Inside RSA

Architecture At Rice

Dean Sarah Whiting


The extraordinary historian and critic Tony Judt concluded his final book, Ill Fares the Land, with an exhortation to engage the world:

"As citizens of a free society, we have a duty to look critically at our world. But if we think we know what is wrong, we must act upon that knowledge." Philosophers, Judt concluded (and I think in this context we could substitute "architects") "... have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it."

Judt's book is a kind of battle cry - a plea both to look and do. It's a pointed account of the challenges we face as global and even very local iniquities dominate an age that is purported to be so modern. Other crises greet us daily in the newspapers and on the web: BP in the Gulf, floods in Pakistan and China, and pollution and foreclosures dominating every vista.

Given the horizon we're looking at, it may seem frivolous or even irresponsible to spend so much time understanding why Robert Venturi wrote 'Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture' in 1966 and what impact it had on architecture. Or why we spend so much time editing your explanations of your projects, urging you to make your points ever more specific, ever more precise. Or why it matters whether your line weights are consistent, your model corners crisp, or your structural system concrete, rather than steel (or steel, rather than concrete).

Why? Because that's what we do and how we do it. Because you can't even begin to change the world without knowing how, without knowing why, and without knowing what. Architecture's generalism is at once a pot of gold and a tar pit: it's what keeps our world so exciting (architecture affects everything, from the design of the chairs we're sitting in to the organization - and success - of hugely complex institutions (the Pentagon has 17.5 miles of corridors, but it only takes 7 minutes to walk between any two points in the building, which is an extraordinary result of form and programming).

But architecture's generalism can also be a curse: the fear of not being expert in every aspect of architecture (an impossibility, since architecture affects everything and one can't be an expert in everything) can lead to stasis-- we all know the syndrome of the infinite google ("well, now, that's really interesting; but now I need to find out more about that," ad infinitum). An attempt to get some background information on a project site becomes an abyss of endless information, and a frantic, 11th hour attempt to render some of that endless information graphically legible ends up standing in for the project itself (and we're back to Judt's problem: interpreting the world rather than changing it).

We recognize that the challenge we face as a school of architecture is to help students to navigate these waters, to learn how to target what's relevant and what's not, and, most importantly, how one can, through architecture, advance a tomorrow that is better than today. Form, Program, and Technology are architecture's means for changing the world. Any one of them holds a vibrant discourse. But the three together catalyze an exhilarating potential... a practice that is equal parts dizzying speculation and professional ambition.

The RSA’s Totalization Studios are a result of discussions that we have been having in the School about these very issues. Our aim is give you the means to see and act synthetically. To quote the collective agenda for these four options studios: "these studios ask students to rigorously weigh all aspects of building design and then bias their engagement of these various aspects in order to articulate each student's architectural project." We want RSA students to learn how to be discriminate beings - to learn how to judge what's best and to recognize what's only second rate. Each studio focuses on a specific part of architectural practice, but the collective all-options conversation keeps all of these forms of practice visible.

Similarly, our lecture series won't have architects simply showing slides of buildings they've done ("next, next, next"). Each lecturer has been asked to articulate an architectural agenda. Students, in turn, are being asked to engage these visitors, either at the Brochstein Pavilion over coffee before their talks, or in lunchtime conversations the next day. They are being charged with the job of being active sounding boards - we expect them to push these visiting architects to make their work-- and the discipline-- even better.

According to the press, the generation currently populating Anderson Hall is changing media by the minute: as noted in Wired magazine, students don't even read email but communicate instead through social media venues. That's a paradigm shift, and we have to figure out how that shift affects architecture's collective audience and vice versa.

Scholars are doing their best to keep up with and pin down this generation: Robin Henig's New York Times magazine article, "What is it about 20-somethings?" proposed that this generation defines a new, distinct life-stage characterized as "emerging adulthood." Like architecture's generalism, "emerging adulthood" is as exciting as it is problematic: the only way to emerge rather than to find yourselves treading water or perpetually "emerging" is to try something.

The RSA is a think tank: a container for possibilities. Faced with global economic, political, and environmental crises, we can't afford to be passive. An architect's engagement with the world requires a precise understanding of context (historical, political, economic, and physical) mixed with architectural speculations that define a better future. Every project in the school, whether in studio, lecture courses, or seminars, should project forward. And every project should unabashedly revel in its disciplinary (architectural) possibilities, heeding Tony Judt's plea to change rather than merely interpret.


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