I didn’t think it was a loaded question. It was more like an exasperated question, asked at the end of a long afternoon of project reviews. First-year students had been asked to design an aquatic center, complete with an Olympic pool, a spa, about 30 hotel rooms, and parking for (groan) 200 cars. The proposed building would be located in a rapidly gentrifying, formerly working-class, African American neighborhood, on a block-long site bordering some freight tracks. Cool but gritty, in other words.
The students responded, as all students should, with youthful gusto and flashes of real inspiration. One team—channelling their inner-Zaha—proposed a four-foot long protrusion of twisting, snaking volumes all culminating in floor-to-ceiling glass views of the Shiny New City below. A second envisioned a series of stacked, overlapping, and “floating” boxes, joined by a rugged, concrete central spine—a huge Miesian spaceship touching down in a neighborhood of warehouses and shotgun shacks. Another team, builders of the most exquisite maquette, pushed the formal exercise even further, exploring “The Cone” as a spatial and building volume.
The students, for the most part, created gorgeous models which, in and of themselves, were works of art. With varying degrees of individual effort and discipline, they all showed promise. Most of their schemes were unbuildable, as designed. Most would have encountered considerable neighborhood opposition, if actually proposed. But none of that really bothered me. Instead I was plagued by a more prosaic concern, one I was almost embarrassed to mention, for fear of being labelled a killjoy.
“You know, just about all of these designs would require ten, twenty, thirty, fifty, a hundred times, as many hotel rooms to justify the cost of construction,” I said, at the end of the day, as much to the instructor as the students. Then I turned and asked the question: “Do you ever attach a budget for these projects?”
“Never,” he said. “This is design studio. It’s about the exploration of form and ideas.”
“How about political constraints, neighborhood opposition, whether or not an idea can be built as designed?” I asked.
“This is a ten-week class, for first-year students,” he said.
He was right (sort of). In a studio setting there’s no way to grapple with the infinite complexities of even the most straight-forward project. Construction is fraught; ask any weekend warrior who’s ever strapped on a toolbelt and tried to remodel a bathroom. But shouldn’t a studio class, in architecture, at least try?
The Big Three–money (budgets), politics (negotiating with clients, colleagues, contractors, subcontractors and the public), and gravity (how are we going to build this so it doesn’t topple over?)–aren’t messy complications, too burdensome for beginners. They are the practice of architecture.
The Big Three—money (budgets), politics (negotiating with clients, colleagues, contractors, subtractors and the public), and gravity (how are we going to build this so it doesn’t topple over?)—aren’t messy complications, too burdensome for beginners. Negotiating and compromising within these constraints, cursing them, triumphing over or being defeated by them, is the practice of architecture.
Creating what are essentially glorified napkin sketches does teach some valuable lessons, storytelling, model making, presentation skills among them. But it leaves out all of the unyielding realities that separate fine art from architecture. The creative impulse is important and dramatic, and sometimes very romantic (she sketched it right on the tablecloth of the restaurant!), but it’s not what makes architecture so goddamn challenging—and a fully executed project so gratifying and worthy of our respect.
Yes, architecture is hard. And its difficulty can’t be taught or even fully comprehended during the entire course of a design education (let alone a single ten-week studio course). It’s why architects under the age of 50 are considered “young.” But shouldn’t the education of architects prepare them for those challenges?
“They’ll learn about those realities soon enough,” I was told. “They will only be students once.”
Again, the instructor was right (sort of). We do want to encourage exploration and creativity. But without any of these irksome constraints tethering students to Planet Earth, what exactly was being taught here?
I know it’s complicated, like asking three-year-olds to swim the English Channel. They will probably drown. Although it may occasionally look like it, even Frank and Rem and Zaha don’t get unlimited budgets and carte-blanche freedom to pursue any design they want. Everybody has constraints and limitations (that’s why it’s architecture!).
So, for blue-sky workshops like this, I have a modest request: let’s ask students to present a credible case for the project they’re proposing. They don’t have to be exactly right about the economics and the politics (extra credit, though, if they are). But along with the model and drawings, they should be required to at least think about these real world complications and learn to present a strong argument for why their idea will fly (or, at least, stand). They’re proposing a building, after all; as the architect, please, tell us how you’re going to get it built.
Illustration by Jeremy Baudy.