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Archis 2001 #4

In favour of action: An agenda for architectural education

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One group of such areas is based on its capacity to undergo research and scientific transmission – theory above all, but also technology, history, and so on. In this area, architectural knowledge should respond to the standards of scholarship and research. It has enjoyed the pretension to a total body of knowledge.

A second group comprehends the area of design, a highly symbolic practice that is based on the special conditions of the workshop, and its emphasis on working case by case, in accordance with group dynamics, and in physical proximity to the master. The term ‘Master Class’ perfectly summarizes the particularly Socratic (and enslaving) condition of such architectural learning. This structure allows for a particular intensity, agility, and autonomous functioning that is usually termed a capacity for practice. By itself, however, it does not allow for an effective relationship with practical problems.

The marginality of architectural studies within the university has secured our fields a special independence from academic structures and methods of work. Very often – in the European context at least – the best conditions for learning are offered in small, independent schools and programmes that are free of the burdensome bureaucracies of the university system. It is precisely in this independence, as well as in the extraordinary tradition of the workshop, where the potential of architectural education resides. Its intermediate position between academic scholarship and the capacity to intervene and act in real situations is itself a source of great potential.

The challenge of the immediate future should reside in the capacity to find transversal lines (plural!) through research and design, so as to allow for a continuous flow of knowledge from the collection and interpretation of data and ideas to the processes of decision and action.
A few points may summarize some of the urgencies in architectural learning:

There should be a reinforcement of a research based in the present condition of culture, considering its social, economic, and productive forces. In effect, architectural research should be able to critically anticipate the directions of architectural production. Research also tends to fragment our knowledge. Research brings partial discoveries, establishes transverse lines between theory and practice.

Design has moved from the processes of pure form-giving, sophisticated and complex as they may be, towards a higher degree of interaction with its urban situation. This move implies a more important presence for fields of study traditionally distant from architecture, such as sociology, economics, visual culture, urban studies… Such an interaction necessarily breaks the corpus of architectural knowledge as a unified entity, and dispels all pretence of disciplinary autonomy.

Architectural learning needs to be progressively embedded in the reality of mainstream practices, as well as in strategies of large-scale access to culture. The mentioned capacity of anticipation presupposes this immersion in the low, muddy waters of mass culture. The solid tradition of cultural elitism proper to architectural ideas needs a learning process to slowly but efficiently dissolve itself.

A last point, in favour of action: architectural education should show how to act – theoretically, practically – and should understand that actions are always partial, fragmented. An architectural knowledge based on the capacities to act will generate a complex of separate platforms that allow us to intervene simultaneously in precise domains of reality and of ideas. The problem of reconciling research and design, of linking theory and practice, will therefore resolve into an infinite number of partial strategies of action.

Xavier Costa directs the METROPOLIS Postgraduate Programme in Architecture and Urban Culture in Barcelona.