Sunday, March 30, 2008

A Guest Commentary

I’m going to use this post to offer a direct extended quote from someone else. This is the first half of a column by Kim Tanzer, professor of Architecture at U.Florida and current President of the American Collegiate Schools of Architecture, from the October 2007 issue of the ACSA News. (The second half is how the ACSA’s publications and conferences intend to respond to the conditions she lays out in the first half; I’ll write about some of that later.) The title of the piece is “What is the Nature of Architectural Knowledge?”
Over the years, I have had many conversations with university colleagues who teach in he sciences which follow this general outline: I ask about a colleague’s research and he or she begins by saying; “We know [insert a description about agreed upon knowledge within the discipline] and I am looking at [insert a question directed toward a filling a gap in a known field of knowledge or a hypothesized extension or redirection of this agreed upon knowledge]”

The frequency of this pattern of conversation has led me to wonder, what do most architects agree that we know? And, what further research needs to be done to fill in, extend, or redirect our collective understanding of architectural knowledge?

As I have started asking this question of academic architects, I have come to believe that we apparently do not conceptualize shared ground of common knowledge but rather shared, or even conflicting, zones of actions. While I love the fluidity of design propositions, our lack of agreed-upon common knowledge concerns me for several reasons.

First, if we do not base our designs on a largely shared and verified knowledge base, we find ourselves asking the public to have faith in our assertions that designs will indeed perform as we contend. In fact if we ourselves do not believe our designs are largely based on verifiable knowledge, we can only be operating on faith. And if such projects fail, they lead to a generalized decrease in the value of professional architectural service.

Second, if we do not teach our students the outlines of our knowledge base, one must wonder what we are teaching them beyond design thinking. While architectural educators teach design thinking very well, academics in other fields argue that they do too. (Since we tend not to test assertions we can’t even prove our own point!) Architectural curricula are regarded as among the most demanding in many universities. Is such rigor necessary if a curriculum does not transmit a comprehensive knowledge base through all of its courses?

Third, having participated actively in scholarly exchanges for two decades, I regret that persuasively advanced arguments, gathered evidence, or unlocked architectural problems seem not to accumulate as a knowledge base. That is, we do not build adequately on the work of our colleagues. Rather, studies (in written, drawn, or built form) fall by the wayside, as new fascinations emerge. Too often, we find ourselves repeating, not extending, propositions made a generation earlier.

Big Ideas, Small Scales

When you go out to dinner or a bar with a large group of people, have a close look at the nature of the conversations. Not to the content, which I’m sure is sparkling and witty. No, pay attention to the nature of the size and shape of the conversations. There will likely be very few moments where all eight or ten of you are engaged in the same conversation at once. Instead, you’ll see two or three or four conversations going on at the same time, small subgroups turned inward to enclose both a topic and a relationship. It’s very rare that, given our own devices (and not being brought together through a formal mechanism like a class or a meeting or a political rally), we engage with a large group. Even at a gallery opening or an Oakland A’s game, we may be in the middle of a lot of people, but we’re having a sequence of very small experiences.

This is true of the built environment as well. We almost never experience a city; instead, we experience a series of streetscapes and subway cars and restaurants and workplaces and nodes of parks; the city-ness only exists in our cumulative experience, and is mildly to strongly different across individuals. We manufacture our image of the city through habit and repetition and occasional surprise (see the work of Kevin Lynch, Ian Cullen, and Steve & Rachel Kaplan, for instance). The intellectual object of the city as shown on maps and Google Earth and zoning codes is not quite the city that we live in.

I would also argue that we very rarely experience buildings. Instead, we most often experience many, many small spaces; vestibules, lobbies, corridors, elevators, cubicles, meeting rooms. The singular buildings that designers create — sculptural, conceptual objects — are not the same as the varied sequence of places people encounter through their small and segmented experiences. This is one of the reasons that the architect’s parti is so often not merely incomprehensible but actively confusing; the “concept” that the building responds to is a scheme that has to do with the building as a whole, and which is primarily legible through the (carefully selected) drawings and models through which the building is presented. It’s often unreadable and invisible in its individual segments; in fact, the more that the “concept” drives the design, the more likely it is that some individual spaces must be sacrificed in order to serve the larger compositional theme.

Here’s a piece of research that would be fun to conduct. Choose fifty or so of the buildings that have received the most critical acclaim in the past twenty years. Read the designers’ commentary and find the concept or parti or whatever the heck you want to call it. Then stand next to each one on a nice day, and ask 100 people if they can name what the major driving idea of the building was. Check “yes” if they come anywhere close without prior knowledge through their reading. I’m betting that the success rate will be in the very low single digits in almost every case. (If you conduct this research under adequate methodology, I'll be happy to put up a $20 bet on my hypothesis.)

The Representation of Places

There’s a bit of a debate going on within architectural education about BIM. Some believe that BIM (or other virtual modeling tools) should be introduced early in students’ design careers, and should be seen as an integral element of design thinking, both because of their prominence in the industry and their because they facilitate spatial and construction understanding. Others argue that beginning students should employ the traditional modes of pencil and physical models, because of their intimacy and physicality.

I’m something of an agnostic on the question, just as I was an agnostic when teaching writing whether students should use Word or Word Perfect or a legal pad when creating their first drafts. I was asking them to create a good argument, not to be a good typist.

In every design curriculum, there are a bunch of courses on design media: almost always freehand drawing, orthogonal drafting, perspective, and some broad array of computational media (I had a course called “Shades and Shadows” when I was a student way back in the stone age). And while I understand their importance, I also believe that graphic skill is grossly overemphasized in architectural education. And not merely in courses specifically about representation. I was at the annual American Collegiate Schools of Architecture conference last spring in Philadelphia, and went to a session called (something like) Research in Design. I left after the first three presenters all showed us some computer modeling of a rule-based form generation scheme; as far as I could tell, they’d developed really cool screen savers that had almost nothing to do with architecture.

I have two paired questions about how we might teach design representation:
  1. How can we help students convey their experience of existing places that they study? This will entail drawing, of course, but how can we help them both perceive and represent the tactile, thermal, social, acoustical, cultural, historical, and temporal elements of good places? (This presumes, of course, that they actually study real places and not just pictures from afar.)
  2. How can we help designers convey the users’ likely experiences of proposed places in all of those dimensions? How can we say convincingly that this design will be thermally delightful, for instance? (Lisa Heschong’s little book Thermal Delight in Architecture, now almost thirty years old, is still one of the very best — indeed, delightful — studies of what makes places satisfying. And not a picture in the whole thing.)
Focusing on drawing, drafting and CAD/BIM misses the point. It’s like focusing on Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. But it does help us to imagine that designers are in the art business, because the tools are somewhat similar.

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.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Shirts and buildings

I’m wearing a shirt. It’s a cotton shirt made by Munsingwear, constructed in Indonesia. It’s dark blue, long-sleeved, with a pattern of small white leaves and some rustic little Xs here and there. The buttons are sort of grey and black mottled plastic. If this shirt were hanging in the laundromat next to your shirts, you could almost certainly pick it out as not being one of yours. You might like it, or not like it, depending on your tastes, but it’s recognizable as being a unique shirt.

In its basic forms, though, it’s a shirt exactly like every other shirt in the laundry. It has a torso and two arms, and buttons down the center of the front. It has a button at each sleeve cuff that keeps it from flapping around, and a pocket on the left side of the chest. It has a collar that rises about an inch and a quarter, and then folds back down onto itself to come just back to touch the shoulders. The front edges of the collar come to acute-angle points. The tails are a little longer in the back and the front and shorter on the sides.

Pants. Two legs and a pelvis. Pockets. Belt loops.

Socks. A part that goes forward over your foot and curves closed over your toes, an angled gusset to make the curve at the heel, and then a top part that comes some distance up your calf and has elastic to keep it from sliding down all day.

Tie. A long linear piece of cloth wider on one end than the other, but both ends generally come to a laterally-symmetrical point. You wrap it around your neck, underneath the fold of the shirt collar, and tie it in some kind of a knot right at the top button so that most (but not all) of the knot is visible between the points of the collars. The rest of it hangs straight down the center of your belly. The wider end should hang further down than the narrower end, and should be in the front.

My purpose here is not to develop an illustrated childrens book on the nature of Western clothing. Rather, it’s an argument about the difference between form and detail. Form is cultural, expressing membership in a certain community of understanding; detail is individual, expressing specific preferences and interests. Form is what we do; detail is what I do.

There’s been a fair bit of environmental preference research about the concept of “frame and fill,” which is somewhat analogous to how I’m differentiating form and detail. I’ll need to find the exact reference for this definition from the 1988 proceedings of the ACSA Annual Meeting:
“The presumption is, then, that most pre-Modern facade compositions are largely developed and organized according to this principle of FRAME and FILL. In other words, major segments (fields) of a facade are defined, these are further subdivided, and each subdivision is “filled” through the articulation of fenestration and ornament. Thus, each subdivision of the facade is ordered, both within itself and in relation to the whole.”
It’s interesting that this is defined as a “pre-Modern” approach to building, since it’s still the contemporary approach to making almost everything else: clothes, cars, books, kitchenware, furniture. A limited number of forms, each applicable to a particular use, each available in a nearly infinite number of details in their fill. But in building design, we work backward. We build remarkable forms, and then hose them down with Dryvit and cover the inside with SheetRock, neither of which has any fill characteristics at all. (In the studio, we make the whole thing of basswood or museum board, with the same results.)

In general, we’ve found that people prefer buildings with familiar forms and interesting details. (Again, I’ll have to go into my research files to find appropriate references for this.) That is, they simultaneously want their expectations to be met and to have their senses enriched.

If I were designing an architecture school, my students’ first design exercise would be something like this:
I am your client. I am a writer. I want to build a small hut in the back yard where I can go to write and to read away from distractions. It will be square in plan, 10’ on each side, with a level floor. The walls will extend vertically up to a height of 9’, and the symmetrical gable roof will have a 45-degree pitch. There will be a door on one face, 6’8” in height and 32” in width. The walls perpendicular to the door wall will each have a window opening of 44” in height and 30” in width; the rear wall, parallel to the door wall, will have a window opening of 44” in height and 60” in width. In each case, the windows will have a sill height of 30”. No construction may extend from either the outer or inner faces of the walls by more than one inch. Using only materials and material connections, make it delightful.
We might repeat this exercise, with the programs and forms remaining predetermined but increasingly more complex, for a couple of years or more. In the meantime, they’d be exposed to ever richer and more rigorous cultural analysis, so that when they finally got around to being able to independently work with form (which is cultural in nature) after a few years, they’d be doing it with some extensive understanding of the ways in which their form decisions resist or comply with cultural norms.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The photograph, round 2

“Pornography ordinarily represents the sexual organs, making them into a motionless object (a fetish), flattered like an idol that does not leave its niche; for me, there is no punctum in the pornographic image; at most it amuses me (and even then, boredom follows quickly). The erotic photograph, on the contrary (and this is its very condition), does not make the sexual organs into a central object; it may very well not show them at all; it takes the spectator outside its frame, and it is there that I animate this photograph and that it animates me...the pornographic body shows itself, it does not give itself, there is no generosity in it…” – Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida (trans. Richard Howard, 1981; New York: Hill and Wang)
To understand whether architectural photographs are erotic or pornographic, Barthes would ask us to assess two things. The first is the degree to which the architectural object is fully and formally represented, and the degree to which is it obscured, hinted at, presented mainly as a scene. The second is the spectator for whom it is primarily intended.

Architectural photographs are noted for rarely including either people or signs of habitation. As Cervin Robinson noted in his 1975 essay “Architectural Photography” (Journal of Architectural Education, 29:2, 10-15),
“If asked to explain why he photographs as he does, the architectural photographer could justify most of it in the name of clarity. The wide-angle lens he uses helps distinguish planes in his picture; it tends to play down distracting surroundings; and, when his back is up against a wall, it allows him to show more. Furniture that is out of line will be more distractingly apparent in a picture than in reality; people who are asked to hold still for a photograph are likely to appear distressingly unnatural. The building which is his main subject may stand out clearly only if neighboring structures do not appear with equal prominence and clarity” (p.10).
This is the pornographic impulse: to display the fetish object fully and completely, with as few distractors as possible. The planes and the light are fundamental to both the original conception of the work and its representation; furniture, people, and surroundings play a minor role, if any at all. (In fact, the degree to which an object can even be said to have a context limits its interest among the design community, which largely canonizes second homes, museums, monuments, college buildings and other freestanding, sculptural forms.)

The architect, looking at the photograph of a building (in Architectural Record or Metropolis or some other design-focused publication), is likely to see it as merely an instance of his or her general interest in building design. That is, its importance isn’t in its specificity so much as its embodiment of certain trends, principles, styles and so on (and the degree to which it conforms to or mildly challenges those trends is exactly the grounds on which it was chosen to be photographed in the first place). The layperson, looking at the same photograph in the same context, is likely to be bewildered by both the object and by architects’ interest in it. To make this fetish argument more complete, imagine a catalog of leather bondage-wear. For those who are part of this fetish community, a particular corset might be a particularly nice example of corsets in general, but the category of corset still holds the spectator’s primary devotion. If the spectator isn’t part of the particular fetish community, then he or she has no means of applying emotional import to the fetish objects, either in general or in particular. Thus, the formal photograph of an architectural element is pornographic or arousing to the architect, and opaque to the layperson.

But what happens when the building or building element is used not in full self-exposure, but rather as a hint, a setting, a reference? These photographs are designed to enhance some sort of narrative, to evoke an emotional state. There are at least a couple of reasons for doing this, both having some persuasive end in mind. There is, of course, advertising, which (as John Berger says in his book Ways of Seeing) is intended to place us in an imagined setting made possible by the product, and to make us envious of that imagined self. Thus the photograph of the Tuscan villa or the Bahamian beach or the Manhattan apartment library or the Los Angeles nightclub, depending on our inclinations, is intended to make us say “I could be there… and if I was there, I would be the kind of person I’ve always wanted to be.”

(Architects are also the targets of architectural advertising, which often seems to imply the imagined self as more profitable and less beleaguered. Some building material or graphic software or professional development course promises to make the architect’s particularly difficult professional life become manageable, perhaps even pleasant.)

There are also photographs that argue from pathos, that attempt to persuade through the appeal to emotion. This is related to advertising through its intention to create an imagined setting within which we can place ourselves, but different in that its ultimate end is that we change our practices to attain that end state rather than merely buy something to temporarily fill the emotional need. For instance, the photographs that fill Jan Gehl’s book Urban Spaces, Urban Lives are illustrations of the appealing street life of Copenhagen: bicycling commuters, lively sidewalk cafes, casual walks along the waterfront. These are intended to let us vicariously experience what humane urban development feels like, and to instill in us a desire for that kind of experience. This complements the more intellectual argument (the logos) of the book, which offers claims that this is a smart form of urban planning and methods for how to achieve it; and the ethos or embodied authority of the book, which relies on Gehl’s status as a professional urban designer who was significantly responsible for making Copenhagen have the form that it does.

To use Barthes’ analysis, the photographs that constitute both the advertisement and the emotional argument are versions of erotica. They imply something beyond themselves; they entice us to imagine ourselves as part of another place, community, way of life. They are rhetorical devices put to use, rather than inert images inviting involuntary arousal.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

I can't resist...

"I hold the position that rumors are cybernetic structures in their own right, neither the parochial production of humans, no composites, not part truths or half-fictions or any other form or assembly of other cybernetic categories. Thus, they possess certain unique and irreducible qualities, such as immanent distance. Given this position, I think I figured out the first rumor, which must have occurred about 300,000 after the big bang just before the decoherence. Just before the decoherence, as photons moved farther aand [sic] farther into the plasma soup, an inkling must have escalated into a cosmic rumor that the great, indivisible unity of the plasma would soon atomize, leaving all existence fragmented, each piece isolated and alone. As the rumor spread, a fantastic anxiety would have gripped the cosmos, reaching an intolerable pitch just at the brink. For an instant, as the plasma ripped apart into atoms and transparency spread throughout the cosmos in the blink of an eye, abject terror must have gripped all existence. Then a moment later, all existence must have joined together in a cacaphony of laughter." — Jeffrey Kipnis, the Urban Rumors project, curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist
The philosopher Keith DeRose from Yale describes postmodern philosophy as "a fogbank," and says "I have to worry about any writer who will carry on like that for that long."

Let's leave aside this passage's anti-scientific (nearly Intelligent Design) foolishness of sentient stellar matter. I'm more troubled by the fact that every architectural theorist who succumbs to these glib and meaningless party games takes up faculty and publication space that could actually be used for the analysis of the vast social and environmental problems that architecture could address. I'm even more troubled by the fact that every unsuspecting architecture student who comes in contact with one of these characters runs the risk of being distracted from the real work.

If you're not going to work for the aid of real people, then get out of the way.

McLuhan + 50

It’s been about fifty years since communications theorist Marshall McLuhan developed his ideas about the ways in which communications media not only affect the conveyance of ideas but become the ideas themselves. The linear thinking that was promoted by typeset books, the passivity and lack of creative demands that video places on its viewers, and so on, are the larger and more important cultural frame within which any of the content must be understood.

There’s far more I’ll need to do with McLuhan’s work. For instance, Joshua Meyrowitz has used McLuhan’s theory to examine “cyberspace” and the ways in which it eliminates some of the work of cities and buildings in his 1986 book No Sense of Place. But my work in this post is much more constrained — to talk about the fundamental problem with studying architecture through looking at photographs.

Buildings are three-dimensional, inhabited objects in community context. They engage many of our senses at once. They frame social interaction. They are encountered at all times of day, in all seasons and weathers, and over the course of years. Photographs are none of these things. They are two-dimensional objects set onto a page in a re-configured context. They frame geometric relationships and light-dark contrasts. They engage only our sense of sight. They are photographed at one point in time, at one point in their aging cycle.

We can learn about architecture from looking at pictures almost exactly the same things that we can learn about women by looking at Playboy:
  • That they are objects of the admiring or critical gaze
  • That there are certain subcultural norms that determine which models are to be photographed
  • That the appropriate way to see them is determined by light and composition
  • That the models’ past or future existence is irrelevant to our interest
  • That the images are set within pages of framing text and images of other models, all of which sets an overall interpretive and definitional frame
If we wish to construct an architectural education that focuses on compositional issues, then our books and slide shows are the perfect media. If, however, we wish to construct an architectural education that has any bearing on our experience of habitation, then architectural photographs are perhaps the most inappropriate — indeed, hostile — mode of communication we could possibly employ.

I’ve had an interesting series of conversations with some of my colleagues in design education. One of the things they almost universally try to do with beginning design students is to keep them from thinking about buildings, and instead to help them think about form and space, about design methods and so on. One said specifically that if we were framing design education about ideas of habitation, then all of the students’ prior experience in places would be perfectly appropriate evidence to bring to bear. But if instead we want to focus on composition, then we need to eliminate habitational thinking (and political thinking, and social thinking, and experiential thinking…) . Photography helps us do that.

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Problems with Progress

“The good life would then be a matter of abandoning critique’s desire for an eternal, immovable fulcrum with which to block the rolling stone of modernity. The good life might be a matter of appreciating, on an everyday level, that vectoral flux and change is ontology itself. One’s enclosures are temporary, and if built as such, one need feel much less anxiety about its passing.” — McKenzie Wark, “Telegram from Nowhere,” Mutations (edited by Stefano Boeri, Harvard Project on the City, Muliplicity, and Jean Attali, 2001)
I picked up a very silly book this morning, called Mutations. It’s about 750 pages, but doubtful if anyone would ever (has ever, could ever, was ever intended to) read it as a traditional Western book — front to back, upper left to lower right, with the expectation that the words accumulate into a story or an argument. My partner described it as a “hallucinatory fantasy,” although I believe it was intended as a compilation of thoughts in architectural theory. Its authors would likely find “hallucinatory fantasy” to be a compliment, and would write more unintelligible things about it.

The book has something in common with a newspaper, which is also not intended to be read in continuity. It has more in common with the Internet, intended to be used by hopping (though here there are no hyperlinks, no connections that an author has claimed to be sensible or useful, so one merely hops about with less intellectual intention than a rabbit, who at least has the goal of fresh clover).

But there is one common theme here, which is the same tripartite theme that has been sounded since (roughly) the middle of the 19th century:
  1. the present is fundamentally different than the past
  2. the future will be unknowably different than the present
  3. this change is and has always been and will always be either unquestionably good (as with the Futurists) or morally neutral (as with most Postmodernists)
This is a remarkably superficial understanding of change, rooted in the speed of technological innovation and ignoring the many stabilities of human experience. It is undoubtedly true that building construction has fundamentally changed from a stacking technology to an assembly technology. It is undoubtedly true that the camera has changed our visual language, that recording and broadcasting has changed our relationship to sound, that the immediacy of electronic communication has eliminated many of the barriers presented by distance and topography, and that the word processor/laser printer/blog has diminished some of the power differences between “authors” and the rest of us.

And there is no reason to imagine that technological process will slow down. According to the computing axiom called Moore’s Law, the number of transistors that can be inexpensively placed on a computer chip will double every two years. This single change will drive everything from communications media (are CD’s already obsolete?) to manufacturing (small household objects “printed” on your home rapid-prototyping unit) to health care (nanobots flowing through your bloodstream to destroy virus cells). In fact, the inventor Ray Kurzweil insists that it will be almost impossible to distinguish ourselves from machines within the next 40 years or so because of biotechnology and artificial intelligence; as machines grow more “human” and humans grow more mechanical, the differences between us will increasingly blur until an event he calls The Singularity, arriving in 2045. Mark your calendars.

Pondering the future seems to lead to one of three flavors of response:
  1. the utopia, in which ideal circumstances (however defined) can finally be achieved;
  2. the dystopia, in which unintended consequences are larger than those for which we hoped; and
  3. the public policy endeavor, in which social and technical systems are seen as largely comprehensible, subject to rational intervention, and managed carefully through tuning in response to ongoing analysis.
But the political philosopher Marshall Berman suggests that the future warrants all three of these responses simultaneously. His 1982 book All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity is a remarkable exploration of the ways that “progress” is always beneficial and destructive, always manageable and untamed, and which always drags the unwilling (traditionalists of varying sorts) along into lives that they have not chosen and do not consent to. “Progress” is merely power by another name, benefiting those with the resources to manage change and drowning those without.

I’ll write more about this in another post. My intention here is to begin my own thinking about how so much of architectural theory — these shallow and inelegant utopias — has paradoxically remained inert for more than a century.

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.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Art, Craft, Who Cares???

So let’s return to my claim that architects are not artists, which is already a point of serious contention here. In order to help everybody feel a little better, let me make it clear that I am not using the word “art” in its vernacular sense. Here are some of the things I don’t mean:
  • That art is something done with heightened awareness and intention.
  • That art reflects its maker and its larger culture.
  • That art is work born from inspiration.
  • That art is something engaging to our senses.
  • That art is any work done well.
These are common but imprecise meanings of the term art, because they can apply to any endeavor, surely to architecture but also to furniture making, cooking, massage therapy, and hockey. If all activities and all objects can be art, then the idea of art loses its meaning and becomes nothing.

So let me be clear about my (provisional) definition here. Art is a practice of imagination and creation that is undertaken for its own sake. Its overt benefits, to its creator and to its observers, are intellectual and/or contemplative in nature; art exists, in Yi-Fu Tuan’s term, to be “regarded,” to be held at distance for observation. (Art may, of course, accrue all sorts of incidental benefits, such as status, economic worth, and even identity with time and repetition. None of these can be planned for or determined in advance, and they are not the point.) Non-art objects can become art, but only by losing their original function. The bowl no longer is a bowl, the soup can is no longer a soup can.

So why is architecture not art? For several interrelated reasons.
  • Architecture is a necessity for life. As individuals, shelter is one of our most fundamental human needs. As families and tribes, places hold us together and reflect our relationships. For organizations, places act as machines that facilitate specific work processes. Without our buildings, we would die.
  • Architecture is a commodity of consumption. It is commissioned or bought as a means to some other end, and has a predictable economic value or exchange rate.
  • Architecture is planned (and known) in advance. Our clients come to us with needs and functions; we respond to those functions in predictable ways.
  • Architecture is an enveloping rather than an externalized phenomenon. The buildings that matter most to us can never be dispassionately regarded; we inhabit them, we move through them, we encounter them over and over and over and build habitual relationships with them.
  • Architecture strongly frames behavior (individual and communal). Architecture can make certain acts more likely and other acts less so. Places can bring us together in comfortable social encounters, or keep us anonymous; they can make us feel fluid or clumsy.
  • Architecture endures beyond its era. The most basic structure and shell of a building has the capacity of at least decades, and possibly centuries, of useful life. It will be inhabited through the daily use of generations beyond those who commissioned or designed it.
  • Architecture is constantly modified by non-professionals, and is not subject to carefully controlled aging. Buildings begin to change the day they’re constructed. Left out in the elements, maintained diligently or haphazardly, and constantly patched and rearranged and re-surfaced and expanded by both their owners and a variety of workers, the maintenance of architecture is entirely different than the professional conservation of art that’s intended to fix a piece at its condition of origin or discovery.
  • Architecture does not have a self-selecting audience. We do not (most often) seek out buildings. We seek out functions and people, and encounter them within whatever buildings they happen to occupy.
  • Architecture does not begin with a blank canvas. It begins with a set of stated needs, with budgetary constraints and goals, with a site that provides its context. It is not a gessoed white field waiting for the first spark.
  • Architectural collections are not curated for intellectual or aesthetic intent. Rather, they’re what we call “neighborhoods” or “districts,” which are ever-fluid collections of places created (and modified) at different times by different people with different intentions.
So I’m not implying that you all aren’t good at, and don’t care about, your work. My notion that architecture isn’t art is really a reflection of a more precise set of meanings and conditions. Art is not a value statement meaning “really good;” it’s a category statement.

(In a related idea that I won’t follow up, I also think that the word “design” gets misused badly, usually when it means to gussy up something that already exists without making any fundamental change. Nike has a huge staff of shoe and clothing designers, a few of whom are involved in understanding biomechanics and materials engineering, and a vast number who are making predictions about next year’s colors and whether rounded or flattened shoelaces will sell better. In the 70’s, everybody wanted to be an “engineer;” in the 80’s, everybody’s job title had “analyst” in it; for the past ten years, everybody’s been a “designer.” This, too, will pass.)

Now, there’s a postmodern argument to be taken up, which is that art is not a fixed characteristic of an object, and has only peripherally to do with the designer’s intentions. In postmodern literary criticism, the meaning of a text is determined by the reader rather than the writer. The reader has every bit as much right to be thought of as an author, since it is the reader who makes meaning. By this view, art is a (probably temporary, certainly unpredictable) status conveyed on any object toward which a viewer has “art intentions;” that is, any object that an observer regards with the intention of appreciative distance. This is a reasonable position, and one that we have to contend seriously with; we have no assurance of who will see our work, nor how they will see it, nor what they will think of it when they do see it. But the fully postmodern view here would leave us to complete indeterminism or whimsy — if art is wholly in the viewer rather than the maker, then we have no bearing at all on the perceived quality of our work, and can do as we please. I can have an art experience right now, as I sit looking at the airport settee across from me while I’m typing. The centers of the leather seats are mildly wrinkled, but the leather itself is polished smooth by the scouring from tens of thousands of pants and skirts of tens of thousands of interchangeable travelers — working, reading gossip magazines, wrangling children, worrying about weather. That experience, that inarticulate little airport poem, was not provided by Herman Miller nor by the Philadelphia International Airport. It was made by me, because I wanted to do it, because I took an attitude of regard toward that bench.

In this world (and it’s true in writing every bit as much as it has been in high-style architecture), there’s a cheap and reliable way to invoke the “art intention:” you make something unusual or out of place but clearly intentional, and everybody stands back and says “WTF?!?” That notion, that a building should be an intellectual challenge, is an art notion. The idea of “place,” which I’ll address soon, refers to a much more complex set of relationships between person and setting.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

In the non-linear spirit of TVA, I'm going to jump forward several chapters at the same time I go back 20 years. (Because it's what I was thinking about this morning, that's why.)

So it's summer 1989. I'm 31 years old, a senior at Berkeley (THERE's a long story...), and I got a summer internship with the Berkeley Solar Group. I'd already taken most of the building energy courses available at the school, and was good at the math and physics that it entailed.

My summer internship was one monster project that took me the entire three months. We had a research project to examine the energy savings that had been brought about by California's residential energy code. My role in the project was two-fold. The first was to develop a field-inventory system that would allow a layperson to capture the gross elements of a house (footprint, orientation, general construction and insulation, windows, heating/cooling/water heating equipment and controls, and a few other things) in a two-hour visit. I tested the protocol myself on half a dozen new houses, and built the paper form for field workers to fill out... it ran to about ten pages or so if I remember correctly. Then I helped train the temp workers, average folks with no building knowledge whatsoever, to do the inventories.

The second element was my great nemesis. I spent the better part of two months building a spreadsheet program that would accept data entry for these field forms, and then convert that data into a CSV (comma-separated values) file that would run in another program called CalRes. CalRes was the state-approved residential energy-use simulation software, and was pretty remarkable for its era. Here's how it worked. You entered all that home data that I mentioned above into the program, and the program then did two things. First, it did an energy-use simulation of your design, on an hour-by-hour basis using 50-year average climate and solar data for the appropriate one of California's 16 climate zones, to come up with an annual energy expenditure. Then it did an equivalent simulation against a house of the same size, orientation and window placement, but with the California-checklist construction features (R-11 walls, R-19 ceiling/roof, middle of the road double-pane windows, average efficiency equipment, and so on). If your proposed design performed better than the checklist version, you got your building permit; if not, not. So you had a lot of flexibility as a designer to meet the energy budget for a house of a given size; you could put way more windows than you ought to on the southwest side of the house if your overhangs were sized properly, for instance.

So I spent hours and hours working on a primitive portable computer that weighed about thirty pounds, had a green-on-black built-in screen that was about 6" across, had a 20-meg hard drive, and was powered by an IBM AT Turbo chip that ran at a mighty 25Mz. I wrote endless nested if-statements to convert one kind of data into another, trying to make Quattro (a primitive precursor to Excel) create CalRes files so that the easier spreadsheet data entry would immediately run a CalRes simulation. And by the time I went back to school in September, the damn thing actually worked, and I was wearing glasses. Fortunately, somebody else did the data entry on all 500 sampled houses after I left.

Now, I bother telling you this story for an important reason. Twenty years ago -- TWENTY YEARS AGO, when computing power was both crappy and expensive, and home video games still involved using the arrow keys to keep your cursor between the scrolling asterisks that tried to mimic a ski run -- we were able to develop simulation tools that allowed designers to know how their decisions would play out in the energy use of their ultimate buildings. Fast-forward to 2009, and through the use of BIM software that contains endless amounts of building information, we ought to be able to have a series of "speedometers" at the bottom of the screen that keep a running estimate of the design's performance against some standard conditions. Every time we place a window or spec a wall system, the meters ought to move up or down to tell us instantly what that choice means for a building's performance.

This could easily be done for energy use, separated out into heating, cooling, water heating, and demand electrical load. But we should also have meters for construction cost (using the Means cost estimation data), life-cycle operational cost, workplace safety issues (using OSHA historical data, we could easily estimate how many work hours would be lost on average for every foot of open-tread stair, for instance), lateral load performance (both wind and seismic), fire performance, payback period on investment, and any number of other quantifiable aspects of building performance. For all of these, the data we need already exists; currently, we just look it up from Means or OSHA or the National Weather Service or whatever, and figure things out once our design is nearly complete. We ought to be able to do it constantly from the very beginning of design work.

And we also have fifty years or so of information from environment-behavior research that should be able to help us simulate how buildings perform in human, experiential terms as well. Gerald Davis and Francoise Szigeti have computerized serviceability inventories; Frank Duffy has his workplace types and the kinds of work they best support; Irv Altman started thirty years of privacy research; William Whyte codified how social spaces work; the ISO has all kinds of acoustical and lighting performance data. We ought to be able to have meters that tell us about privacy, sociability, productivity, security (for people and for objects), wayfinding, visual and acoustic comfort, and a wide variety of human performance criteria. These won't be as precise as the ones related to building physics and economics, just as the temperature gauge in your car isn't a precision scientific instrument -- but they'll let you know if things are going okay or getting dangerously out of hand.

I know that one of the reactions to this may be that it shifts the decisionmaking from the designer to the software. But I think there's an opportunity there. It would be almost impossible to imagine a design that put all the meters at an optimal point; the architect would be responsible for orchestrating some desired balance of performance, and educating the client in the likely outcomes of every decision along the way. The software will help evaluate the ultimate performance of the building in the client's terms, leaving the designer more room for craft, mainly related to what Ed Allen refers to as the singular skill of the architect -- detailing, the thoughtfulness, care and precision with which the elements are brought together.

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.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

The Critical Craft

If architecture isn't an art, as I began to argue in my previous post, then what does it mean to be a craft? Specifically, how does a craft keep from being rote? Let's use the example I trotted out last time — if we're asked to build a school, we aren't likely to wind up with a building shaped like the silhouette of a river otter and built of scavenged cell phone batteries. We're probably going to develop something that others, designers and laypeople alike, would recognize pretty quickly as a school.

And maybe we don't want that. Maybe we don't want our school to look like every other school. But we have to ask ourselves on what grounds we would argue that repetition is a bad thing. I can think of a few.
  1. that our landscape becomes placeless, that a high school in Missouri looks exactly like a high school in New Hampshire, set in the same suburban context of culs-de-sac and asphalt five-lanes surrounded by Denny's and Chevy dealers.
  2. that our work becomes careless, old jobs pulled out of the drawer and filled in with a new client's name.
  3. that our work is complicit in carrying forward inequitable social relations or unsustainable environmental practices.
And, in fact, I think I'd be willing to argue that much of the output of the architectural profession over the past 60 years or so has fallen prey to exactly these three deeper flaws, at exactly the same moment that individual expressiveness and ingenuity has become the primary currency of architecture schools. The gulf between what's taught and what's done has never been greater.

So let's think about what the opposites of those three conditions might be.
  1. that our work speaks in powerful ways about its immediate and its regional context. Boston's Commonwealth Avenue, for example, is unlike anything one would find in Phoenix or San Francisco or Minneapolis. It reflects its origins through scale and materials and proportions, and silently insists on newcomers' adherence to the pattern language. This is a distinctly Bostonian place, reflecting both the value of urban land and the New England Puritan conception of appropriate civic behavior.
  2. that our work reflects constant decisionmaking in every single detail, from gross form to materials selection to the choice of bugle-headed or round-headed screws for the baseplates of the hallway lights. To return to Comm Ave, the "rulebook" hasn't resulted in unthinking uniformity. The differences in brick detailing, entry framing, stonecutting, roof finials and glazing make each of those rowhouses a unique event. You can stop at each one along the street and spend a few minutes seeing the care with which they were assembled.
  3. that our work actively promotes social justice and environmental stewardship. If, as Jeff Stein insists, the basic function of architecture is to mark relationships, then we have the responsibility to make certain kinds of relationships more likely, and to intervene in those we see as inequitable. Think of The Met, the high school I told you about in Providence RI. They weren't just designing a different kind of school building because they wanted it to look cool; they were designing a different conception of what it meant to be a student, an adult, a family member. They were designing to disrupt old habits. Likewise, if we know that our buildings consume vast amounts of energy, produce vast amounts of waste, and drag in materials on boats from Indonesia, we have a responsibility to disrupt that behavior as well.
And here's where the "critical" part comes in. Each of us has to examine our own professional behavior, constantly, to look for and eliminate those three bad habits. We have to always look for this carelessness (literally, this lack of caring) in whatever we do, whether it's designing buildings or writing essays or teaching seminars. There's a consciousness, an ability to be present and attentive, that I think is entirely readable in all of our products. I don't know much about an awful lot of things, but I have a strong feel for when something has been done well, when it's been conceived and constructed attentively. And I also have a pretty strong radar for the rote and habitual and rushed and expedient.

I use the word "joy" a lot in my writing to mark that state of being immersed in something you care about. I think that joyful objects are as engaging (and as rare) as joyful people.

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.