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.