Writing: Establishing Value And Relevance In Architecture.

Posted on February 18th, 2010 at 1:13 pm by in Writing

Writing: Establishing Value And Relevance In Architecture.

From Public Workshop’s Project Archives:

Project: Archvoices Essay Competition- Semifinalist
Location: Charlottesville, Va.
Project Director: Alex Gilliam
Year: 2005

In 1976, a major earthquake devastated much of Guatemala. Fred Cuny, an American disaster relief expert, tried something novel in the world of disaster relief: instead of building new houses for and giving them to displaced Guatemalans, he and his staff trained them to build their own. They trained the Guatemalans to build earthquake-resistant houses and then helped these new master builders train others in villages throughout the region. After this humanitarian crisis had passed, much to the horror of Fred Cuny and his team, these master builders were murdered or forced to leave Guatemala by the government. These master builders were seen as community leaders and a threat to the dictatorial power structure because not only were they helping build homes, but by sharing their knowledge they were helping build stronger communities. The carpenters were valuable to their communities.

Save for people such as Sambo Mockbee, Maurice Cox, or Brian Bell can we say the same of architects? It is an interesting if not macabre exercise to speculate if American architects might ‘fall’ in such a totalitarian regime. And if such speculation is cross-referenced with the reality that only two percent of the homes built every year in this country are designed by architects, it suggests that perhaps architects are exceptionally more irrelevant in our society than we may be willing to believe or accept. Building and space creation is happening all around us and in spite of us. I believe that there is a direct correlation between that two percent and the fact that Design Corps, Maurice Cox’s work at Bayview and other efforts such as Public Architecture’s One Percent program are at the periphery of our profession. We are not in the habit of cultivating citizen-architects, of working to create more than buildings or even being involved in politics.

In short, unlike the Guatemalan carpenters, we have not made ourselves valuable nor have we successfully demonstrated the full range of our capabilities to our communities. This not only affects the quality of the communities we live in and the buildings that are constructed, but also negatively impacts our bottom line. Education, community outreach, holding public office, pro bono work and collaborative design should be integral parts of our everyday practice. But, for such engagement, leadership and integration to occur, a number of obstacles must be addressed. It is essential that we begin by re-evaluating how we teach architecture. Likewise, the AIA must develop visible, meaningful and accessible national service initiatives that serve as rallying points for the profession. To be truly valued and relevant, like the Guatemalan carpenters, these changes must be fully supported through the embracing of a larger vision of what it means to be an architect. This must be done by our schools and reflected in the Intern Development Program (IDP) and Continuing Education System (CES).

At a recent conference, I was particularly struck and frustrated by a comment from one of the presenters. The teacher, who had been conducting a community-based design-build workshop and was working with her students to create an ‘urban design tool box’ to facilitate working and communicating with citizens, remarked that she was surprised that her less-advanced and less-accomplished students, the ones who had yet to adopt the full ‘language’ of architecture, were much more effective at communicating and working with community members. Why must architecture students at the end of their educational career or as professionals have to re-learn how to communicate and work with the average Tom, Dick or Harry? And if this is endemic in our schools and thus our profession, could this be one of the reasons why we aren’t in the position of the Guatemalan carpenters or why we don’t design more than 2% of the houses built every year?

To make matters worse, a series of recent studies conducted in England by government and professional organizations found that, ‘amongst other criticisms architects are perceived as arrogant, uninterested in the values and requirements of their clients and users and poor at teamworking’[i]. The way architecture is taught is largely to blame for fostering the development of these antisocial skills and negative perceptions, for preventing us from being Guatemalan carpenters. Schools must work to challenge these conditions by rethinking the bedrock tools of architectural education: the studio-critic relationship and the design review.

Historically in architecture, much discourse and debate has been devoted to what is being taught, so much so that we have generally failed to question how we are teaching or its efficacy. As a profession, we rely almost entirely on the student-critic model for teaching and review. Unfortunately, when used as the only method of teaching, it is fraught with many weaknesses that ill-prepare students for the rigors of the profession. Among other things it reinforces the notion of the architect as god or individual, discourages leadership, discourages self-review, promotes defensiveness, inhibits peer review and unfortunately, it provides the only model of client-architect relationships that students encounter throughout their architectural career.

The student-critic-review relationship is particularly problematic because it provides an entirely unreal model for client-architect interaction. In this case the critic, unlike most clients, already understands the intent, purpose and language of the student. This encourages students not to develop their own personal language for explaining architecture, but to adopt one that is of academic and largely incomprehensible to non-architects. This relationship also tends to focus the conversation more on the ‘idea’ than the more accessible qualitative aspects of architecture. By adjusting, but not abandoning this teaching and learning model, we can better prepare students to create what architect and former Congressman Richard Swett calls a ‘social art’.

A 1998 study commissioned by the Leicester School of Architecture found that, ’the review should more closely reflect the range of skills needed by architects in professional practice, with particular reference to communication with clients and users; it should develop and build these skills cumulatively during the undergraduate course’[ii]. Although most schools rely on the ‘traditional’ review, usually involving two teachers who devote 20 minutes per student, the study identified eight different formats of project review that could foster the many different social and analytical skills necessary to becoming a successful architect. The format of a number of these reviews places the weight of teaching and critique entirely on the students’ shoulders, which the researchers found more effectively encourages leadership, learning, collaboration and analysis, ‘It was a useful exercise to justify/ discuss ideas/ approaches with your peers rather than simply seeking tutor approval and colleagues can sometimes be the best critics’[iii].  Some schools have even employed user/ designer role-playing in studio and critiques, but initially these exercises were unsuccessful. This points to another weakness in most architecture schools and their collaborative learning experiments: we assume that students, given the task of working in a team or working collaboratively, will figure it out. Sadly, this rarely seems to be true. Indeed the teachers at Sheffield and Leicester Universities found their students were much more effective learners, collaborators and presenters when the students were prepped and had the opportunity for post-activity review. Failing to teach and encourage evaluation of these skills prevents students and professionals from getting the most out of a project, a client or a learning exercise.

While it is not especially productive to compare the profession of architecture with those of similar educational demands such as medicine, law, or business, a simple perusal of related websites reveals a startling trend: the AIA lacks a comparable, meaningful, and accessible public service initiative. The American Medical Association is attempting to help the 45 million uninsured Americans through its REACH initiative. Locally almost every has a free clinic where health professionals volunteer their time. Lawyers have the American Bar Institute, which is dedicated ‘to finance (in whole or in part) litigation which is of significant public importance’[iv], as well as the ACLU and almost every town has a legal aid center.

Of the $17,060,421 in national Political Action Committee (PAC) contributions for 2003-2004 from the Real Estate/ Construction industry, under which the AIA is categorized, the AIA contributed $148,454. This contribution, put together by 1,741 of the 68,000 AIA members ranks the AIA as the 891st largest contributor, over $80,000 behind the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ Political Action Committee[v]. Transportation gave $19,767,533[vi]. Architects’ contributions are dwarfed by every other influence on the built environment.

Although with some effort we may be able to surpass the Sheet Metal Worker’s Union PAC donations, I don’t think we are going to realistically buy influence, trust, respect and better communities. And, while programs like the Mayor’s Institute on Design are excellent initiatives, we should not have to rely on the good will of citizen-architects such as the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan. We should develop our own leaders. It is disgraceful that Richard N. Swett is the only architect in the twentieth century to have been a member of Congress. For architects and architecture to be seen as valuable and relevant, the AIA must embrace civic leadership and community involvement as an integral to our profession. We must make up for our thinner wallets by getting our hands dirty and initiating national and grassroots initiatives to promote leadership and community service within the architecture community. There are a number of pressing needs related to our profession from which to choose.

A 2003 report by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development stated that 5.1 million American households face ‘worst-case housing needs’. These families receive no government rental assistance, make less than 50% of the area median income, pay more than 50% of their income for rent and utilities and/ or live in housing with severe physical deficiencies. One in seven households or approximately 671,000 families live in severely inadequate housing- without hot water, electricity, toilet or bathtub. Two million housing units have severe physical problems and 1.4 million have severe plumbing problems[vii]. Shockingly, the state of our public schools largely parallels housing. A 1999 survey by the National Center for Education Statistics found that of 78,300 public schools in this country, 19,600 schools, affecting 11 million students, have one or more buildings in less than adequate condition. 3.5 million students attend school in buildings that are in poor condition or need to be entirely rebuilt[viii]. Statistics also show a tremendous correlation between poverty and the condition of the schools. Undoubtedly a majority of the children living in substandard housing attend substandard schools.

By developing a service program around one of these problems the AIA could create a rallying point for architects and those with these issues. The 1% Solution is a great initiative, but the AIA, being the most influential arm of our profession, needs to take the lead. In doing so, it would establish a precedent of community service and leadership. Architects could demonstrate value and their broad range of skills by helping solve a very real problem, give the profession a much-needed image makeover.

In 1976 the Guatemalan carpenters were seen as a threat and thus murdered because they were doing more than carpentry. They were teaching, modeling leadership and helping rebuild the social, and physical fabric of their towns. There are many clear indications that architecture students and interns want to fulfill a similar role in America: e.g., the 2003 AIA/ Archvoices Intern Survey, Ernest Boyer and Lee Mitgang’s 1996 report for the Carnegie Foundation, the intense interest in the Rural Studio and the tremendous response to Architecture for Humanity’s many initiatives. Yet architecture schools, firm culture and the AIA (through IDP and CES) inhibit these interests by embracing a much narrower definition of what it means to be an architect or an intern. For students and architects to be able to fully employ their skills and their motivation, real opportunities for meaningful engagement must be institutionally supported by firms, schools and the AIA.

In 2003 Archvoices and the AIA conducted an Internship and Career Survey. Interns indicated that they want more responsibility. Half of the respondents were dissatisfied with the mentoring they were receiving and felt that community service was a priority, but were not able to do it regularly[ix]. The mentoring response is unsurprising because the AIA’s mentoring program is cumbersome at best. Mentoring works best when a mentor and an intern have a focus or a project.

What if firms paid their interns to work one hour a week doing pro-bono design work at a community design center, for some other local not-for-profit entity or a national AIA public school initiative? A partner or project architect from the firm could mentor the intern throughout the process. Meyer, Scherer and Rockcastle, a firm in Minneapolis has set up a similar program for its interns through a partnership with a local not-for-profit housing corporation[x]. With some adjustments in IDP recording, projects could serve as required benchmarks in the continued training of an architect. This is not entirely unlike the role of competitions in judging the competency of students at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in previous centuries, except that such a program would develops skills other than simply design and good rendering.

This approach to mentoring and community work does require some monetary and time commitment on the part of the firm. Meyer, Scherer and Rockcastle spent 4% of their profits[xi], on their program. However, it is among other things, excellent marketing for the firm and the profession, as commissions still largely depend on trust, a handshake and who you happen to know.

But designing a building is not the only or necessarily the most effective way students and architects can ‘improve the quality of life in communities’[xii], gain relevance or improve the built environment. The AIA, in its publication, ‘The Architect as a Legislative Resource’, calls for policymakers to realize that architects are capable of more than designing buildings and that architects should be at the top of politicians ‘must call’ list; this seems to be a general aspiration in architecture. Yet architecture schools and the AIA (through IDP and CES), fail to encourage or support activities that demonstrate these abilities. It is important to remember that the Guatemalan carpenters were killed not for building homes, but for sharing and leading. Teaching public school children about architecture, serving on a planning commission or helping rebuild people’s homes through National Rebuilding Day can be incredibly educational and useful experiences for an architect or student. Concordia Architects in New Orleans, is formed entirely around this type of work. Steven Bingler, principal of Concordia Architects, has combined community work, research and architecture into a sustainable and effective business model. This should not be an exception.

Months after leaving Guatemala, Fred Cuny was horrified to hear of the devastating success of his simple, yet bold new model for the construction of relief housing. The carpenters assumed a valuable and relevant position in their society because Fred Cuny had questioned his role as a relief worker and a builder. He took the time to evaluate the effectiveness of his actions in regards to his goals- to save and better lives, to rebuild communities into strong and vibrant entities. It is clear that the architecture community has similarly lofty goals. To achieve these goals, to become a carpenter, each part of the profession must follow a similar process.