In.Finite Space

The Last Breath of a Dying Designer

Architecture is a phenomena.Every personal essay written by an architecture student begins with an ambiguous statement that attempts to summarize the broad spectrum that is architecture. Although this is a primitive attempt to provide an elementary explanation, it does allude to a significant reality. Architecture involves an array of disciplines and its practice takes a multitude of forms. Besides this vast array of practices, architecture design can and should infinitely unique in its conception. The heroic expectation of the architect, perhaps most ideally presented in Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead, stands as an individual whose designs and ideas require no approval of any fellow man, ignorant of any politic or social relationships that exist. Ayn Rand uses Howard Roark as the physical embodiment of her philosophy, and, although the social martyr that is this character may represent a utopian citizen far detached from the realm of our society, supporters and critics of the novel share the principles he represents.

Design is a moral dilemma. If it were executed within a sterile vacuum one could idealize, or at the very least sympathize, with the stubborn architect who refuses to acknowledge or appreciate the criticism of his fellow man. However, this vacuum does not occur within the time and space of this existence. There are a multitude of variables that lead to the success or failure of a designer. The concept of academic testing and grades within the education of architecture is counter-intuitive and perhaps the most evident example of the disparity between design and education. Far too often I have seen fellow students fall short of the expectations of a professor and ultimately suffer the consequences. However, more so than in the past, the growth of the formal education system in conjunction with governing bodies over the profession, give far too much power to an individual moment in the education of a student. That single grade, decided by a professor, can determine the future of designer, regardless of the talent or efforts of that student. Speaking only from the experiences I’ve had, across a single studio with multiple professors, certain students can receive high grades from a professor with the propensity to do so while other students with comparable work can receive mediocre grades because of the differing standards of another professor.  Before a critic disregards the integrity of the article for its seemingly endless critique of a democratic system, it is crucial they understand that this is less of a complaint and instead a commentary of the observations. The explicit details of a story about a professor and his bias against a student are less important than the reality that biases exist and in an environment as subjective as design, biases are lethal.

At the intersection of design and education rests the collision of idea versus interest, checklist versus character. By the very nature of architectural design, different is a necessity. However, the political dynamics of the professor-student relationship do not lend themselves to same opportunities as that of the student-student relationship. Although obvious, it would seem as though the student has the most to learn from the professor yet it is the professor that often undermines the integrity of the student and prevents their growth. If time, for example, were ignored, and an educator were forced to work alongside their students rather than stand over their shoulders, both the student and the educator would coexist on a plane more similar to that of all men. As an example, there is an educator who predicates his entire value and contribution to the architectural community on two projects that he has worked on over the past twenty years. His academic presence is that of arrogance and his conversations often conceded. The frustration with him as an individual is that it is apparent he holds a significant amount of knowledge but his fear of students prevents him from truly teaching. The realities of competition, the idea that a student with a different idea could perhaps practice in the same community, clouds his ability to appreciate and cultivate their designs because of how contrasting when his own ideas are the point of reference. Now as a professor, his power is immense and valuable. As a designer, however, he stands in the shadow of his own mortality preserving his ideals as scripture. The system, as it stands, now forces the student to evaluate the relationship between student and professor, ultimately weighing the consequences of conflict. This conflict, contrary to logic, does not stem from the relationship between the professor and the student. Rather, it is the fear of insignificance and obsolescence that motivates an educator to persecute the mind that does not share the same philosophy. Design becomes a consequence.

So Design, as a moral objective, is difficult to teach? Yes.

And the power of an educator of subjective material can be abused? True.

So what? Well, everything.

As I began I proposed a seemingly obvious statement that architecture is a multidisciplinary practice whose manifestations range infinitely. Following with the struggle between design and education may perhaps prove an arbitrary and apparent argument. Design lacks strict definition and therefore will not exist cohesively with the strict definition of a formal education system. However, a recent experience provided insight into exactly how far reaching the bias of architectural practice has extended. Long detached from the heroic ideals of the designer and his design, fallen all the way to the bastard certainty of practice.

I stood in line, awaiting my opportunity to meet with a professor regarding courses that I had taken at my previous university. The professor, a very pleasant gentleman, was not intimidating or assuming in his demeanor. He spoke openly with the several students that were standing around his desk, taking the time to share his personal experiences and history. When the matter of computer programs arose in the conversation he was quick to share his affinity for Revit and proceeded to talk about how obsolete and impeding other programs are to the effective education of students and the profession as a whole. In short, any other modeling or drafting program is an ineffective use of resources and time. It was not long before I sat next to another professor discussing my portfolio of work. As I shared my experiences I was interrupted with compliments for the work and questions of the computer programs I typically use. I admitted to my affection for Sketchup, but spoke of my growing use of Rhino and my limited experience with Revit.  The professor quickly, and without hesitation or respect for the program, stated that Revit was the worst development in architectural technology. She continued to say that her best attempts would be made to prevent its infiltration further into the studio environment. Although I was not shocked by the combination of words and what she meant by them, I was truly surprised by the disdain she held in her eyes for the program.

As I walked to my car that evening I began to work over this essay, if for nothing more than to materialize my appreciation for the futility of design. Even the tools for its execution stand as controversial.

Design is an art.

Design is an individual.

The character of the creation an echo of the character of that which is creating.

This entry was published on August 22, 2012 at 4:47 am and is filed under Architecture, Philosophy. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

3 thoughts on “The Last Breath of a Dying Designer

  1. Great words Josh! In the past, designers sketched, hand drafted, and made models…Today, the “efficiency” of computers surpassed traditional techniques so that we “sketch” in sketchup, “draft” in CAD and make models in whatever program you wish to first, before setting up files to cut and interpret into our physical world. When the controversy over the tools of execution arises, it is always comparing different programs, as if the question of digital (programs) vs physical (hand-tools) has already been long decided upon…What are your thoughts on the direction we might be headed in? A world where the digital becomes more and more compatible with the real world, with easy to interpret documents, like Revit? or one in which whatever we do, no matter what we do or how we model it, can be in some way fabricated (I don’t want to suggest anything but perhaps 3D printing with recycled materials) without the necessity for any construction documents?

    • Hey I appreciate the interest greatly, this is a topic I’ve been intrigued by for awhile. A couple of my studio-mates and I had a conversation about this just a few days ago. This isn’t exactly the topic you’ve brought up, but it would seem that architecture as of late has become so obsessed with the “sale” of the image, that to distinguish work between offices is often difficult to do. The theory that the pristine rendering is indicative of good design seems to undermine the integrity of our design process. however, as is the always moral question, is it better to “sell” the design than not work at all? does one compromise the other. It is a difficult question, which leads to the second dilemma of what then drives our work. Grasshopper and parametric modeling, for example, has not become common-place in most offices yet, however, I’m comfortable to suggest that within 10 years we will see a dramatic increase of it’s use even at small scales, when offices realize the time-saving potentials. Why is this important? It’s important because I would argue that just because digital technologies have increased dramatically, the “quality” of design has neither increased or decreased, it is just different. I could see a future where digital technologies become so prevalent within the field that there will be a deliberate separation, a neo-rationalization of design integrity. The evidence, I’d present, is the way that renderings and graphic packages are losing their significance (or respect let’s say) among architects because of how similar each become stylistically. As some of my discussions in studio have indicated, it isn’t impractical to think that there may be a counter-revolution to the digital imagery back to one of hand-drawn representation (not perhaps in the execution of projects, but in the interaction with people). This move could allow firms to distinguish themselves from one another, similar to the way that an early Morphosis competition board is so easily distinguishable from a Stephen Holl work or a Smithson axon. Images now, like that of an MVRDV or BIG, are practically indistinguishable from one another, and the projects then have to rely on dramatic formal expression. The long and short of it is, it is difficult to image where the day-to-day practice will progress to in the near future, I think advancing technologies make that difficult. However, from an academic perspective, I certainly think that in the near future we will see a conscious effort to return to graphic techniques more akin to traditional methods.

      As a personal aside, and again this is strictly my opinion, but I’ve always felt that purely digital projects often hold an aesthetic that is foreign to human interactions. I understand those projects are necessary and catalytic, but at some point the pendulum is going to swing back.

      • Yep, I definitely think that the Pendulum will swing. Most things do, the Ice age, stocks…anyway. That’s a strong point, technology has most definitely increased the scale of what we can produce, but not necessarily the quality. And it is in this that the beauty of design comes into play. It is just so easy to let a program produce beautiful work through money shot images that we lose the value of what design is, and what it can become. It is constantly changing and whether it becomes more digitized or swings back to a more hand graphic technique, we are likely to see a blend between the two.

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