Even though I am not a full-time architectural academic, or even a trained designer, I teach architecture courses and interact with students a lot. This can be a frustrating experience. As a proponent of “living” structures, I often feel as if I’m sailing into a stiff aesthetic wind. While I research and write about a powerful set of design tools—Christopher Alexander’s “15 Fundamental Properties”, biophilia, complexity, design patterns, fractals, scaling coherence, and symmetries—I can feel a resistance born of something a lot stronger than youth and inexperience. Recently I’ve come to the reluctant conclusion that architectural education does some very specific things to its students, and in remarkably short order:
- It disconnects them from their bodies.
Our body has evolved to process complex information from the special configurations found in nature and in biological forms, fractal geometries. These forms are baked into our DNA. By conditioning students to prefer non-fractal, smooth, and unnatural forms, we’re cutting them off from these essential geometries, disconnecting them from their body’s exquisitely tuned sensory apparatus. All of us, architects and “civilians” alike, possess incredibly sophisticated instruments, whose principal task is to perceive and interpret natural geometries. Only architects are taught to ignore these intrinsic human tools.
- It brainwashes them.
The old Bauhaus exercises with paper and cardboard form the basic curriculum for the first two years of most architecture schools. They’re called “composition” exercises, but in reality I believe they are a form of psychological conditioning. The whole point, as best as I can tell, is to deemphasize and even suppress the innate structural scales one finds in all living structure. Eventually, the student’s brain is conditioned to believe that abstract, empty forms and surfaces—the building blocks for much of contemporary architecture—are the basis for “good” design.
- It reduces spatial ideas to two dimensions.
Abstraction loses an enormous amount of information. But it also does something worse: it starves the brain and turns what should be visceral reactions into intellectualized ones. It’s the difference between finding innate beauty (let’s say in a lotus flower or the arching branches of a tree) and being taught or told how to appreciate an acquired taste (like a blank “sculptural” wall). All of this gets further flattened out and almost fictionalized, when young architects project three-dimensional spaces into two dimensions, even with the best digital tools. The ease with which all this can be done simply accelerates the process. I predict the next frontier, 3d virtual reality, will require super-human levels of rationalization to justify these empty, abstract forms.
- It privileges image over emotion.
The only way to push those abstract forms as valid built objects is to detach students from their emotions and teach them the primacy of the image. So very early on, it becomes much less about how something feels and a lot more about how it looks. This image-based approach has the extra, added benefit of being wildly subjective, which makes even the most insane formal moves capable, under the right conditions, of being declared “beautiful.” This is probably why the only people who like Brutalist buildings are architects who’ve been trained to see the light.
- It promotes a kind of “architectural sadism.”
Contemporary architecture is obsessed, to the point of arrogance, with “innovation.” But unless you’re trained to admire and revere it for its own sake (something architecture students are routinely taught), aggressive “novelty” often triggers negative reactions from everyone else: alarm, anxiety, even physio-psychological pain. Remember the poor Vitra firemen, unwitting victims of “cutting edge” architecture? That’s just the proverbial tip of the iceberg, as far as alienation and architecture are concerned. Once upon a time, shareable stories were embedded onto and into buildings. Today architects detach their stories and apply them instead as sales pitch, justification, explanation, excuse, argument, clarification, rationalization, even exoneration. All of it as if preaching madly to a skeptical congregation. They’re right to be worried.
Featured image via Wikipedia Commons.