A Situation Where Architecture Is Made

Of prophets and professionals: a response to Peter Zellner

Architecture Professional Practice
SCI-Arc student presentations, c. 1974. (Photo by Morton Neikrug, Courtesy of SCI-Arc)

Though I share some of his concerns about the state of contemporary architectural education, I was taken aback by comments from my friend and colleague Peter Zellner in a recent editorial in this paper.

In “Architectural Education Is Broken—Here’s How to Fix It,” Peter offers a five-point critique of contemporary education and a matching five-point prescription for a “post-studio and post-digital architectural education.”

The criticism, gleaned from twenty-five-year-old comments by John Baldessari about the artist’s development of a “post-studio” course at CalArts nearly 50 years ago, takes aim at hierarchical master-disciple relationships between teachers and students, at the proliferation of academic styles that often result from them, and at the suppression of dissenting opinions such situations often entail. His prescription for change unfolds along a familiar, if vague, trajectory that valorizes shared knowledge, free experimentation, and egalitarian exchange among students and teachers.

Some of Peter’s criticisms are justified, if a bit overblown. “Various forms of academic cult worship” indeed exist in architecture schools today, and this “pied-piperism,” to borrow a term from Eric Moss, has led many a promising student into unproductive territory. In my experience, though, most of those lost sheep eventually find their way home, and more often than not they return primed to parlay experience gained in foreign fields into significant contributions within the disciplinary fold.

Peter’s complaints about the nefarious forces of digital technology, on the other hand, lack both specificity and substance. He merely states, rather than argues, his contention that digital tools foreclose creativity, and dismisses without comment not only the obvious achievements of several decades of innovative work at schools around the globe but also of his own students. Worse, the statement is not his own, but rather a quote from Peter Eisenman, which adds to an air of older generations kvetching about newfangled habits and, like his invocation of Baldessari, undermines his admonition against undue authority invested in the pronouncements of elder statesmen.

However problematic, Peter’s criticisms are for the most part innocuous. I have more serious concerns about his proposals for change. His recipe for post-studio education rests on a specious, if common, elision of art and architecture and a ludicrous, if equally common, contention that architecture “can’t be taught.” Such arguments brush aside significant differences between art and architecture and perpetuate damaging mystifications about the nature of architectural practice and education.

I agree with Peter’s assertion that architecture is an art form. But unlike painting, literature, music, and other modes of artistic production, it is also a profession with significant ethical and legal responsibilities, and a discipline with cultural ambitions to advance the public imagination. The latter aspect distinguishes the practice of architecture from the craft of building. The former distinguishes it from the production of fine art.

Peter and I share a deep commitment to architecture understood as a cultural practice with professional responsibilities, as opposed to a design profession with cultural ambitions. Nonetheless, I take issue with his proposals, which, in spite of his criticism of a supposedly style-obsessed status quo, continue to portray architecture almost exclusively in aesthetic terms, pay only passing lip service to “technical knowledge,” overemphasize issues of style and individual expression, and disregard questions of professional competence. Any serious proposal about architectural education must take the full gamut of architecture’s professional and disciplinary responsibilities into account.

More damaging is Peter’s proposition, also borrowed from Baldessari, that architecture cannot be taught. Apparently, the best we can do is to “set up a situation where [architecture] might happen.” This is a bizarre idea to be put forward by such an intelligent and effective teacher as Peter Zellner.

Peter proposes that we can’t teach architecture because he conceives of architecture, as Baldassari apparently conceives of art, as a mystical quality, a transubstantiation of physical matter into some higher form of existence. This is the sort of stuff that routinely pours from the mouths of those academic shamans Peter rails against in his essay. It can be seductive, to be sure, but it is nonsense.

Architecture doesn’t just happen. Architecture is made. Architecture can be made, and its methods taught, because “architecture” refers not to a specific object but rather to evidence that an object—usually but not always a building—has been produced in terms of a specific way of working. Just as literature cannot be reduced to books, architecture cannot be reduced to buildings. Neither can it be reduced to drawings, models, or digital animations. Architecture is method all the way down. The Oxford English Dictionary defines architecture not as a kind of building but rather as “the art or science of building.” Another Peter, the historian better known as Reyner Banham, put it better: “What distinguishes architecture is not what is done… but how it is done.”

Understanding architecture as having to do with how  rather than what  makes it easier to see that architecture is, like all academic disciplines, a cultural construct. Its techniques and methods, its history and theory, the habits and conventions of those who practice it, can and routinely are taught and learned, as evidenced by the surfeit of students who quickly master the tactics of their teachers that Peter laments in his essay. Of course, those techniques, histories, habits, and conventions also can be developed, transformed, thrown out, and replaced as needed. Such activities rank among the most important work that takes place in architecture schools.

Understanding architecture this way also makes it easier to see that the field’s value system, its internal methods for identifying what constitutes good and bad work, is always a work in progress. Architectural quality, like architecture itself, is determined not by the presence or absence of some quasi-spiritual attribute in an object but rather by consensus. Constituencies in support of any architectural work must be constructed long before the project can be built, and even if constructed buildings are not one’s aim, it is an ability to assemble such constituencies, and little else, that transforms individual interests into relevant contributions and, in some cases, canonical achievements.

In other words, architecture’s aesthetic ambitions are deeply political. And the disciplinary politics of architectural education, as Peter intimates in his essay, can make for some pretty ugly situations. Luckily, contemporary architecture can and does support a wide range of coexisting genres and associated value systems. In the best schools, a handful of them vie for dominance, motivating proponents of each to hone their political as well as their aesthetic and technical chops as they make their respective cases and build their respective constituencies. In the worst ones, well-meaning but misguided faculty utter empty pronouncements like “you can’t teach architecture.”

There are plenty of issues with contemporary architectural education today, and I commend Peter for having put some of them on the table. But at the top of any list of things to fix in architecture schools must surely be the abdication of so many faculty of their responsibility to teach it.

Todd Gannon is the Cultural Studies Coordinator at SCI-Arc.

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