As the pandemic was hitting its stride in early 2020, the editorial team of Rice Architecture’s student-run PLAT Journal was busy developing our latest issues, slated for release at the beginning of the summer. We had spent a great deal of time considering the state of architectural education in order to formulate a critical stance in relation to the events unfolding around us. One of our interviewees, the architect Sharon Johnston, left us with a great quote: “If you’re not optimistic as an architect, you’re done.” Eighteen months ago, it was easy to take this kind of optimism as axiomatic — architecture, fundamentally, being a series of considered decisions designed to improve the physical environment around us. Our conclusions, naturally, were critical but hopeful.
By March of 2020 we were caught up in a whirlwind of restrictions that affected each of us differently but profoundly. International students and resident students from outside the Houston area alike had to weigh the risks of staying put or returning home to our families. Rice University — an institution of privilege by any measure — was quick and responsive, making considerable resources available for technological adaptation. But our team and our fellow students still experienced the challenges now familiar to all of us: differing access to Internet and technical resources, crowding at home with family or friends, work instability (including a sudden dearth of available internships), mental health issues stemming from anxiety and isolation, the death of loved ones, and all manner of financial distress. Finally, there were the short- and long-term effects of the virus itself, which one of our team members contracted in the midsummer of 2020.
The gross mishandling of the pandemic in the United States was followed in short order by the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police on May 25, 2020. The subsequent protests (and counter-protests) heightened and illuminated stark political and social divisions across the country, culminating in unfounded claims of election fraud in November of last year and the insurrection attempt of January 6, 2021.
In the midst of this social upheaval, the ever more tangible threat of climate change — marked by endless floods, fires and heat waves — was confirmed by the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Earlier this year, Texas suffered 210 deaths as a result of an unprecedented winter storm. Many of our peers in Houston endured a prolonged power outage as the grid nearly collapsed during sub-zero temperatures and were compelled to seek shelter with the few classmates who still had power — all during a global pandemic that was killing an average of 2,000 Americans per day.
In every instance, these crises belong to all of us, collectively — and each presents its own challenge to the mythos of optimism (and agency) fostered in our academies. Each of us has had to consider, on some level, the often sharp distinction between our responsibility as representatives of our discipline and our responsibility as citizens. It is easy, in these moments, to feel a kind of disciplinary impotence in the face of collective crises that propels us into extra-disciplinary modes of action. In a climate of coordinated misinformation, smug rejection of science and fact, and the rise of nativism, overt racism and income inequality, architecture (both as discipline and practice) is somewhat buttressed by its tectonic foundations: Gravity still wins every argument. But the social project of architecture — the idea that architecture can and should generate meaningful and effective change — is very much in question.
At the time of this writing, we are beginning a new semester. Yet the return to in-person classes has been delayed, another casualty of the rapid spread of the coronavirus Delta variant. In the city around us, masking is optional and anti-vaccination sentiment runs high. We are confronted not just with the mundane challenges of ignorance and apathy but with overt antagonism to the possibility of meaningful collective action — to the possibility of society itself.
We all want to believe that architecture has something useful to contribute to a society in crisis, but many of us have questioned whether this is truly the case. For those of us committed to the social project of architecture, we have to consider — perhaps for the first time — that architecture might not be the place we’re needed most.
Upon further reflection, though, few of us seem willing to abandon the investment of time, money and passion we’ve made in our vocation to take to the barricades full-time; we sense, rightly, that there is work that is worthy of our attention to be done in our chosen field. What is required, however, is a careful recalibration of our expectations and a realistic redefinition of our range of action.
When the ground beneath our feet is unstable, we must dig deeper.
Naomi Klein writes in The Shock Doctrine that crises of such scale are often exploited by the powers that be to advance unpopular policies or intensify austerity measures. However, it is also in these moments that there tends to be the largest support for people-led movements — movements like Occupy Wall Street emerged in the wake of the 2008 crisis, for example. Although educational institutions commonly have little to no say in larger political shifts, especially in the context of architecture, they tend to be greatly affected by changes in external policies and attitudes, as well as by internal pressures from students, faculty and donors. In the face of our current crisis, far too many established assumptions about architectural education remain firmly entrenched.
As students of a discipline driven by constant additions (or replacements) to the building stock, we rarely question whether a building should be built. If a change should come to architectural education from this accumulation of global crises, it may be that we disavow ourselves of the notion that we can build our way out of our problems. The sooner we can push away that long-entrenched vanity and be frank with ourselves about the limits of our discipline, the sooner we will be able to have clear-headed conversations about what tools are actually available — tools that include not-building — and what they can actually accomplish.
In the United States, decades of meager public spending on infrastructure and housing have left a large portion of the population exposed to the increasing pressures of climate change. As new infrastructure policies come into play — thanks to the pressure from grassroots climate activism organizations like the Sunrise Movement — we must divest ourselves of any inclinations toward grandiosity and once again embrace the idea of architecture as a profession, resting on the ethics of structure and service.
To meet this end, our schools must double down on the valuable disciplinary tools we have at hand; in the abstract world of computer-aided design (CAD), problems like floods, extreme heat and cold weather, and hurricane winds can be too easily ignored. The work of rigorously bringing a project from concept to design — something our schools teach well — must be met with the equally important work of guiding our projects through the gauntlet of compromises and contingencies sure to meet them on the ground. Preparing for practice in the world as it is is in no way a lesser task than preparing for practice in the world as we wish it could be.
It is too easy to get comfortable with the idea that whenever problems arise, we can solve them within the walls of our institutions. In many schools today, when students want to design a political project, the politics often come through form, graphics or other visual means. A series of angling planes, for instance, might be argued by a student to reveal something of political value — while having absolutely no grounding in what the site, the climate or those who would occupy it would need. The problem with this is twofold: On the one hand, when students need to design for problems like climate change or lack of housing, they might not be rightly prepared for it.
On the other hand, their political action within the institution (most often expressed through design) keeps any change confined to the institution, and typically in a highly abstract way (the politics might only become apparent at a review during a discussion). To paraphrase literary critic Walter Benn Michaels, as he put it in an informal chat with the PLAT Journal team last year, “A butcher can’t cut meat politically, but they can absolutely go join a union.” And, of course, in the best of both worlds, the butcher can be very good at cutting meat with the tools at hand and be active politically as a citizen.
Our roles as citizens and as architects are related but distinct. As citizens, we lend our voices in support of the groundswell of grassroots movements advocating for strong, healthy and sustainable communities, and as architects, we prepare ourselves to adapt and respond to the resultant changes in policy. Our schools and institutions are uniquely positioned to guide us in finding the right balance between our civic and professional interests.
A too inward-looking approach, which critic Manfredo Tafuri called the “architecture of the boudoir,” will not lead us forward, nor will an overly broad approach that considers anything and everything to be architecture. Rediscovering and embracing the disciplinary limits of architecture should not be viewed as any kind of defeat or retreat, and if the social upheaval that surrounds us has made further pretensions untenable, we should be grateful and take full advantage of the opportunity to consider, with open eyes, the limits of our action — and the extent of our responsibility.
What kind of education can and should an architecture school offer students in 2022 and beyond? Thoughts from prominent deans and architects
“What is beneath our feet is not some mythical solid ground — the so-called terra firma that stands in contrast to the fluidity of our planet’s atmosphere and hydrosphere. Throughout history, people have occupied all these terrains simultaneously — from Venetians who gazed at the mainland from the relative safety of their fragile lagoon to contemporary Houstonians who often seek refuge from water on the higher ground only to return to their bayous and waterways soon thereafter. If indeed our world is constantly situated between the fluid and the solid, what does it mean for the discipline of architecture to occupy this gap? This is an environmental question, and a conceptual challenge, too — namely, how to integrate the fluidity of citizenry and the solidity of building practice, or vice versa, to bring together the firmness, persistence and determination of citizenry and the delicacy, fluidity and nuance of building practice. This is a challenge not for a single school but for our field more broadly.” – Igor Marjanović, William Ward Watkin Dean of Rice Architecture, Houston
“The world is changing rapidly, at a scope and speed faster than the curriculum of any architecture school. To address this urgency, we must not only equip our students with the academic knowledge and professional skills to excel but also cultivate their independence, resilience and ability to develop cross-sector engagement in international contexts. We should be educating future leaders that have the agility to both adapt to the evolving world and to influence necessary changes as they navigate the social and environmental complexities of this time.” – Juan Du, Dean of the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design at the University of Toronto
“The relationship between society and architecture schools has flipped. It used to be that schools led social change, teaching students to improve society through design. Now the push for change comes from society. Students arrive with the expectation that they can change schools. Schools are responding by creating ways to improve demographic diversity, engage activist politics and address climate change. Still, there are practical problems: Students also want campus life to promote mental health and physical well-being, balancing self-care against all-nighters in a pattern that goes against the ingrained model of studio-based education. The deeper problem is that before schools can truly offer the design education students want, society must decolonize, decarbonize and deracialize design itself.” – David Theodore, Director of the Peter Guo-hua Fu School of Architecture at McGill University, Montreal
“If architecture is the framework for our daily lives, it’s our responsibility to address the concerns of our time — and it’s increasingly clear that this is an exceptional time. I cannot recall a time when architects have been more relevant to society. We have the synthetic design and technical skills needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to address social justice and equity in our designs. Architects are citizens first, and our obligation is to improve the quality of the lives of our fellow citizens. Design should be driven by generosity, offering the inhabitants of our architecture freedom and choice. When you’re a student, you’re thinking about your design vision; that is as it should be. However, I would encourage you to consider the impact of your design on the social fabric, climate change and the use of economic resources. All are essential drivers to realize your vision.” – Shirley Blumberg, Order of Canada, Founding Partner, KPMB Architects
How institutions need to address both the architect and the citizen. An essay by Rice U students Sebastián López Cardozo and Lauren Phillips.