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Architecture’s Two Cultures II May 10, 2011

Posted by randydeutsch in architect, identity, pragmatism, technology, transformation.
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Not everybody agreed in my recent post that architecture’s two cultures are “high design” and “high delivery.”

But there was a consensus that there is indeed a rift in the profession.

A split that starts with the way we are trained.

I taught architecture from 2001-2007 in the graduate program at The School of Architecture at the University of Illinois Chicago.

An ARE refresher course, a Professional Practice course and the Integrated Building Science/Design Studio with Dan Wheeler FAIA.

For all the prep work it entailed, and the marathon 4-hour classes, I especially loved teaching this last course.

More importantly, I believed we had discovered the Holy Grail that would successfully bridge education and practice.

I was wrong.

In 2006-2007 Sarah Whiting served as visiting critic and at the school year’s end, she presented her observations of the school to the faculty.

Which boiled down to this: it was neither fish nor fowl.

Neither known for design nor technology, the school, in her eyes, fell something short of either.

There are a number of ways the faculty could have reacted to this information.

East coast elite academic theorist frowns-upon industrious Midwest architecture program,

Was how they chose to take it.

Her comments played to the low self-regarding intellectual underachiever in every Midwesterner.

The faculty took it hard and were faced with a choice:

Don’t even try to be all things.

Pick one and run with it.

Director Robert Somol soon after came on board and brought with him a culture change.

Taking sides

Integrated Building Science/Design Studio was a tough course and made demands on the students. No doubt.

Stretching their design and technology chops at one and the same time, the pressure took a toll on its students.

That said, their design projects were both innovative and real, the outcomes admirable.

But with their new director the direction was clear:

You can’t be both great and real.

Choose one.

Choose great.

Because real’s not our brand

Cool won out over cool + buildable in school.

Just as cool wins out over cool + billable in the profession.

I personally am looking forward to when the pendulum swings back toward reality, as it inevitably does every 10 years or so.

When style goes out of fashion.

I plan on heading-up the integrated design program when it does.

You’re invited to stop by to sit in on the design reviews.

We’ll be inspiring future architects who are needed by the world, not just by other architects.

The school got rid of these courses because they didn’t fit the brand.

And what is the brand?

High design.

Architect, what is your brand?

World, what is our brand?

What we talk about when we talk about integrated design

One year, after an end of year graduate design jury, I was asked by my fellow instructors to select from the 60 student’s 30 projects what I believed to be the strongest design.

My first mistake was going first.

Given the combined, integrated building science/design studio make-up of the course, I selected a project that I felt was the best from both perspectives:

Strong design/strong buildability.

The project was good, even excellent, on a number of levels; and it had integrity.

It was a project that, if built, would have improved the world in some small way.

That could not be said of every project.

Wrong answer.

The 3 other instructors, in cahoots, selected a pure Miesian jewelbox – a project that, to anyone outside that room, would be hard-pressed to distinguish from a dozen others.

But the consensus was telling:

What we talk about when we talk about integrated design is style.

Say what?

In the May 2011 Architect magazine is an article entitled A New Theory War?

The fact that the title ends with a question mark will prove telling.

“If academic debates over style have quieted,” the subheading reads, “a divide persists between the proponents of practice-based and theoretical instruction. Two prominent educators argue the respective merits of these approaches.”

Or do they?

Ted Landsmark, President of Boston Architectural College (BAC,) wrote about practice in Learning Through Experience.

Anthony Vidler, Dean, Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture at The Cooper Union wrote a piece on theory entitled Thinking About Architecture.

It becomes almost immediately apparent that something went awry in the execution of this article.

The fact that the two are arguing for the opposing side may have something to do with it.

Or the fact that these educators are supposed to be debating how much importance theory should have in a curriculum,

Except nobody appears to have bothered to tell them that that was the assignment.

Read the article.

Whether a typographer’s mess-up or editor’s oversight, the practice piece is more theoretical than the thinking piece.

And vice versa.

In the practice piece, Landsmark – who is supposed to be speaking about practice-based instruction – provides us with a veritable shopping list of the latest buzz words and smorgasbord of cited sources and unnecessarily complicated explications.

There’s mention of “design thinking,” “theoretical constructs,” “students…working in empirical contexts” to “reverse the degradation of our ecosphere.”

The word “architect” or “architecture” doesn’t occur until the 4th paragraph.

Where is “building science,” “building technology,” “professional practice,” “collaboration,” “integrated practice,” “integrated teams”?

The piling-on of terms doesn’t answer the question:

Does practice-based learning have a prayer against design theory?

In comparison, Vidler’s piece is vastly more practical and practice-minded, well-reasoned and balanced.

And his was the theory piece.

“There seems to be little argument that practical wisdom holds a necessary place in the curriculum,” opens the second paragraph, putting an end to any doubts.

And any reason to continue reading.

With this article there was an enormous opportunity to discuss the strengths and weaknesses, benefits and challenges, of the two cultures.

And how together they might lead to the architect’s renewed leadership position in the industry.

And that opportunity was squandered.

We’re left hanging with the question, unanswered.

And – as with the integrated studio tossed aside in favor of the brand – a sense of loss for what could have been.

If only we had chosen what is real with what we know to be great.

 

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Comments»

1. Christopher Parsons - May 13, 2011

I finished reading “Down Detour Road” this morning at Caffe Trieste.* Your post reminds me of the Named Architect chapter and his struggle between paper architecture and built work. My mind wandered to physics during my reading this morning, and the divide between theoretical physics and applied physics.

Then I started thinking about the work we do at Knowledge Architecture, and that some days, we’d much rather help our clients solve real problems, to apply knowledge and information theory rather than dream up new frameworks. Yet on a day like today, I’ve got a warm cup of coffee on my desk, and empty calendar, and I’m going to spend the day reading, writing, and reflecting on the work we are doing, looking for flaws in our practice, thinking of new approaches, methods, and tools.

For me, as in many things in life, it is not theory or practice, but theory AND practice. One of my favorite firms of all time is KieranTimberlake. KieranTimberlake is built around the nexus of practice, theory, and research. Amen to that.

* Caffe Trieste is an unnecessary detail, but it is Friday, so I thought I’d violate Rule 17 of Strunk + White.

Randy Deutsch - May 13, 2011

Thanks Chris. KieranTimberlake got it right, also Morphosis and Knowledge Architecture. All both/and, not either/or, organizations.

Next time you’re in Caffe Trieste have the barista call me on my cell – the next round’s on me. Here’s to a very well-deserved empty calendar day!


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