MANIFESTO: The Reality of Ideals

The following has emerged from the innovative First Year program and work made this past semester. It has been posted on the wall of The Cooper Union End of Year Show and is being printed as a pamphlet, with photographs of the students’ projects, which will be distributed to all faculty, students and administrators in the School of Architecture:


The Reality of Ideals

A Manifesto of Architecture and Education

First Year Architectonics Studio

The Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture

of The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art

Professors Woods, Titus, Wegman, and Miron

Spring, 2011


This work is a Manifesto of Architecture and Education. It is dedicated to the present and future faculty of the Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture of The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, and to the students of the school, from the present and into the future. In the venerable tradition of Manifestos it is a critique of the present situation in the school; a remedy through a new statement of principles; and a lucid example of them. Its undisguised purpose is to redirect the school for the better: encouraging the best instincts of its faculty, the idealism of its students, and in this way contributing affirmative new energy to the field of architecture in its present fragile state.

Professors Woods, Titus, Wegman and Miron




This semester we will focus on the design of four Houses, which we term ‘ideal’ because each occupies a different elemental volume—cube, cylinder, cone, or pyramid—and each embodies a program of habitation based on a different natural element—earth, air, fire, or water. Furthermore, the inhabitants of each House are assumed to be ‘ideal,’ in the sense that they embody, for our purposes, only certain universal human characteristics, such as physical size, capabilities of movement, perception of their environment, and interaction with it. The site of each of the four Houses will also be ideal, meaning sloped or flat, horizontal or vertical, and will disregard any inherently idiosyncratic features. In the design of each House, equal emphasis will be placed on the interior and exterior of its volume. In taking this approach, we realize that these ideal types exist only as ideas, yet find these ideas useful in the laboratory of the design studio as a means of understanding the fundamental elements of architecture.



There is considerable historical precedent for our project. We find ideal architecture—of exactly the sort we are engaging—in examples from Vitruvius, through Alberti and Da Vinci, Ledoux, Semper, Taut and Le Corbusier, Archigram, up to the present in ideal projects by Holl and Abraham. These and other architects have found it important to define their personal principles of design, as well as to set a standard against which to measure their more reality-based work. Ideal architecture has been essential to defining building typologies, which serve the purpose of bringing a level of order to the diversity of urban landscapes. Each student is encouraged to look up and into historical examples, in order to better understand the broader context of our work.



We will arrive at the designs of the Four Ideal Houses by a series of steps or stages, working both individually and in four teams, one for each House. As the design of each House progresses, it will evolve from the ideal forms of its beginnings to the particular forms of its development and conclusion. If we assume, for example, that the House of earth has the form of a cube, we can expect that its ‘earth-like’ material stability will resist any changes made to the volume; yet, human inhabitation requires changes, for example in the need for openings for going in and out of the cube, and letting in light and air. Consequently, these openings will be determined by the rules inherent in material stability, say, the regularity of its cubic geometry. This transformation will, in itself, be considered a higher level of the ideal, in that it embodies a fundamental aspect—a continual evolution in time— of both the human and natural worlds.



 Collaboration and teamwork

Each of us will approach this project with our own aspirations, our own ideals of architecture. It is crucial that, even when we work in a tightly knit team, we keep our own personal ideals and goals in mind. Teamwork is at its best when individuals who are clear about what they want to achieve collaborate. The key to their successful cooperation is for them to emphasize what they have in common, not their differences [of course, if they have no important ideas in common, they should not be on the same team]. In that way, collaboration is never a compromise of what each believes, but rather a reinforcement of the most important aspects of it by the similar ideas of other team members.

When working on our projects, we should keep in mind that the making of architecture is always a team effort. At the same time, we should recall that successful teamwork bringing together the work of strong individuals, requires leadership. It is never a committee effort, with decisions made by voting. Instead, at each stage of the design work and, later, the work of building, a leader must guide the collaborative effort; it may well be that each stage a team’s work could have a different leader. This leader usually emerges quite naturally, as he or she is the one who has the best idea about how to accomplish a particular stage of the work. Achieving successful design collaborations is one of our goals this semester.


Human scale

We will emphasize in our work this semester the attainment of human scale for our projects. ‘Human scale’ is a term used freely by architects, but often with very little understanding of what it means or how it can be achieved in their designs. All too often, they indicate human scale in their drawings by drawing human figures in or next to their buildings, or, in models, little figures and model cars. These are actually poor techniques because they do not attain human scale in the architecture, but merely indicate it graphically. Human scale in even uninhabited architecture is attained in two basic ways:

1) the presence of tectonic elements required by human use—stairs, windows, doors, and other elements that facilitate human use of spaces. Their size in proportion to a building’s overall form, and their relationship to each other do not merely indicate the relative size of people, but are necessary for people to inhabit the building and are therefore integral with it. Most of these elements are not arbitrarily sized, but confirm to the dimensional limits of the human body and its capacities.

2) the presence of tectonic elements used to construct a building—its walls, ceilings, floors, and other elements defining and articulating spaces. Buildings are not made of a single, solid material, but are constructed of many parts and pieces put together by human beings, and the pieces are sized accordingly. Whether they are assembled directly by hand—bricks or wood panels—or by the hand operation of construction equipment—steel beams, pre-cast concrete slabs—when these parts are visible in the completed building, they immediately establish the relative size of a person (the builder) and, thus, human scale. [Note that even the most seemingly monolithic of materials—reinforced concrete—is poured in parts and thus bears the marks of form panels and construction joints.] Achieving human scale in our projects is one of our main goals this semester. 


Ideal Houses

The conception and design of ideal houses realizes the highest hopes of their designers, giving form and structure to their aspirations for themselves, architecture and through its place in the broader scheme of things, the many people engaged by it. The truth is that ideal architecture in the sense that we speak of it here CAN be constructed in the real world and with real materials—indeed, it MUST be constructed. The final drawings and models of the four Houses will—if made with intelligence, passion, and courage—achieve the reality of ideals. This is our most important goal.


Through precise questions (and affirmative constraints) students are able to engage language and tectonics, re-framing the possibility of habitation through construction and scale, while being/working together, as an energy, with an ethics of work that engages drawing, dialogue, thinking and building; translating ideas into tectonic plays of dynamic potentialities and new directions, concepts, positions, situations, feelings and risks, engaging raw materialities with full scales; tapping into histories, myths, precedents, unknowns and differences, through details and assemblages (even erasures and subtractions), while transforming concepts and materials into new forms and structures. This as an expression that, poetically, Beings can create as a group, in a school, as a political act to begin or continue resisting marginalization, exclusions, totalities, forgetting. To become….become open to new thoughts, ways of being-together-apart as affirmative action that can influence others ethically and creatively. 

Professor Aida Miron


In every act of great architecture the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The great task of putting things together is also the challenge of putting different minds together—it calls for an understanding of architecture as a creative assemblage and demands an education for collaboration, clarity and construction. The work in first year Architectonics studio is an assembly and collision of materials, personalities, moods and minds. It is a place where the fragility and risk involved in the making of architecture should be celebrated and encouraged and where a clear structure should be provided for the assembly to happen. The Four Ideal Houses are also a search for an ideal studio—where a wild mix of poetics and politics takes place and where ideas create personal commitment and a passionate public debate.

Professor Uri Wegman

It can be said that architecture seeks to structure the thoughts, needs and desires of a given society. As four educators, we seek to provide an exact and precise set of limits that will allow our students to explore their own thoughts, needs and desires. This process is seen as a point of departure, a beginning, an exploration of principles, which will be carried into the future, by both the students and faculty alike. The Four Ideal Houses come on the heels of two previous years of rigorous research and making by two other groups of first year students within The Cooper Union. The Ideal Houses are a cut in time, revealing the  moment of a growing transformation within our community.

Professor Anthony Titus


 Each in their own way, my colleagues have here addressed the issues of society and community that our field of knowledge and practice must begin to face directly. The era of the solitary genius must come to an end. The era of the collaborative genius must begin. Our school has always stood for and nurtured not only creativity, but also authenticity, the quality of originality emerging from the inner struggle of individuals to give form to their most inspired thoughts. That should never change, and must be defended against all pressures to make the curriculum conform to standardized teaching and to homogenize the thinking of students and faculty to the competitiveness of corporate practice. It is now time to turn the inner struggles for the soul of architecture to the realization of common purposes. It is worth repeating: The era of the solitary genius must come to an end. The era of the collaborative genius must begin.

 Professor Lebbeus Woods


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