ABSTRACT: The nature of the "crit" in architecture school creates the wrong incentives. To begin with, the whole thing is too visual. The built environment is more than a visual phenomenon, and the building needs to do more than "look good". Pictures are not enough.
Not only that, but they seem to be getting worse. The tolerance for images which contain little real information about a building or landscape, trending instead toward a pastiche of aspirational, emotive and abstract art-scapes is perplexing.
Such drawings are like graphs without labeled axes. Do we have to be bad at science to make good art? Architecture students should be concerned when they find it easy to exchange their ability to control, manipulate, and test real information for the flights of their gestural, expressive dreams.
“We believe that architecture and design play a key role in addressing complex local, regional, national, and global issues, and that our work will advance a better quality of life for all people.” — UTSOA Vison Statement
Is UTSOA “practicing what it preaches?” Certainly, there are indications—more evident in the history and planning curricula—but I worry that the dominant model of architectural instruction is still poorly suited to address the types of complex problems indicated in UTSOA’s mission. The issue seems to be that a studio culture which is still centered around the “crit” tends to value appearances over substance, and conjecture over rigorous inquiry. The structure of a crit incentivizes work that will quickly impress a coterie of academic architects who know little about the project, which, intentionally or not, teaches students to value slick images, technical proficiency, internal coherence, and salesmanship.
While these skills are not meaningless in the profession, I believe the school would serve its students better by teaching them how to discover and deliver real value rather than how to sell the appearance of it. Not only does a primarily graphic approach presume that a visual relationship with the built environment is what matters, but more worryingly, I believe it is an inadequate method of investigation, especially into the type of complex, global problems discussed above.
Students often talk about affordable housing, for example, without being able to specify whether this is market-rate or subsidized, or with only a vague understanding of how the monetary policy of subsidization is put in effect. This is not their fault; this information is strangely difficult to come by in the halls of Goldsmith. Furthermore, even if it were available, affordable housing is designed in a spreadsheet, not on a drawing board. It is my belief that the kind of “design thinking” which is taught at UT is, at best, a poor way to achieve these ambitious, socially sensitive 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.
If we we want to leverage architecture as a tool to solve complex problems and to genuinely serve the public good, we need to look beyond the studio. The future is daunting — unprecedented immigration flows, rising inequity, and increasingly severe climatic events — but architecture can have a real impact, especially if it has the courage to sacrifice its preoccupation with appearances.
Vanity is untenable. What starts here should change the world. Is it?
Typical typographic nonsense: in this escalating culture war for attention legibility went out of fashion long ago. Lecture posters for various architecture schools as found in UTSOA Dean's Office, March 2019.
Bike Taxi Garages, East Austin, © A. Henry Rose
In his detailed essay "Crossing Over: Sustainability, New Urbanism, and Gentrification in Austin Texas" Dr Andrew Busch (of Miami University of Ohio, PhD University of Texas, Austin) presents a social and political history that places East Austin at the local epicenter of continual injustice, beginning with deliberate, ostensibly unofficial segregation in the 1920s, through the effects of far more benign though no less significant "new urbanism" policies felt as the force of gentrification today.
This last point is worth emphasizing. Gentrification is complex, Dr Busch points out, particularly because the effect (the displacement of historic communities) is not the result of malevolence or even ignorance of the value of these communities (although this is sometimes the case), but rather the consequence of structural physical and economic realities. It is hard, for example, to understate the dilemma of density, which is both the primary vehicle of gentrifying displacement as well as arguably the only ecologically viable solution to sustain civilization on this planet. Similarly, the market incentives which drive development, both in the case of rent gaps that developers seek to exploit as well as the substantial increase in tax revenue that the city stands to enjoy, are impossible to ignore.
There are times, to me, when these displaced communities seem but one more instance in which the dispossessed and disadvantaged are fated to suffer further injustice, beatified in absentia. But I also want to believe that the political apparatus is not so callous; I want to believe that there is value to every station in life, in this life, and that the difficulty turns primarily on representing this value. How do we put it in economic terms? How can we insert the historical continuity of working class populations in urban cores into the equation? Since market capital and wealth generation drive the American machine, it will, unfortunately, not suffice to leverage an aesthetic or moral argument no matter how much we wish it to be the case.
Dr Busch, for the wealth of data he compiles, fails to account for this assumption. He concludes: "Austin's politicians, planners, and business elites must recognize that preserving and sustaining disadvantaged communities, and not just their buildings and spaces, needs to be central to any meaningful sustainability agenda." This begs the question. Nowhere does he address why displacement — sentimentality not forgotten but set aside — needs to be addressed, especially when there are so many obvious economic and ecological incentives for a municipality like Austin to promote density and development. This is a significant weakness in his argument.
To support this assumption, however, is not impossible. I am willing to venture that any society which assumes a hierarchy of wealth distribution (as opposed to a communist scheme) will function most efficiently when certain needs are met, specifically the psychological needs satisfied by a sense of community, in all quartiles of the distribution — and moreover, that the system functions most efficiently when a mixture of demographics is maintained to provide services and security (à la Jane Jacobs).
I suspect this issue will be the exigent crisis facing our generation of young architects, planners, politicians and anyone invested in building community. Whether we can resolve the simple fact that dense urban living is both ecologically imperative and inherently expensive will determine much of the fate of the planet. Will we find solutions where incentives are not perversely aligned? Or must we rely on benevolent policy to subsidize the market in support of moral positions that are unrelentingly threatened by the bottom line.
A Critique of Architectural Art
It is possible to argue that architecture is essentially a response to complexity, since architecture and design, generally, imply the resolution of manifold elements in a unified whole. Design can be seen as a means of economization, the process of making one thing serve two purposes through (clever) manipulation. Architecture is this project on a grand scale. From the most abstract aesthetic ideals to the most technical engineering requirements to the most mundane supply chain logistics, all the while fixed in a web of interpersonal dynamics, not to mention historical and ecological contexts, almost nothing is exempt from consideration.
If we postulate this (the resolution of complexity) as a defining characteristic of architecture, then Venturi’s rebuke of minimalism as instantiated by the likes of Mies and Philip Johnson is among the most exigent challenges to an architecture that had begun to shift toward a form of space-enclosing sculpture and away from life-enabling building. “Mies,” Venturi writes quoting Paul Rudolph, “makes wonderful buildings only because he ignores many aspects of a building. If he solved more problems, his buildings would be far less potent” (16). Similarly, Venturi writes of Johnson’s Wiley House, “the building becomes a diagram of an oversimplified program for living” (17). It is Johnson’s crystalline facsimile of life which is enshrined in that glass box: a fantasy. And it is Mies’ willful blindness that plagues much of "modern" architecture. Venturi’s eye is trenchant.
When the architect decides what to address, moreover what to exclude, he or she is making a judgment about what is important to those people who will interact with the building in the future. Accordingly, if what is ultimately prioritized is some form of expression (minimalist or not), especially insofar as what is expressed relates to the building (e.g. material honesty, or as Christopher Alexander says, some "literary comment"*), the structure becomes a self-referential statement about architecture, not something that exists in use and in the last measure to serve its occupants.
My argument begins with this fundamental premise: that architecture is for people.** This is the source of its complexity, as life is everything but an abstraction. Venturi reminds us that if architecture is to be valid, its success will come from the resolution of the intricate, competing demands of a purposive object embedded in the world, not from an indifference to, rejection of, or even reflection upon these conditions. This last part is my own. To put it one way: the ideal of expression in architecture stands opposite to life. Or again: architecture that is about itself, especially that which advertises this self-conscious relationship as a badge of rarified aesthetic or other ideological integrity, is paradoxically not functioning as architecture at all.
*From his infamous 1982 debate with Peter Eisenman at the GSD.
**We must also resolve the semantic argument concerning the meaning of the word ‘architecture.’
***Citations from Robert Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, Museum of Modern Art, NY (2002).
A Relevant History Told in Wood
Today Japanese aesthetics have achieved an almost mythical status—if not unjustly, perhaps uncritically. In most cases when this designation (Japanese aesthetics) is used casually it refers the the quality of wabi and sabi that is found in gardens, teahouses and temples, a quality which is, behind anime and the automobile, likely the most exported element of Japanese culture. People are not mistaken when they respond so strongly to this particular quality. It is powerful. When I first wandered the historic districts of Kyoto I was altogether unprepared. Often I caught myself lost in thought, mesmerized by the cherry petals and the moss, transfixed by stonework beneath my feet. For minutes I could stand motionless.
However, it should be noted briefly but emphatically: although this quality is unique to Japan it is not ubiquitous; though endemic, it is somewhat scarce. Japan’s cities reflect the haste with which they were re-built following the war. The architectural landscape, dominated by dense monolithic structures and webs of electrical wires, far more often than not reflects the values of efficiency and practicality rather than beauty.
But this "Japanese" beauty: neither ubiquitous, nor uncommon, exists, like nothing I have known before. Down narrow alleys that seem to have escaped the electric surge of time, and in tiny walled gardens behind tea shops, like a secret, it exists. In the depth of a glaze and in its patterned cracks, or in tiny bubbles suspended in a glass, it exists. It is in the softly cupped granite stairs worn down by millions of feet, and it can even be found in the lacquer of a chopstick or the flecks of fiber in a shoji panel—but most of all, it is in the wood. In the unmistakeable patina of wood the mythic quality of “Japanese” aesthetics is showcased exquisitely.
Whether it is for the living tree or the toko-bashira, the special post in the special part of the special room in a Japanese house, there is no reverence in Japan like the reverence for wood. I am not sure why this is so, but I speculate that the reason is intrinsic to the quality of the medium: soft enough to receive the patterned imprint of time, touch and weather, while durable enough to bear these marks into the future, wood is perfectly suited to the task. It receives and stores the information of human existence in a meaningful way. Both in its first life, rooted in the earth, and in its second as part of a building, the tree captures history on a scale that is most relevant to the human being: measured in centuries, reaching into the past while promising a future beyond our own. On its surface in unscripted language it bears this cultural record, a great witness and emissary both.
And thus confronted with this record would I stand transfixed: by the extraordinary attention to detail in craft, the patience in preservation and the great restraint of expression. The embodied emotional energy was real. The values that went into the work were communicated through it and it is this integrity of transmission that characterizes the unique experience of Japanese aesthetics, to me, more than any discreet formal quality ever could. It is a reverence that emanates. One could read volumes about wabi-sabi, but if you have ever found peace in a Japanese garden — a peace and a clarity that you wished to bring with you to other aspects of your life — or gazed deeply into the soul of a board, if you have ever gotten lost in a chopstick, then I would say it has already worked its magic. You have found it.