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ArchNewsNow, compiled by the inimitable
Kristen Richards, is a thrice-weekly compendium of news and opinion on
architecture from around the world. Each collection of articles includes one or
more features generated specifically for ANN. In recent weeks and months, ANN
has hosted a series of these features on architectural education, curated by
Prof. Nikos Salingaros, a globetrotting mathematician and architecture theorist
at the University of Texas in San Antonio.
Richards asked me to contribute an essay to the series, each article of which
addresses a petition submitted last year by British students seeking to reform
contribution to the series, the 600th feature published by ANN, is reprinted in
its entirety below:
of the British Architecture School Inmates
are taught how to tinker with computers and how to plug into a corporate design
culture that aids and abets precisely what drives the petitioners to seek
Curator’s Note: When architects refuse to criticize their
fellows, and delicately avoiddisturbing an entrenched system in which
they are comfortably embedded, where do we turn for sage advice on how to
improve the world? To architecture critics and journalists, of course. They are
commonly supposed to be impartial outsiders: fierce watchdogs working in the
public’s (that’s our) interest. But, unfortunately, not many of them are truly
Having an informed and intelligent critic like David Brussat who
courageously speaks his mind is a boon for the entire world. — N.A.S.
Lesson Plans #1 through #7 at the end of this feature.
What are the priorities for reform?
a petition was assembled by students from several architecture schools in
Britain asking their schools and other pertinent institutions of the design
world to do more to address climate change. I read it and looked around to see
if I was being watched. I thought Allen Funt might pop out and cry, “Smile!
You’re on Candid Camera!”
“We are concerned,” write the petitioners, “that at
present our education does not give sufficient weight to the inherently
ecological and political basis of architecture.”
In Britain, as well as in America, climate change is the
central and almost exclusive focus of every architecture school and every
architecture firm. Second billing goes to whether there are enough women and
people of color. These are justified concerns, but not critical to architecture
at a time when its product fails to satisfy a huge segment, possibly a very
sizable majority, of the market for buildings. Time spent trying to turn the
big business of architecture into a think tank for climate change is time spent
dodging the existential issues facing the industry. This sort of misdirection can
come off as intentional, perhaps even conspiratorial, in a profession that
doesn’t like to hear itself criticized.
An alternative to the architecture-industrial complex
Prof. Nikos Salingaros, in his own reply to the student petition at ArchNewsNow.com, applauds their desire
to reform architecture education, and offers sage advice to students seeking
change. “[I]s it realistic to expect architectural education to change? The current
cult-based system is not set up to diagnose – let alone fix – deep internal
contradictions. The best it can do is to protect its ‘business as usual’
approach to design by applying a band-aid. Hope exists only in developing an
alternative education outside the mainstream” – easier said than done,
However, the professor notes that efforts to bring real
reform to architecture make this a hopeful moment for students. The best
comparison may be to the “slow-food” movement. It offers a more locally based
alternative to the agriculture-industrial complex. Architecture could benefit
from a parallel approach. Salingaros himself has led scientific research that
mines neurobiology to identify how a living, healthy architecture can be
nurtured by mimicking nature’s reproductive system. The “cult-based system”
shields students from learning of such advances. They must seek knowledge from
outside the insulated, isolated environment of architecture school.
Here are some things students should seek to learn from
beyond the walls of their universities:
• The true history of how the architectural cult captured
the industry’s establishment.
• How to structure architecture firms as bottom-up rather
than top-down practices.
• How to locate and use the many new sources of
traditional materials and techniques.
• How to work with clients to reach solutions rather than
seeking to impose solutions.
• How to understand the incremental nature of genuine
• How ornamental techniques open new avenues to solve
What students learn today is how to navigate a top-down
system based on inept revolutionary concepts developed a century ago that have
not changed substantially since the Bauhaus. Design has become a succession of
experimental fashions. Creativity of form, with novelty the primary goal, has
led to a corporate architecture that stifles the sort of conceptual creativity
that ought to drive evolution in the design process. Students are taught how to
tinker with computers and how to plug into a corporate design culture that aids
and abets precisely what drives the petitioners to seek reform.
This corporate mindset cannot possibly conceive any
creative way for architecture to address complicated global issues such as climate
change. Inevitably, the answer that arises from the architectural cult is lame
– for example, LEED-influenced gizmo green, which seeks to solve problems
arising from over-dependence on technology with more technology.
Learn from nature and from tradition
Neurobiology has affirmed that architecture achieves its
life-enhancing powers through a process that resembles nature’s reproductivity
– the opposite of what current architectural curricula teach students, and the
opposite of how architecture operates today. Much like the natural selection
discovered by Darwin, best practices in erecting buildings and cities have been
developed by trial and error, which are then handed down by generation after
generation of builders. Styles of architecture change slowly over time as new
materials and technologies capture the attention of the market and gain
popularity among practitioners. These best practices are inevitably replaced by
new materials and technologies, with the most useful lasting the longest.
This “natural” way of architectural evolution had been
happening for centuries until it was replaced in 1920-40 by today’s machine
aesthetic – in which a promised efficiency was sacrificed to a bogus metaphor
of “the future.” In many respects, the practices ingrained by centuries of
architectural progress mimic the scientific principles behind today’s
“slow-food” movement. And those principles come from nature and are the same
principles by which architecture operated for millennia. These same principles
represent a much better way for architects to help address climate change.
Architecture before what architect and urbanist Steve
Mouzon calls the “Thermostat Age” developed many ways
to address the challenges posed to human habitation by weather, seasons, and
climate. They include windows that open and close, thick walls that retain heat
in winter and cool in summer, porches and deep windows that create shade,
angling houses to catch the sun or invite prevailing breezes, and other methods
of enabling architecture to harness nature to control comfort. These measures
do not require electricity or gasoline. Some, in their purity, may be gone, but
can still be adapted to our time. The corporate architecture of the so-called
Machine Age, which teaches students to look down their noses at such
“old-fashioned” techniques, should be shown the door. That is how architects
can address climate change.
Break out of the cult!
Such possibilities will not be developed within the cult
of architecture because it would upset too many of the socio-economic systems
that have properly triggered the student petitioners. The students do not
appear to realize that their petition calls upon architecture schools to
reinforce those very systems in a misguided attempt at their reform.
To break out of the cult is, as Salingaros states, the
only hope for real change. Here’s how individual students can plan their
• Read beyond the texts assigned by your professors of
• Use your outside reading to ask probing questions of
• By their response, you may judge whether your current
school is right for you.
• There are very few architecture schools with
traditional curricula: check them out.
• Most communities have one or more traditional
architectural practices: visit them.
• Visit local historic districts with an eye to the role
of beauty in modeling the future.
• Keep your chin up. There is more you can do to leverage
the cyclical nature of architectural history, so there is genuine hope that
change will come, especially if you, yourself, push for it.
Lesson Plan #7: An Implicit Rather
than Explicit Model for Teaching Architecture
By Dr. Theodore Dalrymple
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.
Lesson Plan #6: Teacher, Don’t Teach
Them Nonsense: Reforming Architecture’s Broken Education
By Mathias Agbo, Jr.
A curriculum overhaul alone cannot fix the problem;
rather, the practice of architecture must first reform itself for any
pedagogical reforms to make sense.
Lesson Plan #5: Letter from an
architect to the gurus [teachers] and chelas [disciples] of architecture
By Shirish Beri
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.
Lesson Plan #4: Response to Open Letter
for Curriculum Change: A New, Biological Approach to Architecture
By Ann Sussman, RA, and A. Vernon Woodworth, FAIA
This response, in two parts, is from two instructors at
the Boston Architectural College.
Lesson Plan #3: Beauty and
Sustainability in Architectural Education
By Nicholas Boys Smith and Roger Scruton
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.
Lesson Plan #2: A Time of Change
By Duo Dickinson
The coming technological changes in architecture will
impose a full deconstruction of the way we educate architects.
Lesson Plan #1 “Signs versus
Symptoms”: A Reply to the Open Letter from British Architecture Students
Calling for Curriculum Change
By Dr. Nikos A. Salingaros
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.
David Brussat was
the architecture critic of the Providence Journal in Rhode Island for 25 years,
until 2014. He still writes about architecture and design thrice weekly in Architecture Here and There, launched