Architecture 101 (Reconsidered)

The West has become the architectural role model for the rapidly modernizing East, and the services of American and European-trained architects are now global commodities. These facts, of course, are old news. Nevertheless, when the National Architecture Accrediting Board (NAAB)—the organization that certifies professional schools in the United States—introduced a long overdue revision to the “non-Western studies” requirement, most educators failed to take notice. The change, effective last semester, asked that students develop an understanding of non-Western cultures as opposed to acquiring an awareness of them. The NAAB’s revision—well-meaning but ultimately feeble—was an attempt to convey the extent of globalization’s impact on the practice of architecture, but it offered me little assurance that students enrolled in design schools nationwide would receive the kind of preparation they need to become sensitive and effective global practitioners.

At first glance the NAAB’s approach to standardizing education in the profession appears progressive. They offer broad “criteria” for the study of architecture that the schools are encouraged to interpret and integrate in innovative ways. Among these (there are 34 in all) is the non-Western studies requirement. Buried in this nondogmatic way, the cultural component has in effect been reduced to merely a pedagogical box to be checked off, like electrical and mechanical building systems. Meanwhile, out in the real world, many of the Western world’s major architecture and engineering firms already keep satellite offices in China, and the volume of work is unlikely to slow down. Mutations, a book compiled by Rem Koolhaas, estimates that of the 33 megalopolises that will emerge by 2015, 19 will be in Asia and eight more in developing regions of the world where mass migrations to cities are expected by 2025.

All this frenetic activity is changing how architects practice but not necessarily what they practice. The business is still about conceiving and building places to live, learn, work, play, worship, and trade. But a project architect working in China or Malaysia will have a fundamentally different experience than one working in the States.

For several years now American and European firms have found foreign developers more than willing to build monolithic Western-style buildings. These projects—especially in China—have produced a kind of architectural gold rush for large firms. They’ve also created unprecedented opportunities for younger architects, who—willing to travel and eager to gain experience—are being relied on for much of the work on the ground. Their responsibilities may include documenting and researching a foreign site, getting to know the people of the region (understanding their habits and learning their beliefs), and studying the climate, topography, materials, building codes, construction methods, and laws—all of which may be entirely new to them. Before these young practitioners can even hope to produce architecture of lasting significance, they must become accustomed to the unpredictable nuances of working overseas.

Given these demands—the opportunities they present and the challenges they pose—the schools should convert their studios and lecture halls into laboratories for cross-cultural exchange. New requirements should be as broad and inclusive as those being introduced in practice. Unfortunately, the NAAB’s upgrade of non-Western studies gave no indication to the schools that it may be time to wholly reevaluate their curriculums. Nor did it suggest that the existing practice of encouraging students to fulfill a multicultural requirement by enrolling in a semester-long lecture in another academic department, such as art history, is grossly inadequate.

“I’m very concerned about this knee-jerk reaction to globalization—I find it very offensive,” says Toshiko Mori, head of Harvard’s graduate architecture program. “The ideal condition is to immerse yourself in a culture and study it as an architect.” Mori has offered students a variety of courses abroad, some of which involve the documentation and comparative analysis of cities. Koolhaas’s research group, AMO, leads the “Project on the City” studio. Last fall the students traveled to Russia to study the recent construction boom in St. Petersburg and Moscow. Coursework involved researching and documenting historic architecture that is threatened by the tastes of Russia’s emerging wealthy class. This spring Professor Hashim Sarkis will take students to Dubai to study the city’s “irresistable rise” and to explore recent changes in the built environment, as part of an ongoing project on the evolution of cities in the Muslim world.

Anthony Vidler, dean of Cooper Union’s School of Architecture, spent the last academic year overhauling the school’s four-semester foundation course for undergraduate students. The survey now spans global achievements in architecture and includes an introduction to vernacular building traditions. “We cannot continue to talk about non-Western studies as a bundle of Western intentions,” Vidler says. “The tradition has been to look at architecture as art history, which is structured according to outlines that are country and continent specific.” As an alternative, Cooper Union’s single chronology of architecture will compare building traditions that developed in tandem. For example, a survey of the Renaissance will now include Sinan’s mosques in Istanbul in addition to Palladio’s villas in Vicenza, Italy.

Certainly not all schools are prepared to teach architecture in such a broad and inclusive way, nor can they afford to ship entire studios abroad for a semester. But with the same digital tools available to all students in the United States, physical travel is not a prerequisite to cultural exchange. An interesting and invaluable alternative would be to team up students here with their counterparts in Shanghai or elsewhere, and have the two groups work jointly on speculative projects for sites in their respective cities and host an intercontinental crit (known in the business world as a conference call). These exercises would immerse both groups in the realities of international practice, teaching them the limitations and absurdities that firms now cope with daily.

Architecture is a vibrant profession that attracts a curious kind of student, one that has generally already encountered other cultures and technologies on his or her own. This next generation—my generation—is at home amid diversity and takes pleasure in the intermingling of cultures. We find beauty in infinite variation. Exploring other regions and traditions is not something we do out of obligation. It’s precisely what we do to find inspiration and cross-pollinate our ideas.

“No one can say what will become of our civilization when it has really met different civilizations by means other than the shock of conquest and domination,” philosopher Paul Ricoeur once wrote. “We’re in a tunnel, at the twilight of dogmatism and the dawn of real dialogues.” Before such dialogues can take place—and architects rise to the status of trailblazers in this benevolent exchange—the schools must cultivate a new and essentially different skill set that encompasses far more than a textbook understanding of other cultures.

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