The conversation on May 4 between Peter Eisenman and Michael Graves—with David Childs moderating—to inaugurate the Urban Center’s exhibition Unpacking My Library got us to thinking. As reported by AN’s Mariana Rodríguez Orte, it was Peter Eisenman who proved once again that he knows not only how to turn a phrase, but also how to pinpoint where architecture is headed at the moment.
His notion that architecture schools today are overly focused on teaching either sustainability or computer programming may simplify the situation, but he is onto something important. And he was correct when he said, “You can’t study the periphery if you don’t know the core.” Eisenman should know, given his experience at the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies, which I seem to recall was accused of much the same thing. But the Institute never forgot that its primary concern was design, and for this reason it was the most influential center for ideas of its time.
If you had spent a few years away from architecture school juries and returned circa 2009, you would possibly have the feeling you’d landed on another planet. The obsession with which many young faculty members and their students now pursue digital research to the exclusion of all contextual and real-world issues (materiality, for example) is astonishing. In some schools, the end-of-the-year exhibits feature project after project resembling nothing so much as extruded dinosaur vertebrae, often hung from a ceiling or set on a barren plinth, appearing as isolated—and relevant—as objects in a natural history museum.
Then there are those schools that are betting the house on sustainability and all things green, where students are seemingly being educated to do little more than qualify a project for LEED Platinum status. In these schools, design is an afterthought—if not considered possibly a little decadent. The resulting student projects, though worthy they may be, have all the charm and elegance of a New York State office building. If these schools have their way, we will soon have scores of the ugliest sustainable buildings, leaving our cities to resemble Albany or Sacramento in the dead of winter.
Of course, some schools have not gone down either of these paths (Yale comes to mind), and there are certainly faculty within all these schools who still teach with the core values of architecture in all its formal, social, and cultural traditions as the focus of their classes. It is also true that architecture education ebbs and flows with different commitments and ideas as the culture changes.
But the recent AIA convention in San Francisco proved again how deep is the split in the profession between the designers and the technocrats. It seemed that every single session featured sustainability in its title, while the design stars of the profession were nowhere to be seen—either they were not invited or simply not interested in being there.
This divide continues to be devastating for our profession. There is no reason why our best architecture cannot be both sustainable—which certainly should be its starting point—and well-designed. Making buildings that are both green and inspiring as objects is something that needs to start in our schools. Sadly, it seems we may have to wait until the next generation rediscovers architecture in full.