Feb '10 - Sep '10
“And what about architectural education? A calamity. Don’t you think so? Increasingly a case of the inept leading the inexperienced.
Colin Rowe, 1994
A few years ago, I came across the above quote in the opening pages of Marc Angelil’s Inchoate. At that time, I was in the middle of my undergraduate studies in architecture. This quote jolted me a bit for two reasons.
Firstly, with the exception of architectural critics (whose job it is to criticize), I have noticed that sharp criticism is rare in written work. It seems that authors across the scope of architectural discourse aim only to transmit what is “good”, while anything less would simply vanish into the cracks. Generally, I see that “good” things are encouraged and reinforced, while “bad” things are just simply ignored, but not outright put down. Rowe’s quote is an instance where a “bad” thing is harshly put down. Granted, Rowe criticism on architectural education was an excerpt from an interview with him, and it may be that if he went about setting pen to paper to capture the same idea, he might have figured some version that would not be so rude. Personally, I would hate to see the sentiment rendered any less frank. Understandably, crippling future architects through education is not something that should be ignored because it is “bad”.
Secondly, the quote lends some credence to questioning the foundation and biases at play in a system of education. While I was in High School, I would have never been described as a “good” student simply because I questioned the aim of the lessons being dispensed. I think it was in 5th grade that I first exhibited this inclination when we had to learn cursive handwriting and I began to wonder what good it would serve me. My teacher would tell me that when we enter Middle School we would have to write everything in cursive. This was a lie designed to get me to do the work and to hide how pointless these exercises were; we never were required to write anything in cursive in Middle School, nor High School, nor ever. From about that point and since, I resisted any task whose benefit was not clear to me. I was a “bad” student, and I have never really stop being this sort of student.
I have read that the public school system in the United States has its origins in a Prussian model that aims to subvert the individual and produce a population of youth perfect for military service; compliant and without question. However, the university system is modeled after the Academy in Athens, founded by Plato. As the institutionalization of the Socratic Method, this latter model encourages a rigorous system of questioning (and answering) designed to generate knowledge and understand the world and its operations. Owing partly to these distinctions, I was made to believe that I was a “bad” student in the public school system, but I turned out to be a “good” student at the university level and fully prepared to question anything. This post is really not about me though, but I mention this to get at an idea about the types of architectural education being dispensed across the globe.
The undergraduate architecture program at UF serves as a supply line to graduate level study at other schools of prestige. Many of my peers have gone on to the ivy leagues and the like. What we hear back from them is a curious story; a story where hands are rarely used to do anything but manipulate a computer screen.
I am a product of a system of pedagogy that places its trust on the process of thinking and working through a problem with the physical and sensorial act of making. As a result, I am suspicious of a trajectory in which one is tethered to a computer. This is not to suggest that the computer has no role in the sequence though. This is to suggest that the computer should not displace traditional modes of process (ie. hand drawings and physical models). Instead, traditional modes should be augmented by digital modes. This idea is the gist of UF: SoA’s policy on the inclusion of the digital realm. However, an unfortunate situation has been observed in which students, by their own choice and by the instruction of the instructor, work entirely within the computer.
There needs to be a concerted effort to maintain a dialogue between the two. If the latter is used in lieu of the former, control is never lost and discoveries are rarely made [shallow?]. The process is rendered into a cerebral activity. If the former is used in lieu of the latter, we can not move beyond operating with some nostalgia and can not begin to synthesize current dialogues in architecture.
Undoubtedly, there is a certain aesthetic that most are after when they are using the computer. They create these ephemeral structures or complex geometries with no idea how this could perform outside of the virtual. They dream but find difficulty in bringing it to life. This is a concern.
The studio culture is greatly impaired when no one in a studio sees anything anyone else is doing until it is finally printed for presentation. There is no dialogue or internal critique. No studio identity. This is a concern.
More important to me is the integration of the digital realm in the actual deployment. I think the aforementioned aesthetic is interesting but places the computer in an awkward role in the process of design and performance of architecture. Personally, I am more interested in the computer the way it is put to use at MIT and in the work of Meejin Yoon and Eric Howler [MY Studio, Boston], and David Benjamin and Soo-in Yang [The Living, NYC]. In this application, the computer is used to create interactive environments rather than render new geometries. Using sensors and actuator, an experience can be augmented in some way, and this digital phenomenology seems more significant than producing blobs.
I say all this because I am currently in a studio that is required to use Grasshopper. It seems to me that it is being put to use to simply generate surface forms in Rhino. The interface makes it very easy to do scripting-like things in Rhino that is based on the C/C++ programming language. My problem is two fold. One, if I am going to pretend like I know how to script, I would like to actually know how to script. Two, I am simply not convinced that this aesthetic and process is something that will stick around. I would hate to become an expert in soon-to-be antiquated methods. I am more interested in moving toward the modes of the two groups mentioned above. Their products do not seem to assume much in the way of being pleasing to the eye and are more interested in working toward a certain goal, operation or interaction. Feeble to foundational, I think that architecture would be better served to have it interact in some semantic way than to simply look neat; to blend together familiar and novel elements into a mutated and active archetype. Like in the process, I would advocate for the use both traditional and new methods to compliment and supplement each other.
What I would really love to see more often, to offset the isolation and anonymity in which everyone seems to enjoy by virtue of working on and within the computer, is more grand and elaborate architectural performances in public spaces; something much more involved; maybe more 1-to-1 installations to test whatever notions they can dream up; more public [something]s and [anything]s. In this way, to get back to the sense of community and culture that seems to be waning, not just here but everywhere.