University of Arizona CALA

A student's perpsective on all things architecture and design

  • Door Knobs and Ugly Duck Shaped Blocks

    Joe DeBenny
    Jun 4, '12 3:32 AM EST

    She stood at least 4 feet shorter, but there was no mistake as to who was dominant in this encounter as she took my hand.

    She looked up and smiled, “Hi I'm Erica! I'm from earth, where are you from?”

    I hesitated. “Just down the street. It's not too far from there.”

    It was a lie. Nothing about her classroom resembled the world I was accustomed to as a public school student. The air was alive with energy. Children sprinted from classroom to playground without any evident permission and stacked door knobs on assorted amorphous wooden blocks shaped like ugly ducks in a truly spontaneous structures lesson of gravity and materials. All discovered through a rudimentary, yet telling, process. All I could do was watch in reserved awe and contemplate the punishments I would have received if I had conducted myself in the same manner during preschool. But I was there to observe the school for a studio project, not reminisce. I turned my attention back to the act of diligent note-taking. I had to swallow my petty childhood jealousy for the time being.

    Now, in a way, summer is an all too appropriate time to reflect on this. The sudden and jarring move from the final review dash of glory to the 3 month reprise from academia leaves you a little pensive. And maybe even jaded.

    I won't say why exactly because, again, this isn't the appropriate platform for it. But, simply put, I wasn't entirely content. Sitting through several days of guest critic panels pontificating at every possible junction was more than I could stomach. Some gave great feedback-- others appeared to approach it as an ego recharging station, dutifully relieving us of what we so foolishly thought a building was.

    I remember coolly watching 5th year capstone reviews from a glass balcony as a girl visibly fought back tears from the onslaught of a dozen highly and internationally renowned architects who stoned her with remarks both big and small. Though they all seemed to hurt the same. A favorite professor of mine lazily walked over to me opening a bag of chips from the vending machine and leaned against the glass. He sighed, tossing one in his mouth.

    “What an awful affair.”

    I laughed at the observation. The contrast between his wry comment, eating, and the sad scene below was too much. But I also laughed because it caught me off guard– it was the fist time I had heard a professor openly knock the whole review process – the sacred ritual for the cult of architectural academia and an accepted part of the standard procedure, much like I'm sure it was for the Mayans watching ritual sacrifices from the bottom of their colossal pyramids. Only now I was on top looking down.

    “Think about it though,” he said finishing the bag and collecting it in his fist. “Peter Cook said the same thing when he lectured down at ASU. Anything can be criticized. Literally anything. It's the nature of the work. Your mentors will still do it, but remember they're human beings. Probably still as insecure about what they're doing as you.”

    I didn't quite expect to collect such wisdom from the receiving end of a Doritos bag, but it was the staggeringly simple truth. Returning home from the university, I had to look to my favorite of teachers for more comfort-- books. I hit the library and checked out an armful to pour over during the summer. One in particular looked delightfully naughty. I was familiar with the disdain many canonical architects had for the book so, naturally, I had to read it.


                  It's very hard to ignore this image of him wringing his hands while you read.

    Entitled From Bauhaus To Our House, Tom Wolfe ( a non-architect – how saucy!)  gives his rather bold critique of the Bauhaus movement and the architects who gave genesis to it. Wolfe has a charming writing style even if it is dotted with peevish rants and sarcastic remarks. I simply couldn't shake the impression that he was just like a child locked out of an art club meeting, hiding his embarrassment with a false architectural authority. I didn't want to join you guys anyways. Look how silly all your little buildings are...  But there are still nuggets of brilliance within it, although still marred by the attitude. In particular, a passage within it that struck me as appropriate in which Wolfe describes the state of academia in the middle of the 20th century:

    "At Yale the students gradually began to notice that everything they designed, everything the faculty members designed, everything that the visiting critics (who gave critiques of the student designs) designed... looked the same. Everyone designed the same... box... of glass and steel and concrete with tiny beige bricks substituted occasionally. This became known as the The Yale Box. Ironic drawings of The Yale Box began appearing on bulletin boards. “The Yale Box in the Mojave Desert”-- and there would be a picture of The Yale Box out amid the sagebrush and the joshua trees northeast of Palmdale, California. “The Yale Box Visits Winnie the Pooh”-- and there would be a picture of the glass and steel cube up in a tree, the child's treehouse of the future. “The Yale Box Searches for Captain Nemo” and there would be a picture of the Yale Box twenty thousand leagues under the sea with a periscope on top and a propeller in back. There was something gloriously nutty about this business of The Yale Box!-- but nothing changed. Even in serious moments, nobody could design anything but Yale Boxes. The truth was that by now architectural students all over America were inside that very box, the same box that the compound architects had closed upon themselves in Europe twenty years before.”

    It was an all too familiar pattern. I could simply cross out a couple instances of  “Yale” and “glass” and replace them with “Arizona” and “corten” respectively. Oh the corten! The answer for desert architects everywhere challenged with the daunting question of how to make a wall. As if the gods themselves heard their pleas and simply pointed to the rusty plates in perfect choreography with the sound of thunder.

    Not that corten is inherently flawed. One only has to look at some of small local architects to get a glimpse of some stellar mastery over the material. But material is never simply the answer.It would imply that architecture is meant to be something and that we've somehow stumbled across it. It's a foolish notion. Architecture is a social construct, it changes with the time, the genius loci always in flux. There is no legitimate authority that determines what or when architecture is. Architects merely form their interpretations in the midst of a nebulous design ontology.

    Yet who forms the architect? School of course. The beginning and the end, the alpha and the omega! Those holy bastions of pure thinking, the refuge from uncertainty! I mean, just think of the guest critics!

    When these “glass boxes” and “corten walls” become vogue within the architecture intelligentsia they somehow snake their way into those sacred rituals, those “studio critiques” led by visiting chieftains of some distant land, slapping wrists on public display, and dictating the course of young minds.

    But by either incompetence or carelessness, the bulk of these rituals devolve into asking what something is on a drawing or knee-jerk observations that lead to little content. Yes, the model does look nice. Those chieftains who have lead the sacrifices enough times recognize the futility of trying to understand a massive project in the span of a few minutes and result to sermonizing on subjects only tangentially related to the matter at hand, generally finishing clumsily and leaving the entire audience confused as to the point. It takes a rare, war-weary chieftain to give feedback that is pertinent and digestible to the students.

    But nearly all of it leads to intellectual incest. Do this, not that. Why? I do it that way. The ethics of it may be far too broad of a subject to discuss here, but it nonetheless should be questioned. Students are being breed to make a specific architecture, not to be skillful in design and problem solving.

    In some tribes, those who dodged the sacrifice and delivered a Glass Box or Corten Wall in stead of their life are lead to the honorable position next to (not too close though...) the chieftains throne – at the seat of the coveted AIA Design Excellence Award. The rest, the sacrifices, can look in awe of it, left to ponder why they didn't receive the blessed honor.

    Over 50 years ago, Walter Gropius stated that “The fundamental pedagogical mistake of the academy arose from its preoccupation with the idea of individual genius.” It is an idea that is alive and well still today, kept breathing by these excellence awards. Yet what constitutes genius isn't so clear. Does it resemble my glass box? Architecture's inherently rich opportunity for collaborative effort just doesn't have the same appeal for the glory hounds. And why should it? Design school likes genius, albeit artificial. It boosts their school rankings and new student recruitment initiatives, damned if it doesn't resemble the true face of design. They deem it "healthy competition." Yet there's little that's healthy about it, breeding jealousy and distrust among the class. She got the design excellence award?! 

    I may sound bitter, but I'm not. Just sad. Architecture could present itself as an excellent model of what education should be. Students are mainly autonomous, they can pursue what interests them and with whatever level of rigor they please. Rarely are there homework assignments with correct answers. Exploration of the problem rewards the student with a deep understanding rather than rote memorization that quickly fades.

    Like little Erica's school, we run from room to room with little permission. We do what we want, generally when we want and in the end it gives our work some measure of meaning. We work the long hours we do because there is a intense evolution of understanding that occurs during the projects and a perceived value of the end product, but not as in ends in itself. Most disciplines can't say their educations do that, most markedly so at the elementary and high school levels.

    But we're slowly losing that spirit to the self-ordained authority of the studio critiques and the hunt for individual glory. The Glass Boxes must be shattered and the Corten Walls toppled. Process needs to be placed at the priority of design school curriculums, not the fashionable trends of whatever time the critics cling to. So, please, less sacrifices. And more stacked door knobs on ugly duck shaped wooden blocks.

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  • The Naked Architect

    Joe DeBenny
    Feb 20, '12 1:28 AM EST

    No, still not dead. Not yet at least. I have been working on a few entries, but they all didn't seem fitting to post. They were either too personal or too frivolous. Neither has a place here really. However, a good friend, Jake Seliger, recently shared with me an article that I think I would be... View full entry

  • Postmodern Sympathy

    Joe DeBenny
    Jan 10, '12 12:46 AM EST

    Making the brazen assertion that representation is crime comes with some doubts. When I start to think I know something, I check myself. Fanatic allegiance to any idea is a stiff refusal to consider alternative interpretation and the first sign of a stagnant mind. A recent lecture by the... View full entry

  • Representation and Crime

    Joe DeBenny
    Nov 9, '11 1:43 AM EST

    No, I'm not dead. Busy, but no different from any other architecture student I suppose. What has delayed me was a bit of a crisis of confidence in what I was doing. 'Disillusionment' is a bit of a strong word. Maybe 'questioning' is more accurate. Regardless, I have been somewhat of a lost... View full entry

  • Introductions and setting ground rules

    Joe DeBenny
    Oct 22, '11 4:31 PM EST

    Introductions are inherently difficult. I've often been told that I need a hook-- that something that grabs the reader by the collar and sucks them in. I'd prefer not to be that aggressive with my first post so instead I'll just stick with an introduction as to who I am and why I'm doing this... View full entry

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About this Blog

Design is a field rooted in the marriage of the objective and subjective. The line between the two is often blurred and obscured to the point that there is little to distinguish them apart. A student can offer a unique perspective on the tenets of architecture with thoughts and musings unadulterated by the dogmas of traditional theories of practice. This is a blog about ideas. It's not a diary or a means to vent my personal frustrations. My aim is to stimulate architects and students alike.

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