Home    Site Search   Contact Us     Subscribe



Lesson Plan #7: An Implicit Rather than Explicit Model for Teaching Architecture

I would institute an annual prize, with substantial cash awards, for architecture students who would be given the task of designing a building that surpasses an iconic monstrosity in ugliness.

By Dr. Theodore Dalrymple
December 12, 2019

Editor’s Note: This is the seventh in a series on the future of architectural education created and curated by Nikos A. Salingaros, Ph.D., Professor of Mathematics, winner of the 2019 Stockholm Culture Award for Architecture, and co-winner of the 2018 Clem Labine Traditional Building Award. See Lesson Plans #1 through #6 at the end of this feature.



Tell all the truth but tell it slant —

Success in Circuit lies

Too bright for our infirm delight

The Truth’s superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased

With explanation kind

The Truth must dazzle gradually

Or every man be blind —

Emily Dickinson


Western Art was discovered only in 1960


When I was still in medical practice, I had a young patient who was a second-year art student who was discontented with her art school. Being interested in the life and ideas of my patients, and also in art, I asked her why, and what she was discontented with.


They did not teach her to draw at her art school, she said, which is what she had hoped and expected that they would do. But, she added (no doubt to demonstrate that she was not the type to complain indiscriminately), she did like art history.


“Oh yes,” I said, my suspicions immediately aroused. “What do they teach you in the history of art?’”


“The first year we did African art, but now we’re doing Western art.”


My suspicions unallayed, I asked her what she was being taught in Western art.


“We began with Roy Lichtenstein,” she said.


In other words, art was discovered in 1960, or thereabouts. Here was a form of corruption of the young, disconnecting them from any sense of history.


Actually, it is worse than that. I asked another art student who was a patient of mine who wanted to be a painter whether he visited the art galleries.


“Oh no,” he replied. “I want to be a painter, not an art critic.”


His view was evidently that any knowledge of art not his own, that did not spring spontaneously from his brain, would inhibit his originality and perhaps even paralyze him. Originality was both necessary and sufficient for the creation of art, and knowledge was a hindrance.


Programmed hostility to knowledge


Here was not only ignorance, but a kind of meta-ignorance – an unawareness that knowledge of what others had done was necessary, if not an outright hostility to knowledge. Such meta-ignorance is not spontaneous or natural, however; it is programmed by education, no doubt from an early age.


If I have understood correctly (and I freely admit that I am no expert on the subject), the same problems afflict architectural education. The students, deliberately or otherwise, are amputated from any sense of the past. I say deliberately or otherwise because it has been going on for so long that teachers may not even know that they are doing it. A graduate of Yale Architectural School told me that, more than 50 years ago, she was taught precisely nothing of architectural history. It was as if, with every construction, the world had to be built anew, as after the Deluge. In a sense, modernist theory was a deluge.


I am not sure how you can convince someone who does not immediately apprehend that knowledge of the past is necessary is necessary. It is like trying to argue with someone that mass murder is wrong. No one who does not understand this from the outset is going to say, after your careful argumentation, “Ah, now I understand why mass murder is wrong.”


Besides, quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Where are the disinterested teachers of architectural history to come from? They need not all to be deep scholars, of course, but they must have knowledge, interest, and probity – yet we have comprehensively destroyed any possibility of a cadre of such persons.


Therefore, I have a different idea: a kind of implicit rather than explicit teaching.


A new architecture prize


I would institute an annual prize, with substantial cash awards, for architecture students who would be given the task of designing a building worse, more hideous, than, say, the Centre Pompidou or the Opéra Bastille. It would, of course, have to be buildable within a budget of, say, $2 billion or so. (Architecture students must learn to think big.) Each year, a different monstrosity would provide the model to surpass. Alas, such is the state of the world and its architecture that the prize could continue for millennia.


Of course, the competitors would have to be offered anonymity, if they so wished – for such is the ideological terror reigning in architecture schools. Even to be known to have competed for such a prize ($30,000 first, $10,000 second, several runners-up at $5,000) might be the end of any career.


There is a further danger to such a competition, I fully recognize: Just as satire is dangerous these days because it is so easily transformed into policy, so, too, the hideous designs entered in the competition might be taken as blueprints for a building actually to be built. No architect goes broke underestimating the taste of his corporate or public clients.


The dangers of the competition notwithstanding, I think it would serve an immense educative function. In trying to design something even uglier than the Centre Pompidou, for example, the student would have to think seriously about aesthetics and what makes a building graceful or hideous, what makes it adapted to its surrounding and adaptable to many purposes, what is human and inhuman, what is a proper scale, the inherent beauties or otherwise of various materials to be employed, and so forth.


All judgment is comparative, said Dr. Samuel Johnson, and the competition would force students to look about them and formulate at least rough-and-ready rules of the beautiful and its opposite. It has long been my practice to look closely at second-rate art, the better to appreciate the first-rate. And to design something worse than the Centre Pompidou – or the many other models one could name – would require real talent and imagination, not the terrible conformism of which I hear so much.


Alas, I am not myself rich enough to fund such a prize. I appeal to a very rich man or woman to found such a prize for the benefit of world civilization (it should be open to architecture students anywhere in the world, given the universal spread of the International Style and its successors). I recognize the danger that the purpose of a prize may be subverted and turned by trustees and judges into the very opposite of its intention, in this case the promotion of, rather than the immunization against, megalomaniac architectural egoism, but it would still be a noble effort worth making.



Dr. Theodore Dalrymple is an English writer and retired prison doctor and psychiatrist, and one of today’s outstanding commentators on architecture, culture, and society. The author of numerous best-selling books, he was referred to as the “Orwell of our time” by philosopher Denis Dutton, the editor of Arts & Letters Daily. Dalrymple received the 2011 Prize for Liberty (Prijs voor de Vrijheid, also known as the Liberty Award) from the Flemish think tank Libera! His latest architectural essay is “The Brutalist Strain.”


See also:

Lesson Plan #6: Teacher, Don't Teach Them Nonsense: Reforming Architecture's Broken Education

A curriculum overhaul alone cannot fix the problem; rather, the practice of architecture must first reform itself for any pedagogical reforms to make sense.

By Mathias Agbo, Jr.


Lesson Plan #5: Letter from an architect to the gurus [teachers] and chelas [disciples] of architecture

From India, Shirish Beri writes this special letter out of the restlessness that arises from a genuine concern for the present state of architectural education and profession, as well as that of our society.

By Shirish Beri


Lesson Plan #4: Response to Open Letter for Curriculum Change: A New, Biological Approach to Architecture
This response, in two parts, is from two instructors at the Boston Architectural College.
By Ann Sussman, RA, and A. Vernon Woodworth, FAIA


Lesson Plan #3: Beauty and Sustainability in Architectural Education
We were greatly heartened to see architecture students call for a curriculum change to address the social, political, and ecological challenges of our time, and we want to say something about how their proposals intersect with the work of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission.
By Nicholas Boys Smith and Roger Scruton


Lesson Plan #2: A Time of Change
The coming technological changes in architecture will impose a full deconstruction of the way we educate architects.
By Duo Dickinson


Lesson Plan #1 "Signs versus Symptoms": A Reply to the Open Letter from British Architecture Students Calling for Curriculum Change

Asking for radical reforms in architectural education, this courageous appeal could help this latest effort be taken seriously, and not simply dismissed, as previous cries for reform have been.

By Dr. Nikos A. Salingaro


(click on pictures to enlarge)

Nikos A. Salingaros

Sensitive architectural education with intellectual weight reflects adaptive architecture that evolved along with humanity itself.