Today’s academic experience prepares architecture students to design sustainably in some ways, but leaves them hideously unprepared in others. Let’s look at the hits and misses (and how to fix the misses) through the Original Green lens. This post is part of the new Twitter phenomenon: #letsblogoff. The home page lists each week’s “idea worth blogging about.” This week, it’s “Are today’s college graduates ready for the working world?” That’s incredibly broad, so this post narrows the question to architecture and sustainability.
During early Original Green lectures several years ago, people looked at me like I was crazy when I proposed that nourishability was the first foundation of sustainable places. Today, the idea is gaining firm traction in many quarters. Andrés Duany has become arguably the top thought leader on the issue. I’ve worked as a team member with Andrés’ firm (DPZ) on the three projects that pushed these ideas the furthest forward: Sky, Southlands, and Schooner Bay. Because this set of ideas is evolving so quickly, it’s no surprise that it has not yet been included as part of the curriculum in schools of architecture and planning. But let’s hope that changes quickly.
Here’s where the divide begins: schools sympathetic to the New Urbanism teach principles for creating places accessible by a range of options, especially including walking and biking. The top tier of New Urbanism-friendly schools includes the University of Miami (where Andrés’ wife and partner, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk is Dean,) the Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment, the University of Notre Dame, and Andrews University. Each of these schools have what could only be described as a full-bore New Urbanist curriculum. There are a growing number of other schools around the world which are sympathetic to the New Urbanism. These, too, teach principles of accessible places.
Many other schools of architecture, however, are either tacitly or openly hostile to the New Urbanism. Many of these schools are afflicted with a malady I call “Freeway Envy.” The symptoms include a strong affinity for movement. Advanced cases of Freeway Envy result in buildings nearly eaten up with ramps, stairs, escalators, elevators, and other means of zooming around, so that one might wonder if anyone ever sits down in these buildings. This infatuation with movement, unfortunately, all too often holds mechanical movement as its highest ideal, so its proponents are far more likely to design car-friendly places than pedestrian-friendly places.
Schools with New Urbanist curricula or at least New Urbanist sympathies can usually be depended upon to teach principles that allow graduates to design places where you can get a range of daily services within walking distance. Here, the divide with schools antagonistic to the New Urbanism isn’t so great, but it still exists. Why? Serviceable places are functionally messy places, with everything from houses to apartments to townhouses on the residential side to coffee shops, groceries, hardware stores, pharmacies, offices, and any number of other businesses. Architecture, meanwhile, has for nearly a century had strong affinity for all things clean and simple... and the more serviceable a place becomes, the less clean and simple it tends to be.
Securability goes hand-in-hand with great urbanism on several counts. The closer buildings come to aligning with each other and pulling up to a frontage line, the easier it is to create a securable block against the inevitable times in an uncertain future that are more spooky than today. Here, the divide is clear: schools that teach New Urbanism teach the creation of the street wall. In great urbanism, the first responsibility of a building is to help create urban space. Anti-New Urbanist schools tend to focus on buildings as objects, where each building screams “look at me.” Buildings as objects rarely contribute to a securable place.
This is the big one. Most schools of architecture leave their graduates grotesquely incapable of designing buildings that can be loved. And if buildings can’t be loved, they won’t last. This means the academy is churning out graduates incapable of designing sustainably. The only remedy is years of self-education after graduation.
The problem, however, goes deeper than just the inability to design lovable buildings. Instead, many schools instill a strong prejudice against designing buildings that can be loved. Such design is scorned as “saccharine,” “nostalgia,” “kitsch,” “banal,” and the like. By the end of the second year of architecture school, most students wouldn’t dare consider designing such a building. The problem has gotten so ridiculous that today, there are efforts to “educate” the public on the fact that they need to learn to love ugly buildings.
Which schools do best and worst here? The “best list” shrinks notably here. While it generally follows the New Urbanism divide, there are a number of schools sympathetic to New Urbanism that are decidedly more frigid to the idea of lovable buildings. The issue of lovability appears to be the toughest nut to crack.
Serious durability has largely vanished from architecture today. When I was in school, our building technology professor opined that we should “design the building to last at least as long as the mortgage because the owner will be really angry if the building is uninhabitable before it’s paid off.” How ridiculous a standard is that?
It might seem like this is an issue of budgets or expediency. In reality, architecture should shoulder a part of the blame for at least two reasons: An architectural culture that celebrates modernity and newness is generally incompatible with keeping things for a long time. Also, the profession has been moonstruck with all things thin and spindly for most of the past century, Brutalism and a few similar moments excepted. Thin and spindly things obviously have less margin of error to sacrifice to the inevitable corrosion of time before they become unusable.
There is hope, as the issue continues to build traction in sustainability discussions. I’ll be one of the speakers at the University of Notre Dame’s symposium on Durability in Construction in October, for example.
Flexibility isn’t even on the radar screen in most schools of architecture. Instead, the academy is far too often the purveyor of something I call the “Tyranny of the Program.” Great effort is expended in making the architecture fit hand-in-glove with the program.
Unfortunately for this approach, the program is the most overrated thing in architecture. If a building is lovable and durable, it’s likely to be used for something other than its programmed use for 90% or more of its life. We should, therefore, focus on designing a good building rather than a good deli or a good post office because some of the uses the building may one day house haven’t even been imagined yet.
Here’s the one place where the academy does a decent, if partial, job of preparing its graduates for the real world. Some schools now have a high focus on the design of carbon-neutral buildings, or “net-zero” buildings. Problem is, this focus usually doesn’t extend beyond the property line, so it’s actually bogus. It doesn’t matter how many green points your building gets if you have to drive everywhere in order to inhabit it.
Another fault of the academy’s current efforts to make building design more frugal is that it’s usually a perfect example of Gizmo Green, which is the erroneous belief that with better equipment and better materials, we can achieve sustainability. It just isn’t so, and for a number of reasons. Gizmo Green measures are the first to fall at budget-cutting time, whereas natural frugality measures often just rearrange what you’re already building for better effect. And Gizmo Green creates all sorts of propositions that simply don’t pass the smell test.
The Bottom Line
The Original Green lens makes it quite clear that most schools of architecture don’t get a passing grade when it comes to preparing their students to design in a truly sustainable manner. The biggest (but by no means completely accurate) predictor is an institution’s tolerance or embrace of the New Urbanism.
I’m hopeful there will be progress soon. But for all of us that have graduated or will graduate before that happens in our schools, there is a remedy: self-education. There are a number of institutions that are filling many of the gaps. Check them out. Take their classes. Read their books. But most of all, learn how to really see, and how to ask yourself the hard questions, and then not give up on those questions until you’ve someday figured them out.
Note: If any of the images above are useful to you, they’re available at high resolution for printing or download on my Zenfolio site. Just click on the image and it’ll take you there. All of these images were shot on a very cold day at Yale last winter. Here are some of the other participating blogs in today’s #Letsblogoff:
Veronika Miller @modenus Modenus.com
Paul Anater @paul_anater kitchenandresidentialdesign.com
Rufus Dogg @dogwalkblog DogWalkBlog
Becky Shankle @ecomod eco-modernism.com
Bob Borson @bobborson lifeofanarchitect.com
Bonnie Harris @waxgirl333 Wax Marketing
Tim Elmore @TimElmore growingleaders.com
Nick Lovelady @cupboards cupboardsonline.com
Tamara Dalton @tammyjdalton tamaradalton.net
Sean Lintow, Sr. @SLSconstruction sls-construction.com
Amy Good @Splintergirl Amy's Blog
Richard Holschuh @concretedetail Concrete Detail
Tim Bogan @TimBogan Windbag International
Hollie Holcombe @GreenRascal Rascal Design
Cindy FrewenWuellner @Urbanverse Urbanverse
I’m @stevemouzon, FWIW.
Wednesday, August 25, 2010 - 04:34 PM
Cindy Frewen Wuellner
Steve: OUCH! In one post, you summarized a myriad of ills by arch schools. Freeway envy, that's priceless. Your clarity is dazzling. Actually I imagine that students in any architecture school get some CNU principles from some profs, and not from other profs. In other words, the school itself does not have a new urbanist mission. With the exception of a few schools you named, they leave that message to the individual teachers. Two elements of design seem to me to be no longer in debate: green and urbanism. You address both. Schools should have these as part of their mission; I cannot imagine how good design can ignore either one. The one concept that is as you say "toughest nut to crack" is lovability. I suspect that you and I would agree 90% of the time, and perhaps disagree on others. Aesthetics are a matter of preferences, and yes, its the area of most controversy and attention for architects. Is lovability reserved for traditional design? That would be concerning to me since I believe we need to express our era and push aesthetic boundaries. I agree that many design experiments have failed to be lovable (many have been simply poorly concieved and/or executed, the problem w/ most housing.) Others have amazed, broadened our perspectives, and been quite lovable and awe-inspiring. I dont all of want my architecture too comfortable. Steve, I am so happy you posted in the blog off again, it's a marvelous idea. You write beautifully, your ideas are thoughtful, informative, and provocative, and of course I love the arch slant and photos. Cindy @urbanverse
Wednesday, August 25, 2010 - 09:02 PM
Thanks so much for these comments, Cindy! From what I've observed, you're exactly right about most schools and their profs. As for green and urbanism, I agree that these issues should no longer be in debate, but I've seen academic environments where they are. The reason is because both sustainability and urbanism require certain things of architecture, and these things are seen in some circles as constraints. For example, I was a guest juror at Yale a couple years ago, and had one exchange with Peter Eisenman where I was advocating for a more urbanistic response, and he thundered "NOTHING should limit my freedom of expression!" The project was in London. I asked the student "where's the London-ness in this?" Peter shot back "There is no such thing as London-ness!" I asked him "If I blindfolded you and flew you into central London or central Rome and took off the blindfold, could you tell the difference?" "Of course," he said. "Then how can there be no such thing as London-ness?" But I digress...
As for the issue of lovability, I'm advocating for something deeper than style or fashion. I believe that if we can get at the real essence of our humanity, and the things that we're hardwired to resonate with, then we're getting close to understanding lovability. Right now, its mechanics are not understood very well at all.
Here's what we do know: recent studies have shown that within minutes of birth, infants will, when shown two images where one is a human face and the other is a random arrangement of eyes, noses, and mouths, gravitate to the face. This carries through to architecture, as well-loved buildings predictably are proportioned and arranged, both vertically and horizontally, to reflect the form of the human body.
Other things have been shown to resonate with humans through time and across cultures as well. One of the more mysterious aspects, and one that I'm trying to get my mind around, is the factor of regional appropriateness. Someone from Beaufort, South Carolina might go to Tuscany and fall in love with a Tuscan farmhouse. But building a Tuscan farmhouse in Beaufort would look as ridiculous as building a Low Country cottage in Pienza. Why is that? We need to dig into this one.
Wednesday, August 25, 2010 - 09:51 PM
Cindy Frewen Wuellner
Hello Steve: That's exactly my experience with arch schools. Yr so right, many are still arguing about the issues of green and urban design, which is such a waste. Peter Eisenman - excellent proof. You gave a smart answer, very clear. It's a paradigm difference, isnt it? he could not even imagine what you were saying. no gestalt switch.
Yes, regionalism is part of architectural and urban character, no doubt. Its a palatte, a vocabulary. A skillful designer can express with these elements as clearly as an author uses words. Not necessarily traditional forms but definitely of that particular place. At least that's architecture I love. true to place and time, the users, and the designer, a rich convergence.
One other idea - you said flexibility is difficult for arch schools even still. that may be one of the greenest things that we can do. We were taught that even in the 1970s. Now you have me thinking, we have lost that value. whew, it is disappointing. Well, our profession is on the wrong side of that argument too. I am sure we are still relevant, but we are struggling, no doubt, with the weight of old paradigms. We need more clear conversations and ideas like yours. then we can discuss that last 5%, yes? those are conversations I welcome. Cindy @urbanverse