Where is Architecture?


When an architect acts as an artist, he loses his potency.  I guess in the past, architects have resorted to art as a means of sustenance when the economy does not allow building, and somehow, through their eyes, many architects see this as preferable today.  Art is a means to fame and perhaps money.  Galleries and exhibitions bring celebration and star status.


But architecture is not really about conceptual design; it is about building better buildings to improve our physical world.  Furthermore, good architecture is not opportunistic in the sense that we are taught to practice it.  It does not seek an opening and then impose itself on people and cities but rather responds to a need, some sort of a brief arising from natural growth in the world.  This all has nothing to do with art.  For real architecture, drawings and text are meaningless; the building is all.  The way for us as architects to become grounded once again, and therefore useful to society, is through education.  We must learn our discipline so that we can practice it, not learn to excuse it and explain it and to sell it.


The best way to learn is by doing.  Architecture can only be learned by building.  All else is art or theory or something else.  This is not to say that it is invalid but only that it is not architecture and perhaps there should be more of a balance in our education.


The DRL essay assignment is a perfect example.  We were to evaluate the images used to represent a project without discussing the merit of the project itself.  The projects were not architecture; they were conceptual art.  The images were not architecture; they were 2D drawings.  Regardless of whether Eisenman would classify any of it as syntactically or semantically conceptual is irrelevant!  It is only a matter of semantics.


McLuhan, in fact, is far more helpful on this issue and he never really even discusses architecture.  What he does do is make us aware of what we are discussing so that we can be effectively critical and not be distracted by the smaller medias that are presented to us on a superficial level.  The DRL presentation can be used as an example.  We as the audience are shown a project.  If there is no building, there is no architecture and so we can not pretend to evaluate it as such!  The project is irrelevant because all we can really judge are the representations of it.  Even these representations are insignificant because they are overshadowed by the whole of the presentation they are a part of.


Now, we begin to get closer to a relevant discussion!  The presentations are nothing but typical presentations that any AA group might give, and so are representative of the AA educational system.  (There is no point in discussing other universities at the moment.)  Thee AA system is one where architecture is learned through independent or group study (investigation/design), tutorial (discussion with an expert), and jury (presentation to a group of experts).  Is this architecture?  No; architecture is building.  Is this art?  It doesn’t matter; this isn’t an art school.  Is this an effective way of learning?  Ah!  Now we’re on to something that is worth discussion.


The answer:  Yes; this is an effective system for learning, perhaps the most.  But it is unfortunately not used for learning architecture, at least not predominately.  Through the AA system, especially in DRL, we learn research, presentation, drawing, art, publicity, and all other things ‘necessary’ to be ‘successful’ as a commercial architect.


Ironically, it is a way to make architecture financially viable (a plebian aspiration) by creating our own brief and then convincing a client that our design is necessary (an elitist attitude).  It is this type of attitude that produces interventional designs, the sorts of things ‘architects’ impose on a community for the ‘greater good.’


Oddly, the intermediate unit that seems most successfully to fit architecture into the AA system of learning is Unit 2.  They design and build a pavilion in the 2nd and 3rd terms, but they are crippled by the pedanticalness1 of the system.  The first term is spent doing ‘research’ and such so that the students can be evaluated independently according to the criteria that the school is familiar with; however, it is the following two terms that really are architecture.  The first, ironically added to give the unit credibility, is an unfortunate waste of time and a distraction from the real learning that could be happening.


In the end of the year, at the final table, what little value there is in the year’s work is evaluated using all the wrong criteria.  It is evaluated as though it is conceptual art.  Students are asked what the ‘effect’ is meant to be, what the pavilion ‘represents’ or ‘signifies,’ and what is its ‘meaning.’  Jurors look at drawings and renderings, ignoring the building, the architecture, that stands just outside the window, ignoring the Quality2 of the building!  Overlooked is the tangibility of the space.  Overlooked is the single essential question for architectural students (secondary for professionals3): How does the outcome match the intent?  How masterful is the student at creating the building imagined, at satisfying the brief?  Here, some evidence must be given to illustrate this intention in a manner comparing it to the end product; however, these drawings or models submitted as evidence are of far less importance than the end product.


The trouble ultimately is this:  we are trained in architecture by being taught art and business.  This must be made clear and kept to a minimum.


A relevant question is this: what does the architect gain or lose by acting as builder?  When this is asked instead of what we are responding to today (architect vs. artist), we will know that we are back on the right path, or at least near to it.





Reading List: Eisenman (on art vs. architecture), McLuhan (on representation), Pirsig (on quality), Alexander (on building)


1 I looked this up, sounds stupid but apparently there is a noun for ‘that which is pedantic.’

2 For more on Quality read Robert Pirsig, most famously Zen and the art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

3 Professional architects must be evaluated on the Quality, or Goodness, of their work rather than their own success in realizing it.