Students in the RIEA collaborative urban workshop, Taormina, Sicily, Italy:


If there were to be a new and independent school of architecture formed today, what would be its philosophy, program, and course contents? The answers are as diverse as the faculties who would want to join them. But also, the direction of the school—and any school needs a clear direction—would be as precise as its dean and chairs could make it. In other words, there could be many schools, each offering a distinct approach to architecture.

It must be said that this prospect is radically different from today’s situation, in which schools are homogenized by imposed professional standards, enforced by accreditation boards and the like. Of course, the accreditation boards and their touring committees like to believe that they are encouraging diversity, not homogeneity. And of course, each school likes to believe that it is unique—this is a very poignant human need: to believe in one’s uniqueness. It is the same with architects, and students in schools of architecture. But the question remains, how best to achieve individuality in a field that is both interdisciplinary and collaborative, and at the present time largely dominated by conformity?

The current design studio system in schools encourages students to work independently and to come up with their own ideas. These are then put up in reviews next to one another and judged in isolation. It is the perfect model of ‘free-market’ competitiveness. The best students stand out and are praised. The less-than-best (by current standards) are less praised or criticized for not being good enough, which tacitly translates as losing in the competitive marketplace.

This approach, which emphasizes (at least for the present) uniqueness and originality, at the expense of camaraderie and the sharing of knowledge, does not work well after students graduate and enter the world of professional practice. Many graduates, entering practice and finding that their individuality is subordinated, become disillusioned, discouraged and, considering their experiences in school, understandably so. Of course, the occasional genius emerges and struggles to break out of the given hierarchy and establish himself or herself—but the genius will emerge from any sort of system, even the most rigidly conformist, and find a way. Our concern in education should not be the nurturing of geniuses but of encouraging and helping aspiring young people, who want to contribute their idealism and talents—of whatever magnitude—to a common good, and to do it through the design of architecture. This way of thinking should be encouraged in their schools, but as yet it is not.

It is clear that the corporate model as we know it in business and architectural practice today does not nurture individuality in this sense. It subsumes it in the process of attaining a corporate product. Thus, in effect, it discourages it, if in a different way than contemporary schools.

I am convinced that a more embracive and ultimately more effective way to nurture individuality is the establishment of design studios that operate, paradoxically, on the basis of collaboration. I am not thinking of the sort of corporate collaboration where everyone’s effort is blended anonymously into one result, but, rather, a type of collaboration where each individual work is still clearly legible within the collaborative whole, even while contributing to a collective effort, a common end result. This is an important distinction, though today not well understood because it is so seldom practiced.

We might think of a city as a model of individuality and collaboration. A city is an accumulation of many buildings, built over time. Most follow the prescribed rules and are rather similar and I suppose we would say, ordinary. A few bend the rules and stand out as singular achievements of thought and skill. On rare occasion, a building will break the rules and become literally ‘the exception that makes the rule,’ establishing new rules that amount to possible changes for the future. The point is, though, that each building, from the most ordinary to the most innovative, makes its contribution to the landscape of the city and the ways of living in it. In a city, at least a relatively democratic one, differences are accepted, and their terms of engagement, the conflicts between them, are negotiated. The ideal aim is not a homogenized whole, but a complexly evolving, dynamic balance of differences.

A new type of design studio and perhaps an entire school could be organized and conducted beginning with this type of urban condition as a model. However, being a school—in effect a laboratory for learning—there could be considerable experimentation with the ways individual projects might be combined in collaborative landscapes. Some preliminary explorations with this type of design education have already been made, with promising results.

 (To be continued)



About this entry