Architecture School 101, Lebbeus Woods, 2009
A school is—before all else—a faculty.
It is obvious that without a faculty, a school could not exist, for there would be no one to teach the students who come to a school. Also, the better students, those who are most eager to learn, most ambitious for themselves, and most demanding, those, in short, with the most potential for becoming good architects, select a school partly because of its faculty—they understand well the dynamics of learning.
It follows that, without a good faculty, a good school cannot exist. A mediocre faculty can only create a mediocre school, never a good one, regardless of how much potential its students have. Only a great faculty can produce a great school, and it does so by helping students realize their full potential.
There are two aspects of a great faculty (let us put aside mediocre and say that good is fine, but why not calibrate higher?): they are very effective teachers, and they have active peer relationships. The latter refers to the exchanges they have with other teachers and critics within their school and to their creative activities outside the school, in the big, wide world of ideas and work. Peers demand of each other, first of all, a high level of dedication to architecture, meaning a high level of seriousness. A peer is an equal. No one who is serious (even playfully so) wants to waste time with anyone who is not. There is always a certain amount of competitiveness among peers, and not just for position. The true competition is for achievement: as teachers and as architects. Creative rivalry and intellectual disputation are good, even noble, forms of competition, and are to be encouraged, and appreciated.
However, achievement does not necessarily make an architect an effective teacher. Teaching requires several qualities operating in parallel.
The first is having something to teach. An architect, or anyone else, who wants to instruct young people should feel strongly about what they know and have an equally strong desire to communicate it with others, particularly aspiring architects.
The second is a commitment of time and energy to teaching. Dipping in and out of a studio or seminar in distracted bits of time stolen from a busy career is no commitment. Teaching cannot simply be a line-item on one’s CV. A teacher must spend “quality time’ with students, that is, being personally, fully engaged in the time—of whatever duration—he or she is with students.
Third, a teacher must understand the difference between training and education. The term ‘training architects’ is an oxymoron. The trans-disciplinary nature of architecture, the depth and diversity of knowledge it requires, as well the complexity of integrating this knowledge into a broad understanding that can be called upon at any moment to design a building or project, goes far beyond what anyone can be trained to do. Still, some teachers try to train students, using all the finesse of training dogs. Even those who disclaim rote learning and ‘copy me’ methods can carry vestiges of attitude that amount to the same. A good test is whether the students’ work in a design studio is diverse and individual, or is similar or even looks like the personal work—the ‘design style’—of the teacher. The best teachers preside over the flourishing of individuals and their ideas, and the resulting diversity. Diversity is the essence of education.
Schools of architecture must require of students that they pursue in some depth a broad range of subjects. This is because architecture is the most comprehensive field of knowledge one can enter. It engages the whole of society, and must be informed by a society’s knowledge, practices and values. Philosophy comes first, as it provides a framework for ordering all the diverse bits and pieces. Then come the social sciences, literature and poetry, and art. These studies happen together with architecture and engineering courses, and, ideally, coalesce in the design studio. It is the task of the studio teacher to set up projects and programs that enable this coalescence—far from easy. To accomplish it, a teacher must have the requisite knowledge himself or herself, and an almost uncanny ability to state in plain language a problem, lay out a methodical series of scheduled steps leading to an articulated and attainable goal. It is up to the teacher to make sure the intended work is actually accomplished within the given time. There is nothing more discouraging and dispiriting than work left unfinished.
Not least in importance is the study of history. Knowledge of the histories of the many communities we share today in global society, as well as the history of architecture, towns, and cities, is crucial. Goethe said, “The best part of history is that it inspires us.” He was right. When we see what people have been able to achieve in the past, we realize that we can do the same, in our own inevitably different terms. Without a strong sense of this spirit of history, an architect can only drift with the currents of the moment. It is the responsibility of studio teachers to make this clear.
Students are the other half of any school’s story.
Without good students, a good school cannot exist. However, it is much easier to find good students than good faculty. It is far easier to find great students than great faculty. As Raimund Abraham once said, “There are no bad students.” What he meant was that young people who aspire to become architects and have gone through an admissions and selection process have demonstrated in advance a potential that should be respected. If students try and yet do not do really good work, it is, with few exceptions, due to the failure of their teachers. In contrast, many architects who become and remain teachers do so for reasons other than their potential as teachers. There are many—competent professionals—who should never be allowed any contact with young, eager students bristling with talent and ambition. Bad teachers, especially those who imagine themselves as good, do irreparable damage. They kill the spirit.
This does not mean that outstanding students cannot emerge from mediocre schools—they can, and a few have. But their being outstanding is more the result of their own drive to learn and develop, in spite of the mediocrity around them. They are, in effect, self-taught. However, even the most self-determined students need some help along the way: the encounter with a rare teacher who stirs their imaginations, ignites their passions about a particular idea, or sets an example by the teacher’s own knowledge, integrity, and dedication. These are the qualities that describe the entire faculties of great schools.
This brings us to the other half of any school’s story. Yes, there are three halves. The third is a school’s administration, its dean and department chairs….
(to be continued)