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Date: 2024-05-21 Page is: DBtxt001.php txt00022040

Architecture Education Gets a Radical Makeover ... Bard College has a Radical Way of Teaching Architecture

Students at Bard College’s new architecture program display “An Atlas for Housing Justice,” a project for a class called Housing and Collective Care. Photo: Bard College

Original article:

Peter Burgess
Architecture Education Gets a Radical Makeover ... A Radical Way of Teaching Architecture At Bard College, architecture students use buildings and design as a way to view the world — and take apart the profession’s traditional relationship to its clients. Written by Zach Mortice April 5, 2022, 8:00 AM EDT At the new architecture program at Bard College, now in its fourth semester, there’s lots of “troubling” and “unsettling” (used as verbs) to be done. Here, architecture is a method of critique, not a profession dedicated to making shelter. And instead of world-striding creative visionaries, its practitioners are presented more as beleaguered functionaries in a global chain of resource extraction and wealth consolidation — often on the wrong side of history. It’s a departure from most architectural education, where schools aim to produce professionals ready to design apartments, offices and schools, through a mix of technical skill and artistic craft, deployed mostly apolitically. The Bard program is unaccredited, and not formulated to lead students specifically toward professional licensure. Instead, they are being trained to interrogate how architecture is practiced and what it produces. The program’s aim, says co-director Ross Exo Adams, is to instill “spatial literacy.” This nontraditional approach is quite at home at Bard, the small liberal arts college in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, known for its unorthodox educational philosophy. There, academic progression is based less on linear progression through a specific major or field and more on a multidisciplinary balance between breadth and depth, giving students a high degree of freedom on what they study. Non-professional architecture degree programs are not unusual, but installing Bard’s revisionist take as the driving heart of a program’s curriculum is. Adams and co-director Ivonne Santoyo-Orozco built the program to ask fundamental questions. How should architects function in a world where their rhetoric of nurturing sustainability in the built environment has crashed against the reality of climate change — fueled by the carbon emissions their buildings generate? And why are the inequalities that drive polarization seldom more obvious than in the physical condition of the cities and towns they shape? “Every single course touches — indirectly or not — on capitalism,” says Santoyo-Orozco. “Every single course in one way or another will come to understand either class consciousness, labor power or how architecture sits in the financial cocktail of private investment.” relates to A Radical Way of Teaching Architecture Architecture students at Bard created a “mobile engagement station” to solicit opinions about the college from students. Photo: Bard College The program’s leaders, who have worked in academia (the pair came to Bard after teaching posts at Iowa State University) and at high-profile design firms like Foster + Partners in the U.K. and Productora DF in Mexico, have questions about how labor operates in architecture. They see architects mostly as wage-workers subject to punishing hours and low pay (at least compared to professional degree holders like doctors and lawyers), instead of freewheeling creative entrepreneurs — a view shared by the architects that have been organizing unions at high-profile firms. Architecture schools, they argue, set the stage for this by fetishizing, if not requiring, all-nighters in the design studio and ruthless critiques of student work, where design is viewed as a creative passion too sacred to be compensated. As a counterpoint, “we’re trying to lower productivity expectations across the board,” Santoyo-Orozco says. The program’s leaders also emphasize the idea that designing a building is a collaborative project, despite the popular myth of sole authorship that present firm owners as aesthetic brands: Lionizing the singular genius of the individual in this way can isolate students from each other — and from the public that will occupy their buildings. But the most vital critique coming from Bard concerns assumptions on where architects have the most power and agency to live up to their self-professed goals of ennobling humanity through a better built world. Ending someplace other than design is mandatory, because, as one syllabus says, “design — by itself — cannot bring any form of justice.” Despite its often lofty rhetoric, architecture follows the money — it’s a service profession that relies on the private sector. Think of the ultra-thin towers along “Billionaires’ Row” in New York City, all designed by high-profile architects, and often used as shelters for foreign real estate investment rather than people. If the broad mass of people need things that don’t benefit this bottom line (affordable housing, schools, parks), architects can end up playing an instrumental role in perpetuating inequality and crisis, the Bard approach argues. Essentially, says Adams, the program seeks to untangle the social and economic forces that produce buildings and cities: “How does that all operate within the background [of architecture] and why are we not talking about it more?” Todd Gannon, the head of Ohio State’s architecture program, says he’s an advocate for the type of critical approach Adams and Santoyo-Orozco offer, but he’s wary of singling out “a bad guy,” he says, and pre-determining a course of critique. “The more ways we have to look at the problem, the better,” says Gannon. “If you come at architecture from a Marxist perspective, you’re going to tend toward issues of big-scale economic imbalance. And we know the bad guy is going to be capital before we even start.” Sam McVicker, a Bard architecture student, describes the difference between conventional, professional-oriented programs and Bard as “product-based system” vs. a “process-based system,” he says. But the curriculum at Bard isn’t just a lament over architecture’s mercurial weakness. If architects have limited power to improve the built environment purely through what they do at their drafting table, they have a limitless ability to imagine new worlds. One recent course, Planetary Institutions: Architecture as Fiction, called for a “deliberately science fictional approach to the task of designing spaces.” In one of McVicker’s projects, he extrapolated what Bard’s campus might look like in 100 years as the climate crisis accelerates. Other parts of the Bard curriculum focus intensively on the social and cultural factors that inform the shape and function of the designed world. Students produced a series of languid and self-assured podcasts about how colonialism disrupted indigenous ways of life, for example. relates to A Radical Way of Teaching Architecture A student project for a class on climate change imagined the campus landscape transformed after a century of global warming. Photo: Bard College Other curriculum is more outwardly conventional. Students designed a bicycle-drawn mobile campus engagement station, where students can share their thoughts on what might make Bard better. One design studio focused on converting empty luxury office space next door to Hudson Yards in New York City into public housing, framing this exercise as a “realist, insurgent practice in which architecture serves as an instrument in the struggle for housing justice.” With 60% of their coursework outside the architecture school, students are as likely to be taking one of Adams or Santoyo-Orozco’s studios as they are to attend, say, an anthropology class. Students have been working with homeless populations in nearby Kingston, New York, and collaborating with Bard’s Center for Human Rights and the Arts. Student Sage Arnold came to the program through technical theater design. “I’ve learned that there’s a lot more that can be done than just creating a stage play with [an] audience here watching a show, and there’s a separation,” says Arnold, who wants to rethink the traditional hierarchical relationships between audience and performer. “We can meld that, and everything can be a created experience. I’ve been able to think a lot more about how boundaries work.” The program’s boundary-hopping structure “allows us to imagine proposals that start in space but end in policies and in other fields,” says Adams. Ending someplace other than design is mandatory, because, as one syllabus says, “design — by itself — cannot bring any form of justice.” Accordingly, the Bard approach doesn’t have much use for battles between partisans of particular architectural styles, a mainstay of many conventional schools: Adams sees formal motifs as “propaganda,” he says — a way to attract and bind together constituencies. Whether you’re a Brutalism fan who sees the compassionate visage of Great Society liberalism in emphatic slabs of concrete or a conservative who idolizes pre-Modern Classicism, form and style are communication tools, where no set of aesthetic properties are inherently privileged. Bard saves its critique for the forces that bring architecture into the world instead of its formal visage, but Ohio State’s Gannon says “one of the downsides of critique is [that] it’s a way to set up a fight. Sometimes fights are what you need, and most of the time they’re not.” The most effective critical approaches to architecture education are ones that “[look] for alternatives to binary thinking,” he says. But the sense of urgency emanating from Annandale-On-Hudson makes it clear that Adams and Santoyo-Orozco don’t see anyone in architecture, or anywhere else, emerging unscathed. “The default practice of architecture is that we design architecture for a given world,” says Adams. “We don’t think about that. The world has problems, and maybe we articulate that through climate change, or inequality. Architecture is always pre-given to be problem-solving at best, or perhaps problem-reinforcing most the time. We have no choice but to imagine a different world because the world we’re living in is dying.”

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