(Oops, I think I meant “Reform architecture school.”)
ArchNewsNow, compiled by the inimitable Kristen Richards, is a thrice-weekly compendium of news and opinion on architecture from around the world. Each collection of articles includes one or more features generated specifically for ANN. In recent weeks and months, ANN has hosted a series of these features on architectural education, curated by Prof. Nikos Salingaros, a globetrotting mathematician and architecture theorist at the University of Texas in San Antonio. He and Richards asked me to contribute an essay to the series, each article of which addresses a petition submitted last year by British students seeking to reform architecture schools. My contribution to the series, the 600th feature published by ANN, is reprinted in its entirety below:
Lesson Plan #8:
Petition of the British Architecture School Inmates
Students are taught how to tinker with computers and how to plug into a corporate design culture that aids and abets precisely what drives the petitioners to seek reform.
By David Brussat
January 9, 2020
Editor’s Note: This is the eighth in a series on the future of architectural education created and curated by Nikos A. Salingaros, Ph.D., Professor of Mathematics, winner of the 2019 Stockholm Culture Award for Architecture, and co-winner of the 2018 Clem Labine Traditional Building Award. See Lesson Plans #1 through #7 at the end of this feature.
Curator’s Note: When architects refuse to criticize their fellows, and delicately avoid disturbing an entrenched system in which they are comfortably embedded, where do we turn for sage advice on how to improve the world? To architecture critics and journalists, of course. They are commonly supposed to be impartial outsiders: fierce watchdogs working in the public’s (that’s our) interest. But, unfortunately, not many of them are truly objective. Having an informed and intelligent critic like David Brussat who courageously speaks his mind is a boon for the entire world. — N.A.S.
What are the priorities for reform?
Recently, a was assembled by students from several architecture schools in Britain asking their schools and other pertinent institutions of the design world to do more to address climate change. I read it, and looked around to see if I was being watched. I thought Allen Funt might pop out and cry, “Smile! You’re on Candid Camera!”
“We are concerned,” write the petitioners, “that at present our education does not give sufficient weight to the inherently ecological and political basis of architecture.”
In Britain, as well as in America, climate change is the central and almost exclusive focus of every architecture school and every architecture firm. Second billing goes to whether there are enough women and people of color. These are justified concerns, but not critical to architecture at a time when its product fails to satisfy a huge segment, possibly a very sizable majority, of the market for buildings. Time spent trying to turn the big business of architecture into a think tank for climate change is time spent dodging the existential issues facing the industry. This sort of misdirection can come off as intentional, perhaps even conspiratorial, in a profession that doesn’t like to hear itself criticized.
An alternative to the architecture-industrial complex
Prof. Nikos Salingaros, in to the student petition at ArchNewsNow.com, applauds their desire to reform architecture education, and offers sage advice to students seeking change. “[I]s it realistic to expect architectural education to change? The current cult-based system is not set up to diagnose – let alone fix – deep internal contradictions. The best it can do is to protect its ‘business as usual’ approach to design by applying a band-aid. Hope exists only in developing an alternative education outside the mainstream” – easier said than done, Salingaros adds.
However, the professor notes that efforts to bring real reform to architecture make this a hopeful moment for students. The best comparison may be to the “slow-food” movement. It offers a more locally based alternative to the agriculture-industrial complex. Architecture could benefit from a parallel approach. Salingaros himself has led scientific research that mines neurobiology to identify how a living, healthy architecture can be nurtured by mimicking nature’s reproductive system. The “cult-based system” shields students from learning of such advances. They must seek knowledge from outside the insulated, isolated environment of architecture school.
Here are some things students should seek to learn from beyond the walls of their universities:
• The true history of how the architectural cult captured the industry’s establishment.
• How to structure architecture firms as bottom-up rather than top-down practices.
• How to locate and use the many new sources of traditional materials and techniques.
• How to work with clients to reach solutions rather than seeking to impose solutions.
• How to understand the incremental nature of genuine architectural creativity.
• How ornamental techniques open new avenues to solve architectural challenges.
What students learn today is how to navigate a top-down system based on inept revolutionary concepts developed a century ago that have not changed substantially since the Bauhaus. Design has become a succession of experimental fashions. Creativity of form, with novelty the primary goal, has led to a corporate architecture that stifles the sort of conceptual creativity that ought to drive evolution in the design process. Students are taught how to tinker with computers and how to plug into a corporate design culture that aids and abets precisely what drives the petitioners to seek reform.
This corporate mindset cannot possibly conceive any creative way for architecture to address complicated global issues such as climate change. Inevitably, the answer that arises from the architectural cult is lame – for example, LEED-influenced gizmo green, which seeks to solve problems arising from over-dependence on technology with more technology.
Learn from nature and from tradition
Neurobiology has affirmed that architecture achieves its life-enhancing powers through a process that resembles nature’s reproductivity – the opposite of what current architectural curricula teach students, and the opposite of how architecture operates today. Much like the natural selection discovered by Darwin, best practices in erecting buildings and cities have been developed by trial and error, which are then handed down by generation after generation of builders. Styles of architecture change slowly over time as new materials and technologies capture the attention of the market and gain popularity among practitioners. These best practices are inevitably replaced by new materials and technologies, with the most useful lasting the longest.
This “natural” way of architectural evolution had been happening for centuries until it was replaced in 1920-40 by today’s machine aesthetic – in which a promised efficiency was sacrificed to a bogus metaphor of “the future.” In many respects, the practices ingrained by centuries of architectural progress mimic the scientific principles behind today’s “slow-food” movement. And those principles come from nature, and are the same principles by which architecture operated for millennia. These same principles represent a much better way for architects to help address climate change.
Architecture before what architect and urbanist Steve Mouzon calls the developed many ways to address the challenges posed to human habitation by weather, seasons, and climate. They include windows that open and close, thick walls that retain heat in winter and cool in summer, porches and deep windows that create shade, angling houses to catch the sun or invite prevailing breezes, and other methods of enabling architecture to harness nature to control comfort. These measures do not require electricity or gasoline. Some, in their purity, may be gone, but can still be adapted to our time. The corporate architecture of the so-called Machine Age, which teaches students to look down their noses at such “old-fashioned” techniques, should be shown the door. That is how architects can address climate change.
Break out of the cult!
Such possibilities will not be developed within the cult of architecture because it would upset too many of the socio-economic systems that have properly triggered the student petitioners. The students do not appear to realize that their petition calls upon architecture schools to reinforce those very systems in a misguided attempt at their reform.
To break out of the cult is, as Salingaros states, the only hope for real change. Here’s how individual students can plan their escape:
• Read beyond the texts assigned by your professors of architecture.
• Use your outside reading to ask probing questions of your professors.
• By their response, you may judge whether your current school is right for you.
• There are very few architecture schools with traditional curricula: check them out.
• Most communities have one or more traditional architectural practices: visit them.
• Visit local historic districts with an eye to the role of beauty in modeling the future.
• Keep your chin up. There is more you can do to leverage the cyclical nature of architectural history, so there is genuine hope that change will come, especially if you, yourself, push for it.
By Dr. Theodore Dalrymple
I would institute an annual prize, with substantial cash awards, for architecture students who would be given the task of designing a building that surpasses an iconic monstrosity in ugliness.
By Mathias Agbo, Jr.
A curriculum overhaul alone cannot fix the problem; rather, the practice of architecture must first reform itself for any pedagogical reforms to make sense.
By Shirish Beri
From India, Shirish Beri writes this special letter out of the restlessness that arises from a genuine concern for the present state of architectural education and profession, as well as that of our society.
By Ann Sussman, RA, and A. Vernon Woodworth, FAIA
This response, in two parts, is from two instructors at the Boston Architectural College.
By Nicholas Boys Smith and Roger Scruton
We were greatly heartened to see architecture students call for a curriculum change to address the social, political, and ecological challenges of our time, and we want to say something about how their proposals intersect with the work of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission.
By Duo Dickinson
The coming technological changes in architecture will impose a full deconstruction of the way we educate architects.
By Dr. Nikos A. Salingaros
Asking for radical reforms in architectural education, this courageous appeal could help this latest effort be taken seriously, and not simply dismissed, as previous cries for reform have been.