Perils of architecture school

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Vitra Fire Station (1993), in Germany. (ArchDaily.com)

Common/Edge is a website about architecture. All of the essays are written well, but many seem to try to have it both ways about the battle over style in architecture. So I’m not quite sure how Prof. Nikos Salingaros managed to get his essay, “What Architectural Education Does to Would-Be Architects,” published here. Its common-sensical viewpoint is far too straightforward and unapologetic to have gotten onto this website without first surviving some sort of fight among its editorial board (if it has one).

(Perhaps I am too hard on Common/Edge, which at least acknowledges that there are two sides in this battle, and listens to both. That is admirable.)

Salingaros, who teaches mathematics and design theory at the University of Texas and schools around the world, believes that architectural education does not strengthen but rather destroys the innate mentality that supports the work that architects do.

One of the things a good essay does is spark thoughts in readers that independently support (or undermine) its thesis. So by way of describing Salingaros’s thinking, I will describe some of the thoughts it sparked as I read it. Readers should click on the link above and read it themselves.

It disconnects them from their own bodies. This strikes me as a reference to the role of architectural education in separating young people from their innate understanding of architecture. All people from near birth onward have a much more intimate experience of architecture than of any other realm of art or design. People experience architecture every hour of every day, inside and outside, awake or in their dreams. This contributes to a relatively sophisticated understanding of building design in the average person, which manifests itself not in an ability to design buildings but in an ability to assess their quality, their functionality, their appearance, etc. This explains why the public, by three or four to one, prefers traditional to modernist buildings. The first goal of architecture school, then, is to destroy students’ innate affection for beauty. (A tangential result has been to undermine unjustly the average person’s confidence in his or her own judgment of buildings – so that nowadays many people feel a sort of peer pressure to say they like architecture they really don’t like.) Hence …

It brainwashes them. Salingaros is referring to students but could also be referring to the broader society. He points to the Bauhaus, the early 20th century German compound that designed the template for architectural learning. “Eventually, the student’s brain is conditioned to believe that abstract, empty forms and surfaces – the building blocks for much of contemporary architecture – are the basis for ‘good’ design.”

This reminded me of the description of a Bauhaus class exercise in Tom Wolfe’s From Bauhaus to Our House (1981): Students are instructed to create a building out of a single sheet of paper. Most seek to achieve some sort of complex origami solution but the teacher declares the “winner” to be the student who folded his page in half and stood his building, a mere tent, upon the table. O! How! Profound!

It reduces spatial ideas to two dimensions. Salingaros writes:

Abstraction loses an enormous amount of information. But it also does something worse: it starves the brain and turns what should be visceral reactions into intellectualized ones. It’s the difference between finding innate beauty (let’s say in a lotus flower or the arching branches of a tree) and being taught or told how to appreciate an acquired taste (like a blank “sculptural” wall).

This reminded me of a passage I had just read this morning in Rising Sun, a suspense novel by Michael Crichton about a murder in a new tower for a Japanese corporation in Los Angeles. Two detectives seek to interview a suspect at a private house party:

[A]lmost everyone was wearing black. But the room itself caught my attention: it was stark white, entirely unadorned. No pictures on the wall. No furniture. Just bare white walls and a bare carpet. The guests looked uncomfortable. They were holding cocktail napkins and drinks, looking around for someplace to put them.

A couple passed us on their way to the dining room. “Rod always knows what to do,” she said.

“Yes,” he said. “So elegantly minimalist. The detail in executing that room. I don’t know how he ever got that paint job. It’s absolutely perfect. Not a brush stroke, not a blemish. A perfect surface.”

“Well, it has to be,” she said. “It’s integral to his whole conception.”

“It’s really quite daring,” the man said.

“Daring?” I said. “What are they talking about? It’s just an empty room.”

Connor smiled. “I call it faux zen. Style without substance.”

It may be hard to credit, but this attitude sums up architecture today, and what is provided in all but a handful of architecture schools.

It privileges image over emotion. Another way to put it: It privileges intellect over intuition. As Salingaros points out, the human brain has evolved over millions of years into a tool for processing information from visual and other senses. The mind sees not just what is there but analyses it instantly according to deep knowledge baked into our DNA. We are feeling creatures, thinking creatures only secondarily. Architecture today denies the validity of feelings and turns reality on its head. This parallels the research of Ann Sussman, author (with Justin Hollander) of Cognitive Architecture (2014). It explains why people who have invested scores of thousands of dollars in architectural education are less genuinely sophisticated in their basic architectural judgment than the average man on the street.

It promotes a kind of “architectural sadism.” Salingaros writes:

Contemporary architecture is obsessed, to the point of arrogance, with “innovation.” But unless you’re trained to admire and revere it for its own sake (something architecture students are routinely taught), aggressive “novelty” often triggers negative reactions from everyone else: alarm, anxiety, even physio-psychological pain.

He urges readers to “remember the poor Vitra firemen, unwitting victims of ‘cutting edge’ architecture.” The reference is to Zaha Hadid’s first completed building, a fire station in Weir am Rhein, Germany, that supposedly used the architect’s abstract meanderings to supply the functional needs of firemen in a fire station. According to Architecture Daily, in “AD Classics: Vitra Fire Station” by Luke Fiederer, Hadid realized that firemen “must remain on constant alert; the design reflects that tension, as well as the potential to burst into action at any given moment.”

Ha ha! So firemen find it useful that their building represent the potential to burst into action at any given moment? That idea proved so useful that the building, completed in 1993, was never used as a fire station but as an exhibit hall. Fortunately, the building also served to “shield the [Vitra factory] campus from its incongruously traditional, vernacular neighbors.” I’m sure the factory complex’s occupants were duly thankful to Zaha for that!

Ha ha ha ha ha ha! Salingaros’s brief discourse on architectural education has his subject dead to rights. Read it here.

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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