Swordplay

All hell is breaking loose in the schools! No, we’re not here to recoil from the horror stories bubbling out of the junior high down the block—“Blood, guts, guns, cuts, knives, lives, wives, nuns, sluts,” as Eminem once intoned. I’m speaking of those other dangerous palaces of learning—architecture schools—and another horror, more insidious since its appearance never summons the police: trying to teach architectural thinking in the absence of architectural fact.

My latest experience with this scourge took place during a studio review at an unlikely venue, the Pratt Institute. Pratt is a wonderful if sometimes overlooked school in a gentrifying corner of brownstone Brooklyn. The architecture program is housed in two sturdy brick buildings that evoke Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s Bauakademie, in Berlin—and it’s no accident. For decades Pratt operated in the spirit of a technical school, a place where skill was honored, honesty was given its due, and the practical was free to be premiated. Compared to the airier, higher-end schools across the river (Columbia, the Cooper Union) or nearby (the monastic theory mill at Princeton), it was a workaday place. No apologies.

Things change of course, and in recent years—as architecture and all the design arts have been ever more burdened by the chic—Pratt has looked longingly to the hothouses in Manhattan, importing their pedagogy and personnel (as it completes a modish new infill wing designed by Steven Holl). So now we have this: a first-year studio in which prospective architects are asked to design a “performative ground”—a site, essentially—that might, in the jargon of the day, actually begin to provide opportunities for inhabitation. Already off the rails—last I checked architects don’t gin up sites, they operate on them—the studio wandered further from the proprietary realm of architecture. The students (so young, so fresh) were directed to begin with an analysis of fight scenes from two action films, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero. Sword types were studied, fighting styles compared, stills captured, then the motions of the wheeling attackers and slashing blades (“ritual of mediation,” “border collapse,” “joint between the fighters”) were subjected to a rigorous but purely formal analysis, the products of which—gorgeous graphs and matrices—were to supply new shapes, mystically embodying the processes that begot them, pointing to some bracing new day for the mother art. Don’t blame the kids, or their teachers—some of the bigs use the same impoverished devices, and the market laps it up. We’re all complicit.

It seems like a world of solipsism, but the intent of the exercise was noble, if doomed: present the students with a complex series of factors—a context—that they would then, through various intuitive or intentional means, distill into form. That’s a basic skill of the competent architect; in some sense, that’s all they ever do. But again and again, as the projects came and went, cool new shape following cool new shape, the problem was clear: without the limits that the real world provides (useful things), there was not enough pressure to generate meaningful choice. And there was no mechanism beyond form—structure? culture? use?—that might imbue the shapes with deeper meaning. Some of the students applied a certain internal logic, some with flair; those generated nice little pieces of art. But more often these unwitting educational test subjects, searching, took strange leaps—eager to get to something real, something nearer to the core of their passion for architecture. Or they just got stuck. I kept saying, as I do at almost every review, “Don’t worry. You’ll never be this lost in the real world.” (At the very least gravity and money will show the way.) But I kept thinking, Why? Why? Why? Even if a handful were to grasp the point—context shapes form—the neural pathways activated to achieve that result in such a consequence-free folly are wholly different from the thinking, to the same ends, that these young hopefuls will need when they face buildings. One is effete, the other pragmatic, and we all know which fares better when the real fighting starts.

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