I was quite pleased but also somehow frustrated to see the word ‘uncertainty’ figuring so prominently on the theme of this year’s meeting.
My pleasure was due to the fact that I feel very much at home with it. My frustration was caused by the need to at least partly re-structure this talk. I will therefore touch briefly upon the notion of uncertainty and its pertinence to architectural education and innovative practice, and then hint on issues of ethics and architectural design curricula.
From the early days of our School, founded in 1999, based on academic intuition of some sort, we decided to explicitly put ‘uncertainty’ as central to our curriculum and teaching.
Uncertainty was then an attitude, a pre-disposition, welcoming internal doubt, mutual criticism (mostly from within the discipline), research and new learning. In the advent of an increasingly unified world, we took as a given that our graduates would not practice in Greece only, as was the prevalent attitude thirty years ago, when I entered the School of Architecture myself. This involved uncertainty not as academic ground, but as a condition imposed by real life. We have therefore tried to not just expose, but actually infuse our students and junior faculty with uncertainty as a privileged standing point and continuous motivation for knowledge and operation.Uncertainty can often be disquieting or even paralyzing. However, when accompanied by persistence and openness, in the sense of relative freedom from pre-conceptions and independence from currents of thought, it can even be intellectually pleasurable. Beyond pleasure though, I should admit that current predicaments call for very measured and concrete responses, not intellectual wanderings.
Uncertainty is an attribute of times of crisis and crises surface mostly as conflicts. In conflicts it may be wise but definitely not useful to remain au dessus de le melée or to withdraw. Crises allow the re-evaluation of most things that could have previously gone without criticism. In times of crisis identities are blurred, new opportunities are opened, new establishments are being consolidated. What was natural or progressive before, may appear obsolete or redundant afterwards. The average intellectualistic individual tends to tag most of the active and revisionist stances followed in periods of crisis as conservative or even reactionary. In any case, the extent of radicalism and the disparity of means and ends remain to be seen and criticized. I prefer to think that crises and uncertainty provide chances to ponder the essentials and get rid of excess of any kind. In education and art this approach may acquire the form of revisiting older achievements and lead to re-evaluating of recent preferences or trends.
Let me now attempt to respond to the four questions that the organizers addressed to us, and also comment on them.
Question 1: If there is a question of a new, unpredictable, profile of the future architect, what should our strategy for the learner of today be?
This is obviously a question addressed to educators.
My answer is precisely an imperative to make uncertainty central to the curriculum, to let students and ourselves doubt, ask, propose/design, challenge… We should also realise that research in architecture should be seen as a way to reach beyond widespread positivistic scientificism in an effort to reach things in their multiplicity.
Question 2: Which are the most significant competences that this architect has to fulfill in order to be able to adapt in the fast evolving society?
Let us be reminded of the competences that have had some significance over the last few decades, or of the changing significance of competences, actually of the changing frames of mind in architecture and architectural education: From intuition to science, from the ‘Architecture vs. Urbanism/City Planning’ dilemma to their synthesis in Urban Design, from CAD competence to Multimedia competence, from Solar to Bioclimatic to Sustainable, and so on.
It should be stressed that the question asks about the ability of the architect to adapt in the fast evolving society. But is it a question of adapting to or a question of leading society? If architects are experts on space, form, etc., then they have to lead society and not just adapt, unless of course to adapt means to respond.
Then the question of ethics emerges. We usually tend to acknowledge problems and conflicts in architecture as both a discipline and a profession as coming from without. This is particularly the case with the current crisis. The challenge that recent architecture of excess is facing is easily charged to the economic crisis.
It might be helpful to invert charges though.
We might ask the question: Is the profession of architecture corrupt, in decay? By corrupt I mean that is does have tragic structural flaws that undermine its own purpose for being and prevent it from performing its duties.The profession’s purpose for being is to create architecture – that is, to make art out of the science of building.
We no longer talk about architecture as art even in schools. The purpose of this art, if there is one, is often debated but most agree it should engage the individual mind and body as well as human culture as a whole. What kinds of structural features might be holding back the profession from consistently achieving these results?
Here are some possibilities.
Though the situation varies from school to school, design academia tends to admit individuals that in other disciplines would be described as “narrowly educated technicians” and proceeds to advance that narrow focus. This may be a distant residue of an ancient need for draftsmen and labourers, which is rapidly being expelled by computer technology. It often prevents architects from understanding and engaging their work in the larger social questions and from collaborating with their more broadly educated peers in law, medicine, and also engineering.
Professional examinations, moreover, do not test for architectural acumen. These are primarily engineering exams that do not capture qualitative aspects of humane design. The legal title ‘architect’, on which laypeople rely to find qualified assistance, therefore does not actually ensure any architectural ability.
The ethical codes that the profession enforces have been diluted over the years to minimal standards of basic citizenship. They no longer require, and often don’t even describe, the actions that would produce architecture. Neither laypeople nor architects could easily discern from these codes what distinct values architects are meant to uphold and what purposes they are meant to serve.Architects’ professional organizations too often promote architects rather than architecture. Lay people can therefore be excused for thinking about architects as business people first and professionals or artists second, if at all.
The building industry has detected, enhanced, and leveraged the public’s confusion over what architects do. As architects surrender their leadership positions, the odds that buildings might serve interests beyond those of their developers worsen. Many architects now sit in the back offices of developers and are dependent upon them – a circumstance that was ethically prohibited a century ago.But even without the influences of the building industry, architects are faced with the same ethical conundrums of ‘agency’ that all professionals are. Architects may be charged with representing the needs of their paying clients as well as the often contradictory needs of the non-paying users and the non-paying public.
These features may indeed be corrupting, that is undermining the profession’s ability to serve its defining ethical goals. Furthermore, many even stickier ethical conundrums are posed by the very existence of an artistic pursuit structured as a professional and commercial enterprise.
What is the fundamental knowledge and skills she or he has to acquire from the education
in order to become a competitive and successful architect?
I would rephrase the question as follows:
What is the fundamental knowledge and skills she or he has to acquire from the education
in order to acquire a position of leadership in architecture?
Le Corbusier is said to have inverted the dictum “Don’t look for roses when the wood is burning!” into “Look only for roses when the wood is burning !” (communication by Jerzy Soltan to the author, Cambridge, Mass., 1985)
This is about the art of architecture again….
Which are the strategies of our schools of Architecture regarding this major issue?
This leads us back to the beginning of this talk: We have to ‘make uncertainty central to the curriculum. Doubt, ask, propose/design, challenge…’
At the Department of Architecture of the University of Patras we have decided to adhere to the concept of the flexible curriculum that is open to pertinent revisions. The major premise is that architectural schools are schools of higher education, not of technical competence, where primacy is given to design on all scales. We consider our task to produce architects, not design technicians, and promote critical knowledge without arrogance, pessimism or nihilism.
The major change in our school consists of squeezing of the core curriculum into practically 3 years of study and reducing the number of courses. In Greece we have a rather obsolete tradition of a unitary 5-year study programme, consisting of too many courses and leading singularly to a professional degree in architecture. Therefore, effecting change did require effort.
The new curriculum allows for better integration of knowledge through reflection and training. During the final period of their study we ideally expect students to develop a research approach to things (through their Diploma Research Thesis Project, 14 ECTS units) and to formulate a position on the current state of architecture (through their Diploma Design Thesis Project, 30 ECTS units) .
The new curriculum consists of fewer courses of broader scope, a maximum of 6 per semester, including the design studio and elective courses.
We put particular emphasis on electives so that each student may concentrate on aspects that interest him/her. We pay attention so as to provide electives from all areas. These constitute 46% of the ECTS unit total (including Advanced Option Studios, the Diploma Research
Thesis Project and the Diploma Design Thesis Project). We also encourage students to enroll in free electives in the humanities. In balance, we have weakened areas of mere technical competence that can be acquired with little assistance on the side of the courses or even out of school.
I would like to stress that we have also established a two-week period every year, usually immediately after the Christmas break, that we have tagged ‘Independent Activities Period’. This mainly accommodates compressed courses on specialised topics of an extremely broad range -not just architecture and the other disciplines conventionally associated with it- lasting one to two weeks at 2 ECTS each open vertically to all students from the 2nd year up. Every student is allowed to take for credit up to two ‘activities’ each year , but is free to audit as many as one wishes and can.
In the History and Theory sequence we have switched from lecture courses to a mix of lectures and seminars so that students learn how to identify issues, ask questions and methodically search for answers. We have transposed Theory courses from the 2nd to the 3rd year of studies, so as to draw on students’ history knowledge and ampler design experience. Theory ECTSs were doubled. So were those of Art History.
The Art sequence switched from a general ‘visual arts’ approach to a more traditional mix of ‘free-hand drawing’ , ‘colour’ and ‘painting’ that may also be enriched with ‘sculpture’, ‘nude’, etc. in the future. More advanced Visual Arts classes also switched from quasi-conceptual approaches rendered in rough execution to precisely executed artwork, video and multimedia.
1st- year Architectural Design Studios were re-structured from an Introduction to Design through visual exercises into three intertwined modules focusing on Architectural Design proper, 2D and 3D architectural representation (architectural surveying, linear drawing, analogic modelling, etc.) and Digital Design respectively.
2nd- year Architectural Design Studios focus on small- and medium-scale residential, office and retail buildings and also provide elements of Ergonomics, Interior Design, Building Construction and even Gender Studies.
3rd-year Architectural Design Studios focus on medium- and large-scale public, office and retail buildings and also provide elements of Interior Design, Furniture and/or Product Design and Building Technology
The Urban Design sequence consists mainly of Design Studio work on small- and medium-scale urban spaces and also provides elements of Planning and Urban Theory.
Advanced Option Studios are involved with the design of large-scale public buildings and urban spaces in critical response to the current state of architecture and society.
The Building Technology sequence was enriched by two new 4th-year courses on Sustainable Design at both the architectural and the urban scale of 6 ECTS units each.
Last but not least, a new Professional Practice course has been introduced, so that students acquire some knowledge of business and office administration, marketing, legal principles and professional ethics. I am confident that innovative or even alternative architecture can still be more effectively promoted through mainstream corridors. Alternative practices tend to be looked at as almost decorative or intellectualistic endeavours, not pertinent to building. Academics often tend to somehow disregard or overlook the business part of the profession. In a time of uncertainty, and despite my belief that the architect’s work ends with the completion of the design, this should not last long.
Georgios A. Panetsos is Professor of Architecture and Urban Design and Chairman of the School of Architecture at the University of Patras, Patras, Greece.
This is the transcript of a talk given at the 15th Meeting of Heads of European Schools of Architecture of the European Association for Architectural Education, held in Chania, Crete, Greece, in September 2010.