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Educating Future Architects to Think Like Curious Clients

Expanding architectural education to include more about client consciousness is a key to enriching the profession.

By Norman Weinstein
February 8, 2018


“Wait a minute,” Randall said insistently. “Are you trying to describe the creation of the world – the universe?”

 

What else?”

 

“But – damn it, this is preposterous! I asked for an explanation of the things that have just happened to us.”

 

“I told you that you would not like the explanation.”

 

-- Robert A. Heinlein, The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag

 

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“Architecture is interesting, but by itself it means nothing.” -- Massimiliano Fuksas

 

 

Try explaining the concept of an “architecture school” to a child. You could say something simple, along the lines of “architects go to a special school to learn how to make special buildings for us to live in, or otherwise enjoy.” And a really precocious child might then ask: “Why do you have to go to school to make a house?” And then you could provide another simple answer: “Architects go to school to learn to make safe and beautiful houses.” And then a really really precocious child will annoyingly ask: “Don’t some people make cool houses that don’t fall down – yet never go to a special house-making school?”

 

If you’re engaged thus far with our hypothetical wise child, you’re at the threshold of having to explain architecture and architectural education in utterly simple terms. Which is not simple in the least to explain to a terrifically questioning child.

 

The point of this little imaginary dialogue is to ponder the complexity of adequately explaining to a non-architect of any age what the profession of architecture currently is. And then explaining why one has to graduate “a special school,” in addition to passing a half-dozen exams to gauge professional competency after school graduation – in order to practice architecture.

 

It might be argued by some architects that the challenges of defining the perimeters of architecture practice, and the purpose and scope of architectural education, reflect the rapidity of change in the profession. Technology makes even the most normally phlegmatic of us “speed freaks” in terms of keeping up with new hi-tech tools and their myriad applications. To define the purpose of the profession, and the educational institutions educating future generations in the field, is like trying to hit a nervously fluttering wren with a fingernail-sized pebble. And that perspective seems true, as far as that truth goes.

 

But my thinking about this situation is more in alignment with that of architect/educator Sam Jacob, who wrote in Dezeen:

 

It [architecture], too, may be a physical thing, but it’s also the place where investment, communications, marketing, and media all come together, where these issues congeal into built form. . .Trying to separate “architecture” out of these processes, as a traditional definition of architecture might do, is to defuse architecture’s potential to engage in the very real politics, vision, and social possibility embedded in these relationships.

 

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If you peruse numerous websites of prestigious (and famously expensive) schools of architecture, you can discover that these schools are engaged in marketing themselves as sensitive to how the traditional definitions of “architecture” are changing. Consider this example: the grab-bag category of “architectural humanities.” This usually encompasses non-technical elective courses proliferating without overarching thematic organization, and without integration into the entire fabric of the curriculum. Here are some representative course offerings at the Yale School of Architecture:

-- Exhibitionism: Politics of Display

-- Reinterpreting the Enlightenment: Order and Chaos in the Long Eighteenth Century

-- Babel

-- The Nonhuman in Literature and Culture since 1800 (co-listed with the English department)

 

These courses may be valuable to future architects to some degree, or not – depending on how they are taught, assimilated, protested, or reformulated by students. These courses are additive in design. You can create your own by imagining the study of any facet of architecture with anything else that is academically respectable. Here are some I’m creating in real time as I type:

-- The Black Plague: Studies in Failed Urban Interventions

-- Hybrid Sustainable Designs and the Shamans of Noe Valley

-- Vertical Gardens and the Collapse of Babylon: Jamaica’s Trenchtown public housing and tourist-driven “blob” architecture across the post-colonial Caribbean

 

What is not humorous when analyzing this approach is that it destroys the actual pressing need for architecture schools to construct meaningful programs for students interested in synthesizing arts and humanities, issues of everyday living, and the craft and science of architecture. College catalogues festooned with exotic topics promoting their architecture programs are examples of “magic realism,” if not “supreme fiction.” No one but students may know the true value, or valuelessness, of courses listed. But it isn’t curmudgeonly to wonder how a newly graduated architect will interact with a client demanding that the Enlightenment be reinterpreted. One might encounter a once-in-a-lifetime client who is a reincarnation of Philip Johnson, wanting a glass house to actualize his or her exhibitionism. And the jury is still out on designing for nonhumans. How would an overdue payment be collected from an inhuman/unhuman client? And “Babel” as a lingua franca within many academic institutions already is so prevalent, why guild the lily by emphasizing it in a seminar?

 

Turning “architectural humanities” – “architecture and the rest of life” as possibly conceptualized by non-architects – into a random (if not faddish) assortment of topics crossing conventional academic barriers looks good at first glance. After all, it is true that architecture across centuries and cultures has always entailed the practice of balancing art and science, theory and practice, ideas and materials. But by keeping architecturally-themed arts and humanities courses disconnected from each other, and uncoordinated with key themes in ideas and practice courses, students will naturally favor courses more practically-focused and less ambiguous in scope and purpose. What student wouldn't prefer courses geared to making a living in the "real world" to a Disneyland? That such an opposition even exists in the minds of architecture students, a viewpoint I’ve heard repeated by students, is not an accident. As Leonard Cohen memorably sang: “Everybody knows the dice are loaded.” Display the artistic and humanistic triumphs of architecture as a freakish side show – then what students will be bothered as architectural training becomes primarily a Fantasia on Themes Orchestrated by BIM?

 

But there is an even larger problem with this scattergun approach to architecture school curriculum: How do students ever learn “to connect the dots” across some or all of these perspectives? And how do faculty learn to teach utilizing reliable methods to connect the dots across vastly different subjects? Maybe they never do. These electives are often treated by faculty and administrators as less “serious” than “Studio,” anyway. Coherence and cohesion within a curriculum of any profession might be considered irrelevant if the university’s or department’s image is postmodern – or post-human. Perhaps any subject can be somehow meaningfully connected to architectural practice in a fashion – but simply offering a potpourri of subjects without teaching students how to grow useful connective tissue linking subjects strikes me as irresponsible teaching, and an exercise in institutional fraud.

 

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Let’s reconsider the quote by Massimiliano Fuksas we started with: “Architecture is interesting, but by itself it means nothing.” A consequence of this insight is that architects need to study how clients – not to mention precocious children – think about architecture as events in the midst of all of life undergoing unceasing change. To understand how to successfully partner with clients, architects need to think of the various changing contexts that a curious client engages with. Instead of tinkering with subjects like “the nonhuman in literature and culture,” architecture students might profit by taking courses like

-- Designing “Safe Spaces” for individuals rejecting “safe spaces”

-- How to think like a client imagining a “perfect’ building”

-- Developing a “toolkit” of metaphors to promote client perception of non-material architectural “value”

 

To the best of my knowledge, these courses don’t exist yet – and may not ever materialize. These courses are not entirely technical or entirely artistic – but might thrive in the interstices between the two. Imagine if these courses did exist, and significantly impacted the architectural careers of thoughtful students. And, additionally, imagine that they would be team-taught by faculty and student teams carrying equal responsibility for meeting course objectives. And, miracle of miracles, students would earn legitimate salaries for educating their fellow students as well as faculty.

 

This quixotic vision of how architecture students could re-define their profession is catalyzed by my sense of how architects need to think more like their clients in a particular fashion. My premise is that most clients think about architecture capriciously, imaginatively contextual, and far more than intellectually. To comprehend a client’s desire for an architect’s services is to understand a non-architect’s desire for dreams materialized. Sorry. Signing up for Yale’s course on “The Invention of Desire,” I think, is unlikely to help any newly minted architect relate to the Republican banker wanting a new downtown financial center emblemizing the historic successes of the capitalist marketplace. And ironically, as architecture schools ride the technological bandwagon with burgeoning uncritical zeal, they relegate to the arts and humanities elective courses a “cultish” identity perfumed with the exotic scent of post-structuralist root rot. The core importance of architectural study and practice as a quintessential human dialogue embracing all of life is moved to the sidelines. What future architects don’t want to study robotics? Robots represent the American Dream on steroids! Yet how many future architects are fearful that their education might essentially train them to think consistently like a robot?

 

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Frank Lloyd Wright’s comment “the space within becomes the reality of the building” is haunting. Was Wright referring to the primacy of interior design as a building’s starting point? Or did he mean the interior psychological space within an architect, the locus for both technical knowledge and artistic inspiration intermingled? Perhaps both? I’m suggesting that part of the purpose of an architect relating professionally and successfully to a client is navigating a client’s psychological interior while the architect navigates his/her own. This is something considerably more than “business communication.” This is the stuff dreams are composed of. Clients may sense that what they desire architecturally is a mirror, or X-ray, of their deep identity. How many architects have been trained to make something materially viable out of that awareness of client identity and dreams?

 

On the other hand, students learn to dam their surging streams of consciousness in order to perform within the established, ordered flows of their architecture school faculty's expectations. What can be lost in widespread and often unquestioned student conformity to their professors’ viewpoints is a passionate spirit that impelled them to become an architect to begin with. What does it mean to desire to learn how to create architecture that contributes meaning and beauty to our life? And doesn't that most simple and complex question – lodged in the deep core of architecturally-themed arts and humanities courses – conjure the image of a precocious child busy with a Lego set? Or with a blanket suspended between diningroom chairs constructing a makeshift hut? Doesn't architectural appreciation and creativity begin with unfettered play? Architecture schools need not places where that sense of play is finished. The play of a client's imagination, however unrealistic or unschooled, however naive or non-technical, can remind architects that architectural learning occurs in a "larger classroom" than they initially could imagine when their formal education began. As fascinating as the subject of architecture might be, in school or after graduation, it is salutary to recall the wisdom of philosopher Alfred North Whitehead: “There is only one subject-matter for education, And that is life in all of its manifestations." Who would choose to settle for less?

 

 

Norman Weinstein is the author of “Words That Build” – an exclusive 21-part ArchNewsNow.com series about writing as a keystone of a successful architectural practice. He's authored several books of poetry and books about music and literature. Weinstein is currently learning weaving in order to deepen his understanding of architecture, music, and poetry. He can be reached at nweinstein25@gmail.com.

 

More by Weinstein:

 

Words That Build

An exclusive 21-part series that focuses on the overlooked foundations of architecture: oral and written communication.

 

Weinstein: From Ada to Zaha and Everything In Between

Op-eds, book reviews, musings, and debate.

 



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