responsibility seriously, and discharged it admirably and to the best of his considerable skill. The internal planning of this building is a feat in itself, with rooms distorted ever so slightly to guide (from behind) the attention of their occupants to the view of Il Redentore [Palladio, 1592] across the Giudecca Canal. This is the construction of space for reasons not to do with the space itself, but its effect on the people in the space. It’s a development of the principles in Gardella’s 1952 Casa Borsolino. In the image below, the angle of the wall at the rear of the primary rooms on the south-west corner is inclined to oppose that of the external wall directing people to look away from Il Redentore across the canal to the south-east. This is not a forgotten skill. It was never taught.

Such spatial manipulation is so rare it’s not even a topic. We might marvel at Michaelangelo’s distortion of perspective in the Laurentian Library but forget to ask why it was necessary. What we are really admiring is Michaelangelo’s brilliance. Gardella’s used the quiet power of mute walls to solve actual problems and enhance the user experience. Those problems are not even apparent to other architects.

But that’s just on the inside. The exterior of this building was designed to be merge and become part of Venice. I won’t expand here on the many ways it does that. The building is not denying its presence by hiding through copycat contextualism, but nor is it an ostentatious display of good manners. It’s a building both of its time and not. It’s never been understood, appreciated, or taught. It’s Baroque in its technique (in all the best ways) but prior to the arrival of complexity and contradiction (and all the bad ways). It’s just doing its best to relate to its neighbours and respect what’s already there. This is the genius of Italy. Living with architectural history means a sensitivity that whatever one does might be seen to be part of it. It’s time Gardella was remembered as the architect who didn’t screw up Venice. Architects are still faced with problems such as the one Gardella faced yet nobody is teaching anyone how to approach a solution. He used a technique, not a style.

Isolato tra via Albricci e piazza Velasca Asnago & Vender, 1958
Lesson: Respect what is already there
Lesson: Lose the ego, do your job well

In this next image are four Asnago Vender buildings. They’re the four connected ones in the middle – there’s a sliver of the fourth at the far end of the block. Let’s have a look.

The corner sliver building is mirroring – but not exactly – the building on the corner opposite, its 2nd and 3rd floors are borrowing the colour of the masonry and the glazing is picking up the proportions. The blank wall on the side wall is picking up the proportions of the blank wall of the chamfer wall opposite. But it holds its own – as does the building next to it. And as does the last building on the corner of via Albricci and piazza Velasca.

The earlier buildings on either side are remarkable in their own ways but this corner building is representative of Asnago & Vender’s attitude towards architecture, the city and history. On two sides of this corner, the architects are working within a context they themselves have made, although they could not have been certain they would be the ones to add the final piece. The corner building is not a simple extension of the earlier adjacent buildings because now there’s a new building across a new corner to consider. And consider it does with its eccentric window sizing and spacing differing in increasing degrees as the corner is approached along its slight curve. Two windows break the sequence and alert us to the fact there is in fact a sequence. This is not Victorian “incident” for the sake of it. These two windows are the event that marks the corner and are the culmination of everything that has been set up along both facades. It’s not shouting, but it’s not total silence either – it’s there for you if you notice it.

I confess I love this building but don’t want to objectify it. It contains clues for how to build in the city and how to approach any building on any site. That my last two examples of The Formalist Canon are Italian from the late 1950s is probably no accident. There was something good going on back then. It wasn’t lost or forgotten. It’s just that the world that followed had no need for an architecture that was timeless, that effortlessly became a part of its context, or that was devoid of ego.

• • •

The Formalist Canon still has use for buildings from the traditional canon. For example, Villa Savoye is a good case study to illustrate what happens when design management and client management go wrong, as evidenced by the design changing after construction, with attendant complications and compromises for drainage and er … sewage.

• • •

A New Formalism

The Types Study (The Type F)
Architecture Misfits #24: Rural Studio (The 20K House)
Detective Story (Frais Vallon Housing)
Architecture Misfit #18: Ignazio Gardella (Casa Borsolino)
Architecture Misfit #15: Knud Peter Harboe (Lassen House)
Architecture Misfit #3: Eileen Gray (E1027)
*A Rationalist in Venice (Casa alle Zattere)
Architecture Misfits #26: Asnago & Vender (Building on via Albricci)
Architecture Myths #20: The Villa Savoye

Teaching & Learning

In my second undergraduate year I decided to learn properly how to play the piano. A music student in the same dorms recommended her teacher who lived nearby. I rang the doorbell. To me at nineteen, Mme. Alice Carrard was as old as only piano teachers can be and, after we chatted for a while, she gave me two tests. For the first, she sang a note and asked me to sing it. For the second, she asked me to extend my right arm, imagine I was holding an apple, and to then lower my arm and raise it again. I didn’t think I passed the first test and didn’t understand the second but she took me on as a pupil anyway.

Perth had only three piano teachers of Alice’s calibre so it was an honour. A fellow pupil I later got to know cheekily suggested it was because my first beard probably reminded her of her son Sandy, a nuclear physicist and violinist who lived on the other side of Australia. I never saw the resemblance. [That’s him in the photograph below the portrait of Alice.]

I soon found out about the apple. I was to not use my elbows to move my hands to or from the keyboard, but to always use my shoulders (to raise the elbows to raise the forearms to raise the wrists) to position my hands where they were needed to be. I learned that a pianist using their body like this makes a different sound. They don’t make huge or florid movements in apparent expression or lunge at the piano in sudden and dramatic displays of apparent emotion. Instead, they produce a very clean and crisp sound that suits Bach and Bàrtok and other highly structured music. It’s the way James Rhodes plays Bach and Piotr Anderszewski plays everything.

Alice was one of Australia’s living treasures. Born in Hungary in 1897 and a child prodigy, she studied at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music under professor István Thomán who himself had been a protégé of Franz Liszt. In or around 1915, Alice was instructed for a year by Béla Bartók. Were I to have become a great concert pianist, people would have noted my distinguished pedigree and been quick to acknolwedge the source of my talent. It didn’t happen. A necessary condition for greatness is the ability to communicate it.

It wasn’t for lack of trying. During one lesson as I was butchering some Schumann etude, Alice put her hand gently on my wrist to pause me and said, “Gràhàm, do you know you will never be a concert pianist?” I don’t remember my answer but I do remember being shocked. I’d always thought that with sufficient time and application (ok, neither of which I had) it would be possible. Somehow though, I knew she was right.

The key was always in the front door lock and students would quietly let themselves in and wait on the divan for the lesson before to end. From that divan, I saw Alice instructing in French some Vietnamese girl perhaps ten playing Debussy. Another time I saw her ask some angelic Polish boy which Chopin nocturne he’d like to learn next and, when he suggested whichever, Alice replied “No, you cannot play that until you have been in love!” One fateful day, I went in and sat down and David Helfgott was preparing for some upcoming concerto competition or performance, Alice playing the orchestra part on the MUSICA teaching piano, and David on the STEINWAY adjacent. In the middle of some passage Alice made him stop. “No David no – you must knit the notes together more!” David repeated the passage, knitting the notes together more, but again she made him stop. “No David – I said knit the notes but you must leave some air between them!” And I sat there as, dammit, he repeated the passage knitting the notes together more but leaving some air between them. So yes. I knew.

I continued with the lessons but we spent less and less time at the piano and more and more in her kitchen. Alice would rummage through the refrigerator for little tupperware containers containing things like ox tongue slices we would have on rye bread with avyar, accompanied by her special mix of six parts dry vermouth and one part sweet, funneled into a gin bottle and kept chilled in the fridge door and shakily poured into squat, thick-stemmed sherry glasses of a style popular in the 1970s. After, we’d sit under the almond tree in the middle of her garden, she’d bum cigarettes and we’d smoke until the next student arrived.

I’ve made it sound like the music was incidental but it wasn’t. For my first lesson, I was told to bring a copy of the Bartók-Reschovsky Piano Method [1913]. You can still buy it.


It contains graded piano exercises that begin as basic as you can imagine but are already training ears and brains as well as fingers. I can still hear them.

I remember this next page well. It was the first time I could concentrate on expression instead of having to worry about reading the music and getting the notes right. I was to later master a couple of pieces from the Magdalena Bach Notebook, most notably Minuet in G, but these two pieces were my finest moment.

Interspersed among the exercises were snippets of theory for instructors to explain in detail. The Circle of Fifths describes how the musical keys are all related and parts of the same thing. It’s the reason why, in movies at least, when the singer asks the pianist “Do you know such and such?” the pianist always replies, “In which key?” A couple of times I’d seen Alice launch into some piece that was by no means anybody’s standard number only to say “Oh, wrong key!” and begin again. She was seeing structures I wasn’t.

I could however, still appreciate that the atoms and molecules of musical beauty had a higher level of organisation that was able to be comprehended, even if not by me. I still treasure these memories. I am still sensitive to piano music and the enjoyment it can bring. I still suspect the foundation of beauty has something to do with the underlying structures of elements. And more than ever I appreciate what Messrs. Bartòk and Reschovsky did when they converted their knowledge of the piano into a book on how to teach and learn how to play one and, not only that, foster an awareness of what can be done with one.

Bartók was to do it all again on a much grander scale with TheMikrokosmos that ranges from Book 1 and its simple exercises and basic musical effects to Book 6 with its fiendishly difficult and complex pieces sometimes played as concert encores. I’ve only just noticed a method behind the names Bartók gave his 153 exercises.

  • Book I names such as #16: Parallel Motion with Change of Position describe what the hands are doing but very soon names such as #25: Imitation and Inversion begin to describe what the notes as well as the hands are doing.
  • Book II names such as #54: Chromatics describe more complex things the notes are doing.
  • Book III names such as #72: Dragons’ Dance introduce yet more complex effects as well as associations to go with them.
  • Book IV names such as #104a: Wandering through the Keys give associative names to what is being done.
  • Book V names such as #135: Perpetuum mobile still contain associations but they are now completely secondary to the effect.
  • Book VI names such as #142: From the Diary of a Fly are illustrative but absurd while others such as #143: Divided Arpeggios, #144: Minor Seconds, Major Sevenths or #145a: Chromatic Invention (III) are just names of effects we think of as “abstract” only because we don’t yet have any associations for them.

Book I

  • 1. Six Unison Melodies (I)
  • 2a. Six Unison Melodies (II)
  • 2b. Six Unison Melodies (II)
  • 3. Six Unison Melodies (III)
  • 4. Six Unison Melodies (IV)
  • 5. Six Unison Melodies (V)
  • 6. Six Unison Melodies (VI)
  • 7. Dotted Notes
  • 8. Repetition (1)
  • 9. Syncopation (I)
  • 10. With Alternate Hands
  • 11. Parallel Motion
  • 12. Reflection
  • 13. Change of Position
  • 14. Question and Answer
  • 15. Village Song
  • 16. Parallel Motion with Change of Position
  • 17. Contrary Motion
  • 18. Four Unison Melodies (I)
  • 19. Four Unison Melodies (II)
  • 20. Four Unison Melodies (III)
  • 21. Four Unison Melodies (IV)
  • 22. Imitation and Counterpoint
  • 23. Imitation and Inversion (I)
  • 24. Pastorale
  • 25. Imitation and Inversion (II)
  • 26. Repetition (II)
  • 27. Syncopation (II)
  • 28. Canon at the Octave
  • 29. Imitation Reflected
  • 30. Canon at the Lower Fifth
  • 31. Dance in Canon Form
  • 32. In Dorian Mode
  • 33. Slow Dance
  • 34. In Phrygian Mode
  • 35. Chorale
  • 36. Free Canon

Book II

  • 37. In Lydian Mode
  • 38. Staccato and Legato (I)
  • 39. Staccato and Legato (Canon)
  • 40. In Yugoslav Style
  • 41. Melody with Accompaniment
  • 42. Accompaniment in Broken Triads
  • 43a. In Hungarian Style (for two pianos)
  • 43b. In Hungarian Style
  • 44. Contrary Motion (2) (for two pianos)
  • 45. Meditation
  • 46. Increasing-Diminishing
  • 47. County Fair
  • 48. In Mixolydian Mode
  • 49. Crescendo-Diminuendo
  • 50. Minuetto
  • 51. Waves
  • 52. Unison Divided
  • 53. In Transylvanian Style
  • 54. Chromatics
  • 55. Triplets in Lydian Mode (for two pianos)
  • 56. Melody in Tenths
  • 57. Accents
  • 58. In Oriental Style
  • 59. Major and Minor
  • 60. Canon with Sustained Notes
  • 61. Pentatonic Melody
  • 62. Minor Sixths in Parallel Motion
  • 63. Buzzing
  • 64a. Line against Point
  • 64b. Line against Point
  • 65. Dialogue (with voice)
  • 66. Melody Divided

Book III

  • 67. Thirds against a Single Voice
  • 68. Hungarian Dance (for two pianos)
  • 69. Study in Chords
  • 70. Melody against Double Notes
  • 71. Thirds
  • 72. Dragons’ Dance
  • 73. Sixths and Triads
  • 74a. Hungarian Matchmaking Song
  • 74b. Hungarian Matchmaking Song (with voice)
  • 75. Triplets
  • 76. In Three Parts
  • 77. Little Study
  • 78. Five-Tone Scale
  • 79. Hommage à Johann Sebastian Bach
  • 80. Hommage à Robert Schumann
  • 81. Wandering
  • 82. Scherzo
  • 83. Melody with Interruptions
  • 84. Merriment
  • 85. Broken Chords’
  • 86. Two Major Pentachords
  • 87. Variations
  • 88. Duet for Pipes
  • 89. In Four Parts (I)
  • 90. In Russian Style
  • 91. Chromatic Invention (I)
  • 92. Chromatic Invention (II)
  • 93. In Four Parts (II)
  • 94. Once Upon a Time…
  • 95a. Fox Song
  • 95b. Fox Song (with voice)
  • 96. Jolts

Book IV

  • 97. Notturno
  • 98. Thumbs Under
  • 99. Hands Crossing
  • 100. In Folk Song Style
  • 101. Diminished Fifth
  • 102. Harmonics
  • 103. Minor and Major
  • 104a. Wandering through the Keys
  • 104b. Wandering through the Keys
  • 105. Game (with Two Five-Tone Scales)
  • 106. Children’s Song
  • 107. Melody in the Mist
  • 108. Wrestling
  • 109. From the Island of Bali
  • 110. And the Sounds Clash and Clang…
  • 111. Intermezzo
  • 112. Variations on a Folk Tune
  • 113. Bulgarian Rhythm (I)
  • 114. Theme and Inversion
  • 115. Bulgarian Rhythm (II)
  • 116. Song
  • 117. Bourrée
  • 118. Triplets in 9/8 Time
  • 119. Dance in 3/4 Time
  • 120. Triads
  • 121. Two-Part Study

Book V

  • 122. Chords Together and in Opposition
  • 123a. Staccato and Legato (II)
  • 123b. Staccato and Legato (II)
  • 124. Staccato
  • 125. Boating
  • 126. Change of Time
  • 127. New Hungarian Folk Song (with voice)
  • 128. Stamping Dance
  • 129. Alternating Thirds
  • 130. Village Joke
  • 131. Fourths
  • 132. Major Seconds Broken and Together
  • 133. Syncopation (III)
  • 134a. Studies in Double Notes
  • 134b. Studies in Double Notes
  • 134c. Studies in Double Notes
  • 135. Perpetuum mobile
  • 136. Whole-Tone Scales
  • 137. Unison
  • 138. Bagpipe Music
  • 139. Merry Andrew

Book VI

  • 140. Free Variations
  • 141. Subject and Reflection
  • 142. From the Diary of a Fly
  • 143. Divided Arpeggios
  • 144. Minor Seconds, Major Sevenths
  • 145a. Chromatic Invention (III)
  • 145b. Chromatic Invention (III)
  • 146. Ostinato
  • 147. March
  • 148. Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm (I)
  • 149. Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm (II)
  • 150. Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm (III)
  • 151. Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm (IV)
  • 152. Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm (V)
  • 153. Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm (VI)

Anyone who can play The Mikrokosmos beginning to end will without a doubt have learned how to play the piano. They will also have been exposed to a wide range of musical effects the piano can produce. They will also have been given an awareness of what a musical idea is and of what kind of ideas music can evoke. The Mikrokosmos is not called The Mikrokosmos for nothing. The Mikrokosmos probably does contain everything a pianist will ever need to know but IT DOES NOT TEACH HOW TO HAVE A MUSICAL IDEA. This is not a failing. Leading a person to the edge and leaving them there is all that can be done.  

However, IF a person has the gift of having musical ideas then all they have to do is:

  1. Have them, and
  2. Reverse engineer that knowledge to develop, detail and document those ideas for others to benefit.

• • •

• • •

This year there’ll be no Top Ten roundup. Rather than pick favourites or rate this year’s posts, I’m happy to look down the list and remember what a fun year it’s been. 

Thank you, and see you in 2018,




Models of Instruction

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 since 1920. It’s called the Soviet Bauhaus because it had an architecture curriculum that taught architecture as shape-making but this is plain 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.

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 or 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. Sort 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, 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 work 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 the 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.Baby_REMS

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 are not in business to educate or nuture employee skills and talents. 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 a odd situation with things not taking place where you’d expect them to. Students are exposed to big aspirations and expectations they don’t have not 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 [!] 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, but they are 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, as opposed to the virtual, the actual 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 we would expect some of Gehry’s former employees to have done so by now. No names spring 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 is not to instruct so one may as well flick through Oeuvre Complete. Besides, 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 over a period of five years. If something can be packaged and taught then it can be learned and evaluated. Gehry’s not spending his weekends grading submissions.

• • •






Twelve Books on Architecture

Introducing Architectural Theory [issuu, amazon] is a book that gathers together pieces of writing on various themes in architecture for the purpose of getting people – mainly architecture students – to do the following.


The first two, a. and b. – are absolutely necessary. So are the next two, c. and d. and must be passed through in order to get to e. have original thoughts.

The texts in the book are mostly well known and organized into functional groups such as Ornament & Austerity, Honesty & Deception, Function & Form and Natural & Constructed. But even if the selection of texts is balanced, the choice of functional groups is not. It implies they will continue to have relevance (for theory at least) and also that how we think about architecture in the future can be informed by how certain people thought about those aspects of it in the past. This isn’t necessarily true. You may as well go it alone and read whatever interests you, spice it up with whatever crosses your path, let it cook, and see what happens.

Here’s some I’ve read. It’s not an exhaustive list as some I haven’t yet finished and others haven’t yet arrived. Other books I’ve given away and some I’ve gifted, sometimes inadvertendly but I’ve learned something from each of the books in even this small selection. One of the things I learned is that just because a thought is original doesn’t mean it’s any good, although it may make it more likely to be taken, or mistaken, as such. Also worth remembering is that not all the writers were architects. For those that were, I’d recommend keeping in mind the difference between what they said and what they did.

• • •

Towards a New Architecture, 1923, Le Corbusier


Always fun. Read how Le Corbusier praises engineers for their pure thinking and how they applied it to objects that defined the age. See how he takes that thinking, adds to it all that people of the time thought virtuous about the architecture of ancient Greece, and then calls it new. In the chapter “Eyes That Do Not See”, Le Corbusier looks at various machines but sees them only as metaphors for a new architecture obeying old rules, rather than the genuinely purposeful architecture that was sorely wanted at the time.

• • •

The International Style, 1932, Henry-Russel Hitchcock & Philip Johnson


Another classic, whichever edition you have. Be appalled by the lack of argument, the shameless prejudice and the shallow, mean and self-serving agenda. When reading the image captions, be horrified by what the pair thought worthy of comment, and then by the comments themselves. It’s an ugly book and you’ll feel unclean after having read it but, unfortunately, that’s why it’s essential reading. It is wrong to claim The International Style was the first introduction to modern architecture for the US. Magazines such as Popular Mechanics introduced it first and to far more people. The difference is that Popular Mechanics introduced modern architecture as a new way of building, The International Style reduced it to art.

Related posts:
The International Style 1932
Architecture vs. Building
The Things Historians Do

• • •

The Minimum Dwelling, 1932, Karel Teige

TeigeThe Minimum Dwelling

The fact this translation came so late is a shame, for Teige’s is an actual voice from the past, contradicting the constructed narratives of historians. Karel Teige is Le Corbusier’s only contemporary critic we now know of because this 2002 book, originally published in 1932, was only translated into English seventy years later. Czech, German and Russian architects were blessed with architectural journals translating and communicating American and British developments but the lack of flow in the other direction implies occidental arrogance. You can read what architects of the time were really concerned about, and who actually said what at CIAM meetings. It’s dense with text and thoughts. When read in conjunction with the previous book, it’s shocking to see the difference between how modern architecture was understood in late ’20s/early ’30s Europe and how it came to be communicated.

Related post:
Architecture Misfit #9: Karel Teige

• • •

 Theory and Design in the First Machine Age, 1960, Reyner Banham


Modern readers will find this book difficult as it’s not written in Banham’s later and more readable journalistic style. It’s still well worth reading though, because Banham is the teacher you wish you’d had. He’s scholarly in a  good way. He doesn’t make unverifiable statements or attribute ideas to people to fit his argument, or without a thorough assessment of what information they could conceivably had had access to. His conclusions as to who thought what and who was influenced by whom are often at odds with accepted histories. The book was written over fifty years ago but is now a refreshing look at the fifty years before that.

• • •

 The Victorian Country House, 1973, Mark Girouard

the victorian country house

This book reminds you why books exist. It tells the story of these huge houses and the people who commissioned them and why. You read about technological advances, their failures and their successes. You learn how social conventions and pretensions were embedded in house plans as well as manifesting themselves in building size, massing and facades. You will learn that these buildings were a product of the people of their time, their aspirations, vanities and pretensions. It’s a bit gloomy when you realise how little has changed but, to counter that, Girouard’s writing is a joy and that’s something you don’t come across very often in books on architecture.

Kept out of polite society through her mother’s second marriage to a drunken clergyman, Lady Charlotte Guest married Sir John Josiah Guest, the Welsh ironmaster, and used his great wealth with skill and determination to establish their social position.

Related posts:
The Maximum Dwelling
The Maximum Dwelling: RESPECT

• • •

Exploding The Myths of Modern Architecture, 2009, Malcolm Millais


If you want to read what an engineer thinks about architecture and its myths, then Millais is your man. Millais’ rebuttal is founded in the realities of physical forces and so is better than most. Read it and then put Modern Architecture and its myths to rest. The real 20th century architectural crime against humanity is how the definition of architectural worth was shifted away from buildings aspiring to provide a real social utility, and towards buildings providing only the appearance of one.

Related posts:
Architecture Myths #23: Architecture
Architecture Myths #22: Biomimesis
Architecture Myths #21: Total Design
Architecture Myths #20: The Villa Savoye

• • •

 The Language of Post-Modern Architecture, 1973, Charles Jencks

I once read an academic paper written about the books of Charles Jencks. I quote from Taylor & Francis Online.

This paper will discuss Jencks’s historiography of Post-Modernism by looking at the seminal texts that he wrote from 1970 until 2007, beginning with Architecture 2000 and ending with Critical Modernism. The main focus of this article is critically to examine his major work, the Language of Post Modernism, and to trace its evolution as a means of evaluating his contribution to the development of this movement, as well as to architectural historiography.

First published in 1973, we’ve all grown up with some edition of The Language of Post Modern Architecture. A succession of covers and revisions created the appearance of prolonged relevance and pushed its rediscovery into the future, thus making space for something even more egregious.

• • •

Yes Is More, 2009 Bjarke Ingels


The scary brilliance of BIG’s architecture is how it reduces buildings to easily comprehensible images. The scary brilliance of the book is how it reduces architecture to easily comprehensible images. Neither is a healthy development. The book spreads its simplistic message as efficiently and ruthlessly as the plague but do not think the book simplistic. It is a sophisticated and ruthless marketing tool for a hugely successful architecture and publicity machine. Its comic book format is not the first time text was used to ornament images but it hastens the death of language all the same.

Related posts:
Moneymaking Machines #4: 2 World Trade Center (14% More BIG)

• • •

The Autopoiesis of Architecture, 2011, Patrik Schumacher

If you don’t want to buy the book, let me know and I’ll give you my heavily annotated copy as soon as I finish reading it. I should warn you that I began reading Volume I in October 2012! But my offer stands. I’ll toss in a mint-condition Volume II.

• • •

The Architecture of Neoliberalism, 2017, Douglas Spencer


The antidote to the previous three books or, if you haven’t yet read them, the vaccination.

• • •

Against Architecture, 2012, Franco La Cecla

“A passionate charge against the celebrities of the current architectural world: the “archistars.” La Cecla argues that architecture has lost its way and its true function, as the archistars mold cityscapes to build their brand with no regard for the public good.”  An interesting notion – I think La Cecla might be onto something!  

• • •

The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, 1999, Helen Vendler


This book has more to do with the guts of architecture than some of the others in this list. Vendler takes each of Shakespeare’s sonnets and identifies and analyzes the poetic devices and mechanisms by which Shakespear managed to construct such breath and depth of poetic meaning and beauty. With some sonnets it’s their structure, with others their rhythm or onomatapaeia, and still others the strength or combinations of allusions, associations or imagery. They all work within the constraints of the sonnet and the conventions of Elizabthean language.

“During the nineteenth century, the study of Shakespeare’s sonnets was governed by a biographical agenda. Later, it was also governed by the “universal wisdom” agenda: the sonnets have been mined for the wisdom of friendship, the wisdom of the acquiescence to time, the wisdom of love. But I’m more interested in them as poems that work. They seem to me to work awfully well (though not everyone thinks so). And each one seems to work differently. Shakespeare was the most easily bored writer that ever lived, and once he had made a sonnet prove out in one way, he began to do something even more ingenious with the next sonnet. It was a kind of task that he set himself: within an invariant form, to do something different—structurally, lexically, rhythmically—in each poem. I thought each one deserved a little commentary of its own, so I’ve written a mini-essay on each one of the one hundred and fifty four.” [from Paris Review]

For her efforts, Vendler has been criticized as “clinical” and her analysis as “forensic”. These days, her book is marketed as a companion volume to understanding the sonnets in order to pacify those who prefer to worship the unknowable magic of creative genius, and whose only wish is that it remain unknowbale. However, for those wanting to see how one man mastered the techniques of his trade and put them to good use, I know no better textbook.

Related Posts:
Aesthetic Effect #3: COMBINE


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.


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?


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.


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. 

design philosophy consultant

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!

Architecture Misfits #27: The Analog Student

If Architecture itself is a myth then what are architecture students supposed to believe in? Architectural education is often thought to be reactionary and unresponsive to market forces but my perception is that it’s attuned all too well. There’s no shortage of digital students who’ve picked up on image and perception management being everything. For them, architecture is an endless learning curve of new software skills. Their modern career begins with being accepted into a starchitect intern farm where they’ll compete to generate daring development envelopes and appropriately dramatic or atmospheric visualizations. But what becomes of the analog architecture student who has a complete set of skills no longer needed to produce this new architecture of the present?


Being able to see the bigger picture is not something wanted by employers despite the analog student being more likely to know what’s important by having observed it and processed it.

big picture 1

big picture 2

The analog student will generate proposals that succeed as visual compositions even if they are no better or worse than any other student at balancing the equally real contexts of urban planning and development gain. Their problem is with perception management. They don’t understand how the new modern architect “sees” physical context as a driver to generate forms representing the future of global society, and how this is more important than satisfying any provincial concerns. The bigger picture the analog student sees is not the new and bigger one.

Sketching has no place in the new way of doing architecture. We already knew this since sketching isn’t a skill employers are advertising for. It may be quicker when it comes to communicating an idea but, when the only type of idea needed is a crowd-pleasing shape that maximises development gain, Sketchup is sufficient to model the magical ROI+α volume. On the perception management side of things, everyone’s happy with digital visualizations because they “look more real”. The real problem is that sketching is thinking and, as such, poses multiple threats to the new architecture.

It’s evidence someone can observe and decide for themselves what’s important. Not good. 

It’s evidence someone is trying to understand something for themselves. Again, ungood.

It’s evidence someone is weighing alternatives – a subversive activity in a world where the best solution is the one presented loudest.  

Sketching is evidence someone can imagine something, can think of how much nicer something might be – and that’s absolutely the last thing wanted. 

Finally, sketching is evidence someone enjoys having their eyes, brain and hand work together. It displays a shocking lack of reverence for our new digital technologies and the 0-1 world they are being used to create. 

Physical modelling skills similarly have no place in this new way of doing architecture. Everyone wants perfect 3D printing NOW so the human link between idea and modelmaking can be eliminated in precisely the same way as the new architecture attempts to eliminate all trace of the human labour that went into its production.

As it is with sketching, making a physical model shows someone wants to understand something and this is not the way to impress zeitgeisty architectural employers intent on providing an architecture of affect that’s beyond understanding.

Software skills aren’t exclusive to the digital student as the analog student is not ignorant when it comes to software.

The analog student is likely to be an AutoCAD user because, much like a pencil, it doesn’t do anything unless you push it. The analog student sees no beauty in the object libraries enthusiastically embraced by digital students sensitive to time and labour efficiencies. The analog student views object library parts as external intrusions that are flawed in principle as well as by overdesign, overcomplexity, excessive file size and inherent bugginess. The analog student measures real things that work and then designs their own components to be clean and light. Analog students don’t map other people’s textures.


Ultimately, the problem the analog student has with digital tools is the same problem they have with analog ones. They insist on using them to either design things their own way or to understand things their own way. They use technology on their own terms and for their own ends. As such, they have all the signs of a misfit architect.

гвоздильщик (2)

What place is there for the analog student? They have the complete set of skills not required of those who are to generate our brave new architecture.

• • •

the analog architect

Analog Student!

We hope there will be a place for you sometime soon.
In the meantime, wherever you are,

misfits salutes you!

• • •




Learning Curve

If you’ve been wondering what skills were most in demand at the top 50 architecture firms [according to a 2013 Architectural Record Top 300 Architecture Firms study], Black Spectacles has already surveyed 928 job postings and compiled the software and other requirements listed for each job. Well done them!  


“In summary, for software skills, over 70% of architecture jobs require Revit skills, and over 50% still require AutoCAD skills.  The #3 software skill required is Sketchup.  We must admit that we were disappointed (but not surprised) to see that Grasshopper was only required for 3% of the jobs.  And good old-fashioned hand-sketching was only explicitly called out in 4% of these jobs.

The authors admit that taking only the top firms skews the survey towards the larger ones, which of course implies a certain kind of top-down production system. The demanded software therefore reflects the office hierarchy. Documentation software such as Revit and AutoCAD figure largest. Communications and presentation software not so large, and aids to creative thinking such as sketching hardly at all. Offices don’t need a surfeit of creatives.

• • •

Here’s a quick rundown on some of the programs architects should have experimented with, perhaps adopted, and almost certainly discarded for ones less obsolete.

Computer-Aided Design Programs

Off the top of my head, I can think of MiniCAD, AutoCAD, Vectorworks, Microstation, AutoDesk, EasyCAD and TurboCAD. There’s many more out there and many have C-A-D as part of their name. Equally many people will advise on which is best for you.


Let’s follow the Architecture link.

Many an architecture student’s first introduction to CAD will be AutoCAD. Most students will have access to several versions and copies and people to teach them how to use it to draw plans, elevations and sections without getting their hands dirty or having to worry too much about accuracy. Making sure the elevations match the plans and the plans match the sections takes as much skill, care and time as it ever did.

Building Information Modelling

ArchiCAD has always been a struggler in the market due to poor choice of diffusion model in the early years. While AutoCAD was being given away to schools and businesses, ArchiCAD was expensive and had a complex system of hardware dongles purposely limiting any dissemination that wasn’t fully paid for. It was a shame because ArchiCAD was the world’s first CAD program with an integrated BIM and 3D functionality that no other program could match until Revit sort of did twenty years later.

Revit has leapt to the forefront very quickly and many people are amazed by how it revolutionalized the production of architectural drawings.


Visualisation Programs

“2D plans have long been the bane of designers when it comes to communicating ideas to clients, and humble concept boards and elevations can only do so much.  As such, more and more designers are turning to 3D which real, authentic and visual.” 

Some CAD programs have integrated visualization capabilities. It’s good to see cherry trees have finally made it into object libraries. [c.f. The Things Architects Do #11: Cherry Blossoms]


Google SketchUp has been around since the early 2000’s and was an instant hit with architects and designers who could not or were not able to sketch. 

“[It] is one of the most widely used and easy to learn 3D Modeling software packages on the market today. With SketchUp’s ability to use plug in software, such as V-Ray, iRender and Shaderlight, designers can take a basic 3D and morph into one that can (and will) get their ideas over the line in a manner in which clients can understand.” [ref.]

3D Studio Max was many an architecture student’s first introduction to texture mapping.


ARtlantis has also been around a while. It was one of the first rendering packages to enable control over lighting and illumination effects, and offered a choice of rendering engines. Maxwell and VRay were popular choices. Here’s a quick tutorial showing you how to set an Artlantis scene to be rendered with [in? by?] Maxwell.

And here’s one on how to export your SketchUp Pro 2013 model to ArtLantis Studio 15.

Here’s one on how to use the new VRay for Revit

Here’s a link to motionographer Alex Roman’s turgid film The Third and the Seventh,


and another link to an interview.


Maya was breathtakingly refreshing when it first came out but is now just part of the furniture.

“Bring your imagination to life with Maya® 3D animation, modeling, simulation, and rendering software. Maya helps artists tell their story with one fast, creative toolset.” [ref.]


You can bring your imagination to life, if you dare.


You can use time to animate a cube mesh, if that’s your thing.


Here’s a YouTube tutorial on skinning rigging and applying mocap data.


Of all of the rendering sofwares, Lumion was perhaps the most welcome. It produced images that may have been incredibly cheesy but it was difficult to make something look really ugly.

Parametric Modelling Programs

Rhinoceros 5

Rhinoceros is primarily a free form surface modeler that utilizes the NURBS mathematical model. Its application architecture and open SDK makes it modular and enables the user to customize the interface and create custom commands and menus. Dozens of plug-ins available from both McNeel and other software companies complement and expand Rhinoceros’ capabilities in specific fields like rendering and animation, architecture, marine, jewelry, engineering, prototyping, and others.

“You can do anything with Rhino“, they say. “Can one really?” I say.


Here’s the Grand Staircase of the Titanic.



This is a visual scripting language for Rhino. It lets you do things like parametric rosettes and weaves, sine functions and transformations, solid difference, kanagaroo tags, voronoi boxes and lots of other stuff you didn’t even know you couldn’t do.


“For designers who are exploring new shapes using generative algorithms, Grasshopper® is a graphical algorithm editor tightly integrated with Rhino’s 3-D modeling tools. Unlike RhinoScript, Grasshopper requires no knowledge of programming or scripting, but still allows designers to build form generators from the simple to the awe-inspiring.” 

Their website will get you started with tutorials.


Energy Modelling Software 

eQUEST is probably the quickest option and is also free. This tutorial will walk you through the basics.

“Keep in mind that it focuses almost solely on energy and that load design in eQUEST should be limited to the experts. Check out this video that shows how awesome eQUEST is!”

TRACE 700 “… is a great option if you need to do Load Design + Energy. Tell your boss to suck it up and buy it for you. It comes with free support.” [ref.]

IES“Investigate suitable bioclimatic strategies even before a line has been drawn, and connect from SketchUp™ or BIM packages. By enabling informed sustainable design decisions you can be confident that the VE for Architects helps you deliver ambitious performance goals while seeking opportunities to keep costs appropriate. In fact, as top engineers use advanced IESVE tools you can easily collaborate and exchange models with them as you progress – facilitating an improved integrated and data driven process.” [ref.]

Here’s a tutorial for how to use IES Light with V-Ray in Sketchup. How awesome is that!

Urban Design Programs

City Engine lets you make bold and sweeping inteventions relating to site density and height across entire cities, and provides you with updated floor areas and thus presumably return-on-investment as you go. If that all sounds a bit mercenary, we are reminded that CityEngine is used by several major animation studios and visual effects houses for the creation of digital sets of urban environments.” [ref.]


This test image was generated with CityEngine and has 1.135 billion polygons, no instancing and is rendered in 22 gigabytes of RAM.

• • •

A few observations.

1. Nothing’s changed.

No matter how skilled you become at using any or all of these software packages, you’ll still be a technician – someone who executes the ideas of others. No office needs a surfeit of people who can use a felt-tip.


Person using a felt-tip.

2. Nothing is used to its maximum potential.

All this productivity software results in highly contrived and inefficient workflows as a consequence of offices having legacy software and staff having different types and levels of legacy skills. For example, a head of architecture might “sketch” a building in AutoCAD 2000 because that’s all he knows how to use. That might then get passed to a graduate who has a copy of Rhino to “extrude” it so it can then be exported to SketchUp for preliminary work on elevations while being further embroidered in Revit. None of these programs is being used in the way for which it was designed to be used. And even if they were used in some far superior string of hocus-pocus, everything will ultimately be put onto a USB drive as a PowerPoint presentation to show the client at 1024 x 768 dpi on whatever IT/projection system there is in the boardroom.

The longevity of AutoCAD in the industry shows that software innovation and endless learning are unnecessary. Buildings are still being designed and built using legacy technologies in inefficient and illogical ways, only even more so.

3. Nobody knows it all.

If digital models are exported around the office into formats more suited to the task or the skills of the person actually performing the task, then the same is true for collaborations outside the office. File conversions are routine as is the loss/addition of information along the way. Municipalities may request submissions as Revit files but that doesn’t mean the project was designed using Revit or that Revit will be used for further documentation or detailing.


Nothing is ever enough

“Software skill requirements fell predictably along experience lines, with lower experience requiring more software skills.  The exceptions were in AutoCAD & Photoshop where the difference between the requirements of 0-3 years & 11-20 years of experience was over 20%.  The next largest difference was in Revit at 14%.” [ref.]

In other words, the most poorly paid are expected to be the most productive. This is no surprise. For a monthly subscription fee, will teach you how to use Revit and many other new packages suddenly indispensible for getting you a new job or letting you keep the one you have.

Lynda is linked to LinkedIn, the site that monetizes job dissatisfaction and insecurity. Just as you can never learn enough, you can never be too dissatisfied or too insecure.

The online software instruction industry has shown sharp growth. Not only are employees agressively targeted and made to feel as if they must stay up-to-date to retain their job, but the unemployed are also preyed upon. Devoted instructors plant ideas like the “self-education trap” and describe in terror-inducing detail how you may not learn of some essential feature if you teach yourself.

Also targeted are the pre-unemployed, a.k.a. students. Students have a natural insecurity about the quality of their education which, coupled with questionable career prospects can easily be leveraged into them paying substantial money in the false hope of being able to design better. The slickest software school setups have a vast media presence promising “cool speakers in free seminars” and all the other paraphernalia of media-fueled architecture practice.

3. ‘Those that can, exploit. Those that can’t, defraud.’

It’s that old adage again, this time expanding downwards into lesser but larger markets. If you’re still unemployed after having paid good money to learn all this software, you can still claw some of it back by taking classes to become a tutor. You’ll learn how to replicate a Shanghai supertall from an image and then move onto some megamansion you’ve almost certainly seen online. Some of the old favourites are still around to let students think they’re getting closer to design.


This is an example of ArtLantis being used to add texture to SketchUp. [Nobody ever seems to notice the huge hill behind the house.]

It’s rare the class that will pose design problems of increasing complexity that require the software to be creatively used in order to solve them. Mostly, copying is presented as designing and is accepted as designing. It sounds like a scam when aggressive mis-selling meets the suspension of disbelief. Or, it could be we’ve unwittingly reverted to the old Beaux-Arts system of learning by copying. If that’s the case, then two things:

  1. Copying is probably all that was ever necessary.
  2. The Bauhaus-style of architectural education created its own market in a way not so different from today’s software teaching schools. It artificially divided the workforce into a self-replicating system consisting of those who know and those who think they need to know. Those who know could teach others what they knew and, once they did that, could then teach them how to teach others what they knew.

Teaching now means teaching how to use software but how, and to do what? If those software ‘skills’ are best taught by copying then we’ve definitely returned to the Beaux-Arts style of teaching architecture.


The snag in the system is that the software developers and vendors are better placed to teach people how to use their products, and to teach people how to teach others.


Institutions of higher education need to think very carefully about the type of value they supposedly add. 

5. Nobody’s saying anything about design.

Software is concerned with the production of production drawings and marketing materials – there’s never mention of anything that stimulates the generation of ideas. This is because there’s no software that replicates the ability of the human brain to take diverse types of information and make both controlled and random associations to indicate where a solution might lie. It’s the creative process in its widest and truest meaning. 

Parametric design approaches are not what I mean because some vital information may resist quantification or even conscious identification. Genetic algorithms are also not what I mean. They also use only quantifiable information yet more closely approximate the creative process by bringing the brute force of computational power to the tried and trusted feedback loop we know as Trial And Error.

Adherents of both approaches claim that being able to explore “entire” [?] universes of possibilities assists the design process. The difference though is the type of design process being assisted. Parametricism tends to be used for form-finding “problems” and the solution found when the process stops and a solution decided upon – as ever it was.  Genetic algorithms tend to be used for multi-variable environmental problems and generate mutations of variable combinations until they converge on the optimum combination. It’s a bit like evolution, hence the name. 


Even if we overlook the diminishing importance of the ability to sketch architectural ideas, employers indicate no preference for where or how those architectural ideas are supposed to come from. It’s safe to assume clients don’t either. It adds negligible value to the product. Once again there’s no lack of people offering advice and instruction.


The generation of concepts provides a welcome relief from existential worries at institutions of higher education and is a source of professional pride for tutors, and grief for students as they attempt to magick a building out of less than nothing.


“the starting point was ‘bones’ … “

Some job advertisements request “design flair” but this could be just a ruse to flush out those who think they have it. Starchitect employees have already expressed their desire to work for a pittance in order to breathe the same air occasionally. That’s why they’re there.

6. Nobody’s saying anything about anything else.

The ability to hand-sketch was low down the list of desirable qualities for architects to have. A knowledge of history – or even an awareness of the role of buildings in society –wasn’t even identified as a skill let alone rated as one. History is still taught yet nobody knows why. It’s not on any employer’s wish list so it too can’t be anything clients value or would like to see valued.

The rejection of the Beaux-Arts’ revered history, the Modernists’ abstracted history, the Post Modernists’ caricatured history, and even the urban pragmatists’ what’s-already- there view of history means that we’re left with Futurism all over again, only this time it’s a mannerist and pan-global one fuelled by clients with the agendas to encourage it and the money to build it.


I’ve begun reading this [thanks Tim Waterman]. I expect it’ll be preaching to converted but every now and then it’s good to read a book that articulates what one had been suspecting for a long time. At £67 for the e-book, it’d better be better than good or else I’ll think I’m trapped in a system where thinking about architecture is produced and consumed like software, and with as little to show for it. I don’t expect to be getting my money back any time soon but I’ll let you know if I think you should part with yours.