Building on a slab

September 23, 2008

In the last post I talked a bit about a new cable TV series on architecture school. I caught the next episode and it answered a few questions and raised a few others. Here is my take on the adventures of these plucky students and their teachers as they began to build in New Orleans.

Byron Mouton, the studio critic in the class, has passed my litmus test for young design teachers–he’s no flash in the pan aesthete. He knows how to build on the gumbo soil of the bayous on the Gulf Coast. And he leads his students by example, not by fiat. Even my qualms about letting the students vote for their favorite scheme to build seems now like a wise decision. Taking a relatively average, simple design and making it into a liveable house has made for some interesting television. Since designers are not always given the green light on the “best” solution in a given set, making the best of a given circumstance can teach some valuable lessons.

Following the tension-filled episode in which the class learned which house would be constructed, “Digging a Hole” was a wonderful tonic. The students got a good dose of reality when they put shovels in the ground and collaborated on the construction of “their” design (having forgotten the sting of not being chosen in the competition).  Architecture is by and large collaborative, and this exercise shifted the students attention toward the team aspect of projects. A good example of this was featured in the episode, when three students went to the house built during the previous year to decide how to finish off their exterior stairs. An intelligent group decision was reached through critical evaluation of options and a consensus on which best fit the intentions behind the design. Professor Mouton was not present, having sent the young architects off to do their own thing. Throughout this first stage of construction, the master was in the background. Filmakers asked students to explain the intricacies of the construction, including such things as hurricane straps on the sills, and termite shields. Perhaps their best moment came when explaining why their house would feature a modified version of “slab on grade” construction, with piers set to a level determined by flood and hurricane data.

Why is building on a real site such a great opportunity for young architects? First, it gives students a chance to see the process by which architecture is made from beginning to end, not just the portion that portends to art or concepts. Second, it teaches patience and humility, two key virtues not often imbued on young designers. Third, it exposes design novices to the “user” or client in ways that can’t be simulated in an average studio.

If the change in the attitudes of the students is any guage, the building process has really raised their aptitude and interest–kicking it up a notch, as Emeril Lagasse says. The concrete platform that stood after the last episode represented a lot more than just a building foundation, it was a solid basis for making a career in architecture, and one that more architecture schools should offer their beginning students.

I spent nearly 15 years of my life teaching young architects, leaving academia dispirited and pessimistic about the next generation in the late 1990s. So it came as a pleasant surprise when I noticed the Sundance Channel Documentary, “Architecture School,” among the offerings this fall on cable television. I have watched the first three episodes. I have enjoyed viewing them and have also learned something about what is going on in the Tulane School of Architecture, a school I knew during the 1980s. I wonder how many non-architects are tuning in. If you are interested in design and the role of architecture in the real world, I highly recommend the program.

“Architecture School” is first and foremost a work of first rate film-making. It has strong themes, characters, and yet manages to present competing points of view in an even-handed way. The city of New Orleans is out front in the films, as it should be, and viewers learn a good deal about what has and hasn’t changed since Katrina. The students in a typical 2nd-year studio are the stars of the show, and they also get a  fully-rounded presentation. In a 40-minute program this kind of care and craftsmanship is rare. I give the directors an A+.

The Tulane School of Architecture, besides being located in New Orleans, was an excellent choice of venue as well. It makes an excellent case study of how architecture is taught in most of the world today. The faculty and staff are presented as smart, assiduous avocates for good design and social responsibility in a beleaguered city. The film explicates an often misunderstood teaching method that has guided studio education for decades–the jury system. What is more, it clearly presents both the positive and the negative aspects of the system in a way that any educated adult can understand.

During the first episodes, the students in a typical studio are presented with the exciting opportunity of designing a house in a lower-income neighborhood (largely African American) that desperately needs affordable housing. Like the students in the famous Yale first-year building program, these young architects will see one of their designs constructed by a local housing corporation, and will have a chance to participate in the construction process. At a time when many architecture schools are turning away from “real world” situations, the Tulane studio is a beacon for architectural education in a challenging world.

The plot unfolds as a competition between half a dozen distinct personalities in the studio–a driven, gifted Asian American, male and female examples of the college jock, a rule-abiding WASP male who presents the case for a meritocracy, and two talented but unmotivated “artists” who get by with intuition over intellect. The class is just about 50/50 male-female, with women perhaps having a slight edge–as is the case now in most architecture programs. The studio instructor is a principled, dedicated man with ties to New Orleans. He clearly has the respect and admiration of his young charges–so much so that most are overawed by his criticism.

Anyone who has attended a school or taught architectural design during the past 25 years will recognize not only the personalities but also the curriculum here. What is most interesting about the film is the implication that young designers, and their young critic, will test the efficacy of that curriculum in a community building project that has an impact on lower income, working class blacks in one of the nation’s neediest cities. The disconnect between the largely white students and their African American clients is not apparent until episode three, when they first get questions about why all of their designs are so “ugly” and out of place on a street full of 19th century cottages and shotgun houses.

After 8 weeks of heated competition in which each character sees his ego battered by interim criticism from the teachers and the dean (Reed Kroloff, a Yale educated, Prada wearing intellectual type), the final “jury” exposes the students to an even more brutal session with many new actors. The dean and his faculty are joined by members of the housing corporation and the community. Predictably, the “professional” jurors out-talk the community members by employing their opaque jargon, leaving the students with the impression that aesthetic standards imparted in them by their teachers will guarantee a successful design for the client. The professors hammer away at the importance of a strong “concept” over practical or social considerations. But, confusing the issue, several of the early favorites are taken to task for their failure to consider costs or the frugal use of space. Surprisingly, a woman from the Carribean, emerges with a simple, innocuous design that the critics see as “original,” reminding the dean of the controversial Dutch architect, Rem Koolhaus.

More surprisingly, the studio instructor takes his beleagured class back to their desks for a post-mortem and a vote on who will “win” the right to have his/her design constructed. Instead of polling members of the community or the jury of professionals, he leaves the choice to his young apprentices. Why? Perhaps to make certain that he is not blamed for any kind of favoritism; perhaps to teach his students that competitions are not always won with talent alone. The students, predictably, show little critical capacity for understanding the dynamics of real competitions, instead parroting the comments of the jurors in their own assessments of the merits of each design. The young woman with the “Rem Koolhaus” scheme is chosen the winnner. If the film is accurate about the jury, no positive comments were made about this design by community members.

This sets up the drama for the next episodes, as the young builders see reactions to their work “on the ground” in the city. Just as architects learn quickly that their notions of “good design” often go unappreciated by clients, the students see that paradigms of modernist “conceptual” art have little meaning for residents struggling to make ends meet in a flagging economy. As happened during the 1940s and 1950s, it is the poor, the lowest end of the social spectrum, that get “experimental” architecture, while the rich get what they want.  Why? Because the poor have no voice in determining the design of their environment. Just as the neighborhoods nearest the unfunded, unrenovated levies were hardest hit by Katrina, the neighborhoods most devastated by the storm will get houses that, at best, will be the untried, untested ideas of novice architects.

Who will learn most from the experiment? The students? The faculty? The dean? The community leaders? The housing corporation? The residents? Stay tuned.

On the promise of “green technology” I am clearly a skeptic. Sustainable building is another matter altogether. Traditional architecture is by definition sustainable, for pre-industrial builders had only the earth’s longstanding resources to draw upon. Trees, clay, earth pigments, stone, bamboo, and various metal ores were in abundance. They are still relatively abundant and take little energy to harvest and process in comparison to “high tech” materials.

The LEED system that is all the rage in the United States is a wonderful thing, as far as it goes. Developed by engineers, it is linear and process driven. It encourages “innovation” over proven solutions, and rewards “design creativity” over common sense, pragmatic thinking. In its early stages it did not provide credits for historic preservation and had too little to say about adaptive reuse.

That is changing, thank goodness. The concept of “embodied energy” is just beginning to influence environmentalists. Certain materials and technologies consume more energy in production than others. The University of Bath has a calculator for embodied energy, and publishes charts that will help anyone assess the amount of energy that went into building any structure. You can get the information online by demonstrating your seriousness about fighting climate change.

One of the things that distinguishes the “crunchy granola” environmentalists from architects is their serious investment in earth-friendly materials, systems and techniques for everything from blowing your nose to constructing a windmill. The Whole Earth Catalogue crowd are still very much alive, and there are still many communal experiments in sustainable living that do not involve architects. One of these, in Canaan, New York, is run by my bretheren, the Quakers of New York Yearly Meeting. It is exciting and innovative, but there is no LEED architecture on the site.

The folks at the QIVP are serious about earth care. They construct their own houses using things like timbers, wattle and daub, SIP panels, rammed earth and straw. Everything looks like it belongs in the rolling hills of this part of the Hudson Valley. The families raise their children to speak truth to power, and to think independently of what most of society gives them. They grow a lot of their own food. There are university professors, economists, former Wall streeters, and a few ex-Hippies in the group. Its one of the most radically sustainable places I know about.

These are the kinds of endeavors that come to mind when I look at a typical piece of award-winning, LEED certified architecture. Most of what I see in that category leaves me nonplussed and disappointed. I’m particularly bothered about the praise given to Thom Mayne (Pritzger Laureate) and Morphosis’s CALTRANS District 7 building in Los Angeles. Like most of this architect’s work the building is an overblown, agressive monster that resembles a giant air-conditioning plant with overtones of Russian Constructivism. The architect is at war with the California sun. The south wall has a complicated, mechanized system of sunscreens and ventilators that are computer controlled and that will most likely break down irreparably within a year or two. It’s a machine made to control the environment by brute force of technology. There is nothing passive about it.

The American Institute of Architects and the Environmental Protection Agency are doling out awards for these mechanized muscle buildings right and left. As they do so, they send messages to the public and the design professions that our environmental crisis will be erased soon by the scientific and technological know-how that created the A-bomb, the Polaris submarine, and the Beijing airport. The folks a QIVP are not betting on the U.S. government or the Defense Department. They’re going it alone, and doing a lot better than CALTRANS on their energy bills.