Connecting Disparate Dots:  Architecture | Education in Landscapes of Uncertainty

 

Dr. Brian R. Sinclair, FRAIC AIA IIAS

University of Calgary + sinclairstudio inc. | Canada

 

There is little doubt that our modern times are ripe with problems, overwhelmed with uncertainty, awash in complexity, and yet overflowing with opportunity. Students in architecture schools around the world, regardless of context and culture, are actively engaged in the pursuit of design schemes that prove appropriate, sensitive, dynamic and dramatic. Increasingly the populations of our cities and nations are assuming spectacular diversity, while on one hand equating into rich environments of exchange and dialogue, on the other hand making constricted solutions difficult and awkward. Added to the mix in terms of criteria to consider and demands to meet are dimensions of sustainability, modernity, integrity, ingenuity, agility and holism. It is insightful, if not instrumental, to consider each of these facets in more depth and detail. Given the high stakes involved in effectively and responsibly designing our cities, neighbourhoods, buildings and interiors, it is crucial to push hard to revise and reform design mindsets, methods, processes, and products. Design is a complicated and intense activity, one that warrants immense interdisciplinary thinking and significant systems-oriented performing. Narrowness of philosophy and shallowness of analysis demonstrably equates to weak solutions and insensitive environments. Architects, and architecture students, in an age of increasing pluralism and escalating intricacy, must be far more comprehensive in their approaches, far more learned in their knowledge, and far more diligent in the execution of their duties.

 

Keywords:    design, education, pedagogy, sustainability, modernity, integrity, ingenuity, agility, holism

 

INTRODUCTION | REFLECTION

“Oz never did give nothing to the Tin Man that he didn't already have.” 

Tin Man lyrics, America, 1974

 

Practicing architecture at the present juncture, or indeed engaging in the work of any formal profession, is a relatively daunting and demanding exercise.  The array of forces impinging on contemporary society is impressive if not oppressive.  Environmental challenges loom large, at times mushrooming into unimaginable crisis – such as the recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico attests.  Social transformation is intense, including shifting demographics, changing norms and morphing expectations.  Economics prove turbulent, with insatiable greed and questionable conduct being outcomes of an arguably uncertain and unreliable moral compass.   Despite the most advanced technologies at our avail, and a cascade of knowledge at our fingertips, we find ourselves in deeper water with unclear steps to safety, security and success.  One could suggest we are even confused about what success might look like or how best to define failure.  Within such a fragmented milieu we, as educators and professionals, seek wisdom in charting rough seas, clarity in rendering hard decisions and courage in confidently moving ahead.

 

CONNECTING DISPARATE DOTS

 

“Though there is a higher and wider significance to life, of what value is education if we never discover it?

J. Krishnamurti [i]

 

Within the ethos of architectural education, and also architectural practice, we have constructed and implemented a potpourri of rules and bevy of regulations aimed at encouraging competencies and ensuring triumph.  Accreditation guides curriculum and considerations in the academy while legislation leads policies and principles in the profession.  Sincere attempts are made to foster a climate, in both realms, where students and practitioners have a sense of appropriate behaviours and an awareness of acceptable actions.  That said, often the systems fail resulting in impotency, irrelevancy, and a cache of folks ill-equipped to and incapable of truly succeeding given the jumble of laws, tsunami of forces and spectrum of problems at play.  At a base level we need to be tackling pressing points around human values, including building greater clarity around integrity, trust, care and compassion.  While the present paper is, in the first instance, concerned about post-secondary education and professional practice lying beyond, there is no doubt effective solutions will necessitate reaching back into primary and secondary education.  To more effectively change society for the better, to cultivate a culture where equity and fairness proliferate, and to meaningfully couple head and heart in our modern world, will demand enormous innovation and ingenuity commencing at the earliest stages of education.

 

Education in the professions, and professional practice thereafter, must assume far more significant and critical questioning around values, ethics and actions.  Students and professionals alike need to be far better prepared to problem seek and problem solve with heightened efficacy. A focus on facts and figures, and the push to inculcate knowledge, should be replaced with an emphasis on creativity, systems thinking and the capacity to connect the dots.  We need to develop, train, educate and sensitize architects and environmental designers who can transcend narrow and conventional silos in order to see more broadly, to think more deeply and to look far longer into an unknown tomorrow.  By intention this paper flags aspects that prove central in our quest for the more poetic, the more pragmatic, and a better blend of the two.  Beauty, balance, fitness and function need to be simultaneously sought and secured as we endeavour to create and construct communities that bring health, happiness and harmony to the people we serve.  I offer my thoughts on these essential aspects based upon my experiences around the globe with many persons and nations, rich and poor, developed and developing, regardless of political inclinations, spiritual predilections and cultural characterizations.

 

 

 

  1. SUSTAINABILITY: In an era of significant pollution, growing population, eroding resources and rapid urbanization, it seems necessary for architects to assume key roles in leading civilization to a better place.  If this claim seems rather idealistic, then at least we have a professional obligation to be more efficient, more effective and more thoughtful.  As I visit schools of Architecture around the planet I am moved by the efforts of students to make a difference, socially, culturally, economically, environmentally and even politically.  The academy, it seems to me, needs to foster such mindfulness.  Universities should push students to question the status quo, to rely on evidence in decision making, and to demonstrate real citizenship.  A part of this charge is the need to shape in students solid world and self views.  If a student can begin to grasp the reality of the world, and can figure out his or her place within the system, then perhaps actions arising from such knowledge can have meaningful impact.  Ignorance, on the flip side, proves highly problematic.  Regardless of location, architectural education and practice must display and demonstrate both responsivity and responsibility in the ethos of sustainability.
  2. MODERNITY:  For much of the past several centuries the order of the day has been exploitation, colonization, despoilment and destruction.  While of course serious strides have been made, including scientific, technical and medical advancements for example, the overall well-being of our world and its constituent parts seems in question.  One element that needs reconsideration is our definition of progress.  Hegemony of popular culture, and especially the widespread embrace of Western values, seems to fly in the face of common sense.  Sound approaches to sustainability call for greater attention to local climate, greater sensitivity to local culture, greater deployment of local labour, and greater use is local materials.  Modernity, in a similar vein, should be rooted more squarely within local and regional contexts.  To be modern in our times, in America or India or China or Canada, while sharing some qualities, should clearly acknowledge, embrace and embody the spirit and nuance of time and place.  Steel and glass facades should not proliferate globally.  Mechanical air conditioning should not be a singular solution for cooling space.  Space should not be generic.  Buildings should not be objects.  Interiors should not be identical.  Diverse people, cultures, values and variables should ensure a diverse architecture – one symbiotic with and rooted in the conditions in which it arises.  Multiple interpretations of modernity prove essential and invigorating.
  3. INTEGRITY:  As professionals architects have an extraordinary commitment to execute work with care, consideration and competence.  This set of expectations transcends construction science, structural character and building performance, in a physical sense, to also encompass qualities psychological, sociological and spiritual.  At the core of this challenge is the need for tremendous integrity in the discharge of duties, the substance of solutions, and the contributions we bring to our clients and the public.  Ethics reside central in this equation.  Architecture schools need to focus major attention on this matter of moral action and ethical behaviour.  Good judgement must be taught.  Critical assessment must be instilled.  Students of Architecture, and practising Architects beyond, must be equipped with the knowledge, skills and values needed to examine and solve wicked problems.  Rather than a Faustian willingness to sell out the soul, environmental design professionals need to be able to clearly see the options, adjudicate their merit, and resolve dilemmas with real integrity.
  4. INGENUITY:  Creativity is a powerful tool in our arsenal.  Architecture, as an extraordinary blend of art and science, is well positioned to analyze difficult problems and to develop sound solutions.  Narrowness, fragmentation and run-away specialization has, to my mind, hamstrung both the academy and the profession.  Creativity and ingenuity offer us potent means to counter this tendency to blind ourselves from the wholeness of our affairs and the richness of our world.  An architect’s mindset and methods can proffer clever and novel keys to longstanding troubles.  It is clear that society’s conventional ways of working have resulted in many of the serious issues now confronting the modern world.  It also seems apparent that the status quo, and business as usual, have dead-ended.  Our education systems, not only within the post-secondary realm but crucially beginning in early childhood, need to encourage unconventional thinking, nurture creativity, and reward ingenuity.  Architecture schools, as unique hotbeds of novelty and experimentation, must propel even further.
  5. AGILITY:  One of the few certainties of our contemporary times is uncertainty.  The pace of change is dramatic.  The products of change are profound.  And the need for change arguably undeniable.  Architects must be educated to handle such turbulence and overcome such turmoil.  A vital direction we must pursue, to such ends, is the fuller embrace of agile architecture and open building.  Our designs must anticipate transition and be able to repurpose.  The notion of static environments and immutable buildings is rapidly falling out of favour.  Buildings should be able to shift and morph as needs change, communities reconfigure and activities alter.  Rather than expecting people to adapt to environments, environments must react, respond and reform based on human needs.  In terms of Architectural education, curriculum and pedagogy, this translates into fewer obsessions with product and object and more concern with process and humanity.
  6. HOLISM:  Lastly, Architecture students and practitioners need to be intensely skilled at connecting the dots.  Pulling disparate ideas together.  Looking at the bigger picture.  Joining parts, bridging gaps, and linking pieces seem increasingly essential in a world fraught with disconnection, dysfunction, separation and isolation.  Architecture, as a discipline and profession, seeks to celebrate the general before the specific, and to honour the system before the components.  Gestalt psychology holds that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.  Nowhere does this adage resonate truer than in the ethos of Architecture and Design.  Holism is fundamental, essential and increasingly valuable.

 

SUMMARY | PROPELLING AHEAD

 

“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

Antoine de Saint Exupery [ii]

 

Today we are challenged in ways incomprehensible to our ancestors.  Degradation of our moral realm, destruction of our physical milieu, and erosion of our social structures, all equate into an intense agenda for architecture, architecture schools and the architectural profession.  Above all, and well beyond the circumscribed aspects of curriculum, technology and disciplinary knowledge are the vital dimensions of open-mindedness, humility, respect and wisdom.  In my simple definition wisdom is the coupling of head and heart.  Our modern civilization places far too much emphasis on the head, on matters of cognition and aspects of rationality, than on the equally essential focus on the heart, on matters of emotion and aspects of intuition.  The greatest gift an educator can impart to his or her students is wisdom.  Even in small amounts it proves a huge counterpoint to more rigid, formulaic and over-simplified ways of approaching questions, solving problems, designing buildings, and caring for humanity.  Wisdom, when partnered with qualities of compassion, can shift directions in profound ways.  Our times are abundant with difficulties yet rich with possibilities.  Architecture affords avenues to see, think and act in inhabitual, ingenious, holistic and effectual ways.  Problems demand solutions.  Values prove vital.  Being truly human is truly crucial.  Design matters.  People count.  Dots need connecting. 

 



[i] Krishnamurti, J.  Education and the Significance of Life.  New York: Harper Collins.  1981.  pp 11.

[ii] de Saint Exupery, Antoine.  Le Petit Prince.  Paris: Gallimard.  1941. ch. 21

 

Note:  all photographs by author | reproduction with permission only | copyright 2010 – brian r. sinclair