Friday, June 8, 2012

WHAT IS A SCHOOL OF ARCHITECTURE?


Paul L. Cejas School of Architecture  Bernard Tschumi

 It was a question asked in the PETE & DUD chat and should be explored - (see http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2012/06/pete-dud-on-cringe.html). A school of architecture is a complex thing. Not only is it a building, but it is also an administrative department, usually within a broader educational structure, that has particular aims, ambitions, strategies and philosophies for training architects. It is also a community – a small social cluster with its own subtle structure and inner relationships. To keep matters in this text manageable, the question will be limited to asking about the school as a building. Other aspects may be explored at another time. Thinking about the school in this way seems to be relevant given the Peter Cook/Brit Andresen CRAB scheme that is presently under construction at Bond University. This proposal seems to suggest that there is some relevance in having an avant-garde architectural assemblage put in place for students. Is the intent to stimulate; to set an example; to excite? Is this useful?

Universities are now run as businesses, so one might ask in parallel whether the ambition is to have a building that can also be used in the advertising of the school - in the glossy promotions. Is an eye-catching, differently unique set of forms seen as an advantage when promoting the school to the rest of the world? Is it like having a better brand? The ‘ivy league’ campuses seem to like their identities and proudly promote their classic pseudo-‘Gothic/Tudor’ sandstone images on their brochures. With the newest of new, the ‘name’ architect can also be used to attract those who seek to get closer to the icon. Peter Cook of Archigram, for example, has credentials that can attract. James Stirling was used at Newcastle in Australia for its’ school extension. Is this seen as being essential? Imagine the PR of the school carrying all of those old quirky Archigram images and illustrations of CRAB’s newer work. It places the promotion in a class of its own as it seeks the new class of students. Similarly, one could ask about Alvaro Siza in Porto, Portugal and his Faculty of Architecture complex, even though this offers a more modest, pristine presentation.

The Faculty of Architecture, Porto  Alvaro Siza

This circumstance may be so, but lying behind all of this potential propaganda is the substance of place that is needed for a school. Does it make any difference if the building is new or old; slick or ordinary; classical or unique? Is this the question about the role of place in experience and outcome? Can a building change people - behaviour? Is it substantially relevant in determining personal outcomes – actions, attitudes and activities?

 
Main Quad  Sydney University

This question is usually carefully avoided by architects and theorists as it means that, for example, the design of a jail can change behaviour. Architects have been asked to design cells in such a way as to make hangings impossible - or unlikely. They have been asked to design public housing to transform problem activity into a positive result. Such briefs are generally best passed up as the proof is usually found in their failures. It seems that the concept of a building being able to change behaviour is questionable. So why worry about a school of architecture?

The issue is complex, as lingering behind this reservation is the belief that buildings can do something – and do – to people: that buildings modify feelings that give rise to other subtle implications in their use and experience. But all of this gets too emotional to quantify and becomes so ‘hard’ as fact that it distorts the senses and hence the proof, when any attempt is made to substantiate it. It is somewhat like the scientist who is unable to remove the impact of being there when making measurements in the research. Yet the latent notion of a building’s power lingers, stimulating the drive for designs that seek to take up the challenge – at least in the explanation of the rationale of their intent and difference. So, for schools of architecture, what is it that is important, if anything?

One can think of various schools that have been known and experienced over the years and reflect on them in this attempt to seek out an answer. One school was merely bits and pieces of leftover spaces in various buildings - both new and old – that had students wandering around the campus to suit the activities of the timetable. This fragmentation had its’ own unique feel that seemed to get lost when the school was transferred into a new building that centred activity into a concrete box of its era in one of the best locations on the campus. Even though this new building might have been more convenient, its extrapolation and juxtaposition of functions and spaces seemed to place an awkward inflexibility on the accommodation that was only aggravated with time and its changes. Yet neither arrangement seemed to have any observable impact on outcomes. Neither geniuses nor fools, or those in between, seemed to benefit or suffer from any different format for schooling. Staff may have been a little grumpier and more discontent, but they always are, aren’t hey?

Yale School of Architecture   Paul Rudolph

Then there was the school that fitted itself into a couple classic old buildings that had a new addition to link them. This arrangement allowed students to come to know both the old and the new, and to note the relative effectiveness, or lack of it, in the embodied usefulness or otherwise. This all changed when the bulldozers moved in and sorted out the place for a schmick, new, singularly ‘architected’ facility with a differently styled courtyard. The new had everything calculated and catered for. The faults slowly came to become as obvious as those in Paul Rudolph’s smart new Yale school when his clever glass openings started to have paper pasted over them to manage the problem of glare. The impromptu socializing that the old school made possible faded away into properly managed, organised activity in the right spaces and places, all with the required - acquired - right behaviour. Such seems to be one of the problems with new structures.

There was another school that comes to mind that was tastefully shaped in order to retain a beautiful old façade. The concept was attractive, but the operation of the school had no particular relationship to this idea other than being a part of it, complete with all of the new building problems attached to it. Students came and went with no obvious difference in performance. Indeed, it seemed, as in all of these remembered cases, that it was the make-up and attitude of the staff that was more important than anything else in relation to student attitude, activity and output.

This observation also proved to be true in yet another school that occupied a complete old building, but here there did seem to be some lingering benefit – if only in the building’s ability to adapt to change. The larger voids and older fabric seemed to generate a more relaxed relationship to possibilities for the continuing change in planned uses. But it did come to pass that one noticed that it was the creativity of the staff that allowed for this to both be envisaged and to happen. So it came down to staff yet again.

While each building or set of buildings did have an impact on the school and how one experienced it, it seemed to be that it was the staff that had a greater impact on results. The building itself only made things more or less difficult or awkward when it could not easily accommodate functions. Sometimes this challenge might have been seen to be useful in ‘hardening’ the students, but it was not immediately obvious that any building had any impact on outcomes other than in the experiencing of the tensions and challenges of use, both large and small. Maybe it could be said that buildings were good for students to learn of the various failures and successes of these facilities - both new and old? Who could tell? They were indeed, and always will be, very clear when one spends so much time in them. But this is not very useful when seeking an answer to the first question.

HLA School of Architecture  Hennings Larsen

One proposition is: does a school, like, for example, maybe a museum or art gallery, best keep itself neutral, abstract, to allow for student creativity? What might this need? Peace of mind; contentment; a particular challenge? Is a ‘performance’ space preferred over something blander to cater for the spirited? Or do students best relate to a masterpiece that might stimulate and enthuse? Can a place continue to stimulate interest when one lives in it for so long? Does the familiarity kill and distort, making the humble, readily-adapted mess the preferred solution, accommodating something of a Zen knowing rather than encouraging a blatant, egocentric boasting – a display for sake of ego rather than spaces for ‘good work,’ as Fritz Schumacher described it?

While this latter approach - the shambles – has a wonderful, adaptive, alluring, and accommodating gentleness, one can see the immediate problem with a school trying to promote itself as a business. It would not have the startling, singular and unique presence of the brand - the brand new and smartly slick building. Is there an in-between - that very best of ‘win-win’ solutions? Build an attractive shambles?


There is really no answer to this complicated question, even though I prefer the shambles, because it is really the staff that makes or breaks the school. The building can play its role in how restrictive a set of rules it places on adaptation and use, setting laws for student activity: thou shalt not do X, Y and/or Z. The shambles is completely flexible with no preconceptions. Like the slum, it grows as an aggregation into its complex, organic expression. But this carries the identity of poverty – or doing more with less and less, and a constant struggle for survival: the very last image any school other than one completely committed to its’ cause, would want. It is certainly not the image of a school that seeks to extract huge fees as a business might, for unsubsidised scholarship, learning or simply training: or is it?

So the answer to the question is always somewhat tainted by the complexity of its inner being – its’ substance. Ivan Illich always promoted learning in his village of Cuernavaca in Mexico by encouraging a raw interest in the locals and nurturing it. Education was personal, not institutional. There was no special building fabric involved; and he saw the damage that technology wrought on the village band. Transistor radios brought its demise and locals forgot their traditional songs in less than ten years. We need to ask more about what education is, and how it and its technologies and gadgets are changing us, as well as knowing more about the spaces this all takes place in. Then we might gather committed folk together to make a real school, because such a school will have both students and staff knocking on its door to share the experience; indeed, good staff members are never not students. The attempts to try to self-consciously create this demand out of smart buildings and selected staff CVs will always have an inherent complication, in both functions and morale – the limitations of a preconceived framework. This will have an impact on outcomes. We need to keep our songs alive and accept the risk of challenge and the challenge of risk.

Of course, in all of this melange, the role of the student must never be overlooked. The student is never the blank slate that some theories assume it to be, no matter how much the student might like to think it to be so with the ‘You teach me’ attitude, where failings are all the responsibility of others. Like the phantom scientist, the student is the invisible catalyst. There is a wholeness here that needs nurturing for a school of architecture to be what a school of architecture should be. Definitions only limit possibilities and outcomes. The real worry is that buildings - both new and old - define too much, too frequently, for disparate reasons, sometimes in spite of their ambitions. It is just too easy for buidlings to rage, scream and preach, and destroy the silence in which things intimate - meek, modest, and merciful - might thrive in a caring and fertile contentment. Is it just too hard to hold the silence in place?

The Austin E. Knowton School of Architecture  WSA Studio

Oh, for. . . buildings that well up . . . not imposed . . . that cross categories . . . that listen, not dictate.  (see http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2012/06/pete-dud-on-cringe.html.)

And as for the erstwhile critique of commodification, that has been submerged by the tidal wave of consumerist culture that generates its own self-serving ideology; hardly a voice today is raised to complain about the use of supposedly avant-garde art as a badge of status for the newly rich or as a vehicle for brand-building by corporations.
Nor does the contemporary art market have any qualms about the abasement of art to an even more squalid level of commodificaiton as a form of investment, the final reduction of art to exchange value.
Christopher Allen, Market Forces, the australian.com.au/review  June 9-10, 2012


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