Architecture reform school

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(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:

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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.

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What are the priorities for reform?

Recently, a petition 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 his own reply 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 “Thermostat Age” 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.

David Brussat was the architecture critic of the Providence Journal in Rhode Island for 25 years, until 2014. He still writes about architecture and design thrice weekly in Architecture Here and There, launched in 2009.

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See also:

Lesson Plan #7: An Implicit Rather than Explicit Model for Teaching Architecture

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. 

Lesson Plan #6: Teacher, Don’t Teach Them Nonsense: Reforming Architecture’s Broken Education

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.

Lesson Plan #5: Letter from an architect to the gurus [teachers] and chelas [disciples] of architecture

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.

Lesson Plan #4: Response to Open Letter for Curriculum Change: A New, Biological Approach to Architecture

By Ann Sussman, RA, and A. Vernon Woodworth, FAIA

This response, in two parts, is from two instructors at the Boston Architectural College.

Lesson Plan #3: Beauty and Sustainability in Architectural Education

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. 

Lesson Plan #2: A Time of Change

By Duo Dickinson

The coming technological changes in architecture will impose a full deconstruction of the way we educate architects. 

Lesson Plan #1 “Signs versus Symptoms”: A Reply to the Open Letter from British Architecture Students Calling for Curriculum Change

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.

About David Brussat

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. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am 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 employ my writing and editing to improve your work, 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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3 Responses to Architecture reform school

  1. John says:

    I wonder how many people who are -to state it euphemistically- not enchanted by modern and neo-modern architecture experience things as such that post WII modernity gradually has become an overall contest in vulgarity and crudity of design. So that a focus on architecture alone appears to be doomed to fail, at least doomed to remain marginal.
    The issue is a matter of individual and society wide acquisition and maintenance of a sense of style, where taste and style is a matter of effort to acquire and maintain refinement, a refinement of the mind. Trying to bring about a reform in one area, while the mind of people are run-over by crudity in all other areas of aesthetics seems too partial, and as such doomed to fail (other areas are: fashion, interior decoration, design of modern consumer electronics, advertising, typography, web design, car design, film, music, literature, and much more).
    Not unlike how crude material cannot have a refining effect on the sense of touch, what stinks cannot have a refining effect on the sense of smell, rather the opposite, the many crude and cold materials, the many brute forms to which people are exposed (including the arts) prevent the development of a refinement of taste. What is not maintained gets lost, or ‘use it or loose it’.

    Stylistically, aesthetics of architecture cannot be seen disconnected from the aesthetics of other type of objects and cultural expressions, this would result in stylistic misfits, stylistic absurdness. Style is not just an outward appearance, it is an outward expression of what is inside, and there is a correlative influence of what is outward and inward (outward crudity of material and form affects the inward very much as the inward, the mind, is much easier malleable than the outward material world).
    Hence, the many crude forms which people are acquainted with and which are more and more ubiquitously present make them gross and insensitive. Additionally, the sense of taste of multitudes of people by now is almost completely shaped by the commercial class (for motives of profit), this takeover of aesthetics by the commercial class also has no historical precedent. This is also true of the sense of taste where it concerns food, which is by now at large wrecked on a large scale by the food industry.

    The scientific approach of Salingaros and others is a good support, but it cannot be much more than a bit of support, you do not want to base aesthetics and acquisition of style on science. Other than it being a pillar in its infancy.
    Acquisition of a sense of style and beauty is like the acquisition of good manners, it is a refinement of the mind, mental-intellectual and emotionally, which is inaccessible to science, it belongs to the domain of the spirit.
    The discussion in a democratic setting, where everyone is supposed to be on the same level, where taste is supposed to be subjective, where taste is no longer a matter of acquisition which takes effort is effectually a fight against barbarian brutality. Where the latter has all means to its disposal, and the former is limited because style and good taste limits the means.
    Rudeness of manners and brutality or lack of aesthetic style also go hand in hand, and in our democratic society where everyone has a voice, is supposed to be on equal level, or is supposed to be an expert because of having obtained a degree at some academia (which requires no style at all, but rather a good memory and some cleverness), where there is much social alienation and distance due to technology, development of refinement has little chance, rather as we have seen, the opposite takes place.

    Man, when he is born is basically a sort of crude and primitive being, unlike animals who learn very fast and have their instinct as a wise guide, man is totally dependent and born crude, he spits his food out, he pees and poops where he sees fit, he has a clumsy control over his body, he has to be taught to learn to walk, he has to be taught hygiene, he has to be taught manners, he has to be taught to control his selfishness, his angers, and all sorts of other crudities have to be restricted or reformed. All this takes about a fifth or even a fourth of his life, but also, it requires the rest of his life. Man is a being which needs life long shaping, societies needs shaping and refining, a constant guard against the force of gravity which pulls man down. Societies like our democratic societies fall short on this shaping and uplifting from the primary crude state of nature, and human nature, overall. And so it is no wonder that both in the area of manners and aesthetics, he declines en masse toward a lower state of culture.

    I am sure many people will consider this an elitist rant, or an outdated approach, but this is merely due to ruling contemporary ideological views, ideological platitudes, worn in common places which have a blinding effect on the mind, the approach taken thus far cannot be anything than a step towards what is a fundamental society wide approach.

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  2. LazyReader says:

    I think we’ve learned since the Fountainhead that suppressing individual contribution and thought was rather vindictive.
    I don’t know how architecture as a practice is supposed to adapt to the “Climate”. Vernacular architecture was the predominant form for adaptation to climate. Modernists avail themselves to a multitude of materials exotic and expensive and advertise them as “Green” because they put solar panels or plants on the roof. Green buildings are often scam. We’ve seen since he London tower fire where environmentally friendly building panels. The panels besides being flammable themselves were isolated by several inches between the buildings walls and structure, creating a chimney effect that let superfast flowing oxygen and fire to rise and spread to the building.

    Applicants can acquire LEED status merely by offering computer models that project the building will meet a certain threshold. Moreover, they can do this even before the building is occupied. After that, buildings don’t have to demonstrate continued efficiency; so even if energy use among tenants skyrockets the point system still doesn’t acclimate to it. They anticipate energy consumption, they don’t monitor it. The point system is also gimmick ridden, Installing a bike rack gets you a point, while adding only the minimum number of parking spaces scores you two. This allows buildings to take the easiest and cheapest path to green glory without actually doing much for the environment. So even an old tenement with lead paint and asbestos can get away with points if they put a bike rack up front rather than cough up the dough to actually make the building better for residents.

    Other examples of Green Scheme failures include the San Francisco Federal building. Built recently by firm Morphosis led by narcisstic starchitect Thom Mayne; the building is a hideous monstrosity that resembles gutters wrapped in chainlink. The building was designed to be ‘green’ consuming less than half the power of a standard office tower by omitting that oh so essential green sin. Air conditioning. The building boasts being the first recently constructed naturally ventilated building. Eliminating the HVAC system saved 11 million in construction dollars, but the buildings facade of gilded steel across it’s surface added horribly to it’s construction costs anyway. The building has been criticized as being dysfunctional for its employees; opening windows to relieve the heat, only to have documents and paper work blown away. Passenger elevators only stop at 3 floor intervals? requiring employees to walk up down two flights of stairs. Employees have resorted to umbrellas to keep the sun at bay like government vampires, others simply have resorted to buying independent air conditioning units small enough to fit in their workspace.

    The real failure here stems from the emphasis of stacking up more office space for bloated government.

    Another damming example is the NOLA charity homes built by brad pitt’s “Make it Right”. Brad Pitt built dozens of homes in New Orleans after Katrina. Now they’re falling apart and residents are suing. The homes are rotting, collapsing and caving in. One of the ideas of the Green movement is the promotion of biodegradability among consumer products, in essence the materials are capable of being digested by biology in nature so as waste products they don’t end up as landfill but as soil amendment. And that’s fine for disposable consumer products like plates and produce you intend to throw away. It’s a terrible idea for building a house. With green mindsets, the houses were built from a multitude of organic and fiber based wood and metal substitutes. New Orleans is a hot humid environment so most things that biodegrade, do so quickly. Natural ventilation promotes another problem, indoor humidity which is a breeding ground for fungus, bacteria. However defective building quality is also a defining culprit. There’s only two materials that can withstand decades of Louisiana climate, chemically treated timber or concrete.

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    • John says:

      Con man practices have become the new normal for some decades among the commercial class, to the extent that people are used to it. There is a gigantic industry called marketing which takes care of consumer perception management and public perception management, in order to sell their fraudulent products, to hide the fraudulent practices. When caught, the marketing section has the job of saving face and cleaning the dirt by means of creative creation of good appearances, more perception management. This industry of perception management is according to some even much larger than the actual production industry, a bubble of appearances, producing a thick cloud of make belief which is very hard to look through. It is bound together and maintains itself by virtue of big interests, and lots of small interests and dependencies, so society at large plays the game along. If interested in the industry, it offers comfortable desk jobs, good salaries, it is creative, challenging, lots of nice gatherings in lazy chairs, to do some collective ‘brainstorming’, etc.

      Marketing, even the expensive name is well thought of, as ‘monkey business’ doesn’t sound so well. The culmination of the intelligence of the marketing industry (which is deeply entangled with the political marketing industry) and their power to generate value even out of nothing is the climate change thing..
      Then you buy something you do not need, for the sake of saving the earth and humanity, and it is also of an inferior quality, so you will have to replace it quite soon. After you have replaced it thought they have invented something new which saves the earth and humanity guaranteed even more. So you have to replace things even more.
      So, in the brainstorming sessions they have invented something which is going to be a milking cow for some decades.

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