Architectural education is broken—here’s how to fix it

18Sep16

By PETER ZELLNER

In an interview by art critic Christopher Knight at John Baldessari’s studio in Santa Monica, the seminal Los Angeles artist had much to say about the state of art education in L.A. in the early 1970s and his efforts at the then-nascent CalArts program. At the time, the dominant pedagogical model in most art academies, as in many architecture schools, was founded on the inviolable relationship between master and disciple within the studio environment. This tradition—mostly established in medieval artisan guilds and professionalized in the 19th-century academy—relied on a few well-worn shibboleths:

  1. Creative or technical knowledge can only be passed on through direction supervision.
  1. The hand and eye of the disciple can only be cultivated, monitored, and authenticated by an appointed authority, typically a master or a master’s apprentice.
  1. The authority of the master’s opinion is evidenced by the caerful replication of the academy’s official style(s) and through the copying of known works by the master.
  1. Until sanctioned by the master or the academy itself, the disciple remains a novice and therefore an intellectual and creative subordinate.
  1. Any challenges to this (mostly) patriarchal order are considered heretical. (To wit: The Salon des Refusés of 1863.)

Baldessari and other notable L.A. art educators like Michael Asher upended these traditions by teaching what is now known as post-studio art practice. Post-studio art teaching was conceived of as a model of art-academics that inverted the relationship between what is taught, if it is taught at all, and what is practiced. It leveraged intensive group critiques between students and students, students and faculty, and faculty and faculty to attack what was practiced by artists in an effort to create space for new forms of art to emerge. Baldessari and others at CalArts shifted the onus of responsibility from the teacher to the student, moving art teaching from a master-disciple model to a communal and relational notion of education. This new model of art education was founded around open conversation, relentless critique, and a demand for a radical autonomy put to and assumed by each individual student. Baldessari explains:

Well, the whole idea was to raise the question what do you do in an art school? And you say, “Well, what courses are necessary to teach?” and that is question begging in a way, because you can say, “Well, can art be taught at all?” And, you know, I prefer to say, “No, it can’t. It can’t be taught.” You can set up a situation where art might happen, but I think that’s the closest you get. Then I can jump from there into saying, “Well, if art can’t be taught, maybe it would be a good idea to have people that call themselves artists around. And something, some chemistry, might happen.” And then the third thing would be that to be as non-tradition-bound as possible, and just be very pragmatic, whatever works. You know, and if one thing doesn’t work, try another thing. My idea was always you haven’t taught until you see the light in their eyes. I mean, whatever. Extend your hand, that’s what you do. Otherwise, you’re like a missionary, delivering the gospel and leaving. [laughs]”

Architectural education today, perhaps not surprisingly, finds itself at a similar juncture some 50 years after institutions such as the IAUS, the Cooper Union, SCI-Arc, and the Architectural Association challenged accepted architectural academic orthodoxies, much like CalArts did in the arts. Many of the very schools of architecture that modeled new and innovative forms of teaching and pedagogy in the 1970s and 1980s now find themselves mired in various forms of academic cult worship: Digital traditionalisms, faux-art fetishisms, silly mannerist dead-ends, philosopher-shaman worship, and other neoconservative returns. The outcomes of this neoliberal and cultish return to a seemingly 19th century Beaux Arts models of architectural education have been devastating: Several generations of students were robbed of their voices and their right to grow potent individual practices; the architecture school falsely made into an imprimatur-machine for its academics, superseding the idea of a school as a space for free conversation, debate and critique; and most worryingly, the importance of the architectural school as an autonomous intellectual and cultural institution has been trolled and traded in, cheaply, for the bad faith business-innovation-two-point-oh-idea of education as an enterprise, student and teacher masquerading as entrepreneur and investor.

Freeing architectural education now seems imperative and necessary. If we have reached the end of the current road, perhaps this is a golden opportunity to challenge these tired orthodoxies and to create a space for new forms of education, perhaps in post-studio and post-digital formats. This will require a challenge to these cults, and of them, the cult of the digital must be confronted and interrogated ruthlessly. Technology and its misuse and abuse, in particular, must be wrestled with now. As Peter Eisenman recently noted, “Technology is a cruel tool, because what it does is defer the possibility of the student being creative. The student can take an algorithm, produce 50 alternatives to the same problem… It takes away from you the possibility of value judgment.” Beyond the problem of too much technology, which might have an easy fix—namely turning off the screen once in a while in studio to read and think for an hour or two—one imagines that an inversion of the aforementioned and blindly accepted new academic traditions might produce a post-studio model of architectural education that could be constructed along these lines:

  1. Creative or technical knowledge can be shared through engaged debate, critique, and conversation.
  1. The relatively high value placed on the approved hand and eye of the student as an expression of the notion of individual genius should be challenged.
  1. The fast paced reproduction of official styles and the copying of contemporary professional works should be exchanged for awkward experimentation and slow growth.
  1. The student and the teacher must be seen as intellectual and creative colleagues whose conversations followed shared but not parallel paths.
  1. Intelligent challenges to accepted academic concepts by students and teachers alike should be celebrated and not extinguished.

Without placing more radical expectations on our current models of architectural education, our schools will forfeit their ability to fulfill their cultural and academic missions. Without freeing up a zone for architectural education to explore the space between vocations and ideas, the profession and the discipline will wither. Without a return to the value of an architecture of ideas and not an architecture of marketing concepts then the purpose and need for the very a school of architecture may be on the table.

 

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