LETTER TO THE HEAD OF A NEW SCHOOL OF ARCHITECTURE
Thanks for the briefing on Wednesday. As you know, I find the five-minute thinking blocks of a ‘butcher paper’ event a little restrictive when matters need some more careful review and reverie. I believe that such events are now called ‘think tanks.’ Is this because everyone is drowning underwater, flailing around aimlessly, seeking the surface in an attempt to make some sense out of nothing? The setting up of a new school is exciting. It offers an unusual new beginning and a real challenge to implement different structures to suit our times. The Bauhaus model has been reproduced for many years now. This is a great opportunity to see if some different approaches might be fruitful - to bring the Gropius enthusiasm for education into this century so that it can play a role in shaping the next one hundred years.
It could also be the time to take a look at other models. The Beaux Arts comes to mind, and the role of the esquisse that seems to have faded into more singular, extended programmes. Studio work is another matter that has become less structured - as well as the ‘crit.’ I came into architecture just as the course was changing, so I experienced a little of the ‘old school’ programme, but never had to render the orders. One recalls how frequently an idea has sometimes to be quickly documented and presented to a client - tomorrow! The esquisse training could be useful here. It would also assist in understanding student capabilities and give fast feedback. What else did the Beaux Arts hold that might be worthwhile implementing? What other potentials are there? We tend to discard concepts just too easily without much concern. There is a lot of local experience that could be involved in reviewing possibilities for a new model - experience that also has roots in years of practice. This is an aspect of understanding that I think is critical for any educational base if theoretical games are to be avoided - well, let go astray and out of context, to be played with for their own delight.
I scribbled a few notes to myself during the morning. One was that the visiting specialists could turn the school into a carnival of ‘outside’- out-sourced - entertainment. One has to make sure that the school has its own internal necessity, (as Kandinsky spoke about art), with the visitors only arriving to enrich this. Rather than seeking out distant experts, one might hope that they seek out the school to be a forum that they might find useful for themselves - one that they choose to be part of. I have always believed in aiming for the sun, (or moon), rather than being happy with easy, quick results. A new school provides the opportunity to create a place that others will want to share in - from anywhere - if only we might choose to make the effort. It is interesting to recall that the Bauhaus employed and housed its full-time staff of skilled lecturers/tutors and that everything, even the posters advertising events, and the building itself, was approached as a design opportunity that is still admired today. What will the new school do?
The concern with outsiders was highlighted for me as I waited to be picked up at the main roundabout after the morning workshop. As cars of all smart, imported, European and other designs and multi-colours flashed by, it occurred to me that the school needed its own quiet centre, a little like the circle of lawn that shapes the core and the roundabout. It is too easy to invite the flashy outsiders in to get a quick reputation. There was an annoyance and entrancement in the ever-passing and mesmerising motion that I found disconcerting when perceived as a metaphor. The school should have its own rigour and reputation - its own quiet centre. It needs to avoid giving the impression that everything of quality comes from elsewhere - interstate or overseas - never from the school itself. One has to overcome this ‘cringe.’ It will not attract students. The extreme alternative is not necessarily parochialism if one is aware of and is in control of the situation. We are much better than this. There is an abundance of quality local experience in architectural education, (I can think of over sixty years of experience in just three people that has not been harnessed, these same three with over eighty years’ experience in practice), that could be involved. On the flip side, I have seen just too many ‘accents’ arrive to a fanfare and turn out to be less than ordinary - and no one is allowed to say so.
I see the school as having to establish its reputation through hard work, commitment and persistence rather than in gathering external egos. It is too easy to seek to gain from other reputations, A core rigour is needed. The aim has to be to establish this with ideas and quality outcomes that might encourage others to want to be here. Fashions need to be avoided - a danger with new school of architecture buildings too!# I can recall a time when we had one school leading the way - when students wanted to come to us: one person changed all of this. Success is a fragile circumstance, so it has to be managed carefully - with drive and purpose. The new school needs to create this excitement with the ordinary, not the astonishing, giving the place an inner strength. It is too easy to grab the extraordinary buzz and listen to the noise in a self-congratulatory manner.
On a book - your request for all to identify an important book: I can recall some significant books in my early career but I am reluctant to presume that others might also have the same experience or enthusiasm for these. Paul Grillo’s What is Design? comes to mind, as does Naum Gabo’s On Divers Arts - both of which are now probably out of print. My question about old books, raised in the discussion on future library purchases, comes from these and other experiences where I have discovered a lot from the old. Even Howard Robertson’s The Principles of Architectural Composition seems useful for me today. It provides a ‘raw’ basis for understanding architecture, even if it is not very popular - it is certainly seen as ‘old fashioned’ - today. My complaint is that education races ahead into the ever new and into areas ‘perceived-as-clever,’ while it forgets the old, when we need the old to offer guidance and review to understand where we are at - and where we might be going. Practice itself is kinder to the old than theory and talk. Here the ordinary is a useful guide too. Is it our culture that sees no value for the aged in society that allows educational matters to be considered in this manner?
On first semester: I see aesthetics as being risky. It is important but perhaps should arise in other contexts. Without falling for the cliché - ‘those were the days’ - my first year included: Chemistry, Physics, Mathematics, Structures, Geology, Design, History, Studio Work, Town Planning - and maybe more? - with all ‘outside’ courses being given as part of the first year of Geology, Chemistry, Mathematics faculties, etc., (all part of their full first year courses for their students), never as a ‘special’ course for architects. It is this rigour that I think is lacking in the present structure. I am not saying that we should now do all of these courses, but I do note that there appears to be a weakness in the ‘thinness’ of the proposed course - all specially manicured for architects, perhaps apart from the ‘standard,’ required segments that I fear may be promotional rather than critical. Care needs to be exercised here to ensure that there is depth and meaning in the course work. It occurs to me now to ask: where do the students learn about materials, detailing, documentation, etc. when they are expected to go into offices, (and apparently be useful), after just two years? We once attempted to have office work assessed as part of the course, (arguing that the students spent more time in offices than at college, and that college time would be better used otherwise), but we met with an enormous scream from the offices. The fear was that we were assessing the offices - or checking up on them - when all we wanted was the best for the students.
I mentioned a couple of DVDs only because I have watched these recently and have commented to colleagues that I think every architect needs to see these. One ‘complete box set’ is not only informative - it approaches architecture, (yes, both old and new), in a factual way that astonishes, intrigues and enchants. The set is called simply Architecture - the complete box set - a five DVD collection by Ovation, (a good name). I would think this set might be more useful than trying to guess at a response to a book from an unknown individual coming into the course. The set has been produced for the general public - those interested in architecture. Then there is the DVD of Scottish artist Andy Goldsworthy’s work - again seen only recently: Andy Goldsworthy, Rivers and Tides - working with time by Docudrama. Have a look at his web site. His work is dazzling and charming, emblematically using materials, structure and aesthetics in a delicate and surprisingly memorable manner. I would feel happier recommending these DVDs rather than any publication - they will possibly be more enjoyable to view: less effort, which seems to be a positive modern trait. Oh, and then there is another recent viewing: Frank Lloyd Wright, a DVD by Ken Burns and Lyn Novik - an ABC production. It is very good, and comes complete with classic old footage. The viewing of these DVDs might make the beginning of the course less of a threat too - and less intimidating.
I must admit that am a little puzzled and concerned when I am unable to see the full picture of the course that is due to begin in a few weeks. I have always believed in the establishment of an overall vision to shape and guide all action that can then allow for an ad hoc, flexible response to provide the required challenges to the student/group as the opportunities arise. This is the ‘deep end’ that I referred to where the lecturer/tutor/staff is in a learning/discovery situation as well as the student/group, with everyone exploring ideas in different ways, but all with the same ambition. To do otherwise is not education but dumb repetition: “O’Grady says, do this,” and we all look to check if everyone has complied.
These are a few thoughts. More time is needed to refine these and to explore more ideas.
NOTE (added some six months later): This communication has never been recognised or responded to. Such is life - and education.
The silence has been maintained to this day. Open debate on ideas appears to be seen as an anathema.