News
08.08.2011
Editorial> Course of Change
As the profession adapts to new digital technologies, academics must retool their roles.
IAES Family Photo in Segovia, Spain.
Courtesy IAES

The summer is barely half over and with the blistering heat many of us may only be able to think about lakes and beaches. But architects who teach are likely mulling over—in the deep recesses of their summer psyche—what they might be doing in their fall studios or lecture halls.

As with the profession at large, architectural academics today need to rethink and retool their roles. Schools of architecture are going though a truly transformative period and faculty are more than ever being forced to change how and what they teach. The reasons for this change are, of course, tied to the revolutionary power of the computer and of digital design. These tools have been around already for over a decade but as older digitally-challenged faculty are replaced by younger academics, the schools are still rushing to adapt.

While students may still sit at studio tables, make funky study models, and paste rough sketches on the walls, the projects being produced all look like extruded dinosaur bones zigzagging across imaginary—that is, digital—landscapes. The design action these models suggest is no longer produced in communal studios but in the computer lab and the closed personal environment of the digital image.

Recently, with the last school year behind them, architectural academics and deans met in Segovia, Spain for the International Architectural Education Summit to discuss the changes taking place. Co-organized by Madrid’s IE School of Architecture and UCLA it was meant to explore how innovation in architecture is creating and forcing new directions in professional education. The summit featured some of the leading educators in architecture today including: Odile Decq, Hitoshi Abe, Stan Allen, Mark Wigley, Brett Steele, Winy Maas, Monica Ponce de Leon, Peter Cook, and others. The event started with a lecture by Thom Mayne, who as a founder of SCI-Arc knows something about new models of architectural education. He began by calling for stronger links between the profession and the academy and stressed the need for educational diversity, because, as he noted, “in the age of globalization, student portfolios are becoming more and more similar.” Finally, going against the grain of the digital laboratory, he called for architecture to become more locally based and for the uniqueness of place to remain a part of the profession.

All of the speakers who followed Mayne took up his call for increased interdisciplinary collaboration—but with caveats. The brilliant French designer Odile Decq said she embraced diversity but thinks it’s important to “provide unpredictability and joyful disorder” in education. Hitoshi Abe pointed out the logistical and practical problems of marrying a corporate business model to academic studios because the two have different working rhythms and goals. Javier Quintana the dean of the IE school favored collaboration but suggested it not just be with other schools of architecture but with other disciplines. A summit session, called Alternative Educational Platforms, featured the ever-controversial Peter Cook challenging the present condition of architecture schools by calling ironically for diverse approaches, including a school of personality or, as he called it, The Jeff Kipnis School of Architecture and the Enterprise or Coca-Cola School of Recreational Environment.

Princeton’s Stan Allen spoke in favor of flexibility, specificity and an open and inclusive outlook. He presented case studies in which the cliché of the global architect was challenged by examples of internationally renowned architects that only build locally and confronted by the flagrant cultural clashes in the work of western firms that build globally. Michigan’s Monica Ponce de Leon was the lone academic to speak unabashedly in favor of digital technology. She believes in treating digital techniques as skills, like hand drawing, that free studios and instructors to focus on teaching critical thinking.

While IE’s Martha Thorne suggested that many schools are slipping into stagnation because they refuse to adapt, it was Columbia’s dean, Mark Wigley, who situated the architect’s technological challenge not just in design but also in urbanism, politics and the economy. He contended that it is in the megalopolis—the largest experimental device in the history of civilization—that architecture is most directly embedded into culture.

It may be a lot to chew on in the searing heat of summer, but for architectural academics the message from this summit seems clear: Change what and how you teach, or slip into irrelevance.

William Menking