Building a Condenser for Architectural Thought and Education That Just Might Rescue the Profession


There exists a disconnect between architectural education and architectural practice that grows increasingly unsettling.  It appears that professionals, recognizing the triviality of their ambitions in a decadent world, and reflecting back on nearly a century of failed policies, have recently begun to branch out in a positive way.  Many offices are operating as consulting firms that are able to use their judgment and expertise to affect broader sectors of society than the limited areas of design and planning.  Other architects, wise to their impotence as professionals, have abandoned the trade altogether and have chosen other fields where they can use their training to have a positive impact.  These new occupations range from carpentry to politics to teaching to cooking, and everything in between.  Both these responses to the changing profession are positive ones and both are likely to improve the standing of architects among respectable people.  Still, though, there is a significant difference between the two.

A common structure for a design course in architecture is to examine a place, identify a defining issue integral to it, create a brief that addresses that issue, and then design a proposal, hopefully convincing enough to satisfy the brief.  Essential to this process is an understanding, often absent, that the result need not necessarily be a built intervention.  This is usually acknowledged, but mostly disregarded.  The conception of design, even among the most forward thinking architects, is still heavily biased towards built solutions, even in schools, where the obvious economic benefits (for the architect) are not a factor.  Worse still, is the idea that each student must propose an intervention that constitutes a final design proposal.  This is revealing.  Surely it is not the architect’s place to intervene where he is not invited.  The whole concept of intervention as solution is such an elitist proposition that it is difficult to even imagine a place for it in a properly functioning society.  It fits within a business model in the same way that a cost consultant might.  Either can intervene to help a business run more successfully or more efficiently.  In the public realm, however, it is preposterous to suppose that an architect can arrive in a community, develop an understanding of the issues at hand there, and intervene in a meaningful way that makes life better for the inhabitants of the community, all before moving on to the next place where he is to operate and somehow save the day!  Public issues are sufficiently complex that even lifetime members of a community usually have trouble conceiving a workable solution.

But ‘Wait!,’ you say, ‘Architects are trained professionals who have spent years learning to do this sort of work.  It is their expertise!  Of course they are more adept at it than the average locals.’  To this I respond, ‘Hogwash!’  When dealing with any issues meaningful to a community, the intuition of those integrally related is superior to any outsider’s judgment, no matter how they are trained.

This is not to say that there is no place for an architect in today’s society, only that architects can only be effective in two ways: first, when they operate entirely within the private realm, solving problems they are invited to address, and second when they operate within their own communities where they share the familiarity and understanding of the locals.  The first of these is the traditional role of architects, though limited in its potential for broader positive impact.  The second is never acknowledged.

So many professionals still respond to competition invitations far beyond their scope of understanding.  This can only be explained as naivety or greed.  What must be done instead is for architects, once trained, to return to their communities (or find themselves new ones) and live as citizens, casting off whatever robes of grandeur they believe themselves wrapped in.  Once settled and established in these communities, they can begin to speak out and address issues of local import.  In the meantime, it is perfectly acceptable to pass the time designing buildings under private contract.  The truth remains, however, that there is not so much need for a professional ‘architect’ in most communities and so a better way to pass the first years as a citizen is to find some other, more useful career.

Of course, so far, one is not thinking of urban communities, only non-urban ones.  Assuming that an architect’s goal is to improve the quality of life, he is most needed in the city, where living is poor.  Quality of living, being proportionate to available space and time, is lowest in densest areas, where there is the least of either.  The trouble is exactly the lack of context that makes it impossible for an architect to be effective.  There is as yet no solution to the inherent urban impotence of the architect, and there is likely to be none discovered.  Cities operate best with less planning, the most successful ones being those where architects restrict themselves to small scale operations in local areas, allowing organic growth of the place as a whole.

Therefore, a declaration must be made:  Architects should design buildings, work for private clients, or go home.  The first keeps them entertained, the second makes good careers, but only the third offers the potential for meaningful impact.

The more time one spends studying architecture, the more one is convinced that the profession is generally archaic and obsolete, presumptuous and arrogant.  Most architects are nothing more than office workers, spending their days in front of a computer with an over inflated view of their own social and cultural significance, while at the same time being disregarded by the general population.  It seems that architecture has little value as a profession or as an initiator of change in our communities.  This does not mean, however, that architecture and its universities should be dissolved and cast aside.

Architecture’s great value lies in its transformational way of problem solving and consideration.  Architecture is a tool, not a product; it is a way of working, not the work itself.  Architecture as object is mere design, and as such is a triviality that is an embarrassment to architects whose way of thinking has the potential to truly influence change where it is needed.  Truthfully, some trained architects still need to continue addressing urban and housing issues, but perhaps it is more useful to say that more trained architects should become builders, developers, and politicians.

Knowing what I know from having studied architecture and other things, I would feel more than a little disingenuous to carry on practicing ‘architecture’, especially considering how my architectural way of thinking could be of real benefit in so many other relevant areas.  Because I believe so strongly in this divide between absolutely essential architectural education and the absolutely trivial architectural profession, I hope to contribute to the first in a way that enables others to have the tools necessary to choose their own roles for themselves in society.

Historically, the AA has been an influential institution as a testing ground for architectural education and ways of architectural thought.  Its educational experiments have affected the way schools around the world operate.  Lately, however, the school has focused on useless product to the detriment of necessary consideration.  The Association’s greatest asset, Hooke Park, is under-exploited, and school resources are instead channeled to hi-tech machinery that accelerates student output until it outpaces input.

There needs to be a flexible framework for architectural education overseen by an advisor, not necessarily in a teaching role (perhaps teachers themselves are outdated considering that they are all of the older generations that have proven impotent), but in the role of orchestrator and guide.  Ideally, one can imagine an architectural outpost affiliated with a supporting university.  This could be a woodland workshop similar to Hooke Park, a condenser for architectural ideas.

Hooke Park has as its mission a relationship to the forest and the community.  It consists of a 350 acre managed woodland and a workshop with woodworking facilities.  It provides ample time and space for students to test ideas and experiment with new thoughts.  Materials and tools are onsite and renewable in a way that supports continuous work.  The forest is managed in 25 year cycles, with each section of wood thinned in five year rotating cycles.  The buildings on site make use of the thinnings, small trees that otherwise would be made to toothpicks or fence posts.  Hooke Park encourages practices of smaller living on a local scale and encourages students to address larger, community-scale issues without developing pretensions that architecture is more than its physical form.  This realistic approach promotes quality building and design (something our architectural schools seem to have entirely abandoned) simultaneously alongside providing a more universal awareness and understanding of society.  Hooke Park is unique to the AA and to its site in Dorset.

It should not be the intention to recreate Hooke Park in another location but instead to use it as a starting point from which to develop a working critique of current methods of architectural learning.  Essential to the formation of this new program will be an association with an already existing university or teaching institution that should provide a continuous supply of students and tutors.  There must also be an program advisor, a structural and philosophical overseer, whose responsibilities will include:  ensuring the maintenance of the workshop and facilities; the upkeep of contacts and relationships between the program and its allies in the educational and architectural worlds; managing the turnover of visiting workshops, educators, and students; providing direction and a formwork within which the educational experimentation will take place.  There will be conferences and symposium on education and architecture where an ongoing discussion will be moderated that shapes the upcoming course of study.

Such an undertaking faces many potential difficulties, the greatest of which will come at the start.  The first and most substantial is the acquisition of funding and property on which to begin.  Much research will be involved seeking out sympathetic institution directors with the resources to back such a project.  Connections will need to be created and maintained with interested professionals in various fields who can offer their wisdom and advice about direction and study.  Facilities will need to be acquired, built, or adapted to house the program, and this will likewise have to be done in a manner consistent with a broader philosophy adapted from existing models.  Once the initial hurdles have been passed, and there is a facility and students, the system will need constant critique, evaluation, and consideration that will lead to its continuous alteration and development structurally, physically, and philosophically.