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Earlier today I was getting ready to post about my contribution to the AR’s ‘Letters to a Young Architect’ special issue, which in my case, has quite a special focus on architects’ education, when I realized (as in: someone mentioned it in twitter) that today we celebrate (ha!) simultaneously the World Architecture Day and also the World Teachers Day. So, as both a part-time (that’s being very optimistic) architectural cartoonist and full-time architectural educator, I thought it might be worth a word or two about, well, architectural education.
Also, this finally gives me the opportunity to post this old cartoon I drew for Uncube’s 26th issue, ‘School’s Out’, back in September 2014 (!) (How’s that for a belated post?). More info about the cartoon at the end of the post.
If you’re been around here long enough, or have heard my ramblings in one of my trips here and there, you probably know I have some strong opinions both about architecture and architectural education. Basically, we architects move in an intermediate ground (may I call it a terrain vague to make it sound more poetic?) located inside a triangle whose three apexes would be Art, Technology, and Philosophy. And, as with anyone who practices an intermediate discipline, a discipline in between disciplines, I think most of us experience, at one point or another -or multiple times- the imposter’s syndrome. In extreme cases, such as mine, that pretty much defines our life. So, whenever someone attacks us, we retreat to the opposite side or corner. If we’re accused of being irresponsible wannabe artists who just design sculptures, we respond by remarking that we are actually technicians, experts in building technology. Depending on the country, we even have the knowledge and authorization to calculate structures. If someone attacks us by saying what we do is no art, we go back to the Enlightenment and the characterization of ‘Architecture as the Mother of All Arts’, while pointing out about how conceptual our designs are, and the deep philosophical roots of our discipline. If someone shows quite unimpressed by our pseudo-intellectual ramblings, we just note that we are, above all, creators, and we tend to express ourselves through a somewhat poetic theory. And so on.
As usual with human beings (we are, despite what we are told in architecture schools), we tend to navigate through all these contradictions by overcompensating, with this inherent inferiority complex showing on the outside quite often as a rather annoying superiority complex. As a quick read through any architectural magazine proves, we, architects, have quite a widespread habit to talk about anything with unequalled authority and complete self-confidence (or appearance of, at least), and this springs from the way we are shaped up in architecture schools. We usually complain (I know I have, multiple times) that often people’s image of architects is that of a man (typically, still), dressed up in a toga and wearing a laurel wreath on his head who enters a room and says things like ‘I see it all in red’, as if he was Edna Mode from ‘The Incredibles’. Unfortunately accurate as this may be, we cannot say it’s not our fault, and ‘we’, here, means both architects and architectural educators. Throughout our years as will-be architects, architecture schools teach us that, by becoming so, we will basically be demi-gods (this dates all the way back to Vitruvius, by the way): superior artists and thinkers sadly condemned to live amongst mere mortals who we must not just tolerate, but also educate, in order to build our designs. Such was the thinking back in the day and, to a great extent, it remains pretty much unaltered today.
After one and a half crisis since the turn of the century, after the exponential increase in architects and architecture schools in the last decades of the past century, architecture students are still being taught how to be Le Corbusier. Moreover, they’re still being taught that is the main goal, and the only acceptable path. Anything else is giving up. For a discipline that prides itself in offering a varied, holistic, all-encompassing education, the career choices it presents students with seem remarkably narrow. We are hammered with the notion that we are Renaissance men (and women, of course, as Eric Idle would gladly correct) who can excel at many disciplines, but by the nature of our job, usually become the thinking head and drawing hand in the collective that ends up producing the architectural artifact. Our buildings, you know. Years ago, a colleague of mine who is, on the other hand, an expert on his/her field (I’m not going to give any clues here) a seasoned and very capable professional, and an excellent educator, told me fascinated about this metaphor s/he had just heard: the architect as an orchestra conductor. Two (unspoken) questions came rapidly to my mind: firstly, and perhaps less importantly, how the hell was this the first time s/he heard of this hackneyed comparison. But also, where on Earth were all these orchestras waiting to be directed?
The world is constantly changing, and the architectural scene has certainly changed since Le Corbusier’s times. Don’t take me wrong. I love architecture, and I love that my students love architecture. And I certainly think design has to be the core of architectural education. I just don’t think it has to be all architectural education is about. We live at a time where architects do not necessarily belong to the social elite needed to, at least help them start building a successful career of the heroic kind. We are also at a point of History where we do not need many more Villa Savoyes, or Guggenheim museums; a point where we have built perhaps a little too much, and perhaps we should rethink our role as a collective. Again, this doesn’t mean we don’t need architects who keep practicing the profession the traditional way. It just means we also need architects who deal with all the other facets of the discipline, and schools need desperately to reflect that.
The cartoon posted above, ‘We Don’t Need No Education Not this one, no’, was originally published as the 19th entry in my ‘Numerus Klausus’ series, which still holds the title as my longest tenure in an architectural medium (in terms of published entries, of course. Time-wise, Arquine is going to be difficult to replace as my longest relationship). In typical Klaus fashion, it hides a few winks to other works, from Asterix and Obelix to Dire Straits’ ‘Money for nothing’ music video. The overall idea is, however, a nod to, possibly, my all-time favorite short animated film: Raoul Servais’s ‘Chromophobia’ (1966).