The built environment is not the architect's playground. It is our common property, and it follows that when architects operate on this common property they have a duty to act for its betterment.
Why? Because too much is at stake , and because architects can do something about it. Viewed another way: the scale, quality, and availability of building stock (w/r/t transportation networks) are likely the most significant aspects of any one person’s life. Improve the built environment, and you have raised the bar for everything else.
It is hard to overestimate how much healthy, resilient built environments enable the well-being of the population that inhabits them, especially given the increasing magnitude and frequency of catastrophic climate events and the great flows of migration that these trigger. Similarly, the rising inequity of wealth distribution that is exploding land values in certain cities is posing a crisis of 'affordability' that is destroying lives, and impossible to ignore.
Such questions are not just for planners, policy-makers, and economists; they are absolutely valid architectural questions. The conversations in studios about form, meaning, mapping, materiality, iteration, parametrics, tectonics, typology or whatever else is hot, seem so trivial when the world is literally burning. This doesn't have to be the case. What architects can bring to the table is an ability to work creatively in difficult spaces, to resolve complexity across multiple disciplines, to advocate for quality of life and, finally, to deliver the product.
On the whole, though, I do not find that the field has risen to the challenge. The discipline seems too concerned with its own problems, its own bizarre language, and with winning its own awards. More worryingly, it seems preoccupied with attracting attention rather than doing good work (in the moral sense), which, so often, needs to go unnoticed. I firmly believe it is the invisible, basic, utilitarian aspects of our world that define its greatness, not its glittering anomalies.
Schools have an important role to play. First: the distinction between teaching architecture as a fine art and teaching architecture as a social science needs to be made clear. That it shares aspects of both is not license to confuse which parts are which. Following this, what I would hope to see is a reformed curriculum that does not denigrate pragmatism in favor of ‘design,’ that commits to teaching substantial technical proficiency across multiple software platforms, and finally, eschews the antiquated process of 'critiques' or 'reviews' (a thin euphemism) as the seminal evaluation of student work. Crits incentivize the wrong goals, and inculcate bad habits. We can do better.
Beauty, aesthetics, or "design intent," as it is known in contract documents are tools. They are not ends in themselves — their worth is conditional upon the good that they accomplish. Academics can no longer put this on hold as they teach creativity in a black box, and they really need to cut the hero worship. These two mix a dangerous cocktail in a young mind. With the privilege of being in the vanguard, Schools of Architecture must act with due responsibility. It is time that they made a commitment not just to their field but to their students, and to the world.
One could say that I hold conservative views about architecture. These views are based on the position that the needs of human beings, which the built environment is designed to serve, have not changed in any significant way in thousands of years. Specifically, it is difficult to imagine that the qualities of light and air, security, social cohesion, and metaphysical purpose which we require to live healthy lives and build meaningful cultures are really so different, or are changing so rapidly, that architecture needs to keep pace at a rate which eclipses itself every generation.
This assertion might seem bizarre in a world in the midst of environmental crisis. Surely, I do not advocate for an architecture that ignores this urgency. What I espouse is an architecture that respects the unavoidable fact that the capital investment in buildings has tremendous inertia. Simply put: buildings make bad prototypes. Choices made now will reverberate for decades, even lifetimes; the crisis we are experiencing is direct evidence of this fact.
While innovative designs and construction methods are warranted, even desired, they should be rooted in a careful study of previous successes and failures, and they should come in the form of measured, thoughtful decisions. There is little upside return on architectural risk save the admiration of other architects, which at the end of the day is worth very little. The ease with which slick images are manufactured and consumed means we must guard against this seduction even more.
While “architecture” might signify an ineffable quality that elevates a building beyond its quotidian foundations, there is no good architecture that is not first a good building. Somehow this tenet was forgotten at design schools, along with the incumbent responsibility of architects to design good buildings. The mandate for design is earned continuously through the respect of users and future users of the building—it is not, and cannot be, conferred by any other authority.
In the 1990's Austin designated a defunct power plant to be revitalized and turned into a civic space similar in fashion, if not scale, to the Tate Modern in London. Twenty-five years later it finally came online — in the form of private offices and upscale retail. This is the story of how the city's ambitions were slowly eroded by bureaucratic inefficiency and an unrelenting bottom line. Was the City too ambitious? Was the project a success nonetheless, because an historic structure was preserved?
1. Civic Ambitions Wax and Wane:
By the late 1990s prospects for the redevelopment of Seaholm were palpable. What began over a decade earlier as the vision of a few concerned citizens, notably Sinclair Black, a prominent architect, urbanist and professor at UT Austin, and Ken Altes, an outspoken grassroots advocate in Austin’s community, had entered the civic stage of debate. In 1996 the City Council officially slated the defunct power plant for adaptive re-use as an “unique and exceptional cultural facility in downtown Austin” and in 1997 the Seaholm Reuse Planning Committee (SRPC) was established as an official advisory board to the city. Community input was solicited, and hopes were high that the city would soon have a wonderful home for a new or existing cultural institution. It almost seemed inevitable.
The question was not if, or even when, but merely what it would become. Kayte Vanscoy captures the energy in 1998, writing in The Chronicle:
" Sunbeams stream through the clerestory windows, delineating the dust highways that hang in the cavernous quiet. This is Seaholm—a power plant that elicits poetry, a public trust to inspire a growing city. From its advantageous siting on the north bank of Town Lake, Seaholm has long been revered for the classy art deco design which has spurred countless a passersby to envision a less utilitarian future for the building. Dance club? Art museum? Restaurant? Even a city hall? Seaholm has been an empty palette upon which the dreams of Austin's growth have been painted."
In 2001, San Francisco based ROMA Design Group, who had been instrumental in Austin’s Müeller development, was hired to propose a master plan for the district which bore the name of the beloved power plant .... read the entire paper here.
ABSTRACT: The nature of the "crit" in architecture school creates the wrong incentives. To begin with, the whole thing is too visual. The built environment is more than a visual phenomenon, and the building needs to do more than "look good". Pictures are not enough.
Not only that, but they seem to be getting worse. The tolerance for images which contain little real information about a building or landscape, trending instead toward a pastiche of aspirational, emotive and abstract art-scapes is perplexing.
Such drawings are like graphs without labeled axes. Do we have to be bad at science to make good art? Architecture students should be concerned when they find it easy to exchange their ability to control, manipulate, and test real information for the flights of their gestural, expressive dreams.
“We believe that architecture and design play a key role in addressing complex local, regional, national, and global issues, and that our work will advance a better quality of life for all people.” — UTSOA Vison Statement
Is UTSOA “practicing what it preaches?” Certainly, there are indications—more evident in the history and planning curricula—but I worry that the dominant model of architectural instruction is still poorly suited to address the types of complex problems indicated in UTSOA’s mission. The issue seems to be that a studio culture which is still centered around the “crit” tends to value appearances over substance, and conjecture over rigorous inquiry. The structure of a crit incentivizes work that will quickly impress a coterie of academic architects who know little about the project, which, intentionally or not, teaches students to value slick images, technical proficiency, internal coherence, and salesmanship.
While these skills are not meaningless in the profession, I believe the school would serve its students better by teaching them how to discover and deliver real value rather than how to sell the appearance of it. Not only does a primarily graphic approach presume that a visual relationship with the built environment is what matters, but more worryingly, I believe it is an inadequate method of investigation, especially into the type of complex, global problems discussed above.
Students often talk about affordable housing, for example, without being able to specify whether this is market-rate or subsidized, or with only a vague understanding of how the monetary policy of subsidization is put in effect. This is not their fault; this information is strangely difficult to come by in the halls of Goldsmith. Furthermore, even if it were available, affordable housing is designed in a spreadsheet, not on a drawing board. It is my belief that the kind of “design thinking” which is taught at UT is, at best, a poor way to achieve these ambitious, socially sensitive ends, and at worse, counterproductive — because it is either unable or unwilling to find value.. But if affordability is to be considered an architectural problem, then spreadsheets must be considered an architectural design tool, and an important one, too.
If we we want to leverage architecture as a tool to solve complex problems and to genuinely serve the public good, we need to look beyond the studio. The future is daunting — unprecedented immigration flows, rising inequity, and increasingly severe climatic events — but architecture can have a real impact, especially if it has the courage to sacrifice its preoccupation with appearances.
Vanity is untenable. What starts here should change the world. Is it?
Typical typographic nonsense: in this escalating culture war for attention legibility went out of fashion long ago. Lecture posters for various architecture schools as found in UTSOA Dean's Office, March 2019.
When faith in the "Modern Movement" collapsed, Walter Gropius' work was dropped from the canon of architectural discourse. This was a mistake.
On the right is an image of Gropius' living room published in the New Yorker from a 2019 retrospective, titled "The Man Who Built the Bauhaus." On the left is a plate from Gropius' own retrospective, The Scope of Total Architecture, which has been out of print since 1974. Gropius had a lot more to offer than simply a Bauhaus pedagogy or style, however influential those were, and much of what is being forgotten or ignored, shouldn't be.
Walter Gropius’ legacy as the originator of the Bauhaus is fundamental to the narrative of any Modern Architecture survey. Curiously, at least at the University of Texas School of Architecture, his involvement outside of the Bauhaus is little discussed and does not feature in the curriculum. The fact that he has fallen from favor is corroborated by the fact his late-life retrospective, Total Scope of Architecture, was last published in English in 1974. None of this would be worth mentioning if his ideas did not matter anymore, but the opposite seems to be true. Take, for example, his campaign against the automobile, which he began in earnest in the 1940s, or his insistence that the education of architects should align closely with professional practice. Both are still pressing issues today, in 2019. This paper will argue that there is reason to reintroduce Gropius’ thought, at least in part—as conveyed through the Total Scope of Architecture—into the canonical history of Architectural discourse.
My inquiry centers around an exploration of themes in Gropius writing. The purpose is twofold. On the one hand, simply to re-evaluate what I find to be relevant observations, and on the other, to suggest possible reasons why these observations seem to have fallen from favor. The line of inquiry I take is roughly keyed to the following questions. I suspect the answer hangs in the balance.
The questions Gropius asks are no longer relevant.
The answers Gropius presents to these questions are no longer valid.
The discipline is no longer interested in these kinds of questions.
Gropius’ involvement with CIAM is revealing. The prevailing narrative suggests that Gropius was cast aside with the Modern Movement, but on closer investigation this is unconvincing. First of all, Gropius arguments are nuanced enough that they persist despite a number of flaws evident in retrospect. Moreover, if anyone were to be discarded with the Modern Movement it should be Corbusier—the founder of CIAM and its self-appointed spokesman. This has not happened. Instead, Corbusier has enjoyed continuous popularity (evidenced both in UTSOA curricula and in publishing data), which implies that the issue with Gropius had less to do with his stature as a Modernist — which would have affected Corbusier’s appeal as well — but more to do with the kind of architectural thinking that predominated after the Modernist faith was undermined.
When we associate his later work only with a bygone era of utopian dreams, à la Ville Radieuse, or to remember him only as the progenitor of the Bauhaus, we do a disservice to ourselves and to future generations of architects as we risk losing a powerful voice and a rigorous thinker who tackled the dilemma of architecture in a rapidly industrializing society head-on, with commendable courage ... read the entire paper here.
Bike Taxi Garages, East Austin, © A. Henry Rose
In his detailed essay "Crossing Over: Sustainability, New Urbanism, and Gentrification in Austin Texas" Dr Andrew Busch (of Miami University of Ohio, PhD University of Texas, Austin) presents a social and political history that places East Austin at the local epicenter of continual injustice, beginning with deliberate, ostensibly unofficial segregation in the 1920s, through the effects of far more benign though no less significant "new urbanism" policies felt as the force of gentrification today.
This last point is worth emphasizing. Gentrification is complex, Dr Busch points out, particularly because the effect (the displacement of historic communities) is not the result of malevolence or even ignorance of the value of these communities (although this is sometimes the case), but rather the consequence of structural physical and economic realities. It is hard, for example, to understate the dilemma of density, which is both the primary vehicle of gentrifying displacement as well as arguably the only ecologically viable solution to sustain civilization on this planet. Similarly, the market incentives which drive development, both in the case of rent gaps that developers seek to exploit as well as the substantial increase in tax revenue that the city stands to enjoy, are impossible to ignore.
There are times, to me, when these displaced communities seem but one more instance in which the dispossessed and disadvantaged are fated to suffer further injustice, beatified in absentia. But I also want to believe that the political apparatus is not so callous; I want to believe that there is value to every station in life, in this life, and that the difficulty turns primarily on representing this value. How do we put it in economic terms? How can we insert the historical continuity of working class populations in urban cores into the equation? Since market capital and wealth generation drive the American machine, it will, unfortunately, not suffice to leverage an aesthetic or moral argument no matter how much we wish it to be the case.
Dr Busch, for the wealth of data he compiles, fails to account for this assumption. He concludes: "Austin's politicians, planners, and business elites must recognize that preserving and sustaining disadvantaged communities, and not just their buildings and spaces, needs to be central to any meaningful sustainability agenda." This begs the question. Nowhere does he address why displacement — sentimentality not forgotten but set aside — needs to be addressed, especially when there are so many obvious economic and ecological incentives for a municipality like Austin to promote density and development. This is a significant weakness in his argument.
To support this assumption, however, is not impossible. I am willing to venture that any society which assumes a hierarchy of wealth distribution (as opposed to a communist scheme) will function most efficiently when certain needs are met, specifically the psychological needs satisfied by a sense of community, in all quartiles of the distribution — and moreover, that the system functions most efficiently when a mixture of demographics is maintained to provide services and security (à la Jane Jacobs).
I suspect this issue will be the exigent crisis facing our generation of young architects, planners, politicians and anyone invested in building community. Whether we can resolve the simple fact that dense urban living is both ecologically imperative and inherently expensive will determine much of the fate of the planet. Will we find solutions where incentives are not perversely aligned? Or must we rely on benevolent policy to subsidize the market in support of moral positions that are unrelentingly threatened by the bottom line.
That architects could fail to see the relevance of their discipline mystifies me. The sense of loss that accompanies critical theory through the last century, the indignation at that loss as if the practice somehow fell from grace—once sublime, now evermore benign, the tired oscillation of an argument between worn dichotomies--as if it were possible that such an basic aspect of civilization were so fragile that it could suffer the caprice of philosophical fashion is astounding. To a point, Kenneth Frampton writes:
Whence the bleak prognosis? Is this really the position from which architecture, albeit that of the Euro-American 1980’s, must extract itself? What is more, if this is simply the formulation of a general malaise at the loss of meaning, the 'death' of the author, the 'collapse' of truth, must architecture be similarly afflicted? I don't buy it. This disease primarily afflicts the intellect, and architecture is more than an intellectual thing.
First, to be clear, this is not a critique of Frampton’s position (I think his appraisal is apt); it is a critique of the position in which he finds himself. His attempt to redeem the discipline, even in a self-consciously ‘marginalized’ way, is respectable, but he does not go far enough. In short, he argues: architecture has lost its voice, it lacks a suitable language, the forms are contrived, trite, antiquated references and empty universals. The historical stuff seemed disingenuous so we tried to clean it all up and find something suitably modern, but the bone-white walls were unnervingly cold in the moonlight, so we twisted the skeleton frame and we painted its face, but this puppet caricature just laughs. It mocks us, and the academic laments: “As far as architecture is concerned, there seems to be little chance today that large-scale undertakings will yield works of cultural significance.”
You may chose to reject this flash through history as inaccurate or unconvincing but this is where I begin, and when we begin here, things unravel.** The purpose of architecture, I will argue, is not to express an idea at all. Thus at no point is the lack of language a problem, for its purpose is not to speak. That there is symbolic meaning in architectural forms does not indicate that their primary function is to convey this meaning, and by extension, that this is how they attain cultural significance. Do we really think that the value of the Alhambra has anything to do with an idea? Do we stand stupefied in Sainte Chapelle and say, ‘I cannot believe someone thought of that” —? No. We say “I cannot believe they made that.” It is the simple fact that these structures were built at all which makes them so impressive.
*Kenneth Frampton, "Ten Points on an Architecture of Regionalism: A Provisional Polemic." Center 3: New Regionalism, 1987 (20-27).
**This is a curious position to defend with an argument because to do so presumes the structures it calls into question. I suggest some ways to do this here, but the point is that the subordination of the rational mind is a useful concept. Many good things follow from trusting what the body knows, as that which supports the mind, and accordingly by refining our knowledge through health rather than through the manic consumption of data processed in syllogism.
The mind is just one of many interrelated structures of the body. It is powerful, and like all power has a scalar quantity without a value-oriented direction, working for good and for ill alike, capable of extraordinary self-deceit, self-loathing and self-destructive behavior. To me, nothing is more dubious than Descartes' radical self-doubt, since he has excised from his argument the only thing that would validate it: his corporeal existence. There is another response. If my position begins to sound like faith, that is, radical self-trust, I permit this association. In both cases, towards doubt or belief, there is a structural leap that must be made beyond (rationalist) epistemological limits. The typical question is, at this famous moment, breaking on the rocky shore of the mind, faced with the howling winds of aporia—which way do you jump? I want to push this even further, and suggest that the healthy individual does not experience this crisis, does not even ask herself this question.
A Critique of Architectural Art
It is possible to argue that architecture is essentially a response to complexity, since architecture and design, generally, imply the resolution of manifold elements in a unified whole. Design can be seen as a means of economization, the process of making one thing serve two purposes through (clever) manipulation. Architecture is this project on a grand scale. From the most abstract aesthetic ideals to the most technical engineering requirements to the most mundane supply chain logistics, all the while fixed in a web of interpersonal dynamics, not to mention historical and ecological contexts, almost nothing is exempt from consideration.
If we postulate this (the resolution of complexity) as a defining characteristic of architecture, then Venturi’s rebuke of minimalism as instantiated by the likes of Mies and Philip Johnson is among the most exigent challenges to an architecture that had begun to shift toward a form of space-enclosing sculpture and away from life-enabling building. “Mies,” Venturi writes quoting Paul Rudolph, “makes wonderful buildings only because he ignores many aspects of a building. If he solved more problems, his buildings would be far less potent” (16). Similarly, Venturi writes of Johnson’s Wiley House, “the building becomes a diagram of an oversimplified program for living” (17). It is Johnson’s crystalline facsimile of life which is enshrined in that glass box: a fantasy. And it is Mies’ willful blindness that plagues much of "modern" architecture. Venturi’s eye is trenchant.
When the architect decides what to address, moreover what to exclude, he or she is making a judgment about what is important to those people who will interact with the building in the future. Accordingly, if what is ultimately prioritized is some form of expression (minimalist or not), especially insofar as what is expressed relates to the building (e.g. material honesty, or as Christopher Alexander says, some "literary comment"*), the structure becomes a self-referential statement about architecture, not something that exists in use and in the last measure to serve its occupants.
My argument begins with this fundamental premise: that architecture is for people.** This is the source of its complexity, as life is everything but an abstraction. Venturi reminds us that if architecture is to be valid, its success will come from the resolution of the intricate, competing demands of a purposive object embedded in the world, not from an indifference to, rejection of, or even reflection upon these conditions. This last part is my own. To put it one way: the ideal of expression in architecture stands opposite to life. Or again: architecture that is about itself, especially that which advertises this self-conscious relationship as a badge of rarified aesthetic or other ideological integrity, is paradoxically not functioning as architecture at all.
*From his infamous 1982 debate with Peter Eisenman at the GSD.
**We must also resolve the semantic argument concerning the meaning of the word ‘architecture.’
***Citations from Robert Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, Museum of Modern Art, NY (2002).
A Relevant History Told in Wood
Today Japanese aesthetics have achieved an almost mythical status—if not unjustly, perhaps uncritically. In most cases when this designation (Japanese aesthetics) is used casually it refers the the quality of wabi and sabi that is found in gardens, teahouses and temples, a quality which is, behind anime and the automobile, likely the most exported element of Japanese culture. People are not mistaken when they respond so strongly to this particular quality. It is powerful. When I first wandered the historic districts of Kyoto I was altogether unprepared. Often I caught myself lost in thought, mesmerized by the cherry petals and the moss, transfixed by stonework beneath my feet. For minutes I could stand motionless.
However, it should be noted briefly but emphatically: although this quality is unique to Japan it is not ubiquitous; though endemic, it is somewhat scarce. Japan’s cities reflect the haste with which they were re-built following the war. The architectural landscape, dominated by dense monolithic structures and webs of electrical wires, far more often than not reflects the values of efficiency and practicality rather than beauty.
But this "Japanese" beauty: neither ubiquitous, nor uncommon, exists, like nothing I have known before. Down narrow alleys that seem to have escaped the electric surge of time, and in tiny walled gardens behind tea shops, like a secret, it exists. In the depth of a glaze and in its patterned cracks, or in tiny bubbles suspended in a glass, it exists. It is in the softly cupped granite stairs worn down by millions of feet, and it can even be found in the lacquer of a chopstick or the flecks of fiber in a shoji panel—but most of all, it is in the wood. In the unmistakeable patina of wood the mythic quality of “Japanese” aesthetics is showcased exquisitely.
Whether it is for the living tree or the toko-bashira, the special post in the special part of the special room in a Japanese house, there is no reverence in Japan like the reverence for wood. I am not sure why this is so, but I speculate that the reason is intrinsic to the quality of the medium: soft enough to receive the patterned imprint of time, touch and weather, while durable enough to bear these marks into the future, wood is perfectly suited to the task. It receives and stores the information of human existence in a meaningful way. Both in its first life, rooted in the earth, and in its second as part of a building, the tree captures history on a scale that is most relevant to the human being: measured in centuries, reaching into the past while promising a future beyond our own. On its surface in unscripted language it bears this cultural record, a great witness and emissary both.
And thus confronted with this record would I stand transfixed: by the extraordinary attention to detail in craft, the patience in preservation and the great restraint of expression. The embodied emotional energy was real. The values that went into the work were communicated through it and it is this integrity of transmission that characterizes the unique experience of Japanese aesthetics, to me, more than any discreet formal quality ever could. It is a reverence that emanates. One could read volumes about wabi-sabi, but if you have ever found peace in a Japanese garden — a peace and a clarity that you wished to bring with you to other aspects of your life — or gazed deeply into the soul of a board, if you have ever gotten lost in a chopstick, then I would say it has already worked its magic. You have found it.