If you’re not outraged…

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Riffing on my previous post inspired by a bumper sticker, several recent experiences aligned that prompted me to write another. Reflecting on my own experiences in architectural education and professional practice, there have been recurring moments in which I have asked, “Why the heck are things (still) done this way?” The profession of architecture, in academia and the real-world, is well-known as being somewhat cult-like–the result of a passing down of traditions that appear to outsiders like mysterious activities, languages, and ways of thinking, what Reyner Banham has called “the black box of architecture”. As Sharon Sutton (2001) notes, architecture is somewhat unique within the professions in that, rather than splintering into specializations  like medicine or law, “architecture remains remarkably cohesive, comprising characteristics of personal style and individuality, but also historical principles and personalities that define every young person’s socialization into–or exclusion from–the field” (190). What makes architecture such an ‘exclusive’ club is part of what defines its popular image, and those entering the field tend to want to belong to the ‘cool clique’. It also arguably takes enough experience and inculturation in the field to be able to critique or reform something as complex as a profession. Moreover, the feeling of “What the heck?” that a student or intern feels doesn’t have to lead to reformatory plans: after some critical questioning and a bit of research, it could just as likely lead to acceptance of the status quo. What I often wonder is how common this feeling is among others, and how those of us who feel it act upon it.

Architecture, particularly these days, appears as a culture mainly of optimists and utopian thinkers. And necessarily so: design, unlike other potential ways of thinking and acting, is premised on the idea that the future will be better than the present. The trouble comes when optimism constructs blinders to reality and devalues critical inquiry. In a field that depends on innovative thinking and staying current with technological changes, architectural educators and professionals can be paradoxically conservative or reactionary when it comes to certain traditional practices. In professional education, examples of this include: architectural history, which has been taught more or less the same for centuries, premised on a Western narrative of Western superiority with Vitruvius as the authority figure; studio reviews are still patronizing performances of one-directional bloviation, despite critiques from feminists and others who have challenged their format and value. In professional practice, the public process, touted as ‘democratic’, is usually a farce of participation; design criticism in the mainstream media is at an all-time low (though the blogosphere offers some promise). In both academic and professional settings, the most important words to the field have lost most of their meaning: “interdisciplinary collaboration”, “sustainable design”, and “democratic design” tend to be oxymoronic or ironic. Not too long ago, the field of architecture was abuzz with revolution: students and young designers were fed up with the status quo and sought to challenge the cultural norms of the profession. A few of these projects have come to fruition, and definite progress has been made. But fewer and fewer future architects these days seem to consider overturning the apple cart. Consternation with “the ways things are” is usually met with scorn–or worse, the patronizing label of professional naivete.

Admittedly, I paint a bleak picture, one that is just as inaccurate as those who blindly follow their optimism. Within a culture of blind optimism, critical thought is pushed aside, thus becoming negative and obstructionist. So despite my initial impulse that translates critical questioning into negativity, it becomes crucial to search for examples of positive change, for seeds to latch onto. Like any culture, the youth are the most likely source of progress. And here, fortunately, my skepticism and pessimism has been met with examples of students challenging the status quo. Though the minority, they are out there, seeking structural changes to education and professional practice. A paradox remains: by the time you understand what it is you’re seeking to reform, you’ve likely lost your youthful ambition. Thus, just as important as a critical generation of young designers is an experienced generation of designers who accept that change is inevitable, and who value the revolutionary impulse of their successors. If those young designers who are outraged by their experienced become jaded, they are likely to leave the profession or become apathetic and alienated. But if that outrage can be harnessed into productive dialogue about how to reform the profession to meet the needs of the next generation, therein lies hope.

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