ARCHITECTURE SCHOOL 202
Some systems and institutions become moribund. At the beginning of the 20th century, European monarchy was one of them. With industrialization and the ascent—by virtue of wealth—of the middle, merchant class to social and political power, the idea of rule by an unproductive aristocracy that derived its power solely by inheritance was dying. Although a few monarchies survived what was then called The Great War, they were not autocratic, but constitutional, that is, with power greatly limited by democratic political processes.
At this same time when the political landscape was changing, some architects believed that architectural education had to change, too, and in much the same way. The idea that architecture should be derived from the models of history—by inheritance—was no longer thought appropriate, even adequate, for the education of architects in a world of new materials and technologies, and new social responsibilities to urban dwellers. Architecture could no longer be considered the instrument serving royalty and aristocracy, demonstrating their wealth and power in monumental civic buildings, but had to respond to the growing masses of industrial workers, living in cities, who made the factories hum and brought profits to their owners. There had to be a new architecture and new schools to educate the architects who would make it. The old educational system had to be replaced, but with what?
The Bauhaus (founded 1918, Weimar) and the Vkhutemas (founded 1920, Moscow) were two new schools established to enable radical social changes underway in Europe after World War I. The aim of both was to integrate the fine arts and crafts, which were previously separated, thereby erasing class distinctions. They both flourished in the 1920s and were terminated when reactionary political forces achieved power and saw them as an ideological threat. In their brief life-spans they managed—-by the combined brilliance of administrators, faculty and students—-to produce creative work that changed ideas and methods of art and design for decades to come. Shorn of their ethical and political purposes, however, their advances were reduced to stylistic choices. In the present postmodern, consumerist society, one can adopt a Bauhaus aesthetic or a Constructivist style without the slightest awareness of the ideas or intentions that inspired them. Such is the abstract nature of modernism, or the decadence of the present society, depending on point of view.
More recently, there have been other attempts at forming new, independent schools. The Architectural Association in London, which sprang to life in the 1960s and 70s was, to quote a recent commentor on this blog, “originally formed as a ‘club’ of young architects who hired people to teach them what they were interested in knowing at that moment. No tenure, no repetition, no hierarchy.” The school continues today.
SCI-ARC (the Southern California Institute of Architecture) was founded in 1971 by “a small group of emancipated faculty and students, most of whom had rejected the prevailing institutional models of the time, in favor of a more free-form intersection of teachers and learners, a patient critique of the old idioms, and an aggressive pursuit of the promise of an ever-renewable pedagogy.” The school continues today.
The RIEAvico school (the Research Institute for Experimental Architecture) was instituted in a small village in Switzerland in the late 90s as an experiment in the education of architects, focusing on collaborative urban interventions. It no longer exists.
One thing we learn from all these attempts is that as schools move toward obtaining official approval, either by government or professional organizations, some energy vital to their independence is lost. Not all, but enough to say that becoming legitimized by the professional architectural community extracts a price in freedom of thought and method. Not a fatally high price, necessarily, but enough to raise the question: why is professional certification necessary? Why cannot a school of architecture remain free?
Today, if one were founding a school of architecture with a radical program, defined in terms of philosophy, method, or the content of courses, past experience would seem to indicate that it should remain free of control, or even significant influence, by the established architectural profession. In such a school, no professional degree would be offered. If the school were connected to, say, a small college or university, a normal undergraduate degree could be offered. This would mean the students of architecture would necessarily study humanities, literature, language and other requirements for a ‘liberal arts’ degree—and that would be a very good thing. With such a degree, graduates could apply to one of many master of architecture programs, if they were interested in getting a professional degree. The crucial distinction is that their basic architectural education would be free of the constraints (some would say the bias) imposed by professional accrediting institutions.
An even more radical approach would be that the school of architecture would be completely independent, offering not an academically accredited degree of any kind but rather a diploma. It used to be, in Europe, that the diploma from a highly regarded ‘academy’ would be accepted by universities and professional programs of study, but the ‘Americanization’ of European university education has all but ended that practice. In any event, there are two groups of people unconcerned about professional degrees: those who want to study architecture, but not practice it, and the idealists, who will find their own ways to practice, and on their own terms.
(to be continued)