Teaching

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My teaching seeks to adapt current architectural pedagogy in two distinct areas. The first involves introducing students to a cross-disciplinary outlook that addresses the complexity of the architectural endeavor within the current environment of globalization. This approach stretches the boundaries of the conventional architectural design skill set and moves contemporary architectural design dialogues towards more fully addressing possibilities emergent in the contemporary “globalized” built environment. For students to fully develop the skills and critical aptitude to successfully navigate these circumstances, a wide-ranging critical “gaze” founded upon philosophically based research principles and interdisciplinary design methodologies is used.

 

Through the development of these types of critical thinking skills, students can jettison current disciplinary conventions that narrow the scope of architecture largely to aesthetic considerations.   My courses seek to illustrate the power of transgressing superficial readings focused on stylistic concerns to engage the potential of design strategies better suited to addressing broader concerns of the global building site. This agenda is informed by many of the issues pursued in my research. Studio and seminar environments are transformed into humanities “laboratories” where students further explore the potential power of philosophically based themes related to values found in their backgrounds. Both readings and commentary are drawn from a broad set of disciplines ranging from philosophy to political science to encourage the exploration of the power of design thinking to navigate various disciplines and mindsets.

 

Both my teaching and research focus on interdisciplinary methods of critical thought that can be translated to design to allow the discipline to better adapt its methods in the face of new challenges created by rapid globalization. Philosophic enquiry and its potential relationship to architectural design is utilized to cultivate the ability in designers to move past surface preconceptions is the focus of this teaching agenda. Students in my courses are encouraged to critically examine project issues from the broadest perspective possible and then develop a philosophically rigorous agenda that can serve as a guide for future research projects. This educational model is not common within architecture where this type of critical reference frame can run counter to architectural education conventions that are commonly based on traditions dating to the 15th century. These pedagogies, systems of knowledge delivery, and ethical standards are descendent from the European Guild system. Romantic images of the values of “brotherhood, friendship, and mutual aid” emblematic of the spirit of these guilds, are still highly influential on the profession of architecture.

 

Allen Black captures this romantic spirit with the statement —“In the craft-guild, the mystery of craftsmanship is joined with the dynamic of the pressure group; skill and endurance, on which life and progress depend, are powered by a special bond”. Darker interpretations of this guild system have depicted them as privileged social groups maintaining a monopolistic system of control focused on increasing market share and cultivating political capital. Guilds utilized social and economic pressure to set standards of craft, enforce practice codes, and acceptable skill levels. In undertaking this, they also instilled a strong sense of the honor, community, and positive identity for certain trades.

 

Many contemporary educational and professional structures relating to architecture directly descend from these entities and their traditions. Architects have a strong sense of professional identity and the core of the architectural curriculum — the studio — is largely a manifestation of a modern guild structure. In this circumstance, students and professors form bonds providing a strong sense of identity. There are very distinctive demarcations between year levels reminiscent of the guild titles of apprentice, (student) journeyman, (teaching assistant) and master (studio instructor or head). The deliverance of knowledge passes through a system of normative practices conveys information and skills that are “mastered” by a student under an instructor’s tutelage.   A fairly standard set of normative practices is repeatedly presented in different contexts, types, and problem configurations throughout the course of a student’s instruction.

 

This type of education (design thinking) is the hallmark of an architectural education and fine qualities applicable to a broad range of disciplines. There is a camaraderie and positive social dynamic not experienced by most students in other parts of a university. This continual reinforcement of accepted and tested practices is an extremely effective method of conveying skills and learning, but also contains the negative potential of their becoming so ingrained that the critical process intrinsic to an innovative spirit is stifled. Overly strict depictions of required skills can quickly become preconceptions that go on to form “unbreakable” rules. In the extreme, the image of what one does becomes more valued than cultivating the insight and adaptive skill sets necessary to arrive at the best design strategy for a given situation. Many studio briefs describe the necessity of questioning this conventional process, but in reality, much of architecture’s normative studio pedagogy circumvents any authentic analysis of the design convention.

 

In architecture curriculums nationally, studio course material is frequently presented in the form of ideas or types to be replicated. For instance, a studio problem is generally given as a specific building type with a certain set of formal, spatial, and programmatic requirements. Previous building typologies are then studied, and their configurations altered according to the specific needs of an imagined “client” and “site” upon which a building project emerges. With the use of a authentically critical methodology, all these “givens” should be questioned on multiple levels to analyze the complex interaction of site, social conditions, historical precedents, and user needs before students place pen to paper.

 

Instead of the normative professional attitude of “we know what a building is…” my studios and theory courses insist that projects are approached by students as unique conditions, never before encountered or “how a philosopher might attempt to encounter these circumstances”. They are encouraged to develop programs and projects that critically examine a building for more than what it houses or the materials it utilizes, but through a critical frame that assesses the overarching cultural ramifications the project’s proposed operations, real or imagined. In other words, students are taught that a building is more than steel and concrete; it is the creation of new set of rather unique relationships ranging from the cultural to the material. By this, buildings are not objects replicated from site to site, but unique processes in need of critical assessment for their “appropriateness” at every turn.   It is this ethic of critical openness to potential outcomes that my teaching seeks to maintain throughout the entire design process.

 

When the design process shifts from relying on the narrow scope of conventional architectural studies to a broader purview, the designer moves from being a passive receptor of traditional practices towards becoming an active participant in a fluid research process exploring the most expansive set of attributes influencing the creation of meaningful and timeless spaces. With the introduction of the critical endeavor associated with philosophy, (a methodology that is rigorous theoretically, yet flexible pragmatically) a framework is presented that can structure student research agendas and guide them towards this type of critical openness.

 

This teaching agenda promotes an educational process that embraces complexity to define projects and programs that connect to their specific conditions and inhabitants socially, economically, spatially, and materially.   It directly relates to my research because its foundational concepts of Architecture Writ Large and Critical Practice also serve as the cornerstone of my research. The former undertakes interdisciplinary explorations that utilize philosophical methods to investigate fundamental questions of definition and the broader meaning of architecture, urbanism, and design by enlarging architecture’s purview through the application of design thinking skillsets to larger, more diverse venues.

 

The latter encourages explorations that take specific philosophical concepts or problems and apply them directly towards the development of more broadly informed design strategies. Thus, the critical thought process incumbent to philosophy serves as a theoretical lens focusing on certain conditions within architecture, landscape architecture, and urbanism. Through this, a more fluid and adaptable critical process develops directly countering the problems that emerge within the context of a project regardless of its type, scope, size, or venue.

This relates to the conviction that to accommodate the shifting sands involving the societal role and cultural perception of the architect brought about by globalization, traditional definitions must become ephemeral and flexible. Disciplinary distinctions must be conceived as “penetrable screens”, never static nor opaque. Creative tensions between fields demand a seamless transgression of boundaries, and it is at these junctures that innovation will most likely emerge. To prepare individuals to thrive in the current climate, architecture curriculums must become more flexible, transparent, and be seen as critical systems that are readily adaptable and encouraged to constantly form, deform, and reform.

 

Contemporary design must remain “precisely open” by pairing rigorous analysis regarding a project’s circumstance and subsequent formulation of visions that remain flexible over time. They must accept input from others continuously, transforming as new conditions arise. Students must understand that though clearly defined and effectively communicated, the design process explored in each project is unique, contingent, and not universally reproducible. With each new circumstance, another process must emerge with newly constructed techniques of analysis, design strategies, etc. The unifying feature of all projects is the ethical agenda each student is developing throughout their education and subsequent career. For architecture students to flourish and adapt to the fluctuations of the current global system, they must compete within many disciplines by becoming “process architects.”

 

To have a chance for success then, their conception of architecture must avoid static representations of the discipline.   Architectural design is a system of analytical thought unfolding over time that fuses a wide range of practices within a particular instance. A consistency of “agenda” within each student must become clearer with time and experience — an aspect that is refined throughout the education and career of the individual — and its importance is stressed in my courses. Architectural education must encourage individuals at the beginning of their careers to focus not exclusively on the products of architecture, but on the process creating its visions, as well as the subsequent meanings of its operational modes. “When you analyze in the light of experience the central task of education”, A.N. Whitehead asserted, “…The evocation of curiosity, of judgment, of the power of mastering a complicated tangle of circumstances, the use of theory in giving foresight in special cases — all these are not imparted in a set rule embodied in one schedule of examination subjects.“ Though written more than eighty years ago, his assessment of education is prophetic concerning the demands of our emergent network culture and serves as inspiration for my teaching.