3 More Darlings

Another semester has gone into the books, and I am pleased to say by dint of great struggle, most of my students managed to avoid the temptations and cliches (and OK, maybe I encouraged them very strongly) that were driving me a little crazy the previous semesters.

However, they were not completely immune to jumping on various ill-chosen bandwagons. I expect I speak for several of my colleagues as well when we say we’re kind of burned out on living walls, for example. I get where the students were coming from, in some ways; we did send them on a field trip to SFMOMA and they have had sustainability drilled into them by the curriculum (in obedience to accreditation mandates) and by pop culture. But sometimes “green” is surface deep, since we routinely see living walls in a studio classroom with little or no natural light that have nothing to do with the design vision behind the project. Keeping those walls alive would basically be a terraforming challenge, not just remembering to water a houseplant. I tried to apply a little pressure here by requiring students with living walls to draw a realistic detail section of one, and I think that’s in the spirit of the overall project and their learning goals.

Living walls have a great deal of charm, of course, when they are not dead and dying. They demonstrably can benefit the indoor air quality of a space as well as being relaxing to work around and look at. So I see some good motivations behind this choice, and I expect that as people become a little more familiar in general with the technology of living walls, students will likely design ones that are closer to feasible.

Note that living walls are still technological, though. I expect it’s because I’ve taught so much Foucault and read too much post-structuralism, but I don’t think you can just drop a living wall (even if you are going beyond just photoshopping it into your rendering) into a project and say it’s natural. Sure, plants are prominently represented in nature (itself a description without sharp boundaries), but to say that you are using wood veneers and “organic” shapes to represent nature automagically is a huge step away from clarity in expressing your design intentions. The various parts of nature are not interchangeable (that’s more a hallmark of industrialization, of course) and we can’t use bamboo unironically to express pine, as one student did. So I will have to call out this idea of nature as some catch-all meme as the second exasperating thing in today’s list. If all I have to do is use wood finishes and curves and avoid obvious metal (which is also a natural material, because most things really kind of are, when you get down to it) in order to evoke Nature, then that’s more than a little disingenuous, considering the general impact of architecture and construction on our planet’s resources. This isn’t the place and time to get into an ethical war of conflicting goods between providing shelter for people and trying to “net zero” our carbon footprint, but when we thoughtlessly handle Nature (whatever it exactly is) as a kind of surface treatment, we are complicit in greenwashing, not in raising any kind of awareness through design.

My third pet peeve at the moment is also partly a consequence of the curriculum, I expect, and that is concepts that are actually marketing slogans. Somewhere upstream from me is a class in which students design logos for themselves and practice their nascent marketing skills, and in this time of personal branding, they bring a lot of enthusiasm to selling, not to the client but on behalf of the client. I wrote before about concepts that are too much like titles, and this is a step beyond that, hearing a student describe a senior center concept as “old but gold”—one guess as to what the main finish color was!

Now, it’s not a bad thing to make a project appealing to an actual client by suggesting ways they can run with it, and I’m not saying that the horrible marketplace of late capitalism must never sully our pure thoughts and designs in any way. However, I think it’s a sanity preserver to ask that, at an undergraduate level certainly, we treat marketing as a secondary consideration and focus on our primary discipline, whether that’s architecture or interiors. The specialized body of knowledge involved is immense, and insofar as a school studio environment emphasizes conceptual purity more than most work environments do, the formation of a good designer has to begin with some kind of mental organization to hold everything together. Some of that organization happens internally, which is more or less what I’m trying to foster in my intro philosophy class, and some of it happens, hopefully, on the paper in the studio pursuit of design glory.

Thus, a good concept is kind of a particular and immaterial thing, difficult to pin down exactly except through its fruits, so to speak. My earlier post described the parti, another term borrowed from the French through the lasting influence of the École des Beaux-Arts, as the simplest way of describing the spatial layout of a project. As such, a parti is extremely general and even universal, which is often to say, not particularly inspirational. It’s good for making some big picture initial decisions, but it also lacks the richness that comes from specificity. An architectural concept operates best somewhere in the middle ground between the abstraction of the parti and the confusing diversity of actual materials and construction techniques, not entirely unlike the “phantasm” of classical and medieval philosophy. We can think of it a little as a genotype, perhaps, driving toward some physical realization within the restrictions of the project, just as pre-modern philosophy distinguished between Form and Shape. That distinction has survived in architectural philosophy mainly because many designers find a lot of practical value in it (with some nudging from their teachers, a continuity of academic genealogy) as a way of engaging with a blank page/screen. Once you’ve set up some parameters for yourself, in addition to the assignment per se, it’s a lot easier to start making decisions and ruling things out, plus you may well have a sense of a little community of things that you have to manage, like a tower that “wants” to be taller. Just listen to an architectural critique sometime in a studio and hear how all the elements of the design have taken on lives of their own, an animist paradise; this is the legacy of Aristotle in modern schools. Some other time, perhaps, I’ll write about the Platonic notion of effortless intellectual creation, currently embodied in my students’ designs by way of the living wall and Photoshop, but it’s safe to say that too many of the students themselves dream about effortless good fortune brought about by social media marketing in the meantime.

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