The other day I met someone who was energetic and committed and crazy enough to start a new school of architecture. During our conversation he asked me what I’d distilled from my years of teaching. Not much, I told him, but wrote down what came to mind. That’s all, he said, six things? I wish him luck.
1. Competent architects, not bad artists.
Teaching architecture should produce competent (or better) architects. Not mediocre (or lesser) artists. The fine arts are not architecture and architecture is not a fine art. Wonderful architecture has the same emotive potential to enrich our lives for generations as does any art form. Architecture needs no outside validation from fine arts, literature, science or philosophy.
2. Architectural precedents are personal and dynamic.
History is alive for any designer. Its text is as personal as a favorite book, with dog-eared pages, scribbled liner notes, diagrams and doodles. Architecture students are generally not preparing for advanced scholarship—history for them should play a fluid, familiar and supportive role throughout their entire design careers.
3. No ideas but in things.
Williams understood that any creative efforts withstanding the test of time return us to the ontological “thing-ness” of the world, a world of the sentient being. Look, for example, at the use of metaphor by Steven Holl and Louis Kahn. Holl uses pure abstractions—interpretations of music, biology, poems and literature, all complex intellectual constructs. Kahn, on the other hand, alludes to humans evoked in simple, almost primal settings—thinking, talking, playing or meeting.
4. Teacher and student are the same.
The teacher learns and the student teaches. At some point the student becomes more teacher than student. It is with this slightly messy process that real learning takes place.
5. Design studios reflect Baumol’s model.
Advanced technology cannot improve the efficiency of design learning, whose nature is inefficient by most standards. The studio environment is less like building a car and more like playing a Mozart string quartet; the same five musicians require the same twenty minutes to perform it today as two centuries ago.
6. True extraordinariness is hidden in ordinariness.
Great architecture — or great anything, for that matter — is not necessarily famous or monumental or decreed by a select few. Students can attain greatness in total anonymity; it is liberating for them to realize they do not have to be labeled “extraordinary” (i.e. a “starchitect”) to have their professional lives fulfilled. For what, when you think about it, is great design? And under what circumstances is it conceived? According to architects’ interviews, it’s a complex, convoluted and erudite process, beyond our everyday understanding. Perhaps. Yet listen to Mary Lee Bendolph, a woman working in a backwoods Alabama town of 700 people, whose utilitarian compositions are, according to the New York Times, “some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced”:
My sister-in-law’s daughter sent those clothes down here and told me to give them away, but didn’t nobody want them. That knit stuff, clothes from way back yonder, don’t nobody wear no more, and the pants was all bell-bottom. We ain’t that out-of-style down here. I was going to take them to the Salvation Army but didn’t have no way to get there, so I just made quilts out of them.