The Next Generation of Architects on Cable TV

September 12, 2008

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.

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