Friday, March 7, 2008

Nonfiction Architecture

Two things will come together here. One is that I've been asked to keep The Vita Activa open for business between semesters. The second is that I've had a book project in my head for a couple of years but never had time to sit down and pursue it.

So here's my intention. Three or four times a week, I'll lay out some ideas here that are on my mind about this project. They won't be draft chapters, but they won't just be annotated bibliographies, either. Instead, what I imagine they'll be is kind of pre-writing, a free association based on what I've been reading and seeing and what I think about it all. Eventually, it may produce enough raw material that something useful can be pieced together from it.

If nothing else, at least it will spur me to read something interesting every couple of days, which will be useful in its own rights.

The basic ideas of the book (which I'm tentatively calling Nonfiction Architecture) are threefold. The first is that the professions of environmental design — and the education that prepares for those professions — jumped the rails a little more than a century ago, and have never recovered. The second is that the mistakes in the foundations of those professions matter deeply. And the third is that there are shifts we can make in our thinking that will result in better professional life and better places.

Just a humble little writing exercise...

I welcome your comments and thoughts and disagreements all along the way. They'll help me construct counterpositions that I'll have to address in order to be both thorough and honest.

My opening argument: architecture is not art, and in fact has fairly little to do with art. The confusion of art and environmental design, the importation of teaching methods from the arts, and the use of artistic terms and concepts for the critique of architecture, have resulted in deep disaster.

Part of my argument comes from the thinking of Ed Allen, FAIA, the recipient of the 2005 Topaz Medallion for Excellence in Architectural Education for his work at MIT and at the University of Oregon. In his acceptance speech (a photocopy of which is lying around my office somewhere), he says that architecture is neither art nor science but rather simply "design," which he defines as the creation of a needed object. My own term, that architecture and its allied fields are crafts rather than arts, would be drawn from material culture studies, in which craft objects are useful things created with a great skill and care, and art objects are things created without regard for utility. (See, for instance, the 1990 radio lecture by University of Canterbury philosopher Dennis Dutton called "Borderlands of Art.") As Kant puts it, art is "intrinsically final," not put to a further end but existing as its own end; we regard it not in its helpfulness, nor even in being pleasing, but rather for "cultivation of the human spirit."

One of the most interesting parts of Dutton's talk was his borrowing of an idea from another philosopher, R.G. Collingwood, who says that one of the identifying characteristics of a "craft" is that the craftsperson knows (more or less) what the desired outcome is before beginning the task, whereas the artist works through discovery. A quilter, for instance, may not know exactly how she or he will organize the pattern or colors of all the cloth scraps at her disposal, but she DOES know that she's headed for a quilt of a certain size that will keep a bed warm, or a smaller quilt that will keep one's shoulders warm.

Now it seems to me that the kind of work that goes on in the architectural profession could be most reasonably called a craft. When you're called upon to design a school, you won't end up with a hospital or an airport or a tipi or a hockey rink. You'll end up with some thoughtful (we hope) variation on that which we think of as a school. On the other hand, the kind of work that goes on in architectural education (and in the high-style design that gets published) are more reasonably thought of as an art. Think of the thirteen different resolutions of the same design program on the same site that came from this semester's BAC Distance M.Arch studio: we saw everything from a Bavarian hill village to a floating intestine, all of which were considered plausible responses to the project and its intentions.

This, I think, is one of the greatest sources of disillusionment of young design professionals, trained as artists and subsequently asked to perform a career in a craft field. It's an educational bait-and-switch.

A joke you've probably heard in some variant: a Senator dies, and meets St. Peter at the gates. Peter says, "There's a new procedure. You get to spend a day in Hell, and a day in Heaven, and after that trial period you get to choose." And he puts the Senator in the down elevator.

The Senator disembarks in Hell, and discovers to his amazement that all of his old buddies are there, having a great time. Good food, good drinks, terrific golf courses, gorgeous cars. He can hardly believe what a great time he has there, after all he's heard.

The next morning, he takes the elevator back up to Heaven, where he spends the day sitting around on clouds listening to harp music. It's relaxing, but after even that first day, he's a little bored.

On the third morning, he reports back to St. Peter's desk, and says, "I can hardly believe I'm saying this, but Hell really was a better place. That's where I'd like to go, please." So St. Peter stamps his boarding pass, puts him into the elevator one last time, and the Senator decends. When the elevator door opens, he's horrified to see the great lake of fire, with all of his friends dressed in rags and screaming in pain. He's greeted by a demon, and he says, "This can't be right! This isn't what I saw two days ago when I was here."

And the demon replies, "Two days ago we were campaigning. Now you've elected us."

So design education is the demo period, and the design professions are the actuality. We have a duty to make them match more closely. Tomorrow I'll talk a little about what that match might entail.


Eric Randall said...


Thanks for the intellectual rush of blood to the head.

Something that immediately jumped out from your initial post is your thesis that "the professions of environmental design...jumped the rails a little more than a century ago..." I wonder if you might expand on that a little bit? What do you use to mark that event? The second industrial revolution, perhaps, or the onset of our favorite modernist movement?

I think your criticism of current architectural education is spot on - and frankly I think our undergraduate training (at least I can speak for mine own, anyhow) is so far removed from what our first 2,5,10 years of professional lives entail, that it is almost criminal. I don't know that I can think of another undergraduate degree where the preparatory education so poorly prepares (or portrays) its graduates for their first entry level job.

The idea of an architect as a craftsman rather than an artist is an interesting paradox, though. I might theorize that the practice of architecture has been so compartmentalized, so specialized, that as a whole I think that 90% of us are craftsmen, but there is that slight minority who may truly be "artists". Let me expand on that a bit. I am a terrible designer. I've never been all that great reinventing or creating "through discovery". I'm never going to be published in Architectural Record nor will I be giving my AIA Gold Medal acceptance speech. I am clearly NOT an artist. What I am good at - figuring out how things go together, B.S.'ing with contractors, or solving construction problems in the field and being able to analyze their ramifications 5 steps down the road are my forte - and squarely places me in the craftsmen category. As much as I may think that the Gehrys of the world may design junk - I think on some level it is indeed art - and on the converse, I would wager that Gehry and the like couldn't tell you the first thing about the correct mounting height for a toilet paper dispenser in a handicapped bathroom, thus the artists need the craftsmen as much as the vice-versa to create meaningful, memorable spaces.

Or how about Maya Lin? I'm thinking of her architect designed Vietnam Memorial in D.C. Is that fair to classify as the work of a craftsman?

...thanks for sweeping the cobwebs from the noggin this evening...

Herb Childress said...

Hey, Eric. Good to see you.

One of the things I'll be writing about in the next few days, once I've done a little more research, is the degree to which the 20th Century architecture that gets taught is actually the design of "art" -- that is, the design of buildings that have very little function other than their own existence. Monuments, museums, performance halls, vacation homes in the mountains, skyline-defining towers: buildings whose ultimate function is to be themselves, that fulfill Kant's characterization of being "intrinsically final." These are how the big-name folks make their marks. Very rarely do we see published work pertaining to an everyday public place. For instance, Renzo Piano's work on the Times building in NYC is regarded wholly as a sculptural object, and it's pretty rare to read a review of the interior spaces (which Piano shopped out to Gensler, of which there was a terrific review last August in The New Yorker) or of the streetscape (I've yet to see photographs of that building in which the camera wasn't tilted upward at 45 degrees to see the skyline).

So there ARE artists at work. I wish that we paid less attention to them, because their work is not fundamentally architectural.

Singleton said...

Its wonderful to have these intellectual stimuli back once again in my life. (Thanks Herb!) After a two week hiatus from the blogs, its nice to be back once again...

Well after reading this post, I sat at my desk for a few minutes pondering how I wanted to argue my point, or rather, which point I wanted to argue. The first question that comes to my mind is, if architecture isn't "art" then what is it? How can it be defined? What are the "rules" or "parameters" that we can use to define architecture?

If art can be defined as "the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power" then yes, I do think architecture is an art form.

Reflecting upon my own life, my current job and what I am currently designing - could I say that I am an "artist?" Certainly not. I am designing houses that fit into a required site with certain parameters (square footage, budget, materials). I typically don't sit back, look and my projects and say, yes, this is a work of art. But perhaps that is the problem. Perhaps as architects we should view our creative works as "art." It fulfills the required criteria to be considered "art" - a visual form that produces emotion. (Perhaps not emotion to myself, but for my clients)

When I look at a project, like for instance the Mass. College of Art design by Single Speed Design (using nylon straps to decorate in the interior space) - well that to me IS art. Creative, expressive, emotional.

I suppose it all depends on how architecture itself is defined. I once heard a great, influential professor of mine say that architecture should be "helpful, dependable, satisfying, and fair." (note the lack of artistic terms here - a very non-emotional description) Although I do not believe that we must label and define everything in order to understand it, perhaps developing an enriched interpretation of what architecture "is" might be helpful when trying to argue what it "is not."

Herb Childress said...

Hi, Michelle.

Thanks for providing a more thorough definition of art. It raises its own contradictions when applied to architecture — that art is "the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power." And I think that last clause, that it's appreciated PRIMARILY for its beauty and emotional power, takes architecture out of the mix. Architects, for me, are more akin to fine furniture makers or the folks in Stoughton, Wisconsin who made my pool cue. Such things, like buildings, should be made with endless attention to detail, should reward their users every time we regard them, should be exuberant or restrained (as the maker and client agree). But if the dresser doesn't hold clothes, it's no longer a dresser; and if my pool cue, as gorgeous as it is, didn't fundamentally make me a better player, it would be on eBay in about ten minutes.

The singleSPEED project at MassArt is an interesting case, for me, of what the belief in architecture as art has resulted in. The hanging nylon strips in the lobby are indeed art, no more fundamental to the building than hanging a painting. Their flexible conference-room wall partitions are ingenious, but only fulfill one of the functions of conference rooms (visual privacy, more or less...). Conference rooms also have periodic requirements for acoustic privacy, which their design utterly ignores.

It's the attention to craft that allows buildings to be not merely helpful, dependable, and fair, but to rise to the level of "satisfying." Which, for me, is a deeply emotional state. Every time I take my cue out of the case and screw it together, I'm pleased by it. Every time I listen carefully to music, my speakers (made by DALI in Denmark) are a joyful occasion in both vision and audio. They make my life a little better — I think they make ME a little better, because they make me slow down and pay attention to detail.

Melissa said...

I am laughing as I write this was NOT a tuscan/bavarian/disneyland village!! I drew a roofline and threw some brown marker on it!! And an interesting doorway does not mean village!!

Okay, here's my thoughts. We are the senator and if the schools didn't campaign, none of us would ever go to arch school because the work force is not what we expect it to be!

I think labeling an architect as a "craftsperson" is rather limiting. I think back when architects were builders, that was very true but now there are so many facets to architecture, its hard to label them in one group. For instance, we have a guy that lives for code regulations and designing "by the rules". My friend works for a firm that takes the big ideas from other firms and produces CD's. On the other hand, my boss draws the most beautiful buildings and knows exactly how they will be put together as soon as his pencil hits the paper. Its truly artistic and well-crafted.

Finally, I'm not following your "problem" with design, are you trying to label it? are you saying students are falsely led? are you proposing something? maybe you haven't gotten that far?

Eric Randall said...

I think the most interesting aspect to come out of this first blog post is that, if we can assume your primary thesis is correct - that is:

"the importation of teaching methods from the arts, and the use of artistic terms and concepts for the critique of architecture, have resulted in deep disaster."


"This, I think, is one of the greatest sources of disillusionment of young design professionals, trained as artists and subsequently asked to perform a career in a craft field.

Then in the span of three different posts from the different graduate students we have essentially proved the point. Each of us, to a varying degree, took a level of offense at "how dare you call me a craftsman and not an artist"....quite interesting indeed. I think to quiet the lynch mob calling for your head on a platter it might do some justice to expand on the whole concept of craftsman vs. artist. The more I thought about it yesterday, the less offense I took to the term. After all, you never hear of a starving craftsman do you?