Tuesday, March 25, 2008

So Near and Yet So Far

"Any intervention the West has, whether it’s the Peace Corps or tanks rolling into Baghdad, is going to fail unless we understand how the people think there." — Dan Hoyle
I read a lovely little article this evening, called “Architectural Assumptions and Environmental Discrimination: the Case for More Inclusive Design in Schools of Architecture” (a chapter in David Nicol & Simon Pilling, eds, Changing Architectural Education: Toward a New Professionalism; 2000; London and New York: Spon Press). In this chapter, Ruth Morrow — a professor of architecture at the University of Ulster — recounts the findings of research on the curriculum of a school of architecture at another UK college. The barriers to being able to practice truly “inclusive” or socially responsible design are built throughout the design curriculum as currently understood. Some of the circumstances she identifies are:

  • The similarity in race, gender and social class of most architecture faculty, which means they’ve rarely been excluded from or hindered by physical environments, and thus rarely build inclusivity and pluralism into their course goals;
  • The reduction of time spent on analysis because of the speed of class projects and the privileging of design time;
  • The relative lack of inclusion of the vast amount of research-supported understandings we have of user’s experiences of places, and of the variety of users unlike us who are likely to encounter those places;
  • The typical richness of sites chosen for studio projects, which she claims allows students to never have to work with “large, expansive sites with little character and surrounded by low-grade suburban blandness. But in reality it is sites of this kind that are, for instance, typical of those used for social housing, for day centres for people with multiple disabilities and for residential units for people with dementia” (p.45)
  • The building types chosen are likewise those that “more frequently reflect the needs of dominant groups in society than those of minority groups” (p.46)
  • The evaluative bias (in education and in professional awards) toward innovative form and the rare consideration of user assessments and POEs in our judgments of worth;
  • The focus on visual elements of design, which denies the full array of sensory experiences;
  • The demand for a “parti” or a “concept” or an “idea” behind the design (which Morrow says is “usually irrelevant to the user,” for which I would change the word “irrelevant” to “bewildering”) rather than an understanding of the experiences of a space; and
  • The rarity of mock-ups and other full-scale tests of the experience of design elements.
Any one of these nine would be problematic, and something to change. The fact that most curricula encompass most or all of these is pretty horrific. And the fact that we have the tools at hand to change most of them almost overnight is both encouraging because we could change, so easily, and distressing because we don’t think to do so.

Hoyle, in our opening quote, is talking about geopolitical interventions. But design interventions follow the same logic. They're doomed to fail unless we understand how the people think there.


Eric Randall said...

Hey Herb,

I'm trying to do some catch up on many of your posts, after a weeks sabbatical from your blog, so forgive me if this point has been raised or covered previously.

I think all of the bullet points you list are spot on, and I imagine that with little effort we could expand that list to cover several pages, or even a chapter. I think these are the heart of the "bait-and-switch" argument you made in one of your initial blog posts concerning disillusionment relative to one's education.

But what's rattling around in my skull today is your following statement:

"But design interventions follow the same logic. They're doomed to fail unless we understand how the people think there."

I like this hypothesis, and I think I agree with it, but I think we must quantify what failure actually means. For example: Once I've exited the outskirts of Tulsa, my 40 mile drive home had been visually (and architecturally?) unchanged until roughly 3 years ago, when, some 15 miles south of my hometown, Wal-Mart built a giant distribution center on the west side of highway 75, virtually in the middle of nowhere. It's a mess: A giant rectangle with smaller (but still giant) rectangles attached, 3 sides peppered with truck docks. The end. Visually and contextually, clearly a failure. However, the craftmanship involved in the design of the project - that is the coordination of site movement, the economy of not a single wasted square inch (ok, I'm making an assumption on this one, but knowing who the tenant is, I can safely assume that's the case), and the coordination of the delivery systems within the building most be nothing short of incredible. So purely from a utilitarian perspective, I would imagine that building to be an incredible success - not to mention the postive economic impact it has had for the surrounding region. But then I wrestle with the not so tangible context and aesthetics issue. So, what, then, should become the proper gauge of "success" that we as architects should strive for?

Herb Childress said...

Hi, Eric.

You raise a great point. I think back to the Declaration of Boston, and one of the tenets is that we work for our clients organizational effectiveness; clearly, the WalMart regional distribution center is the epitome of the building as machine, far more so than Corbu (who coined the idea of the machine for living) ever achieved. So the building is a great success... but a one-dimensional success. It doesn't address the environmental stewardship, it doesn't address the social justice (you have to be somewhat successful to work there, because you sure can't walk or take a bus to work — as Barbara Ehrenreich says, it's expensive to be poor), it doesn't address the aesthetic richness, and it doesn't address the health/safety/welfare beyond what's mandated by OSHA and the fire code. So it's a success when using a single-variable definition.

I'm really struggling with the idea of how one really does do a good job in the face of a client community that often doesn't give a crap about the larger effects of what they commission... no glib answers here, which means that this question may well become the most important one we have to address, the one that matters most.

Eric Randall said...

I wonder if defining what truly makes a work of architecture "successful" is going to be as difficult as trying to define what is "good taste" ?

I ran across a quote the other day - and now I can't remember where it was that I read (but I'll try and dig it up from the original source, because I think its greater context maybe be useful for your research) - but it was from the architect Lebbeus Woods. I'm paraphrasing (and likely butchering it) but it was something to the effect: "I think the first question every architect needs to ask is 'Does this building even need to be built'? Perhaps that's why I have so few commissions."

I quite like that quote, and it's interesting to envision a built environment where we all ask that question first. Although I can see a whole new branch of discrimination lawsuits in the works.

I guess it would be like the counter help at McDonald's asking themself as I order "does this guy really need a LARGE fries?" ... he/she is right, but it still hurts my ego a touch.