Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Decent Proposal

This rant is a response to an invitation to contribute to Tongue and Groove, an architectural magazine published by Nottingham Univesity architecture school. Probably not what they wanted but.....

How We Teach Today

In the unintentionally hilarious early ‘90’s film Indecent Proposal there is a scene where Woody Harrelson, playing a penniless architecture tutor, delivers a stirring address to his students. Harrelson portrays the architect as dreamer and romantic loser. He keeps a polyboard model of his dream house under his bed. He can never afford to build it. Occasionally he shares with his wife, played by Demi Moore, his most intimate thoughts about space and structure. On their honeymoon he takes her on a study tour of his favourite buildings. In the classroom he holds up a brick and quotes Louis Kahn and his students look on in rapt awe. Harrelson is the architecture tutor par excellence: inspired, charismatic, a lone voice in a sea of philistines and moneymen. He stands for the architect as symbol of artistic integrity. He works alone, unencumbered by staff, builders, engineers or, if he’s really lucky, client interference. He turns to teaching because the world is too cruel, too venal, too ignorant to take him seriously. Bizarrely, this myth is the basis on which most architectural education is currently set up.

Partly as a result of post-modern attacks on both the orthodoxies of modernism and the plausibility of the disinterested professional, educational teaching increasingly favours subjective and personal approaches to education. Post-Structuralist inspired critiques of architecture’s mono-cultural value system have resulted in a belief in a pluralism of value systems. The unit system of teaching that most architecture schools use today was popularised at the Architectural Association in the 1970’s. This system replaced the previous monolithic mode of teaching where all students studied the same course with a fragmented one built around the individual interest areas of charismatic design tutors. Their chosen thematic – the Po-Delta, concrete, Brechtian theatre, the mating habits of bees etc – are set to students as the basis for individual study. The most popular tutors are those that have already cultivated a level of fame within the profession, but increasingly the system itself can be used to gain notoriety. Individual student’s work within their group becomes a kind of personal and experimental research wing of the tutors own ‘practice’. Units, or interest groups, develop into a personal fiefdom whose territory is aggressively defended against intruders.

After a while the tutor becomes too famous or successful to have time to teach at which point he or she bequeaths a successor to the throne. This is invariably a promotion from the ranks, almost always a favoured student from the previous few years. After a short initiation period when the former student is invited to attend crits in order to rubbish the work of their former colleagues (an important test of character this and an indicator of whether he or she is able to make the transition to the ‘other side’), the young pretender will be handed the ropes. This new tutor, fluent in the arcane interest areas and stylistic quirks of the previous one can manage an almost seamless transition. The second-generation tutor is obliged to invite their benefactor to return at various points to monitor the progress of ‘their’ unit. After another five or six years this process is repeated and a new successor is found. In this way the ‘gene pool’ of new ideas becomes every more shallow. The area of study is drawn from an increasingly incestuous genealogy and the unit becomes a strange kind of oligarchy.

All of this is championed under the banner of personal research. This is the leitmotif of current teaching ideology. The increasing lack of history and theory lectures (frequently dismissed as so much stodgy academism) means that this narrowing of focus is unaccompanied by any structure to give it meaning in a wider sense. The successful student absorbs the value systems of his or her tutor through osmosis and is not required to articulate its wider significance. Demystification is avoided at all costs.

This process is placed in direction opposition to the professional requirements of architecture. Studying is seen as a period of experimentation and research based on an explicit critique of normative practice. The student is inculcated into a belief system based on the idea of the singular genius of the individual and the star system of architecture, reproduced in miniature at unit level.

I can’t help thinking that increasingly education leads students into a dark forest without a map to get back out. Is there a way for architectural teaching to re-engage with the realties of practice? Or, to turn it around for a moment, is there a way for the possibilities of architectural practice to reengage with the realities of education? For surely, the cliché of the individual genius propagated by the unit system is a pretty hackneyed one. What was once excitingly open ended now seems increasingly doctrinaire and prescriptive. In order to do this, to liven things up a little, some things might need to change: the cult of the tutor, the anachronistic theatre of cruelty that is the ‘crit’, the internecine mock warfare between units, the idea of the architect as lone gun, the lack of collaboration or teamwork between students, the distrust of other related professional such as engineers, surveyors etc. In short what might have to go might be Woody Harrelson and his idea(l) of the architect as dreamer and romantic loser.

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