A dilemma and course of action for architectural education

A gentle assessment of the design studio describing an increasing dilemma in architectural education, followed by a course of action based on new relationships between the academy, practice and industry.

THE SPEED OF DISTRACTION

Our world presents a cacophony of interests and products. The electronic and digital environments increasingly promote a seamless flow of advertisement. Overtly and subliminally, an unbridled mania to consume influences many of our decisions. We come to believe that the environments we inhabit, and the possessions we station around ourselves are indispensable for revealing to others why we are different, and perhaps better. Status, not stature, dominates the daily interchange of individuals through belongings. In this consumer society the sign value of a product replaces the thing. The image projected by objects in everyday life, and the magnification of that image, serves to imprint oneself on society. Products are accumulated for their ability to enhance personal identity. Everyone walks around with their headlines stapled to their chests.

This may be an inevitable dynamic of society, infiltrating into architecture and design. Ever since the tenets of modernism were discarded, there has been a radical rethinking. The rational and analytical foundations of design posited by the Bauhaus, and its successor, Ulm were overthrown by a much freer and open approach. The abstract purity of Braun gave way to the psychological, symbolic and poetic works of groups such as Memphis. Functionalist design and its attendant characteristics of homogeneity, structural clarity and perfection were replaced by visions from pop art and pop culture. Everything suddenly was possible. Design, or the image of design, became fun, immensely popular, and accessible to the mass market.

The academic studio is not immune. In some quarters, the cornerstone of design education was commoditized with the categorization of students as customers. Students of architecture reveled in the newfound potentials of expressing oneself through design — self-expression became indistinguishable from self-disclosure. Concurrently, the critique of the design studio as insular, detached and disenfranchised from contemporary issues was fashioned into a lightning rod for those seeking a more deterministic curriculum for design education. Calls for the overhaul or dismantling of the design studio found a way into editorials, papers and accreditation assessments. The relevancy of the studio once again became a seasonal mantra for those seeking recognition in the architectural education conference circuit.

Composer Arnold Schoenberg commented towards the end of his career that his music was not tainted by success because he was “protected by neglect.” In three words he defined both the province and refuge of the studio. The studio’s promise depends on individuals building a real place allowing for the occasion of education, thus discovery. It is a sphere of knowledge embedded in activity commensurate with a finely tuned instrument that must be played every day, managed every week and examined every semester. It is one of the few forums by which the tendency of architecture as commodity can be resisted through an iterative asking of fundamental questions — how to stay relevant without sacrificing ideals; how to complete projects without compromising ideas; and how to sell concepts without selling one’s soul.

It is little wonder that the members of Memphis disbanded and went on to other things. Their work was a polemic. As a salvo by the avant-guard against the status quo, their goal was to break what had become sterile and stagnant, and open new possibilities. The many who attempted to follow were overwhelmed by the luxury of unrestrained freedom. Any effort un-renewed exhausts itself under its own weight. The movement’s followers, lacking ideals and the vital energy of its founders, have fallen by the wayside, suffering from the vicissitudes of caprice, mannerism, empty form and hollow rhetoric.

Chaos theory tells us that the flap of a butterfly’s wings in a remote province in China is capable of changing the weather patterns in North America. Though the chance of altering consumerist values in today’s society is remote, the possibility to shift the inertia is present. The design studio remains the place to provide a foundation for navigation in world of diversity, through slowness of approach and redundancy of questions. It causes one to reflect upon the nature of design and re-examine its place and potential in the world. Thus, the true efficacy of the studio seeks introspection over entertainment, memory in favor of nostalgia. It is a probe sent out with the hope of discovering essence following the distant trajectory of an ideal, proposing thoughts and things of wonder and use.

*    *    *

EVOLUTION AND COLLABORATION

Over the past two decades, the Program of Architecture at Virginia Tech has avoided the distraction of fashion and trends. Heads were kept down as debris flew over. There was no chasing of monuments. The consistent, top-five national program ranking and highly regarded graduates are the result of a durable structure built on unique collaboration. Recognizing the diversity of education and the pre-eminence of the individual, there is also a keen understanding of the interconnectedness of the design disciplines. Built on the Vitruvian concept of knowledge of multiple areas of study, the responsibility of the architect to be conversant in related disciplines led to a rethinking of the architecture program within the general university structure. Utilizing resources within architecture, a program of industrial design was initiated. It received accreditation in 2005 and soon after, landscape architecture and interior design joined the group to form the School of Architecture + Design. The seminal juxtaposition of these disciplines is to enlighten and constructively challenge the opportunity of building and making. All have recently been recognized as top ten national educational programs.

Within this milieu, an informal, interdisciplinary group of faculty and students have come together through project-based research. Various teams have created four exhibits for the International Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF) in the Javits Center in New York, the Cologne Furniture Fair in Germany, and the SalonSatellite in Milan. The work also includes three solar houses for the Solar Decathlon Competition sponsored by the Department of Energy. LumenHAUS™ (the third solar house) was exhibited at the National Building Museum in Washington D.C., Millennium Park in Chicago, Times Square in New York, and at the Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois. The project won the international Solar Decathlon Competition in Madrid, Spain over 17 international research universities. It was also recognized with a national AIA Institute Award for Excellence in Architecture, selected as one of nine projects from over 500 entries from top international firms.

TERRITORIES OF OPPORTUNITY

However, as stated earlier, every effort exhausts itself under its own weight if not renewed through strategic intervention. Though Virginia Tech has been very successful in providing a first rate architectural education, the inevitability of external change requires internal evolution. The protocols of practice are transforming faster than any course can accommodate, and the overlap of architecture/design with business, computer science and materials research is seaming together the fabric of innovation and successful collaboration.

The traditional studio would benefit greatly from primary source access to this dynamic environment. To achieve this end, the Center for Design Research at Virginia Tech has recently been established. The goal of the Center is to tap into the territories of opportunity that lie at the intersection of disciplines, academia and corporate initiatives. A new research/education environment, asserting the exuberant curiosity of undergraduate students aligned with the disciplined work of PhD’s, comprises content areas linking university interests and those of the private sector. The goal is to create an entrepreneurial network of researchers, designers, and students working with corporate partners bringing together the excitement of innovation, the rigor of production, and the demands of the marketplace.

The realization and success of LumenHAUS™ benefited from the sponsorship of two major corporations, ConocoPhilips and Seimens. The Center is now embarking on a new initiative where lessons learned from previous work open new ideas regarding residential, high-density construction, and emerging technologies, challenging the use of energy in buildings. To develop and optimize an industrialized building system for low and mid-rise residential units, the work researches the feasibility and viability of a prefabricated building module. The intention is to merge sustainability, energy optimization, and conservation with market demands and architecture utilizing a factory built, mass-produced module. This effort begins a new strategic partnership between the academy and profession to design and construct net-zero energy dwellings for high-density living. The initial corporate partner is SOM Chicago.

ACADEMY AND PROFESSION

During two consecutive summers, seven students (four undergraduates and three graduates) and three faculty were embedded in the Skidmore Owings and Merrill Chicago office as an experimental protocol for the Center for Design Research (see also: Into the World by Way of the City, DesignIntelligence, November/December 2013). They worked with the partners and associates of the firm to develop a comprehensive project involving innovative concepts of architecture, planning, environmental design, and building technologies relating to manufactured residential units. The team was asked by SOM to apply this building type to one of the blocks in Southworks, a new development in the planning stage. The site is located approximately 10 miles south of Downtown Chicago and is the last large parcel of developable land in the city on the lake. Once proposed as the location for an Olympic village, the now vacant site is planned to be an innovative, sustainable community that addresses the challenge of energy optimization in building.

What was once the site of a major steel manufacturing facility has the potential to become the greenest urban development in the United States. All energy consumed in the development will be from clean sources ranging from wind and solar power. Methane from landfills will be used to supply district scale fuel cells and geothermal systems will supplement energy efficient heating and cooling systems. Sustainability practices will be employed at the city scale to provide an environmentally responsible example of what a future city should be. The first phase of research is presented in the document published by the Center for Design Research titled, SOM / CDR: Industrialized Fabrication, Energy, and the Urban Dwelling.

Perhaps the goal tilts at windmills. The promise of factory built housing has risen and receded each decade over the past century, yet has not come to fruition (The modular industry comprises only two per cent of all building). Economy of scale, lower cost, higher quality and faster production are predicted attributes that are now overlaid with aspirations for sustainability and optimized energy use. Thus, the complexity of the task is formidable, but the risk resides in not trying. The status quo of the studio needs to open towards the urgency of contemporary problems while maintaining the artistic, intuitive processes that designers bring to situations of uncertainty, instability, and uniqueness.

As the first director of Industrial Design, and now the director of the Center for Design Research, Dunay has served as a primary faculty advisor for three Virginia Tech projects in the Solar Decathlon Competition sponsored by the Department of Energy. He holds the T. A. Carter Professorship of Architecture and is Fellow of the American Institute of Architects. In 2012, DesignIntelligence selected Dunay as one of the 30 Most Admired Educators.