Experiencing diverse points of view elucidates the strengths and weaknesses of each, reveals their common ground and allows one to discover how each may be improved. In recent years I’ve had just such an experience teaching design studios in two schools of architecture influenced by different traditions: one Modernist, the other Classical.(1) Teaching the same design problem in different settings, I have found students with quite varied knowledge, skills and deficits. From this I am certain that the future will be best served if architectural education draws from both the wisdom of tradition and the lessons of Modernism.
In 2007 I was appointed Harrison Design Scholar at the Georgia Institute of Technology’s College of Architecture and co-taught an elective studio with Elizabeth Dowling. Subsequently, in 2009, I served as visiting professor at Notre Dames School of Architecture, teaching fourth-year studio. In each studio I assigned the same project: a house. Students studied an American domestic architectural tradition and then applied those lessons to the design of a new house. But not just any house. Instead, using the statistics and homebuyer preferences tracked by the National Association of Home Builders, they tackled the average American house.
Remarkably, in both instances, this was the first time most had been asked to design a house. Perhaps I should not have been surprised. Unlike architects of the early-20th century, who published numerous plan books such as Royal Barry Wills Better Houses for Budgeteers, todays architects have largely abdicated market-rate housing to developers and plan-book publishers. Ignoring the house begins in school. Some faculty have told me that it isn’t challenging enough. Perhaps some think it too bourgeois a concern, or worse, that a house is mere building rather than architecture. Yet is there any arena today where the architectural profession ought to be leading more effectively? Our patterns of development, and the domestic (not to mention commercial) architecture populating them, have failed on all counts culturally, aesthetically, durably, environmentally and now financially. This is not to ignore the strides made by New Urbanists, nor to discount the extraordinarily talented architects designing custom houses. But, start your car and drive north, south, east, west anywhere in the geography of nowhere(2) and you will see the vastness of the problem. The seemingly simple assignment of designing a house is, in fact, a challenging, even necessary, problem for todays students.
Aside from the specifics of any building type, there is the larger question of how, in general, we teach the knowledge and skills needed for architectural design. It is here, between Georgia and Indiana, between the Bauhaus and the Beaux Arts I found myself thinking both Modernist and Classical traditions of architectural education will remain impoverished if they ignore what the other has to offer.
My own education has roots in each tradition. I was reminded of them as I taught these two studios. I still recall wielding my first X-Acto blade across squares of Color-aid paper as I learned my first lessons of composition creating figure and field, repetition, rhythm and more. Soon we were cutting Bristol board and balsa wood into a kit-of-parts, with which wed play like children with blocks, bringing our two-dimensional compositional skills into three.
Before long, Rapidiographs and Mylar in hand, we were inking figure-ground analytical drawings of cities until we were cross-eyed. The late 1980s at the University of Virginia included influences from the Bauhaus, from Rowe and Venturi, Frampton, Scully and Stern, Krier and Greenberg and Postmodernism’s flirtation with history. This was harmoniously orchestrated with intellect and grace by Jaq Robertson. It was a more sound foundation in architecture than I even knew to expect.
In addition to the broad knowledge that defines the Virginia education, we learned how to develop methodologies of design, honed our analytical skills, acquired the capacity for abstract thought and learned about composition. With discipline we applied these skills to the site, precedent, program and problem solving. Moreover, under Robertson’s leadership, it was profoundly clear that architecture was a civic endeavor. When I was teaching at Georgia Tech, I found the same rigor, creativity and sense of service in the architectural program directed by Ellen Dunham-Jones, one of my former professors at Virginia.
For all that I learned in Charlottesville, there was much missing. Growing up surrounded by the rich architectural heritage of Tidewater, VA, I naively assumed I’d learn about town planning, materials and details and the poetic expression of these in built form. And, of course, beauty. Instead, at Virginia, it was a world of white: white walls, white pipe railings, flat roofs, no lintels, no ornament, boxes and more boxes everywhere, preferably on an ideal site in the middle of nowhere. In my last years at Virginia, originality grew to trump all else. The abstract forms we sculpted spoke only to us. We had answered the question Rowe posed in his introduction to Five Architects: Can an architecture which professes an objective of continuous experiment ever become congruous with the ideal of an architecture which is to be popular, intelligible, and profound? No, probably not.
By leaving the wellspring of tradition untapped, Modernism often failed to create architecture legible to those it served, no matter how well analyzed or composed the solutions were. By this time, though, some who first conversed with history through Postmodernism had begun to take history more seriously. Among these was Thomas Gordon Smith, who instituted a Classical program at the University of Notre Dame.
As a graduate student at Notre Dame, a watercolor brush replaced my X-Acto blade. Patience and discipline as well as manual skills were learned as we layered wash upon wash on stretched watercolor paper. We considered how the human form occupies space not through abstract exercises, but by drawing the figure. Compositional skills were acquired not with Color-aid paper, but through the medium of architecture itself with instruction in the orders, shade and shadow, composition of the analytique and analysis of precedents. Abstract thought was developed as we explored tectonics, form, ornament and their relationship to place and materials. Following the methodology of the École we learned to move rapidly from program to thumbnail sketches, esquisse and rendered project. In these projects urbanism was as critical as architecture. Not a single project at Notre Dame was set in the empty, idealized sites we were often given at Virginia. Currently, under dean Michael Lykoudis and graduate program director Phillip Bess, the role of urbanism at Notre Dame has expanded further.
Looking back now at Virginia, Notre Dame and the two studios I taught, I see ways the Modernist and Classical traditions could benefit from each other. Though taught differently in each, the skills of representation, composition, abstraction and design methodology remain similar. In the Modernist tradition these are often taught explicitly and with great rigor. Classicists would do well to pay attention, for I was surprised to find that my students at Notre Dame did not automatically develop a clear parti to guide their work, nor did they rely on diagrams or analytical skills to improve their designs. By contrast the Classical tradition teaches these skills directly through the medium of architecture. For example, one of my Georgia Tech students was designing a library in her main studio. They were instructed to select an object from childhood, analyze it, and utilize this to inform their design. While I think I understand the goal, perhaps it would have been more effective to study other libraries. In truth, both groups of students struggled to abstract general lessons from precedents, whether childhood objects or paradigmatic buildings.
Skills aside, the greatest gap between Classical and Modernist traditions, whether in education or practice, remains their differing perspectives of history and its utility. From the Classical point of view, history is body of knowledge of how to build well, which can inform the creation of new built environments that are legible and pleasing to its citizens. Every place contains the wisdom of its own traditions. My own educational experience has been that the Modernist tradition engages history as well, but abstractly and often as a point of departure, with greater focus given to the present as a source of solutions.
In the future perhaps we can re-knit this unraveled world of architectural past and present. If so, we would not then see opposing, irreconcilable forces but one complementary continuum encompassing architecture and urbanism alike. More than ever we all, Modernists and Classicists both, face problems that require us to be swift of mind, limiting not the sources of our solutions. Discarding knowledge for ideological reasons is not knowledgeable at all.
1) While the author acknowledges many educators and practitioners do not self-designate as Modernist, Neo-modernist, Postmodernist, functionalist, purist, Classicist, traditionalist, or any other ist, we generally have two broad traditions of education, one originating in the Classical, the other in the early Modernist era at the Bauhaus.
2) With thanks to James Howard Kunstler’s brilliant mind.
Originally published in: Clem Labine’s Period Homes Magazine, September 2009