Monday, March 10, 2008

Starting Over (and Over, and Over...)

I'm in the midst of re-reading a terrific book by the art historian and studio art professor James Elkins, entitled Why Art Cannot Be Taught (University of Illinois Press, 2001). The book deserves a paragraph-by-paragraph analysis, which I won't do. What I will do is to focus on one tiny part of his argument, where he talks about the kinds of things that can't be learned in art school, including art that relies on historical techniques, art that depends on deep knowledge of non-art disciplines and so on. One of them, he claims, is "art that takes time." The studio is based on many projects with rapid turnover — a student working on the same painting for a year would be seen as hopelessly stuck.

I think this is true of architecture as well. Studios keep throwing projects at students, and require that you have a strong concept and overall form but then end long before the parts of the design sequence that require craft. (They also start with a predetermined program, whereas I think that serious, research-based programming is the most crucial element of design that exists.) Design projects seem to always last somewhere between three and eight weeks. I think this means that very little gets developed beyond the most basic formal relationships and broad strokes of materials.

Back in 1989, a book came out called Architects' People (edited by Russ Ellis and Dana Cuff). Cuff has a chapter called "Through the Looking Glass: Seven New York Architects and their People," in which she interviews — you guessed it — seven New York architects and asks them about how they conceive of people in their design work. The responses are all over the map, from the deep selfishness of Eisenman ("the only person in my work is me") to the warm humanism of Hugh Hardy. But what caught my attention was the parts of the design sequence that they were most excited about, talked most about. For almost all of them, the most interesting part of a project was the early conceptual design, and to a far lesser extent the first steps of design development. None of them talked about programming and needs assessment, none of them talked about contract administration (except Hardy, who constantly took suggestions from his craftspeople in the field and thought that it made the ultimate projects much more engaging). And I think it's no accident that what we teach in the classroom is the same elements of design that interest elite designers — conceptual design and a tiny bit of design development. Over and over and over, we take on new projects, run them up to about 10% completion, and walk away to another new project. Coming up with ideas is the currency of the field — expanding upon and completing those ideas is strongly discouraged.

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