Dean's Letter: Fall 2007

Dean's Letter, Fall 2007
College of Architecture
Graduate School of Architecture & Urban Design

Architectural education is dangerous. It changes your mind. This is because it also changes the world. It does so indirectly of course through the hands of the students who become professionals that imagine, envision, design, and build the environment that we live in. While we might say that ultimately all education does this, few other disciplines are charged with this expectation. The first century Roman architect Marcus Vitruvius Pollio said an architect "must be armed with many braches of knowledge: drawing, geometry, history, philosophy, music, medicine, know the opinions of jurists, and astronomy," Given this list, it is understandable why architectural education is sometimes described as one of the last truly liberal arts educations in increasingly specialized university curricula. Given the difficulty of becoming proficient in all of these areas, it explains the generally held belief that architectural education is a lifelong pursuit. Yet despite this daunting trajectory, over 125 undergraduate and graduate students from all over the world enter the Washington University College of Architecture and Graduate School of Architecture & Urban Design each year with aspirations of changing the world. And over the distinguished 100-year history of the program, they have.

Even though architectural education is changing, it is still centered on the design studio, where small groups of students and a faculty member work together on design projects that employ a learn by doing methodology. In this sense learning to be an architect is like learning a sport or a musical instrument; it requires a coach and practice. It still requires the study of drawing, history, theory, structures, building systems, and construction. What is changing is the nature of the environmental and social problems that the practice of architecture faces. As education is always to blame and our only hope, architecture is a part of the problem and potentially a big part of the solution. As part of the problem, buildings use 60 percent of the electricity and are a part of between 40 to 50 percent of all energy consumption in the US. As part of the solution, buildings can be designed to be 80 percent more energy efficient with off-the-shelf technology. Great buildings can make more energy than they use, and they can help us know where we are by using local materials, natural ventilation, daylight, and forms that express and connect us to these natural systems. Ultimately, the environmental and social problems that we face will not be solved through technological solutions alone. Given the complexity of the issues, they will require environmental ethics, interdisciplinary perspective, radical innovation, and beauty of the exceptional kind. They will require a change in values where architecture's capacity to connect us to our environment and to each other becomes imperative.

But how do we radically innovate? How do we gain interdisciplinary perspective? Architect Tom Wiscomb writes, "the idea that innovation, whether scientific, technological, or architectural, is a by-product of artistic chance or a result of singular genius can no longer be sustained ..." Wiscomb suggests that one source of innovation is through a diverse, connected, and large network that is different from simple collaboration, which often stems from an alignment of interests. Divergent interests, he suggests, create new and complex overlaps that place the members of the network on new ground. This new ground, the Terrain Vague of disciplines, is often the opportunity, place, or person that is overlooked or has been excluded due to professionalization and therefore requires, according to the artist Jean Dubeffet, one of two things to recognize: crisis or insanity. I vote for crisis: . cri·sis n (plural: crises) 1. a turning point or decisive moment in events 2. a time when something very important for the future happens or is decided. It is also the ground where something radically innovative can happen, a place where we have the opportunity to be more than we are individually and at the same time are empowered by the specific disciplinary perspective that we bring. Given that a school is one of the few places where this can happen, the ethical dimension of this is unexpected. It lies in the demand of a school for practice to be public, fixing the context of the new ground in a place described by values in addition to position. It gives to the "weirdness" of our modern condition what Hannah Arendt has called a "second language of commitment." It also opens up the possibility that this ground is positioned in the space between Givens, Steinberg, Bixby, Walker, and Kemper ... with some ground left to spare.

Bruce Lindsey