Review of Brett Steele’s “Search, not Research”

Last night, Brett Steele, the Director of the Architectural Association in London, spoke at Gould Hall on the topic of contemporary architectural pedagogy. His lecture was particularly relevant to the Critical Design Interest Group simply because the AA represents the pinnacle of architectural discourse internationally. As such, the school–and, even more so, Steele’s talk–acts as a useful barometer that one can critically evaluate the current state of avant-garde design (education) in our historic epoch.

Steele began his talk by sketching his outlook of our current cultural paradigm, which he argues is manifested by new technologies like search engines, social network, and various forms of online communication that have altered social and spatial relationships. He argued that architectural education in particular has been slow to adapt to such socio-technological changes, remaining largely modeled on 19th Century monasticism in terms of pedagogical approach and spatial relationships in the studio. Tracing generational shifts in the actual design of studio spaces, he viewed these as “changes in form, not kind.” Steele went on to advocate for a certain approach to pedagogy that centers on 1:1 prototyping and the re-emergence of “practical training”.  While this mode of education has historic precedents, a few significant changes are at play. First, because of the rapid transformations in technology, architecture schools can and should begin to learn from their students, meaning the traditional role of instructor shifts to facilitator or even documentarian. Related to this, schools should focus their energy less on knowledge production (their primary historic role) and more on knowledge archivism and dissemination. Finally, schools like the AA are now beginning to transcend their physical walls to an unprecedented degree; Steele describes the AA as “more like an airport than a destination”, with students dispersed around the globe, connecting to each other via the web, and only rarely traveling to London.

Steele’s approach to architectural education, particularly his call to remain at the fore of socio-technological transformations, stems from his belief that architectural schools play an important cultural role as a “disruptive technology”. In other words, schools become more than just containers for students, faculty, and technology, but rather themselves are active technologies. This paradigm shifts the school from its historic conception as a space of withdrawal to a space of engagement; where imagining alternative futures can literally mean altering the course of the future, and architecture as it exists on computer screens can begin to take on real-world implications.

In comparing Steele’s pedagogical agenda to a Critical Design pedagogy, there is perhaps a fair amount of overlap. What Steele called the “jettisoning of the monastic tradition” in favor of more horizontal relationships, both within and outside the studio, is certainly an important first step toward improved engagement with real-world issues. Unfortunately, Steele echoes many other architectural program directors of recent years in his denigration of theory, as well as the role of reading and writing in architectural education. At times this was subtle, but occasionally became quite explicit: Steele calls the architectural manifesto a relic of the past, favoring the hands-on prototyping model as the only legitimate form of knowledge acquisition today. Likewise, he made the claim that “the only viable form of theory today is conspiracy theory.” In the wake of postmodern architecture’s discourse on historicism and poststructuralism’s acknowledgement of the death of the author and the primacy of the image, Steele argues that the current discourse on technology is now post-theoretical in nature.

While these characterizations are neither surprising nor unique, they are still troubling. In Steele’s approach to architectural education, it is not his promotion of a certain pedagogy that is in question so much as it is his insistence that one pedagogy should dominate over all overs. As he rightly noted, architectural education has always involved certain debates over what architecture is, and therefore, what architectural knowledge should consist of. But in calling for what can only be described as a hegemonic pedagogical approach, where the prototype model reigns supreme and other forms of knowledge acquisition are denigrated as irrelevant or regressive, the chance for critical thinking and questioning to play any sort of role in the design process is severely limited. Reacting to the intellectual banter that was postmodern architectural theory, the rejection of architectural theory across the board remains a dangerous enterprise if it means rejecting critical theory and critical pedagogy. And herein lies what I believe to be one of the primary roles of the Critical Design Interest Group: to defend against hegemonic  pedagogical approaches that attempt to define our generation of design(ers). Specifically, we reject the apolitical approach to design as merely an art of making that reduces epistemological concerns to digital and physical model making. Moreover, we call into question the logic that attempts to transcend or historicize theory altogether: so-called post-theory cannot avoid theory any more than modernism could avoid history. And if the last few sentences sound like a manifesto, so be it. I’m not willing to sound the manifesto’s death knell, either.

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