'skill' is at the heart of 'design'
Here at UT there seems to be a great undercurrent of fear that we slip into becoming a "trade-school," meaning that we start teaching "skills" instead of "design" — as they do at A & M. While I have my quarrel with this as some classist nonsense, what is more worrisome is the argument which is mounted to justify this pedagogy.
More than once I have heard this turn of phrase from a professor: when you graduate into the real world you will be beset with demands, legal, zoning, human, etc., and the worst thing you could possibly do is to run around "putting out fires" because the result will be the loss of overall vision, conceptual clarity, or design intent.
Not only does this show little faith in the student, but it contributes to the idea that the measure of an architect is found in solitary vision and stubborn adherence to an idea. Nothing could be more preposterous. If an architect is to be an effective leader she or he needs to be flexible and light on their feet, able to react, modify and adjust their ideas graciously — to communicate well, but to listen better. In service of all of these goals the ability to anticipate, find, and manipulate relevant information is critical. The extent to which the school continues to devalue pragmatism as a core skill of the modern architect is a disservice to their students.
The skill of "putting out fires" should not be undervalued and students should not be shielded from this reality. This pedagogy is both paternalistic and outmoded. UT — I love you, but get over it. Pragmatics are not misaligned or mutually exclusive with 'high design thinking.' Quite to the contrary, it is this very skill — the efficient use of time and software, the ability to interface fluently with consultants and contractors — which are the best tools in the young architects' kit. It is precisely the ability to problem solve ad hoc and on the fly which will allow graduates to maintain control of their vision when things start to heat up.
You want famous students? Trust that they have artistic integrity. And then give them the skills to quickly move through the ranks of middle management so they can set out as young principles of their own firms while their creative blood still courses fresh, and hot.
The case for spreadsheets
It seems obvious enough that architecture is evaluated primarily on its visual merits, more so than ever with the increasing capability of computers to generate photo-realistic images of unbuilt projects.
The supposition that unbuilt architecture should be evaluated visually presumes, however, that human beings interact with the built environment in a similar way, otherwise it is a poor criterion for judgment. I suspect that real people interact with their world in this way only at some times and in some places. Are there better ways to evaluate architecture which align more with the needs of regular people in their everyday existence? I think we can do better than pretty pictures.
Either that or architects own the fact that their audience is not the normal human, but rather a coterie of taste-makers who have cornered the field and continue to exert a disproportionate sway over what is judged to be important. The seduction of cantilevered glass and steel! Exposed wood grain! With just a dash of showmanship, a dusting of avante-garde idiom, a hint of something exotic (is that Zumthor, Ando? but it hardly matters), and drizzled with technical competence. Lest we forget the fine tables at which the critic dines.
Students often talk about affordable housing, for example, without being able to specify whether this is market-rate or subsidized, and without a clue as to how the monetary policy of subsidization is put in effect. This is not their fault: the fault lies with their educators. Affordable housing is designed in a spreadsheet, not on a drawing board. When $100 a month means the difference between eating or diapers or driving uninsured do you think people give a damn what the building looks like? What matters is quality. Safe, sound, well lit & ventilated, etc., modify this list as you see fit. And it is my belief that the kind of "design thinking" which is taught in schools is, at best, a poor way to achieve these ends, and at worse, counterproductive — because it is either unable or unwilling to find value. But if affordability is to be considered an architectural problem, then spreadsheets must be considered an architectural design tool — and an important one, too.
What are you really working for?
Who do you want to impress?
Do these goals align?
These are the questions I believe should be on the forefront of young architects' minds.
Architects will tell you there is a great difference between the work they do and the 'mere' work of builders. Besides the fact that this denigrates the skill of those upon whom they rely entirely, more worryingly it disguises a critical assumption that architects make about their own work.
Namely, it is the idea that what separates the 'architecture' trade from the 'building' trade is that architecture is embedded with intellectual content. The former has 'meaning' and this is what elevates it to the level of an 'artform'. One rarely finds the issue put in such plain language, and I believe this speaks to the fact this assumption is so deeply engrained.
I take issue with this assumption primarily on the grounds it is not self evident. And even if the value of this supposition could be derived from better axioms, I believe it is a marginal starting point for a theory of architecture. I say this because I believe there is little evidence for the direct correlation of ideas to successful buildings, unless of course the purpose of the building is to communicate an idea. Is this what architecture is about? Some might say yes — I disagree.
At the same, time, there is a mountain of evidence for the correlation of skilled work and the execution of a successful project. In fact, were one searching for an axiom: the assertion that "good architecture is well-crafted" would serve as a far more stable beginning than what follows de rigueur in schools: viz. that "good architecture successfully executes its concept."
There is a world of difference between building designs and designing buildings. Western architecture has become obsessed with the former. This is evident in the number of real buildings that aspire to look like architectural models. This is evident in the number of architectural 'photographs' which are barely distinguishable from digital renders. There is an emerging fetish in the architectural trade such that the real world look like the imagined one. A virtual fetish, as in a fetish of the virtual. The value of this cannot be ... overestimated.
If buildings need to be interesting, this presumes general boredom as an existing precondition. That is a problem for a number of reasons. Notwithstanding the larger cultural concern, this treats buildings like media, which is ... weird.
1) On the one hand, there is a minimal effect. This is popular today. It has "clean lines," is pure, is quiet, etc. But it conceals—or reveals, depending on one's point of view—a maximum of artifice. Success depends on control; accident is error; time and weather severely unkind. This kind of minimalism is rarely more than clever, although brilliant examples exist.
2) On the other hand there is a minimal intentionality. Beauty is accomplished in a single gesture, without adjustment, critique or refinement. The result is no great act of will, but blossoms instead in its absence. To channel this sort of energy similarly requires a massive investment, not toward concealing the artifice (willfulness) but rather in the mastery of technique. Success depends on patience; accident is everything; the passage of time, sacred. This kind of beauty can be hard to recognize, and easy to cheat.
Recently I have heard the "builder aesthetic" derided a number of times. I struggle to understand both the force and the target of the critique.
Is the "builder aesthetic" anything other than the absence of a high degree of intentionality and control? If so, what is the value of intentionality and control?
"Builders" make bad buildings. So do architects. I suspect it would be difficult to correlate, let alone find a causal connection, between the evidence of TOTAL control and whatever we might qualify as "good."
Is less control better, then? I think so, but the nuance is everything, here.
The idea that culture progresses (toward) is problematic. I suspect this represents more of a desire to progress than anything else. This position probably underlies most technologic notions of society that prevail today, despite its rejection in postmodern intellectual circles decades ago. I suspect digital micro tech / machine learning / massive cloud data storage has rekindled the fire—?
If one rejects the idea of a telos, novelty becomes nothing more than an aberrance. In other words, what is new by no means marks a transition toward something better. It is simply a manifestation of otherness, and evidence of the creative will toward freedom.
There is a sense, however, that history retroactively validates the trends which have prevailed. A led to B led to C; because C is, then A was good. This is only a valid ethical argument if one assumes the telos.