Sunday, August 24, 2008
What's The Big Idea?
TO MAKE THE WORLD A BETTER PLACE - that's why most kids decide to go to architecture school. But most architecture schools sabotage that by placing an emphasis on "being different" and "being modern." "Modern" means things like flat roofs, horizontal windows (in other words, style) and things like "the big idea" (watch the clip above).
It's easy to show that most kids don't arrive at architecture school with those ideas. But pretty quickly, their professors have practically all of them sounding like Howard Roark. And that means that when they deal with someone other than the upper middle class, they're usually imposing unpopular ideas on their clients.
The Sundance Channel has a new program on the Tulane architecture school, which should be at the center of helping its city rebuild after Katrina. But watch the first program here, and clips from future shows here. The students go in with big hearts and good intentions, but come out with "prototypes" that are expensive and often unwanted and that therefore will never be repeated.
The woman running the organization that builds the houses says, "What I want is 3 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, and a 1,200 square foot house."
The professor running the Tulane program says, "I want innovation, I want affordability, and I want a really bold gesture" — and during the series we see that affordability goes out the window because of innovation and bold gestures.
The professor asks the students why they're being so cautious, and tells them that "as a good designer you're required to be much more inventive." And he talks about the big ideas in buildings like Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum and Louis Kahn's Salk Institute, without explaining that these are public buildlings, rather than urban fabric like the private houses the students are designing. Or that Wright's "big idea," the ramp, is usually considered a bad solution for an art museum.
"I keep asking you, 'What's the big idea? What's the primary concept of this scheme?'"
Not surprisingly, the students respond to this simplistic question with abstract ideas that mean nothing to the people who live in the house, like "a folding plane," or say "My concept is shifting volumes both vertically and horizontally."
One student says, "Hopefully all of us that are designing are taking into mind the scale of the neighborhood. But you're always trying to push the envelope a little bit and come up with things that are a little more exciting."
The clip below shows what some of the residents of the neighborhood think of this.
"I think they're ugly. Put [the neighborhood] back like it was," says one.
"Make a left by that odd house that looks like it's from outer space," another tells people when she gives them directions to her house.
"Experiment over on St. Charles" (a rich man's street) a longtime resident says. But architects experiment on the poor, who have no choice. The question is why socially conscious architecture students let their professors give them simplistic concepts like "the big idea" when these concepts fight against socially and urbanistically acceptable solutions.
No city in America has residents with more devotion to their buildings and their neighborhoods than New Orleans. Tulane's esoteric contributions to this are too rigidly ideological to allow the qualities that make their city so loved. Sad to say, not one of the buildings designed by the students will ever be loved the way the old shotgun houses are.
What's the big idea that we think that's okay?
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You're taking a very one-sided look at a show that seems to be showing both sides pretty well.
1. You say the prof says, "As a good designer you're required to be much more inventive." But you left out the fact that he's talking about designing on a budget. In other words, the kids need to be resourceful due in large part to the fact that these houses need to be affordable.
2. Evoking the Guggenheim is a way of talking about concept. Even an affordable single-family home can have a concept. That's what architecture is about. He evokes the Guggenheim because it's something the audience can grasp. But the notion of concept should exist on any level.
3. One of the students says, "Recreating a building that's 100 years old isn't an homage to that building; it's a bastardization of that building." That's a legitimate notion. What's gone is gone or turned into Disneyland. Why not take a progressive approach to the neighborhood?
My feeling is that the show does a decent job (in what's too short an amount of time) is showing both sides of the story.
Posted by: Tammy at Aug 25, 2008 5:35:56 PM
1) I don't think that he is talking about designing on a budget. In any case, these houses were built with free labor and should have had some donated materials. So if they're too expensive, it's the "inventive" designs that are making them too expensive. Others in New Orleans have built affordable SIPS houses.
2) Architecture is about concept? There are several problems with that. Good traditional and classical buildings work on many levels, like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or the Frick Museum, which was built as a house. (What is "the concept" of the Met, one of the greatest and most beautiful museums in America?)
Wright was a great architect, but the Guggenheim has a simple-minded concept that has plagued the museum for years. And most houses are not "about concepts."
Before Modernism, the first role of a building was to make the street. Then they could do many things, most of them about comfortably accommodating the occupants. A good house was never stuck on "a" concept.
Museums like the Guggenheim, the Met and the Frick (all on Fifth Avenue), were important civic buildings, so they were appropriately special, like the Bilbao Guggenheim. But a city also needs urban fabric, and a good part of that is made by the houses. New York's rowhouses, which make great neighborhoods like the Upper East Side, the Upper West Side and Park Slope, do not stand on the corner and say "Look at me! I'm SPECIAL!" And when a rare houseowner did do that, he didn't do it within such an inflexible language that the neighbors said the house looks "like it's from outer space."
3) Why is that a legitimate notion? I can show you many great 20th century streets and neighborhoods The Met and the Frick are both from the 20th century -- even though Wright was already saying in the 19th century that this was bogus.
What's bogus is making everything about style. You can make a good shotgun house for less than the student houses, and there is nothing "Disneyland" about it. In fact, it is what the people of Mid City want. Who are architects to tell them they're wrong?
After a hundred years of failed experiments, architects have to stop experimenting on the poor.
Can you show me any great Modernist neighborhoods and streets? There are many great Modernist landmarks, but I don't know anywhere where they have added up to a great street, let alone a great neighborhood.
Even if there are some, who are we to tell people that they must take the style we want to give them? Modernism is not more honest, or cheaper. It is a style that is less popular than traditional New Orleans styles, and it is a style that doesn't add up to the great urbanity of New Orleans.
Re the show: I'm not talking about the show, I'm talking about the way Tulane's forces one style on the students.
Posted by: john massengale at Aug 25, 2008 6:54:15 PM
You were too kind to say Tammy must be an architect -- but it's obvious. Only an architect would say "That's a legitimate notion."
All traditional architecture (after what date? where's the cut off?) is "Disneyland," but neo-50s is "progressive."
Posted by: ed c at Aug 25, 2008 7:15:18 PM
Well said, John.
A question — what do you find wrong with the policeman's house, which was apparently affordable to neighborhood residents and also seems to address the street well in an open, modified-shotgun style that is well suited to the south. Is the issue that the house is just ugly, or is the issue with the reasoning behind the house? Or do you not think that the house works in its setting?
Posted by: taylor at Aug 25, 2008 10:46:49 PM
I bet Tammy liked Disneyworld before she got to architecture school.
I met a Tulane professor during a Katrina charrette who had made a great study of New Orleans building types. "Of course we don't copy these literally," he said.
"Of course": architecture schools are a Stepford Bizarro world where the students and professor say the opposite of what normal people say.
Posted by: dee at Aug 26, 2008 12:46:07 PM
As a Tulane School of Architecture alumnus ('05) I feel a need to chime in with a few points.
1) There was, and i assume still is, an underlying conflict in the school and architecture as a whole. There are those modernist professors who put an emphasis on partis and design over neighborhood scale and character and they are continually in conflict with the preservationists/critical regionalists who emphasis context and character over grand design strategy. This studio would have been better suited being under the purview of a non-modernist professor, whose emphasis would have been on neighborhood development instead of personal architectural statements.
2) The problem with the existing houses and the neighborhood's reaction is multifaceted. There is a severe air of distrust in New Orleans between the poor black neighborhoods and the rich (mostly) white gentry for very good reasons. The horrendous housing projects that were built during urban renewal were dehumanizing spaces (many not much better than stacked slave cabins), the construction of which allowed for the forced removal of people and buildings to build I-95, the Superdome, City Hall, and other municipal projects. In addition to this, for many of the neighborhood's residents these new houses are parallel to the original critical failure of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring." This is the first time they are seeing new housing forms and they have no language or filter through which to interpreting them, so they default to ugly. But does this make their reaction wrong? Not really. They are partially right, these houses are 21st century islands amongst a sea of 20th century houses (most of the houses shown were craftsman shotguns with some Victorian shotguns), and in a sense do not belong. Maybe if they were renovating the 9th Ward or New Orleans East and starting fresh these would make sense, but as urban infill they are failures.
Now, that may be a bit harsh. The policeman's house does borrow from a traditional New Orleanian form, the shuttered louvered window. The opening in the front responds to the louvered shutters, but instead of being a method of screening and protection, this window is an actual door. This kind of gesture works; it is a means of natural ventilation and it also helps bring a front porch to the project which engages the neighborhood and may help encourage more safety and security.
3) The student proposals do not show an understanding of New Orleans's traditional housing forms. Yes they are all long and narrow, but this is site generated, not design. None of the designs shown in the first episode take into account that most 2 story houses in this part of the city are Camel Back shotguns (one story dwellings with a "hump" in the rear). Instead they are all fully massed 2 story buildings, and one student was pushing for a three story house. Now that may work on St. Charles, Magazine street, or other dense areas uptown, but in this neighborhood that would be gigantic.
I blame the school for this; very few studios focus on housing, my entire portfolio, save my preservation classes, focused on public use buildings. Even though they have lived in the city for at least 3-4 years by the time they are in this platform, most of these students have has less exposure to the city's architectural character than a typical tourist. The usual source of inspiration for most architecture students are the glossy magazines, and rarely do these focus on any traditional built form, be it New Orleans or Baltimore.
So in summary, yes there is an issue here, but it is greater than students producing substandard work. The emphasis should be on providing housing that will fit the needs of the neighborhood and help to strengthen the existing identity of this place, instead of being about providing housing in a grand gesture of contemporary thought.
[I am reprinting this response in my own blog]
Posted by: Spencer Lepler at Aug 27, 2008 1:14:03 AM
Interesting comments, Spencer. I have to say that the point here is not to pick on the students — who are, after all, students, still learning their profession. Their professor pushes them strongly in one direction, and you can hear from their comments and see in their work that their other professors have pushed them towards an inflexible style of building with a very limited set of tools for what they're trying to do.
When working as an urban designer &mash; shaping the public realm and working with the public — one can not be ideological about style. But Tulane is all about style: Modernism or nothing. And a particular form of late Modernism.
That's a very difficult way to make cities.
Posted by: john massengale at Aug 27, 2008 8:29:33 AM
Having now seen the show --
* The name of the professor is Byron Mouton. He's teaching these students all the things that are wrong with architecture today -- no respect for the client, and a focus on "the big idea" or "concept" instead of just getting the job done artfully. He's consistently pushing ideas that make more sense in an abstract field like literary criticism, or philosophy, than in something so tangible as architecture.
* Contrast this to Emilie Taylor, the project manager. What does she do, right off the bat? Go check the site, talk to the neighbors, talk to prospective tenants, find out what they want. Much more humane, much more modest in the best sense, much more likely to get real-world results.
* The top moment for sheer unintentional irony: When Amarit, one of the students, talks about how he thinks rebuilding something as it was 100 or 50 years ago is a "bastardization." Bad news, Amarit: Modern Architecture is just about 50 to a 100 years old. It's proven to be remarkably stagnant over that time. So it's not like you're building something genuinely new when you go Modern -- you're just building a "bastardization" that's exactly 50 to a 100 years old... Only of European Modernist masters, rather than to local taste.
Posted by: Hal O'Brien at Sep 12, 2008 7:04:18 AM
* Favorite conflict: One student, Carter, talks about how he was born with a hammer in his hand. How he's always been building things. He talks about his idea: Going to three stories, rather than two. Mouton keeps trying to beat the idea out of him, saying that no one will look past the words "three stories" even if somehow he manages to get the design in for budget. Carter holds his ground, saying "we'll see." Mouton is promoting the idea of theory and abstraction uber alles; Carter wants to see how it plays out in the real world.
* Saddest thing: The repeated statements by the Tulane folks about what a rare opportunity it is to actually build something while still in architecture school. It should be required. I'm reminded of how Christopher Alexander once pointed out that when he goes to conferences, and he asks the audience how many licensed contractors are in the room, his is the only hand that goes up.
Posted by: Hal O'Brien at Sep 12, 2008 7:17:23 AM
Sorry it took so long to approve some of the comments. There's a bug in the system.
Posted by: john massengale at Sep 12, 2008 9:43:49 AM