How to be a Good Architecture Student? Be Bad Alastair Parvin 21/01/10 11.18
HOW TO BE A GOOD ARCHITECTURE STUDENT? BE BAD
A guide to the future of architectural education.
THE WRONG QUESTION
It was probably the first thing I asked, and it is something that I have since been asked more times than I can remember: “What A-levels should I do if I want to be an architect?”, or sometimes a variant of the same question: “What skills make a good architect? Do I need to able to draw?
There are 'correct' answers to these questions. Normally something along the lines of “A mix of arts and sciences”, and “No, you don't need to be able to draw, but it helps. You need to be able to think spatially.”
It's not that these answers are wrong (my slightly more direct advice might be: “Learn Chinese.”); they are perfectly benign, well-intended answers – but to precisely the wrong question.
The most obvious flaw in the question is that it assumes that there is such a thing as a 'good architect', or a 'good architecture student', and that the two are in some way connected. The second assumption inherent in the question is that whatever qualities might constitute a 'good architect' are established and unchanging. Neither of these assumptions are true. While we can say what made a 'good architect' in the 20th century, what constitutes a 'good architect' in the 21st century is very much up-for-debate.
THE OLD, LINEAR EDUCATION MODEL
We can't predict the future. It's almost impossible to imagine what the world will be like in 7 years. Yet, if we think about it, that's precisely what our historical model of architectural education has claimed to do.
Although we tend to think of architecture as an art, and architects as artists or intellectuals – it is not a 'subject' in the traditional sense. Unlike students who study physics for example, who don't necessarily study in order to ultimately become a professional 'Physicist', architecture students almost always study architecture in order to become an 'Architect'. Architectural education is historically aimed not at producing world-ready architectural knowledge but producing practice-ready architectural professionals. As much as the rhetoric it generates might shroud the fact, structurally that's what it's still designed to do.
By laying out a linear route to 'becoming an architect', progressing through Parts I,II and III, (interspersed with periods of 'professional experience'), architectural education is effectively a prediction, made in the face of wild unpredictability, that things will stay more or less the same. It is, effectively, a 7-year-long tunnel and once you're in, there is usually very little room for flexibility (besides dropping out).
The problem is things don't stay more or less the same.
Some changes, even unpredicted ones, are sufficiently peripheral to the everyday commercial business of designing buildings that architectural education can ignore them, or simply absorb them. There has (as many heads-of-school will make clear in speeches) been a shift in education away from rote learning of a fixed core of knowledge, towards the more general ability 'to think' about problems as they arise, in order to be able to absorb some of the messy, unexpected change that can't be predicted 7 years into the future. But that tolerance is effectively a surface-effect on what is, under the bonnet, still a linear process.
The recession has confronted architecture with an unpredicted change which it cannot absorb: the massive contraction of demand. The collapse of the credit-driven financial paradigm (upon which professional architecture has become dependent) and the forthcoming contraction of public spending has erased the market we have been aiming towards. There are hardly any jobs. In other words our 7-year education aimed us towards a world that no longer exists.
ARCHITECTURE'S EDUCATION CRISIS
But even as the business of architecture has failed so dramatically, the idea of architecture has, perversely, never been more successful. More students than ever are enrolling to study architecture at university. In the last decade, the number of architecture students graduating every year has risen from 1000 to 1400, and that number is still growing. Architecture finds itself in the bizarre situation of being culturally oversubscribed at the same moment as it is economically stranded.
The result is a massive human surplus of architectural intelligence. More and more architecture graduates competing for fewer and fewer jobs.
This is, in many ways, the architectural community's elephant-in-the-room, and there are many older architects who would rather ignore it and carry on as before. But students and graduates can't afford to. Whether we recognise it or not, by sheer weight of numbers, this generation of students is going to force a change in what we see as the end point of architectural education, because not all of us can be employed in the role traditionally defined for the architect, but none of us want to go and work behind a bar.
In order to picture how this crisis might change things, it is first important to make clear how deep this assumption - that the aim of architectural education is to get a job as a designer in the construction industry - goes.
The answer is: much deeper than we realise. As students we are still set imaginary briefs to design imaginary buildings, at the service of our own 'original concept'. The ultimate destination for each project is the end of term 'crit' (a ten-minute pitch), followed by the end of year exhibition – each a sort of false finale at which point the merit of your effort is judged not by its social, economic, technical or even intellectual impact, but more by its internal cultural impact, conferred by the favour of the architectural establishment and potential employers. In other words, a 'good' architecture student is one whose portfolio is crammed with work which impresses other architects.
The problem is that this audience has no real appetite for realism – the frustrations of everyday practice seem to create an almost unquenchable thirst for exquisite, escapist fantasies. The result is a bizarre, internalised currency of aesthetic innuendo, opaque, esoteric language and unimpeachably cool (often hand-drawn) drawings. Intelligent, ambitious, morally-aware students find themselves pinning their careers on beautiful drawings of a 'Retirement home for Amnesiac Wizards', desperately competing to impress the establishment on its own terms – for jobs which either don't exist or prove to be heart-breakingly, mind-numbingly uninventive by comparison.
This is quite difficult to admit to: that all the outward noises of architectural education – seeming to be endlessly creative, fresh, radical - are in fact manifestations of the precise opposite. A kind of intrinsic conservatism that serves the status quo by gratifying its fetishes rather than challenging its assumptions.
Wrapped in its own solipsistic media-cycle, insulated from reality and feeding a non-existent jobs market, architectural education is failing to recognise not only that it is doing its students a disservice, but also that beyond its walls, society is about to go through a period of massive, profound change, and that architectural and design thinking (beyond simply the design of new buildings) has a potentially massive contribution to make to a society in transition. Perhaps the greatest paradox of all is that while the architecture industry is (quite literally) redundant, it's obvious that society-at-large has never had such a pressing, urgent need for ambitious designers to really think about our future: about our relationship with resources, the topology of our industrial society, about economic systems, social inequality, climate change, technological game-changers, man made disasters... Hard to believe it, but now might actually turn out to be a very exciting time to be a designer.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR BEING A 'GOOD' ARCHITECTURE STUDENT?
Put simply, architecture and architectural education are being forced towards a massive paradigm change (or at least a paradigm expansion) …. and that might not be as negative as it sounds. In many ways it is a long-overdue opportunity for architecture to go through a wake-up: from childish self-involvement, through adolescent awkwardness, towards a less marginal, more diverse engagement with wider social aims.
But if this is going to happen, it is unlikely that the change will be lead by the establishment itself, but rather by an ambitious, socially-responsible generation of students, young designers and progressive tutors using their time in architecture school to come up with different ways of doing things. In cliche: Don't change yourself to go into architecture. Go into architecture to change it.
If being 'good' in the traditional way carries such little reward, I hope more and more students will have the confidence to be 'bad'. Not 'bad', as in lazy, thoughtless or arrogant, but bad in terms of a willingness to misbehave; to ask difficult questions, to be disobedient. Not to settle for unemployment or drudgery, but to look for other applications for architectural thinking, to focus much less on the design of art objects and assets, 'space' and 'form', and much more on the social, economic and environmental systems that shape them, on value and values, on social norms, on processes and production. Basically: on what architecture does.
Here is a (very) rough manual for the 'bad' architecture student – some suggested rules of thumb:
QUESTION THE QUESTION
It's almost always wrong.
QUESTION THE MEASURES OF SUCCESS
Don't get too hung-up on getting a first. They're nice for job interviews, but don't help as much as you might think, and the more fixated you get on high grades, the harder they tend to come anyway.
TRUST YOUR OWN JUDGEMENT
Often the most important questions are the ones which are so obvious that no one dares ask them for fear of being branded naïve or stupid.
DARE TO FACE REALITIES
Be they financial, technical, legal, social, environmental... This might begin simply by asking: 'Who pays for it?' or 'Why do we need it?'. Real problems are actually much more interesting than invented ones, even if they're harder to solve.
SEEK UNCONVENTIONAL SOLUTIONS TO CONVENTIONAL PROBLEMS
Not conventional solutions to unconventional problems.
It's the best way to fend-off ignorance.
BE LESS INTERESTED IN THE WORLD OF DESIGN AND MORE INTERESTED IN THE DESIGN OF THE WORLD.
(Thanks Bruce Mau)
DON'T BUY INTO JARGON AND B.S...
What does “materiality” actually mean?
... BUT AVOID OVERSIMPLIFICATION
At the same time, don't pretend that non-thinking is a form of pragmatism. Grapple with complex ideas, find words to communicate them.
DON'T WORSHIP EMPTY IDOLS
John Maynard Keynes shaped the future. Zaha just sells futuristic shapes.
TAKE YOUR IDEAS TO OTHER AUDIENCES
Why produce ideas just for job interviews and exhibitions? If you have good ideas, publish them, show them to economists, politicians, farmers, investors, anyone who will listen. If you have a brilliant idea, start a business. Don't let architects be your only jury.
Read the FT, New Scientist, Wired, Adbusters; watch TED talks, study anything that interests you. Be an amateur generalist.
If you work better with a friend, work together. Produce amazing work and dare your school to fail you.
DEBATE AMONG YOUR FRIENDS
Don't let your tutor lead the conversation. (The best ones will love not having to).
FOCUS LESS ON OBJECT AND MORE ON OUTCOME
“We should be less concerned with the design of bridges and more concerned with how to get to the other side.” (Cedric Price)
BE SELF-CRITICAL (ISH)
There is no, single, 'correct' way to look at the world, there are lots of different ones, so try on different pairs of spectacles from time to time and see what your work looks like through multiple lenses.
One of the most counter-productive symptoms of the linear education model is the negative stigma attached to changing one's mind. Since the purpose of education is to find what it is you're good at and make it your work (even if a job description doesn't exist for it yet), dropping-out is one of the more positive decisions anyone can make – it makes you much less a 'failure' than those who stay on their current course for lack of imagination.
This Article was originally written for Architecture Apple, a website providing information and advice for current and prospective architecture students. Check out also some interesting related links:
Who would want to be an architecture Student? (and the following comments) Tom Dyckhoff / Times Online
Do Schools Kill Creativity? Ken Robinson's TED Talk
feel free to use html in your comments, all the usual tags are supported,
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong> however we can not accept images at this stage