Saturday, March 15, 2008


"The pursuit of learning is not a race in which the competitors jockey for the best place, it is not even an argument or symposium; it is a conversation. And the peculiar virtue of a university (as a place of many studies) is to exhibit it in this character, each study appearing as a voice whose tone is neither tyrannous nor plangent, but humble and conversable. A conversation does not need a chairman, it has no predetermined course, we do not ask what it is “for,” and we do not judge its excellence by its conclusion; it has no conclusion, but is always put by for another day. Its integration is not superimposed but springs from the quality of the voices which speak, and its value lies in the relics it leaves behind in the minds of those who participate." — Michael Oakeshott, The Voice of Liberal Learning, 1989.
One of the reasons why architecture may be (and should be) taught differently than it is practiced can be intuited by following the logic of law professor Robert Justin Lipkin in his chapter “Pragmatism, Cultural Criticism and the Idea of the Postmodern University” (from the 1994 book An Ethical Education). His argument, in brief, is that a college education is intended to be a respite from the world, during which we subject the dominant culture to the strongest questioning we can muster. If we find ourselves to be conservative, we will create counter-arguments for these important questions, and thus be better defenders of the current cultural circumstances. If we find ourselves to be progressives, we will be able to use these questions to help us form the basis for a new means of interacting with one another.

At present, design education (by which I mean studio education) is based on fundamentally different goals than those — primarily on the goals of learning to manipulate form and space so as to convey or explore a concept. But if we borrow Lipkin’s point of view, architectural education should place its emphasis on the rigorous examination of cultural notions of habitation, beauty, contextual appropriateness, pleasure, comfort, place identity, and so on.

There are, however, at least three reasons why this is not carried out. One is that architectural education is (very often) intended not as this kind of broad, critical education, but rather as a preparation to enter the community of professionals. If that is the intention, then it is a conservative intention — that is, it should prepare its new recruits to absorb and uphold the values of the culture they are about to enter. These professional values are almost wholly aligned with the values of the dominant culture more broadly: that buildings are commercial products to be sold, either on the basis of cost or of brand image. So design education is torn and often confused by its conflicting goals of professional preparation and critical study.

The second reason is that there are often individual faculty within design schools with an interest in carrying out this kind of critical discourse, but that the department itself (or even the entire college) is too often isolated from the intellectual life of the university as a whole. The ideas that design theorists create are not subjected to examination by philosophers, social scientists, humanists, or physical scientists, nor do their ideas benefit from a broad training in these fields. (In my experience, the most remarkable faculty I’ve ever met in design schools came from intellectual origins outside architecture — cultural geography, environmental psychology, human ecology, material culture studies, and so on.)

The third reason is that whatever critiques are made of the dominant definitions of beauty and comfort and so on are hidden and implicit. Here is a snippet of a design review; the project was a small single-family house.
Critic: Why are these windows smaller than those windows on the other side?

Student: Because they’re in the bathroom.

Critic: That’s the kind of conventional thinking we need you to get rid of. If I wanted that kind of house, I could just go to the store and buy a copy of 101 House Plans.
Now, this conversation could have offered the opportunity to question the student’s assumptions about privacy, to put forth counter-definitions, to explore the ways in which expectations of privacy are tied to other expectations of habitation and territory, and so on. Instead, the idea that a room might “require” different sized windows was simply rejected (and also demeaned) with no justification for the rejection. Prevailing cultural definitions are rarely named directly in design critiques, and their rejection is not the outcome of rigorous review and analysis but rather of simple declaration. (This may be, as James Elkins argues, that the critique simply offers too little time for meaningful exchange. He suggests three hours as about right for the examination and conversation about one student’s work.)

The fact is that conventions exist for a perfectly understandable set of reasons. They are defined by cultural norms that are broadly held but rarely examined. A crucial purpose of higher education should be to enter into conversations that help us understand our culture broadly, richly, and critically, so that we can be prepared to mount a strong case for its defense or its revision.


Melissa said...

HI Herb -

You've been busy! I've been reading your blogs this morning like a newspaper - skipping around - so if I sound like I am missing a point from an earlier blog, its probably true.

This is a great topic! I don't have much experience with other types of curriculm, all I know of them is what I gather through the people closest to me. My husband is an engineer and his training was, in essence, problem-solving. There is always a right answer and he must find it. Thats what he was taught in school. My sister is in med school and there they teach her to understand systems. She can identify a problem and knows the appropriate response. Problem...solution.

I am very goal-oriented and always look for an end accomplishment. What is the goal of architecture school? Each school is different and may even vary based on professor! We are given problems but no clear solution(s). This is starting to come across wrong. I appreciate the number of solutions and the beauty of the options of architecture. But what is our higher goal? To think differently? To create something no one has ever seen? To put large windows in small rooms? To break down barriers of privacy? To break down barriers of class?

Perhaps this is simply the way I operate but without a goal, how do we know if we have succeeded?

Herb Childress said...

Hi, Melissa.

Back in the early '70s, two urban planning theorists (Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber) devised the idea of "the wicked problem," about which I will surely write at great length. The idea is that there are "tame problems," such as math and engineering and sports and pharmaceutical chemistry, that have a known set of operations, a limited scope of concerns, and the ability to achieve a correct answer. (People often balk at the term "tame," thinking that it's derogatory. It is not. Tame problems can be enormously difficult... the "tameness" is just that you can know whether or not you've succeeded.)

Wicked problems, on the other hand, include most social, political and design issues. The problem can never be fully defined, there are many ways to approach it, the answers are not right-and-wrong but rather better-and-worse, there's no rule to know when you're done solving it, and you can't simulate it to know whether or not your plan really does work.

Some designers work by making wicked problems as tame as they can. They do this by eliminating most of what makes architecture interesting — its effects on our social and emotional lives. But the nature of a designed intervention in the built world is that it is inherently wicked.

In order to embrace this, in order to fully address the social issues behind design, I think we need to train potential designers with a broad and critical understanding of culture as it is. If we sequester our future architects into the studio and CAD lab, they'll never be prepared to deal with the questions that matter.

Part of this issue is the degree to which college is now thought of as a fancy vocational education. It really isn't. A good undergraduate education should leave you with far more questions than answers, with a humility in the face of the seriousness of the world's problems, and with a burning desire to be of service. Rather than "problem-solution," I think our best work comes through "problem awareness - problem definition - attempted resolution - careful assessment of outcomes - modification."