Thoughts on Architectural Pedagogy, Draft 03

The roles of the architect and the architectural educator are similar. They find common ground in the empowerment of individuals to shape and make apparent the value of their experiences. To illuminate my pedagogical perspective it is therefore helpful to approach it through my work as an architect. Three states of work foreground the empowering capability of architecture that characterizes my research and practice: incomplete, subversive, and inevitable.

At once a pursuit requiring specificity and completeness, architecture is a uniquely incomplete medium of human experience. This paradox was illustrated to me as the lead designer of an automotive research center for Clemson University with Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects. After completing the design it was passed to our associate architect to document and oversee its construction. I left the job with rich and complex shades of a building. A few years later I had occasion to visit the building shortly after it was occupied. I had the flu. A significant sense of removal overcame me as I floated along sinuous, slender passages, through sneaky little shortcuts, and into cavernous confluences. I was a stranger there. The severance between my complete design and that fully-formed building made clear to me that what architects release into the world is never complete. The consideration of myself elongating and deforming space with fever-swollen eyes was absent from the design, the documents. However, this and the infinity of other experiences were the only way the process would approach completeness.

Though architects must respect their obligations, subversive approaches to standard operating modes temper the egocentrism of practice. I am concerned with balancing the power dynamic between architect and user in their reception of the built world. My graduate thesis work embraced obstructive collaboration to recognize this equilibrium. The development of an open, spatial framework of textual and mnemonic prompts in lieu of quantitative design data ceded control over homogenous design vision. The rhetorical orchestration in these documents constrained production toward a known scope and tone but opened the realization to an extended team of designers and craftspeople. The approach was ultimately tested by five thesis peers who offered specific design services diverging from prompts culled out of Baudelaire’s The Double Room. The result was a sort of architectural Rashōmon, approaching the same actuality from different value systems. The design of each component, when constructed into a complete architectural instance, had an essential relationship to the others yet was ambiguous and inscrutable as a whole. In its heterogeneity the installation attempted to address all individuals at once but failed. By subverting the singular voice, the viewers were borne upon to make internal corrections or correlations to the associations, context, and space the work occupied.

These mysterious origins move the mind to participation. Through engagement, what I call inevitable works transcend the status insinuated by their origins. I have spent cumulative weeks in the complex of buildings that comprise John Portman’s Peachtree Center in Atlanta. More than the sum of its parts, the spatial variegation and the circulatory redundancy and subterfuge characterize something more like a vague maze than a downtown mixed-use development. The impossibility of geographic relationships in the experience of the building ushers the disappearance of its clear two-dimensional, projective origins. It is impossible to conceive of the work originating through the drawing process, by a mind and hand. It feels inevitable. In a gallery deep in its bowels the Atlanta AIA asked The Work.Group, a collaborative architecture cloud I cofounded in 2001, to stage an exhibition of our work. Inspired by the context, we chose to diffuse the work in the web of a natural history exhibit. Told from the perspective of traveling rogues in a time of civil unrest the projects were seen to be overtaken, appropriated, and in one case, destroyed. The obscure character of the artifacts and the irreverence of the narrative to geometry and function promoted a sense of mystery that avoided foregrounding the origins of the work. It put them in the context of their inevitable reclamation by the people who used them.

As these three states emerge in process but are only operative in finished works it is imperative to recognize the borders of work in the academic environment. The aspirations of studio and practice are very similar but have significantly different physical targets. Plainly, the studio is freed to make architecture without building buildings. A pedagogy shaped as a functional analog to practice allows the studio’s culture and curriculum to operate ‘like’ a practice. But as its scope fundamentally differs its approach must ‘look’ different in order to make architecture. In this context students are given the opportunity to construct and observe architectural relationships within the realistic constraints of the studio. They should not be hamstrung by their inability to realize a built work. The end product should be designed as terminal, not representative of something unattainable.

For instance the curriculum I developed and executed for a Georgia Tech graduate architectural representation course did not involve ‘drawing buildings.’ It focused on making architectural decisions internal to the representations themselves. Following the phased structure of modern practice, different forms of architectural drawings were explored through their relationship to the values associated with each phase. The new work of each phase mined its predecessors for information with the goal of being something in and of itself rather than toward something separate. This approach proved more lastingly effective at unearthing the shortcomings and strengths of each representational mode. Moreover it was liberating to first consider representation at an elemental level before ever engaging a destination that was at that time beyond its reach.

To this end, the student should cultivate their ability to make architectural decisions through full-scale installations, not cutaway fragments, but irreducible instances of architecture. These unfolding tableaux can be as loose, as tenuous, and as vague as the haze of the building-captured experience, yet just as precise, as complete, as multifoliate as their greater offspring would be. Students might convey an entire architectural proposal by simply escorting their critics across autumn leaves in a park and leading them down a peculiarly lit, damp basement hallway in a parking structure. Holistic approaches that are less focused on the subjective aura of objective representations help develop integrative decision-making. These complex perspectives are increasingly important to invest the immediacy of digital form making, facility of photo-real digital imaging, and complex intelligent objects with penetrating and expansive relationships.

The challenges of the architect and the architectural educator are similar. They attempt to empower individuals to control their interminable contexts. French poet and novelist Raymond Queneau’s text ‘Cent mille milliards de poèmes,’ ten sets of fourteen individual lines that permutate into 10^14 complete works, would take 200,000,000 years to read. Similarly, the architect releases a construct that he or she has never and will never experience in its totality. It requires the aggregate experiences of all people to bring fully to life. It is proven daily in bleak warrens of government buildings, hollow stucco tombs of retail warehouses, that while making a building work is easy, making them reflect and inflame the desires and imagination of those people is the challenge.

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