How Architects Learn: What Architecture Could Learn from Experimental Music

29 January, 2009

Architecture students are like virgins with an itch they cannot scratch.
Never build a building till you're 50, what kind of life is that?

—Steven Malkmus, The Hexx by Pavement

Recently, two different texts with two very different visions of architecture passed through my browser. I found the comparison shocking.

There was a time when I thought I might become an architect. I talked to a friend's father who was in the profession; I researched graduate school in it. The contrast between these two texts articulates the reticence that kept me from pursuing architecture in a way I never could and makes me grateful now that I didn't follow that fantasy any further.

Architecture Astronauts

The first text was an interview with Nic Clear, a professor at the Bartlett School of Architecture in London. Clear teaches a series of classes called Unit 15 in which students "use film, animation and motion graphics to generate, develop and represent new architectural and spatial possibilities." The program has a major focus on sci-fi writings, especially the work of J.G. Ballard.

Now, let me start by saying that I find Clear's ideas truly fascinating and I was inspired by the interview to pick up a volume of Ballard's short stories. As Geoff Manaugh of BLDGBLG says so well, Clear presents his architectural sources "as a resource for ideas of every kind," cinematic, literary, artistic. Many of the films produced by Unit 15 play very strongly on my current obsession with miniatures and false landscapes that's grown out of my exposure to the Museum of Jurassic Technology.

That said, I find this vision of architectural education extraordinarily depressing. How many generations removed from the actual practice of architecture can we get? Clear's students are not building anything. They're not producing designs. They're not examining actual buildings or even built designs. They're not reading working architects' accounts of the lessons of their work. (Granted, I'm sure they do these things in their other classes.) What they are doing is reading sci-fi stories that present a particular aesthetics of architecture as a backdrop and making films that try to capture the visual sensation of those stories.

While I have nothing against this as an intellectual or creative pursuit in itself, it strikes me as a evidence, like dry rot in a wall or a leak in a roof, of profound distress to the greater edifice of architecture. Few other crafts give their journeymen as little opportunity for hands-on practice with their art as does architecture. Buildings are more expensive and less numerous than almost any other type of object d'art. In other arts, students produce a great profusion of finished work in order to learn the lessons it has to offer, to make the requisite mistakes, hesitations, and missteps which constitute experience. There are just not enough chances to build, it seems, that architects are willing to squander any of them on learning opportunities for their students.

This leaves students (and many architects as well) with mainly the realm of ideas and words to operate in. Architecture is justly famous as the most theoretical of arts. And while this realm provides much in the way of intellectual stimulation, it does little to ground its residents in practical knowledge of buildings, their habitation, and their combination into cities — how they effect human lives and communities while they stand.

Because of this, the word 'architecture' itself has come to carry a connotation of lofty, pretentious, and useless abstraction. For example, software developer Joel Spolsky coined the famous description Architecture Astronauts to describe people who dive so deeply into their own theories that they lose sight of the real world:

Sometimes smart thinkers just don't know when to stop, and they create these absurd, all-encompassing, high-level pictures of the universe that are all good and fine, but don't actually mean anything at all. These are the people I call Architecture Astronauts. It's very hard to get them to write code or design programs, because they won't stop thinking about Architecture.

The Low Road

The second architectural text I came across this week offered a vision of buildings, if not architecture itself, that differs as much from Clear's as an old wood shed does from a gothic cathedral. It's How Buildings Learn by Stewart Brand or, more specifically, a BBC documentary Brand put together summarizing its ideas. I always knew that Brand's book covered what happens when buildings age, but I wasn't prepared for it to also contain a complete, coherent, and practical ethics of building.

The core of How Buildings Learn is a two-fold argument that devastates most, and especially most modern, architecture. On the one hand, Brand shows how traditional and colloquial buildings provide spaces that are highly conductive to human habitation. Traditional buildings take advantage of the accreted practical knowledge of generations: how to build slanted roofs that don't leak, how to make bricks that last hundreds of years, etc. On the other hand, colloquial buildings like converted factories and warehouses, hand-built sheds, and houseboats (what Brand calls "Low Road" buildings) allow their occupants to modify their space at will, literally re-forming it to perfectly fit their own needs. These buildings' low status exempts them from many of the bureaucratic, practical, and aesthetic concerns that usually prevent people from fully customizing their environment. The result is spaces that evolve over time to fit every aspect and detail of their changing use.

What traditional and colloquial buildings have in common is their shared humanism. These are approaches to architecture that are completely driven by the needs and joys of people. Traditional buildings bring people the benefits of the hard won knowledge of their forbearers; colloquial buildings empower the occupants to apply what they themselves have learned to reshape their space. This is a dramatic contrast from high concept architecture where each building is merely the physical embodiment of some salient on the greater academic battlefield—its use, comfort, and changeability all secondary.

Towards an Experimental Architecture?

So, is architecture irredeemable? Should we form a mob, march on the architecture schools, and set fire to their titanium-clad megabuildings? Should we all go move down by the river to live in old brick warehouses and funky houseboats? Or is there a way to transform architecture education so that it grounds students in the lessons of traditional and colloquial buildings without burying whatever excitement and innovation they might introduce?

To answer: a story from the world of classical music.

Alvin Lucier attended the prestigious Yale School of Music in the 50s. He tells the story of his advisor, a grizzled old Modernist, who churned out a symphony a year, each more brilliant and advanced than the last. After finishing each score, the advisor would pull out the deepest drawer in his desk and drop it in, never to be looked at again. By the 50s, the orchestral repertoire was already so completely dominated by the masterworks of the classical period (Beethoven, Brahms, Bach, and other 'B'-named Germans) that contemporary composers had little likelihood of ever seeing their work performed by a full orchestra. And yet the advisor spent his life writing music that could only be played by orchestras and, hence, would never be played at all.

Lucier was so horrified by this prospect that he dedicated himself then and there to compose only music he could perform himself with the resources he had to hand. Lucier has always had a tinkerer's temperament, so at first this meant solo pieces played on electronic equipment borrowed from the school's science facilities. In an early piece, he attached electrodes designed to detect brainwaves to his head and then ran the resulting signals through an amplifier; the score was a list of things to think about. One of his most famous pieces, I Am Sitting in a Room uses spatial acoustics to gradually transform a spoken text into a series of pitches.

Lucier is an experimental composer in a very literal sense: he takes materials and does procedures on them to find out what the result will be. While his music may not be toe-tapping or traditional, there is nothing abstract or theoretical about it. It's not merely a surface phenomenon on top of some larger discourse; it's a hands-on practice that operates at the scale of the available materials and audiences.

What if architecture students followed Lucier's example? What if there was an architecture school with the rule: 'Don't design anything you can't actually build'?

For one thing, the students would be forced to operate on the level of colloquial and informal buildings—no one's going to give a big commission for a blockbuster museum to a first year architecture student. They would likely start out building structures that they themselves would occupy on sites within their universities and local communities. This would gave them a rich practical knowledge of the lessons of flexible use and constant change that Brand wants to teach them. Also, there's little chance that they'd have access to expensive construction crews or costly high-tech materials; they'd be putting up the buildings themselves. This would give them a powerful appreciation for traditional building techniques and an amazing laboratory in which to learn those techniques' every subtlety.

Inevitably, this kind of education would produce different architects than inhabit the profession today. With some luck, they'd be more skilled, more engaged with the effect of their buildings on actual people, and even happier, more fulfilled with their chosen craft. No kid dreams of writing treatises; they all dream of tree houses.

A few people are already putting these kinds of ideas into practice. Architecture for Humanity was created when Cameron Sinclair tried to use what he'd learned in architecture school to help communities in Kosovo and Africa. He quickly learned how irrelevant much of his education had been. The organization is dedicated to helping architects work in collaboration with local communities on the ground in order to build structures that improve and strengthen both of them (audio of an inspiring Sinclair talk at PopTech).

If architecture school looked more like this when I was twenty, more like Sinclair's work and Lucier's, I might have gone after all.

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