Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Dark Ages of Architecture

One of the worst things about being an administrator is that I don't have nearly enough time to read. I still have 93 unanswered e-mails in my inbox from Wednesday alone. But last night, I took the luxury of not turning on my computer, and instead read a book I'd bought almost two months ago.

Most of us know Jane Jacobs from her 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, a book that helped all of us understand what made good street life and why modern planning was wiping that out. But since then, she's broadened her scope from the smallest scale of civic life — the neighborhood — to larger structures of governance and culture. One of her final books before she died was 2004's Dark Age Ahead, a cautionary tale of what we might face.
A Dark Age is a culture's dead end. We in North America and Western Europe, enjoying the many benefits of a culture conventionally known as the West, customarily think of a Dark Age as happening once, long ago, following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. But in North America we live in a graveyard of lost aboriginal cultures, many of which were deciseively finished off by mass amnesia in which even the memory of what was lost was also lost.
...even the memory of what was lost was also lost. This opening paragraph stands as a premonition for our own culture. Jacobs argues that North American culture — not merely those "primitive" native cultures, but our own high-tech, high speed success — has changed so radically over the past couple of hundred years that we no longer recognize what was, and don't realize the depth of the changes we've accepted.
In the five chapters that follow, I single out five pillars of our culture that we depend upon to stand firm, and discuss what seem to me ominous signs of their decay. They are in process of becoming irrelevant, and so are dangerously close to the brink of lost memory and cultural uselessness. These five jeopardized pillars are:
  • community and family (the two are so tightly connected they cannot be considered separately)
  • higher education
  • the effective practice of science and science-based technology (again, so tightly connected they cannot be considered separately)
  • taxes and governmental powers directly in touch with needs and possibilities
  • self-policing by the learned professions. (p.24)
And as I was reading this, in the dual contexts of our current economic crises and of my school's attempts to re-frame its curricula, I started to realize why architecture is so thoroughly declining, why the profession is racing headlong into its own Dark Age. Let's take each of Jacobs' five pillars in their order.

Community and Family. I've been working with a lot of young architects over the past couple of years, people in their "internship" or pre-licensure period of their careers. Almost without exception, they talk about the ways in which they feel unsupported in their workplaces, the ways in which their supervisors are unconcerned with their intellectual growth (which, by professional standards, senior architects are obligated to foster), the way in which they are treated as labor rather than partner. This is not how a decent family or community raises its young. And it explains to some extent why the profession has declined so radically in numbers, how in America the 3,000 architects who retire or die each year are replaced by only 1,500 new architects. (It also explains more specifically how the 40% of architecture school graduates who are female becomes the 15% of new architects who are female, according to the Royal Institute of British Architects.)

Higher Education. Jacobs talks about the ways in which the cultural elements of higher education, the opportunity for deep consideration of personal, ethical and historical meaning, has been lost to a culture of credentialism. Almost every college, even the most elite, is now seen as an elaborate provider of job training. Architectural curricula have been headed that way now for a long time. Even coursework in writing and mathematics are seen as useful only inasmuch as they contribute to professional success ("you're going to have to write proposals some day"). Architectural education has lost touch with the larger culture and history that makes any profession meaningful to its society, and aims to produce either sculptors or technocrats depending on the particulars of a school's mission.

The Effective Practice of Science. Kim Tanzer, immediate past president of the American Collegiate Schools of Architecture, says that architecture is the only remaining non-cumulative
academic discipline. I find myself enormously frustrated when I hear design students say that people will do certain things or respond in certain ways in the places they have drawn and modeled. I find myself even more frustrated when nobody in the room says "How do you know that's what people will do? What evidence base are you drawing upon to make those claims?" There's a great deal of research on the specific ways in which people use and encounter places — not nearly enough, of course, but that's true in every field. But architecture is the only academic field I've ever encountered in which we make crucial interventions in people's lives with only the most vague handwaving about why it will have certain effects. That would be seen as criminally irresponsible if a pharmacist did it with a dozen patients; how much worse that we do it with interventions that will affect thousands.

Taxes and Governmental Powers Directly in Touch with Needs and Possibilities. The AIA, which is the governing body in charge of the profession, seems from my non-member perspective to have systematically helped to diminish the profession's possibilities. Needs assessment, programming, and post-occupancy evaluation — the actions from which the field can actually learn how to serve its public — are not part of the standard contract sequence. The profession doesn't advocate for a specific research agenda, or frankly for the value of research at all. The AIA missed the boat on sustainability, with LEED standards growing from the early-90's work of Rob Watson and the Natural Resources Defense Council into a stand-alone organization called the U.S. Green Building Council. The AIA missed the boat on the 1970s launching of environment-behavior studies, a body of knowledge toward which architectural education remains mostly hostile. It seems to be an organization in a defensive crouch, prepared to defend against turf encroachment rather than to stand up and move where it believes society needs to go.

Self-Policing by the Learned Professions. I've already written about the ways in which architecture is not founded on a core of ethical principles. So how can a profession monitor the behaviors of its members if it isn't trying to adhere to a set of principles? Doctors get disciplined when they harm patients, because one of the core principles is the remedy of suffering. Lawyers get disbarred when they act corruptly, because the principle of justice is at the heart of their work. So what is it, exactly, that might get an architect disciplined by the profession as a whole? The AIA's Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct is a meager document, focused on standard business and contractual ethics rather than anything specific having to do with the unique contributions of architecture to families, businesses, and communities.

I foresee a Dark Age of architecture... perhaps already upon us, but certainly soon to come unless we take immediate corrective action. Jacobs lays out five core areas of action; they may not be the only ones, but they seem to me to be at least places to start.

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Emotional Cost of Drywall

I was just in a newly finished space a few days ago. A lecture hall designed to seat about 100 or so folks. It was just completed (smelled like paint and carpet glue...), and perfectly clean. I looked around -- fresh, bright, new carpet, 100 new comfortable chairs all around, high-tech presentation gear installed -- and I thought, "This feels like a place to wait for jury duty."

It's hard to make the economic case for good spaces. (After the past couple of weeks, it's hard to make the economic case for much of anything beyond bare survival...) But if we believe that architecture has emotional importance, that we can inspire people to learn and achieve through the richness of the place they inhabit, then we need to study carefully what makes a place emotionally resonant. It has something to do with form, but only just a little, I think. Rather, it has to do with the way in which we can lose ourselves in a place, where we're repeatedly rewarded by interesting details and information-rich materials.

I've made this case before, but I really think that we start architectural education from the wrong end. Do small, simple, real things. Detail a window opening. Work to make the floor material encounter the base of a wall in a deep and compelling way. Eventually, once you're good at that, we'll let you maybe put a room together. After a while of that, we'll let you put a suite of rooms and connecting spaces together. It would be several years before I'd let my students muck around with building massing and form. Because that's not what makes places beloved.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Why Ethnography Matters

I just finished watching the Palin-Biden debate, and I understand more than ever what social class means in America. Prior to the debate, I was reading the most current issue of The New Yorker, a magazine clearly aimed at the well educated urbanite. In a piece early on about Obama campaigning in Appalachian Virginia, the writer used the word "Nascar."

Sorry, wrong answer.

It's NASCAR, all caps, an acronym standing for the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing. You don't get to live in America any more and not know how to spell NASCAR.

And then the debate came on, and Palin spoke the following pronunciations:

"eye-RACK" for Iraq
"eye-RAN" for Iran
"Noo-kya-lar" for nuclear

You think those are errors? You think, after eight years of reporters calling Bush out for mispronouncing "nuclear," that Palin would make the same mistake?

I feel like a conspiracy theorist pointing this out, so let me start out with some bona fides: my dad dropped out of high school in 10th grade, worked as a factory machinist for his entire life, and I have a Ph.D. I'm what Alfred Lubrano calls a "straddler," a person with a foot in both worlds and at home in neither.

So here's my thinking. Palin very clearly pronounces those words as a signal to a certain population (small town, rural, working-class, not very well educated) that she understands them, that she's not one of those fancy-pants New Yorkers or Washington Insiders that have caused so much trouble over the past decades. Biden, in control of the facts, doesn't address the emotional connection being made. He throws out numbers, he throws out truths about the misdeeds of the administration, he helps us realize the scale of the problems we face. But none of those facts will go as far as being seen as "one of us," being seen as a hockey mom who "gets" the day-to-day problems faced by good old American families.

This election is about identity. Who do you feel more comfortable with? Do you want to have a beer with Sarah, or a dinner with Biden? And ethnographers, people who can live with others extensively and understand their values, are uniquely situated to understand identity issues and how they're expressed through things like spellings and pronunciations.

George Lakoff is right. Elections are not won on facts, but on frames. It doesn't matter that much of what Palin said tonight will be revealed tomorrow to be incorrect. What matters is that she comforts people who feel left behind, who feel powerless.