The Phoenix Rises

In a bold move, rather than showing up at an international exhibition ready to present their latest and greatest (of which their talent pool is deep), the Dutch have embraced “Architecture Beyond Building” and constructed the most ambitious pavilion live from Venice, and in only one week.

Asking the question, “If the phoenix rises from the ashes, what form should that resurrection take?” the Dutch sought “unconventional answers” for “burning questions”. Born out of a fire that destroyed the Delft University of Technology Faculty of Architecture building last spring, the curators transformed the whole idea of an exhibition pavilion into a living laboratory for research on the future challenges and goals of architectural education.

Photomontage of the burned faculties building

Asking many questions (details below),  the pavilion represents an archive of almost a week of intense collaboration, discussion, postulation, interpretation, and pontification by several educators, practitioners, and theoreticians. Over 30 contributors to seminars, roundtables, and dinner discussions responded to those 5 original questions while a team of students, editors, assistants, and curators culled through the data, editing videos, and print to present the content for the exhibition. This research culminated in the exhibition and book(s) proposing a new way of working and educating an “Architecture Beyond Building”, which is on display in the pavilion and available on their website, www.facultiesforarchitecture.org.

The unconventional pavilion commenced with an unconventional kickoff- cooking dinner for all the workers and architects the night before the official press opening. While at first it resembled your traditional Prosecco-flooded opening festivity, it soon became apparent that the Dutch had some surprises for us all.

Our evening’s chefs preparing the soup

Aaron Betsky dropped by for an appetizer

The appetizers and drinks soon lead to the announcement that while dinner was served, we were to prepare the tables and chairs. At first no one really knew what to expect; thinking, “How dare they ask us to work for our free food?” Out came stacks and stacks of collapsible plastic crates that became instant tables and stools when assembled. Need more chairs, no problem, just take a part of the table. After the event these crates made up the walls, floors, and desks of those working inside to create the space. Need a bigger space, no problem, move some crates. Instant furniture and completely modular: absolutely fantastic.

Makeshift restaurant seating

Dinner is served

The restaurant in front of the Dutch Pavilion

Temporary office space as defined by the white crates previously used for our dinner seating

Faculties For Architecture:
Over the course of 7 hour of speed date interviews, 26 different professionals responded to the main questions. The results yielded new concepts of Faculties for an Architectural Education: Faculty for Directing- “Architectural education is about experiencing a society”, not teaching a trade; Faculty for Un-building- “Maybe architects should send bills for not doing anything”; Faculty for Man- “Designers don’t design objects; they design ideas, services, scenarios”; Faculty for Deviation- “Architecture schools can teach people who end up doing other things. Chros Lowe of the Pet Shop Boys studied architecture.” All in all the interviews resulted in over 50 different faculty suggestions for this new Dutch faculty with grand calls for the need to incorporate them.

Speed dating marathon interviews on the new types of Faculties of Architecture

Faculties for Architecture coasters invited participation. This response came from the opening night dinner.

How We Work:
Rather than “How”, the discussion really should have been titled “How We Should Work” as the whole focus of the roundtables and the book seem more like a sales pitch for collaboration than an example of its success. Perhaps the best insight came from a student review within the book that noticed the buzz term of collaboration was beginning to sound a lot like “sustainability”. One presenter suggested that architecture students need to talk amongst themselves more while students responded that the exact problem was that architecture students never spoke to anyone but themselves. Sort of like the folks on Wall Street insuring themselves with credit swaps between themselves, most often, it was revealed, collaboration in the architectural schools never escapes beyond the walls of design studios. The sort of circular participation therefore has difficulty breaking out of the cycle.

Perhaps one of the most interesting observations from the discussions was that the Delft Architecture Faculty, by the act of their office displacement to temporary spaces in other faculties, now collaborates more than it ever has. Further suggesting that the burning of the building may lead to a marked difference in the approach to architectural education. Of course, I think the Venetian system of collaboration was sorely overlooked. As Venetians are said to consume four times the amount of alcohol as other Italians, professors can often be seen in Campo having a Spritz-lubricating discourse for sure.

Why We Make:
The obvious initial answer to such a question usually derives from “we like to create” or “because clients employ us”, but the scope of the discussion took a broader interpretation to address why humans make and, rather than focusing on buildings, focused on city development and the public realm within them. The roundtables ranged from issues of community interaction, to economic stimulus, to political reconstruction in war torn areas. Producing a publication on the fly does not allow for much crafting and tuning of the message and while some interesting thoughts were presented, the range of discussion really branched into so many directions that no singular thread could be followed. Like most 1st or 2nd year architecture projects, some things could have been edited just a wee bit more.

For Whom We Make:
In following the same format as the other two questions, the roundtable discussion led to responses all over the map and all around the world. Instead of confusing or distracting from the topic, the diverse responses seemed to highlight the multiple needs of today’s clients that rarely meet the stereotype. The discussions ended as a sort of call to arms for architectural education to, rather than rebuild a building, “break down the distinction between school and city; the school is the city and the city is the school.” In calling for leaving the faculties homeless, they stopped short of suggesting they build a series of shopping carts for faculty members to wheel around the city, pontificating as they go. It was a bit “Maverick”, but in a new discourse sort of way rather than a GOP catchphrase sort of way.

Roundtable discussion of “For Whom We Make”

What We Make:
The panelists struggled with the notion of object and how to define it or package it. In doing so, they dance around the notion of building or not building. The constant struggle with marketing of the object and the reality of the actual object lead the panelists to dance around the notion of “beyondness” as if they were talking about something, which is nothing, which is something. The circular conversations with a lack of conclusion really left me thinking that Magritte’s “The Treachery of Architecture” covered it best with “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (This is not a pipe).

What It Takes To Make (and Unmake):
The 5th and final book, subtitled “Beyond the sustainable: challenging the flow of resources, materials, and people”, naturally addresses sustainability as the now ever present necessity in design curriculum. At the risk of sounding like an environmental bandwagon broken record, most of the discussion centered on reducing consumption and waste to address today’s growing global environmental crisis. In the discussion many similar themes were brought up including, proximity to materials and food, reducing movement around the planet, recycling, reducing use, etc, but three themes came on a slight draft of fresh air.

The 6 books created from the weeklong discussions

First: Stop consuming goods (even the new technologically sustainable certified products) and focus on reuse of materials when appropriate that do not need recycling. A prime example highlighted that instead of finding ways to reuse wood in its natural state, recycling wood involves converting it into pulp before making compressed board or other products which denies the original raw material benefit the wood provided in its natural state and, additionally, requires further energy to pulverize the wood.

Second: By introducing a new “Faculty of Un-Building” they suggest that un-building will play a major role in building and we will focus on changing a building instead of destroying. While the notion of adaptive reuse already exists, they suggested that demolition of buildings should be a part of the architectural education. Italy could be a prime case study where the lack of building codes, accessibility requirements, and general laziness have lead them to leave things they way they were 100 years ago even if it requires washing your dishes in the bathroom sink because that’s the only hot water- oh wait, but I digress…

Third: They presented the “Faculty of CreativeLaziness” to suggest students should learn to creatively not build. An entire class on not building would have been a dream for my procrastinating days in school but learning to think first about alternative solutions instead of throwing away the “old” for the “new” could benefit everyone. Can you imagine if you drove your 10 year old car to the lot for a trade in on a new Prius and the salesperson asked you how much you drove annually and directed you to keep your car and walk a little more often and drive less because the embodied energy of your old car being scrapped does not outweigh the fuel saving benefits of a hybrid? Thank you, and would you like the undercoating and 100,000 mile warranty with that advice? It would revolutionize our entire system.

While some of the propositions and questions failed to take hold, others suggested new components of an architectural education that are currently lacking in curriculums. With the dialogue unfolding in Italy, the birthplace of the Futurists, they have taken Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s call to arms to “set fire to the library shelves…flood the museums!” Instead of rushing head first into rebuilding, the opportunity of the already burned faculty building and archives allowed them to question the very notion of educational needs and transform their pavilion space from a space of “consumption to a production space” as written by the curators in the introduction to the catalogue. In saying, “we don’t have the answers but we are going to ask a lot of questions and try and figure it out,” they have temporarily built the best theoretical architectural faculty right here in their pavilion; if even it was only for a week. And lest I forget, all this research intends to inform design submissions for the new Faculties Facility to be submitted by the 13th of November.

Videos of keynote speakers and roundtable discussions are on display for visitors
(The videos are also viewable on their web site)

Pavilion installation and design after the conferences finished

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