Surviving the Design Studio: How should we teach and research Architectural Practice?

Teaching for our subject Architectural Practice at MSD has started this semester. This year we are trialling a series of hour long Q&A sessions. The first panel session was on inclusiveness in the profession; a pretty big subject that deserves an entire subject or seminar series.  It’s a pity I have to teach all the content in Practice the way that I do. Squeezing anything into the syllabus outside of the accepted accreditation requirements or competency standards is always  a problem. Nonetheless, his year at MSD we are going to have panel sessions on fee cutting, branding, cross-disciplinary collaboration, innovation and risk. The extra content we don’t normally  cover. We will probably finish off the semester with a Q&A panel on diversity, intersectionality and career pathways.

By the time we teach everything else that we need to teach in the Practice subject, in order to meet the accreditation requirements, there is not a lot of time left for the really big issues facing the profession. In many respects the accreditation requirements and Australian competency standards seem to reinforce some of the myths that bedevil architectural discourse and culture. As we touched on in last week’s panel, on diversity and inclusiveness, the guidelines appear to reinforce the notion that the only way to Practice is via traditional practice. I call it the Wilkinson-Eyre model of practice. Yet there are many different ways to be an architect. Yet architecture seems imprisoned by the traditional mythologies of masculine and male creative genius, the pedigrees of client patronage, race and class, as well as the binary split between design creativity and business. All of these things seem to reinforce the idea that practice is not a place where discussions around diversity or inequity should take place (there is a lot to cover and this is why I also teach an elective called Design Activism).

In the olden days, there was subject on Specifications. This is now covered as one lecture in our Architectural Practice subject. In the olden days, there were subjects that addressed contract documentation strategies and workflows. We now cover this in practice in one tiny lecture. The same for Contract Management which is now covered in Practice and yet it should probably be a separate subject. These days I think we all benefit if the teaching of Architectural Practice is seen as being more of a contested area. I have no problem with that. A place where debates around the profession and its relationship to various issues can take place.

Architectural Practice is too often an incredibly contested area in the wrong ways. One of the older binaries that seem to pervade it is that one between the real world and academia. It’s always been oh so easy for practitioners to come to the university and look at the work and say the graduates: can’t do this, or they can’t do that. I have seen this happen on numerous occasions during various accreditation panels. Some architectural employers don’t want graduates that have been taught to think but to simply fit into the cogs of that CAD monkey documentation machine. This is a simplistic binary debate, and it’s a pretty easy criticism to utter, and in the end only diminishes architecture as a profession. The real problem is that some voices are too often silenced or not heard when these simplistic aphorisms get trotted out. For example, the graduates who are paid poorly by practices, work long hours and don’t get paid overtime. Or the people of difference who don’t make the so-called grade at Wilkinson Eyre.

It was suggested to me recently that the architecture curricula was simply about teaching design, technology, history and theory. I thought WTF? As an integrated subject Practice, should be both reflective of the debates in contemporary architecture and give young architects their first insights into a range of things. The strategic management of technology for example. Or knowing how to negotiate or consult with a client or a developer or a marginalised community group for another.  Teaching young architects to write business plans so they can find pathways through financial economics in order to not economically exploit others when they come to direct practices themselves (This week our Q&A style panel in is on fee cutting).

Traditionally, Practice has always taught by male architects who by and large seemed to wear suits and seem to know something about money in a kind of worldly sense (I am one of those; but sometimes I don’t wear the suit). As a subject Practice, was and is, for the most part sequestered from design in graduate architecture schools across the world. It is either often forgotten or seen as something that has nothing to do with either design, technology or even history and theory. It is presumed to be a practical subject that somehow teaches architectural students about the “real world.” But this image of the real world is a shibboleth. This is because I know of few architecture schools, where teaching cross-cultural negotiation skills, or stuff like the darker arts of social media branding, or the banalities of cash flow forecasting is thought about. I know of one architecture school, so notoriously attracted and addicted to its own tiny autonomous discourse, that if you mentioned any of this stuff they would stereotype you as a “non-designer” and relegate you a long way down their coveted pecking order of young and emerging star architects.Of course, as we know from other domains of knowledge, that economics. sociology and the management sciences are fields that are valuable to encounter intellectually.

This forgetting of Practice reinforces the worse mythologies of practice itself. The way we practice architecture needs to be dismantled through more effective ethnographic and empirical research using methods dragged in from other domains. Even in the UK field of Construction Management, as a result of an interest in the sociological and management sciences, there has developed over the last 10 years focused research studies on: technology take-up, sustainability, innovation, immigrant labour flows, as well as the inequities of pre-formed racial and gender identities in construction. By contrast in architecture all we seem to do is something called design research (I am still to figure out what that is) a bit of do-gooder sustainability (despite the fact that we are facing extinction as a species) and a whole lot of technical research using robots, 3D printers and Virtual and Augmented reality.

This focus on the technical only seems to reinforce the new image of the young architect as a kind of sneakerboy guru of Rhino or Grasshopper. Someone, I know went to an international robotics in architecture conference to find it was full of hundreds of blokes with less than a handful of woman represented. Even in the sixties, another time of technological obsession in architecture, figures like Archigram and Reyner Banham had a Boys-and-their-Toys fetish about computers, space ships and industrialised building. Not sure if a lot has changed.

For me it is the historians and architectural theorists who are doing the most interesting research in architecture. These areas, as well as research into practice, more often than not, get squeezed in research funding rounds in favour of technology, sustainability and construction. I think the profession at large needs to think more carefully about what it means to practice, beyond the narrow models, pedigrees and mythologies that have pervaded architectural culture for the last million years. Maybe, thats why in all of this it was good to see three (yes, three!) Catalan architects get the 2017 Pritzker Prize. The question of what practice is, who can practice and who does practice should be reflected in both academic and professional development programs, accreditation guidelines, curricula and syllabi.

But to really teach practice I think we need to teach young architects how to chain themselves to the gate of a coal mine. Or how to work directly with colonised groups. Or how to reflect on their own genders and backgrounds. Architecture school is the place for the messy debates that will hopefully dismantle and decolonise architecture’s current subjectivities, pedigrees, rituals of taste-making and mythologies. Architecture school is the place where the politics of global economics confronts the new and emerging forms and structures of architectural practice itself. Most traditional practice courses have avoided building into their framework these perspectives, and sadly in most architectural schools architectural practice seems to get forgotten. These are the issues that should be central to the teaching of practice. In fact, as architects we should all be teaching these things in our firms and in schools of architecture.

 

 

 

 



Categories: architecture and research

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