Architecture requires a great many different kinds of intelligence to function. The typical office is divided up into groups of design, technology, and management. And even within these areas, there are many different specialties. Yet typically within education, especially at the undergrad level, we have a one-size-fits-all approach. All students are expected to respond to the same problems, and are assess on the same basis. Students with different kinds of intelligence are often penalized within this system, and we frequently these people are lost to the profession.
I see a lot of different kinds of student. I have started a kind of taxonomy, and right now I have five basic genera within the family of architecture. Of course, each genus can be broken down further into different species. The genera I have identified are the Artist, the Gearhead, the Theorist, the Administrator, the Politician, and the Architect. The Artist excels at making form and concept. The Gearhead excels at technology. The Theorist excels at history and philosophy. The Administrator excels at organization. The Politician excels at engaging people. The Architect is the rare intelligence that can combine the qualities of most of the other genera.
We have a magically diverse world filled with amazing creative potential, and as a professional training ground, we have to figure out how to engage them all. This is one of the reasons I love group projects.Many of my colleagues don’t like collaborative work because they feel that the students individually aren’t displaying their mastery. I understand their point, but when in architecture is anything done by the single lone genius (other than in Ayn Rand fiction)?
Ordinarily 1 + 1 = 2. But in collaborative work I think that there is a kind of exponential condition where the work isn’t twice as good, but 4x. The students seem to complement each other. One of the best teams I had were the dregs leftover when everyone else paired up. These two seemed mismatched, but in reality the strengths augmented each other to arrive at a great result. It was a “hot mess” no doubt, but a thoroughly committed one. When it came time for grading, I was going to give one student a higher grade than the other, because I thought he was driving the bus. But he stood up for his colleague, and said the other more than pulled his weight.
I’m as guilty as everyone else in perpetuating the one-size-fits-all. In many a studio I have taught I have privileged the artist and the architect. The hardest are the poor first year students who struggle valiantly, but don’t have the inherent design ability. And we lose these hard working souls to the discipline, simply because we can’t find a way to include them.
I’m a yogi (I know, horrific image: me in shorts standing on my head). Without yoga I’d be a physical wreck. But entering into the world of yoga, one enters into an interesting philosophical construct as well. In the west, especially in Judaism and Christianity, we have the proscriptions of the Ten Commandments; in other words “thou shalt not.” The Yoga Sutras have a similar ten commandments, but five are proscriptions, and the other five are observances. Thus there is a balance between avoiding and seeking. In yoga, there are five afflictions or diseases: ignorance, egoism, attachment, aversion, and fear. Fear refers primarily to the fear of death, but this can also be viewed as fear of failure.
I bring this up because my students appear to be afraid to draw. I have experienced this fear myself. Even though very little is at stake, a blank sheet of paper can still be quite intimidating. But it is critical to overcome a fear and make things. Recall that the paper is not blank; it is already loaded with the ideas of the project. The paper is loaded with your own personal history. The paper is merely a vehicle. Recall that a drawing is not an end, but a part of a continuum. Sometimes you get it right, sometimes you make an awful mess. Sometimes it is from the messes that we learn the most. There is a fear that the hand is inadequate, that ugly drawings are going to be made. The drawing is not so much about the hand as it is about the mind. The drawing is merely a means for expressing ideas. The lines drawn are a notation. Once the idea forms, the drawing can start to take over. Apply experience to deepen the drawing. A drawing can almost always be saved, but it takes effort of the mind. A bad drawing is usually about a lack of depth of thinking, rather than a poor hand.
As a parting image, I include this drawing by John Hejduk. Hejduk had an awful hand. I get the sense that he held his pen like a 4 year old in his fist, point down. He certainly doesn’t have the elegance of Lebbeus Woods, or, referencing the current exhibit at MoMA, Henri Labrouste. But Hejduk’s work is not about the finesse of the drawing, but about the ideas they contain. To that end, his drawings are phenomenally successful – he has created an entire world.
John Hejduk – Subject/Object
I was at the Center for Architecture in New York today. They had an exhibit of models made by kids. They were clearly controlled by the adults organizing the work, but there was a freshness and directness not seen among most of the college students with whom I work. The kids have no fears, whereas the college students seem to develop all kinds of hang ups that prevent them from just getting the ideas out. I especially like Fish Lake, which is shaped like a fish. Goofy, yes, but joyfully so. These things get the ideas across quickly and effectively. I like a nicely crafted final model as much as the next person, but for development, give me stuff like this!
I recently came across this proposal for the Westbahnhof train station in Vienna by Shahira Hammad. I was oddly taken by it’s Gaudi-esque/Alien-esque appearance. It follows an idea, however, and creates a strong mood. She’s quite young it seems, but has developed a clear language already. I’m curious who she has studied with, and what the influence might be. This is also difficult to discuss in relation to comprehensive design. There is no clear notion of how this might be made, what the actual enclosure is. But I will say, if I have students coming up with ideas such as this, I wouldn’t shut them down.
A complaint about schools of architecture crops up on the regular basis: the schools aren’t preparing graduates for the profession. I have long maintained that this is not the goal of education, though contemporary conventional economic theory would argue vociferously with me about that. To the professionals I like to point out that the Intern Development Program (with its minimum of three years of experience required post-graduation) was created to complete the work of educating an architect, and preparing her/him for the rigors of professional practice.
That all said, when I look at the practice today, especially in regard to green building, the level of numeracy and precision required is at odds with much of the focus of the education. This is painstaking and exacting and at times mind-numbing work, but it needs to be done. This kind of work seems to be very much at odds with the manner in which we educate students. I fully believe in a creative life, and that all people have a potential for self-actualization (well, most – there are some politicians, however…). But what if creativity is different for different people? The word “create” comes from Latin, and means simply to “make.” The idea of creativity has come to mean imaginative, inventive. Can we look at this desire to make in different ways? Can this not play out in normative ways, as well as the “inventive?” There are different types of students, and they develop into different types of practitioners. Some students need little direction. They are like asteroids hurtling through space with terrific momentum, and only need nudging to keep them from bumping into things. Others are excellent students, but require more direction and input. They may be less creative, but they are diligent. Our contemporary schools typically have one education path for the architect. This is especially the case with the undergraduate programs. Grad schools, on the other hand, are much better about greater program diversity giving more options for different personalities. However, many of these programs do not necessarily offer a career path to being an architect. Harvard has eight different courses of study for its master of design studies, but only one course of study for it’s master of architecture program – it’s path to licensure.
Large architecture firms typically have at least three different divisions: design, management, and technology. It would be worth our while to examine this condition, and begin to adapt our degree programs to acknowledge these different ways that individuals think and practice, without necessarily compromising our goals of higher order thinking.
I’ve been struggling with how to get at the teaching of environmental issues in the studio. What I am coming to recognize is that it is not an issue of understanding some technology, but a more fundamental understanding of and appreciation for the way natural systems work, and how buildings can manipulate or be manipulated by those systems.
So, how do we get at this, yet retain the poetry of our formal investigations? After all, this is how we were raised as architects, dedicated to formal and spatial preoccupations.
My answer is language. Change the focus of the investigation. I have questioned language in the studio for many years, in one form or another. Usually I question culturally loaded words, and ask to challenge the received meaning. Words like window and door are dangerous, especially today in the world of Revit, where they are lazy blocks or families, casually inserted. Instead, use a more ambiguous term like aperture, and begin to describe the qualities desired.
So, too, with engaging natural systems. The goals of poetic form are there, but in the service of engaging the natural world. The focus changes, but the development of architectural language proceeds. Issues of spatial sequencing, tectonic language, scale, hierarchy, rhythm, linear, planar, volumetric, all this continues unabated.
In reviewing the work of advanced architecture students this past week, their ability to make form, and to apply new tools of representation to describe those forms, is quite impressive. What is troubling, however, is a lack of engagement with natural systems. They become very inventive with structure and skin when pressed, but the level of understanding and invention with natural forces is not natural to them. There is no fundamental comprehension. There is a primarily a preoccupation with contemporary stylistic devices. The schism between structure and comfort that Reyner Banham identified in 1969 is present today. I am as guilty as the next person in this – typically there is little such discussion in the studios. But it goes well beyond the design studio and dwells deep within culture. There is a lack of a direct engagement with the world. When it is hot, we put on the AC. Most Americans move from air conditioned cars to air conditioned buildings. Electricity comes from a socket in the wall, water disappears into a pipe. Americans spend some 95% of their lives indoors.
So, how do we shift this matrix?
To get to a carbon neutral world, many believe it is an issue of deploying the appropriate technology. The work being done by the Society for Building Science Educators (SBSE) is admirable. Learning the appropriate tools of analysis and design are critical to solving the climate issue as it pertains to buildings. But the technology needs to be preceded by a deeper cultural appreciation, and perhaps even a level of play. And it needs to happen earlier in a student’s education.
Most first year pedagogy involves tectonics, narrative, spatial sequencing, and ways of building skills in architectural representation. We need these skills – no doubt. So what I want to question is are these skills an end to themselves, or are they in service of a larger idea? Could that large idea be a focus on how architecture reveals the natural forces? Could we examine how architecture both shapes and is shaped by natural forces?
One semester teaching first year at Pratt many years ago, we did a project called “container space.” It was meant to be a container for air, earth and water. My colleagues chose to treat this metaphorically; I chose to treat it literally. The students were required to make containers that engaged these elements. Thus had to hold water and earth. I feel that this project holds a germ of an idea that could point the way forward. They looked hard at the properties of the material and how they interacted. One student made a floating array of volumes held down by a brick. The floating volumes were cubic, with the bottom face omitted trapping air. The brick was earth. By adding and removing air from the volumes (by blowing or sucking air through a straw), he got it to float level. Another student had water suspended in air, with an open pool at the base. The vacuum properties of air held the water in place. A third student froze water and earth together. As the ice melted, it deposited earth in a random manner, much like a glacier. Thus he incorporated the element of time as well.
Air in the volumes of the column produces buoyancy, held in check by the brick.
Water is open to the air at the bottom – the “foot” – while water is suspended in the topmost volume by the force of a vacuum.
Glaciation – sand was frozen with water in a sheet suspended over the top of the project. The melt resulted in glacial deposits across the interior space.