Architecture is a demanding study, requiring long hours, hard work, frequent failure and criticism. But why is going through architecture school so punishing? There are some destructive patterns built into the intense, even tribal, culture of architecture schools that have little or nothing to do with learning to be a good architect, or personal development. There seems to be a common attitude amongst teachers and practitioners that ‘it was good enough for me’, and that students just need to toughen up and deal with monumental workloads, seventy-two hour sleepless runs, and hostile, even abusive criticism. Teachers who try to run studios in a different way are fighting institutional inertia. A recent article by Jennifer Epstein on Inside Higher Ed (referring to this 2002 report; discussed here) points out recent efforts by a number of American schools to make changes to studio culture to make it more positive and healthy.
Jeremy Till’s Architecture Depends (MIT Press: 2009), a strongly-felt polemic against the stultifying aspects of contemporary architectural practice and education, addresses some of these concerns. Many aspects of the culture of architectural education are not about good training as architects, but about perpetuating professional and institutional authority:
“[T]he main way that architectural education avoids staring the stasis of its own processes in the eye is by confusing radical making with radical thinking. Because things look different, from school to school, and from year to year, the assumption is made that the formative educational processes are equally different and equally evolving.”
One of the most strongly entrenched ideas, Till argues, is that architecture is a discrete and autonomous enterprise; a pure field that only engages with the mess and disruption of the world under duress; that the work of architects is primarily answerable to other architects. Professional institutes such as the RIBA frame architects’ responsibilities as primarily to the clent, neglecting far greater, or at least equivalent, responsibilities to users.
The modernist tradition of equating ethics with aesthetics exemplifies the concept of an autonomous architecture. It is actually a way of escaping genuine ethical concerns by calling what you’re already doing a kind of ethics. If aesthetics are ethics, then architects can carry on worrying about formal elegance and feel good about their ethical standards. Architecture is contingent, Till points out: contingent on external forces, social conditions, inherited ideas and images, finance, material inconsistencies, the mess of human existence. The cover image of Architecture Depends shows a man in a bear suit (artist Mark Wallinger) wandering around Mies’s Crown Hall. Wallinger satirises the concept of abstract, autonomous architecture by becoming a conglomerate of things it excludes: animals, wildness, the low-brow, humour. Till’s book is like this: it confronts the hermetic closure of the discipline with the messy, contingent world that it often seems to ignore.
However, the book is explicitly polemical, an impassioned editorial rather than an a study, and with this have come some flaws: generalisation, condescension, and poor editing. The main line of the text is punctuated with anecdotes that serve to illustrate aspects of the arguments. Common in these parables are people not getting things that are patently obvious, and Till seems to be inviting us to shake our heads with a wry smile at each one.
“Some time ago there was a wonderful television series called ‘Sign of the Times.’ In it the photographer Martin Parr and social commentator Nicholas Barker quietly observed the British in their homes… One such moment is set in a sparse modernist interior. A woman, voice choked with emotion, is lamenting that her husband will not allow her to have ‘normal’ things such as curtains: the camera dwells on expanses of glazing. When her husband Henry appears, he despairs of the ‘rogue objects’ disturbing his ordered interior. ‘To come home in the evening,’ he says, ‘and to find the kids have carried out their own form of anarchy is just about the last thing I can face.’
The rogue objects are his children’s toys.
Henry is an architect.”
Oh, Henry. This was pompous and snarky when Adolf Loos did it (cf. his ‘Tale of a Poor Rich Man’), and it comes off as snarky here, too. There are crowds of these straw men wandering around between the covers of Architecture Depends. The author takes a reductive approach to the arguments of people whose work he doesn’t appreciate, reducing their arguments to simplified outlines. For example, faced with Mark C. Taylor’s suggestion that “aesthetic principles (of twists, curves, and color) are coded in ways that carry significant ethical and social weight”, Till does not even pay the courtesy of examining the proposition. He argues in the chapter in question that architects have repeatedly tried to equate ethics with aesthetics as a way of escaping actual ethical concerns, but he doesn’t convince us that this is what Taylor is doing. Especially for someone who further down the same page is insisting that his own words be weighed up carefully, this is a bit hard to swallow. And the argument of the chapter would not be weakened by a less dismissive treatment of his interlocutors.
Similarly, Till makes assumptions about teaching and practice that are generic and not necessarily representative. He may have a far wider experience of schools of architecture than I, and I certainly recognised the architectural education he described, but the program I am teaching on now (not technically an architecture school) bears little resemblance to this, and I am aware of other schools that operate quite differently. Similarly, his characterisation of practice is very generalised. There are already many design/art/object/architecture/landscape/furniture/detail/interior practices working in some of the ways he suggests, undermining the status quo, engaging aspects of society traditionally ignored by architects, operating across disciplinary boundaries. If Till intended to promote this kind of work, he might have spent more time talking about it.
It is perfectly fine that the book has a strong authorial voice, but I think Mr Till’s editors have taken too light a hand in the text. There are sprawling passages that need cropping, vague passages of which the editor needed to demand more substantiation and precision, and passages that are just badly written (take for example this Dan-Brown-esque line: “Space and time. Time and space. Inseperably linked”).
Many aspects of Till’s argument are more fully handled by others: the relationship between theory and practice in Stan Allen’s Architecture: Practice, Technique, Representation; the supposed linearity of practice in Catherine Ingraham’s Architecture and the Burden of Linearity; the machinations of power at work in Vitruvius’s theory of architecture in Indra Kagis McEwen’s Vitruvius, the social construction of space in Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space, the workings of institutional power in Foucault or one of his many explicators. But of course this is not possible or desirable for all. The book has value, then, in transmitting some of the provocative value of these other books.
Architecture Depends itself is a book of uneven quality. I didn’t enjoy the tone, and as Till himself predicts in the Preface, I found some parts to be operating not much above the level of truism. At its worst, the reader is offered commonplaces as insights. The better parts are marked by flashes of wit and the scent of a provocative architectural counter-culture. In particular, students and teachers immersed in the thick hothouse air of studio could find the book bracing. The concerns which underly this polemic, however are of undoubted importance to the future of architectural education, and the urgency with which Till presses his case, understandable.