Monthly Archives: April 2012

Amateurs Borrow, Professionals Steal

In most creative professions there is a link with the past. Artists often emulate predecessors as a point of departure, and usually add something that transforms and makes unique, at the same time creating a continuity. Contemporary visual arts is heavily indebted to borrowing from culture. Music as well builds upon the work of others. Contemporary architecture is not alone in the creative professions in seeming to defy this way of making, but it certainly is something of a defining characteristic. Those who seek to work in a way that can trace roots is somehow deemed unoriginal or derivative.

Neil Denari once said “I am original in that I have origins.” He is one of the most creative and original architects working today, yet he acknowledges his connection with those who came before. Fresh from reviews yesterday where this issue came up, this post is for students who resist the critiques of their studio instructor because the idea did not originate with them, but with the instructor. We are all part of a continuity. We are bound together by common language and culture. The ideas you may have are part of a larger context. No man/woman is an island. Take these ideas and run with them as if they were your own. If your professor has suggested something, it is likely because of something that you have put forward, and s/he is merely riffing on it.

To be clear, I am not advocating plagiarism, or blindly copying and pasting things. The development of a project requires a certain organic organization, from concept through to application. But we need role models. We need to be able to decode the rule sets of others as a guide for establishing our own rules. We need to be inspired by those masters who came before. A good idea is a good idea. Architecture is a collaborative enterprise. Architecture is almost hopelessly complicated. We need to be receptive to ideas regardless of where they come from in order to cut through that complication and arrive at a level of clarity.

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Sustainability in the Curriculum at CCNY

I have joined the curriculum committee at CCNY, and have volunteered to do work on the “sustainability” curriculum. Part of my task is to review what other schools do. In reviewing the curricula for about 10 schools, it is apparent that not much difference exists between SSA and most other schools in terms of the overt curriculum. Most schools have some variation of 9-10 studios in the undergrad curriculum, 3-4 history theory courses, and usually a technology sequence of 2 structures classes, 2 materials and assemblies classes, and 2 environmental controls classes.

What becomes important lies below the surface. I contacted Alison Kwok, who is one of the most recognized green building educators, and her response was:

“Really depends on the mission of the program.
–are studios taught by ALL faculty or are studios taught by designers and are the technology people separated/included/integrated at all?
–how many tenure related faculty have technology backgrounds? (of 32 Oregon tenure related faculty , approx 1/3 are teaching ECS, structures, construction . . .)
-how many green electives are offered? (again that depends on how green is defined)
-what kind and how many galvanizing activities/programs on campus and in the department?

I guess those would be my criteria.  Critical mass is essential. Without that, change doesn’t happen, from the faculty and the student side.”

Kwok’s comments pretty much sum it up. Without the buy-in on the part of all faculty members who teach in the design studios, at least in the levels that the school determines that such teaching be the focus, this is a failed project.

So, how to achieve buy-in? The answer isn’t to bend all faculty to the will of the technological, but how to erect a scaffold for the curriculum that promotes the goals of teaching green building while at the same time allowing room for the individual design instructor to pursue her/his own agenda. A level of academic freedom is essential in a school of a creative discipline. Architecture is a hopelessly complicated discipline. Issues of form, structure, occupation, and urbanity are important pursuits. I doubt that any individual faculty member is a climate denier, or thinks that green building is a worthless pursuit. But people develop expertise in various areas, and it is counterproductive to ask that they potentially bag decades of research and teaching. These pursuits are still valid questions. So let us look at how we use our resources (i.e. faculty).

My own feelings are this. We need to rephrase the questions we ask. To quote Le Corbusier: “The airplane shows us that a problem well stated finds its solution. To wish to fly like a bird is to state the problem badly… to search for a means of suspension in the air and a means of propulsion, was to put the problem properly.” If we look at the current Sustainability Matrix, we see that the first semester first year is devoted to “Introduction to principles of form; basic craft.” The sustainability agenda is “introduction to sustainable design thinking, global warming, development projections; and history, theory, concepts, and philosophy of sustainability.” To be honest, I’m not even sure what this means. What if we changed the overall focus? Could we instead say “introduction to air, earth, light, and water?” The principles of form and basic craft could still be taught, but in service to a larger agenda. Consider light: perhaps a light pavilion, or perhaps scale-less. How to create interior and exterior space defined by ideas of light? Ask students to consider time in relation to sunlight. There are many approaches – texture, reflection, translucence, change. Other problems become dependent upon this. The goal isn’t necessarily a high performance building, but awareness, creative exploration.

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Lebbeus Woods

This is a show not to be missed – Lebbeus Woods: Early Drawings. An amazing amount of work – I’ve never seen so much of his work collected in one space other than a book. Especially startling are several series that, according to the dates, were done in a single day. One set in particular is 30 drawings all done on 16 Dec 1997. I’m not even sure of how it is physically possible, let alone mentally possible, to generate so many images.

For students what is especially significant is the material and formal invention. Material is so tangibly evoked with a few pencil strokes. Also evident is material weathering – the patina of age. The worlds presented are simultaneously familiar yet foreign. The architecture seems technologically possible using today’s means and methods. Though some of the apparatuses are unfamiliar, so, too, were TV antennae and cell phone towers a very short time ago.

Go! It is probably unlikely you will have the opportunity to see so much of Woods’ work in one place again any time soon, if ever.

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