Public Eye

Sarah Williams Goldhagen says Americans would get better architecture if our schools taught us how to look at it.

Last December, for perhaps the first time ever, the world’s attention was focused on architecture. The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation had unveiled nine plans for the World Trade Center site. Overnight architectural renderings, site plans, and other previously arcane tools of the trade began appearing regularly on television and in newspapers. News organizations conducted polls to determine the public’s “favorite plan” for Ground Zero. Daniel Libeskind’s glasses became fodder for lifestyle journalists.

Eventually the public was asked to actually assess the plans. Outside of the civic groups, design organizations, and victim’s families, the lay public’s input at open forums tended to focus on issues like building height and replacement of the towers. The public, it appeared, didn’t know how to evaluate architecture in its unbuilt form.

Early this year Sarah Williams Goldhagen published an important essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled “Our Degraded Public Realm: The Multiple Failures of Architecture Education.” A lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD), she argued that a lack of education at the secondary school level and an emphasis on form in architecture schools have contributed to a climate where exceptional architecture is increasingly rare. Recently Metropolis executive editor Martin C. Pedersen spoke to Goldhagen about the decline of patronage, the need to teach visual literacy in secondary schools, architecture schools’ obsession with form, and why three years of training isn’t enough.

In your essay you wrote about “the almost total absence of demand for excellent architecture and urbanism.” Why has the level of patronage slipped during the past thirty years?
We’re still suffering from the downfall of the reputation of Modernism, when large-scale urban projects were believed to have produced fiascoes. Architects themselves, especially in the corporate world, came to be suspect. I also think this situation does have a self-reinforcing quality: the standard is bad, and few people think that high-quality architecture is important. Consequently standards stay bad, and few think that architecture is important.

You also wrote about the public’s inability to assess architecture intelligently. Why is the public so design illiterate?
People are not trained to analyze what they see. Visual literacy is as important as text literacy, but people need to be trained in it.

When would you begin that?
I would start with elementary school. Or at least middle school. This is really a problem of secondary school education. It’s been very interesting to me how many people across the country are trying to get programs like this off the ground. I’ve gotten correspondence from people in Roanoke, Virginia; Oak Park, Illinois; Montclair, New Jersey; Kansas City, Missouri. There are initiatives, but they’re all local. The architecture community and the academy need to think in a more systematic way about how they can get architecture incorporated as a central part of people’s educational agendas.

If you could start a pilot program in a middle school, how would you structure introductory courses in architecture and urbanism? Where do you start? With the Greeks, Romans, the Pyramids?
No, no. Architecture is a part of our daily lives. You don’t start with the Greeks and Romans, because that’s far too distant and hard to imagine. I wrote a piece for the American Prospect in which I used Howard Gardner’s notion of seven intelligences. Gardner is an educational theorist, who has developed this idea of multiple intelligences: logical, mathematical, bodily-kinesthetic, visual-spatial, interpersonal, linguistic, and so on. Something in the practice of architecture touches on each one of these ways of thinking. So one could develop a program that captured the interest of a broad net of kids with all different kinds of talents and interests.

So your argument is that these secondary school programs would help develop the architects of tomorrow?
And the clients of tomorrow. Better education will produce more informed clients. Very few clients know how to properly manage an architect selection process, partly because people don’t know how to evaluate the options that architects present to them. I was a consultant to the selection committee that chose Diller + Scofidio for the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. Recently I was having dinner with the head of a board of trustees for another cultural institution planning a major expansion. “You know, I’m just terrified,” he told me. “I don’t know how to choose an architect!” Architecture is something that takes a fair amount of training to even know how to evaluate. Clients who were just ten or fifteen percent better informed would make a difference.

Do you think we’re in a unique moment where this could happen because of the World Trade Center and the attention focused on architecture?
That would be nice. But what we need is long-lasting structural change. If we can use this energy to institute some of these changes, then we will have done our job. If we just try to ride the wave of the enthusiasm for architecture that’s come out of the World Trade Center, then we’re all going to be disappointed.

What do architecture students need that they’re not getting from the schools?
The overwhelming focus on studio that is characteristic of many schools is probably not to the student’s best advantage. This is part of a larger problem: schools are being asked to teach more than they can teach in the amount of time the programs are given.

Why do you think schools concentrate on form over all the other concerns in architecture?
Form brings distinction. It also offers a concrete set of skills with which to proceed. A third reason is, in some schools, the emphasis on design is reinforced by affiliation with certain ideological trends in architecture that are overwhelmingly focused on form. So there are self-reinforcing aspects all over the system.

For all the talk about sustainable architecture, it still isn’t widely taught. Do you think it can gain a permanent foothold in the core curriculum?
What they’re doing at Harvard, I think, is the right approach, which is not to ghettoize sustainable architecture. Instead they make environmental awareness part of daily pedagogy. It has to be broken down. I don’t think the term “sustainable architecture” does us any favors, because it turns it into a practice that you either do or don’t do. Rather you need to disaggregate sustainability into a set of practices and ways of thinking about design and making buildings. For example, the HVAC [heating, ventilation, air-conditioning] person at the GSD is our major environmental expert. And everybody has to take HVAC. So if you can think about HVAC in a sustainable way, if you can think about structures and engineering that way, then you sort of deeply imbue that awareness into ways of conceptualizing buildings.

Let’s talk about one of the basic underpinnings of education: language. It was clear during the World Trade Center design study that most architects, even famous ones, had no idea how to talk to nonarchitects. Do you think architects should be taught how to communicate clearly and without jargon to laypeople?
Of course. That’s incredibly important. And as far as I can see, this is really the primary function of the studio review. Still there is a kind of insular quality to the profession. Architects have so much on their plates, so much to think about, that they end up talking mostly to one another rather than to the outside world. They don’t have to say things in plain English. I think that’s part of the reason for their marginalization within the larger culture.

Do you think European architects are better educated than their American counterparts?
Europeans have better technical and pragmatic training and, to some extent, less sophisticated conceptual training. That’s why they often come to the United States for graduate school. Europeans go into architectural training with a more balanced background in visual and artistic things, which then allows the architectural institutions to give students a more comprehensive training in the pragmatics than we can.

How then would you go about restructuring the training of American architects?
I would make the programs longer. Schools are in an impossible position right now. I don’t think three years is anywhere near enough, frankly. A number of architects I know agree with me, although nobody quite knows what to do about it. Architecture school should be like medical school. Architects are responsible for the corpus in which we live our lives. They don’t have enough years in training to earn trust as guardians of the public realm. Now all the people who are taking out eighty thousand dollars in loans to come to the GSD are going to disagree with me, but just because what I’m saying isn’t practical in the current system doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

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