A Theory to Stand On

TEXT Colin Ripley, Kathy Velikov, RVTR
The past decade has seen a significant shift in research and teaching practices within architecture schools across North America and the world. Confronted with rapidly developing technology, a renewed urgency around environmental sustainability, and a new awareness within the architectural community of the role of large-scale ecosystems and infrastructural networks, younger faculty have come to redefine the role and practice of the architect-researcher.
In early March of this year, this shifting ground for architectural education was foregrounded at the 99th Annual Meeting of the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ACSA) in Montreal. All accredited architecture programs in the United States and Canada are members of ACSA. In addition to the annual meeting, ACSA holds an administrators’ conference and a number of theme conferences every year, oversees the production of the Journal of Architectural Education, runs several student competitions, has a robust awards program for educators, and is an important advocacy body for the schools.
Not surprisingly, the ACSA Annual Meeting is rarely held in Canada. In Montreal, over four intense days at the Hilton Bonaventure, a new Canadian region of ACSA was formed (previously, Canadian schools were divided among the North East, North Central and North West regions), partly from a desire on the part of the Canadian schools to have a distinctly Canadian voice, but also partly because the American schools recognize that Canada can present a critical external viewpoint on American architectural education. The organizers of this year’s conference–Anne Cormier from the Université de Montreal, Alberto Pérez-Gómez from McGill University, and Annie Pedret from the University of Illinois at Chicago–took full advantage of this Canadian externality, choosing as a theme for the meeting the simple question that would focus the discussion on a critical reappraisal of architectural education and, for that matter, architecture: Where do you stand?
The ACSA Annual Meeting always has the potential to be an important moment for architectural education, as the gathering of academics from across North America and beyond allows people to see what their colleagues are doing and hear what they are thinking about. The conferences both mirror recent developments in the schools and–largely because of the preponderance of junior faculty who show up to deliver papers–point to directions the schools may be headed. The Montreal conference appeared to live up to this potential, offering up an unusual and perhaps surprising consistency in terms of paper presentations as well as what a number of attendees referred to as a generational shift.
Two key events at the conference seemed to open up and clarify both the importance of this moment as a transitional point in architectural education. First, Alberto Pérez-Gómez, in his introduction to the opening keynote speaker, called for a rethinking of design education to move beyond instrumentality and to integrate history, philosophy, society and ethics into the practical.  These sentiments were echoed by the keynote speaker, Nasrine Seraji, an architect and educator currently practicing in France while directing two schools of architecture: one in Vienna and one in Paris. The rethinking of design pedagogy, especially with respect to the question of the integration of history in design studio, was taken up by both paper and special focus sessions over the following three days.
However, as Annie Pedret made clear in her introduction to the closing keynote speaker, the conference as a whole was dominated not only by issues of pedagogy, but by an idea of expansion–of architecture expanding beyond its traditional field of operations. In these sessions, in papers presented in other sessions, in poster presentations, and in casual conversations at the conference, ideas and practices were put forward that challenge a traditional (even if never really accurate) conception of the architect as a designer of buildings. Work was presented that brought architectural methods and strategies to bear on systems that operate at a much larger scale, from that of landscape to that of regions, mega-regions, or watersheds. The tendency of architects, or at least architectural academics, to work at these greatly expanded scales has been developing over the course of the last decade or so, in the wake of theoretical concepts such as landscape urbanism. At the previous ACSA meeting in New Orleans, work of this type was limited to one hugely popular session; in Montreal it seemed to have achieved dominance.
The import of this shift was made clear in the closing keynote by Mason White of Lateral Office, InfraNet Lab and the University of Toronto. White was a late substitution for David Adjaye as keynote speaker, and the content of his presentation, as well as his work, is perhaps emblematic of this larger shift. With his partner at Lateral Office, Lola Sheppard, White is the 2010 winner of the Professional Prix de Rome in Architecture in recognition of a significant collection of design research projects rather than the more typical large body of built work. Lateral Office is the third Prix de Rome winner in a row–after Pierre Bélanger in 2008 and RVTR in 2009–whose work is primarily based within the academic world of design research based on analysis and intervention at the regional scale.
After presenting a theoretical positioning of the expanded scope for architecture, based closely on Rosalind Krauss’s influential 1979 paper “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” White presented several design research projects by Lateral Office and InfraNet Lab that operate as clear examples of this expanded scope. Most interesting, though, was the title of his talk: “Architecture After Discipline.” The title implies a radically changed view of architecture, one in which we see architecture not as a discipline linked to the study of buildings, nor as a profession linked to the production of buildings, but as a set of practices that are available to be applied to multiple situations and scales. The architect in this postdisciplinary framework is defined not by technical knowledge, but by a collection of modes of operation. This is a significant shift in thinking. While attention has been paid at ACSA conferences in the recent past to architecture as a discipline, seeking to consolidate disciplinary knowledge and to operate in interdisciplinary or cross-disciplinary modes, White points to architecture’s transdisciplinary potential; architecture as a set of practices transcends disciplinary knowledge. These practices also include actively redefining the discipline, as well as producing new audiences for the work through media such as the InfraNet Lab Blog and the [bracket] almanac publication.

Back to Discipline
Architecture’s transdisciplinary expansion presents exciting possibilities for those of us engaged in research and teaching in architecture. It is also readily accepted by students, who are eager to apply their new skills of conceptualization, integration, projection and visualization to situations beyond the scope of a building. It is likely that in the coming years we will see a concurrent expansion in the scope of design and research projects posed in studios in the schools. Faculty will develop expertise not so much in the area of building design, but in landscape, urban design, regional planning, ecological design, and so on.
What is not so clear, however, is the effect that this expansion will have on the profession. We can imagine, for example, architectural offices continuing to diversify their production, focusing less and less on the technical tasks of designing buildings and more and more on the tasks of conceptualization, integration, projection and visualization. We can imagine, over time, the development of new revenue streams–new clients, governmental and corporate–to support
this work. We can imagine profound ramifications for the structure of the profession, for licensure and for liability insurance, ramifications ranging from diversification to irrelevance. Perhaps this is all well and good, as technical knowledge becomes lodged more and more in the coming decades in our machines. However, we can also imagine a retrenchment into disciplinary solidarity, a demand for increased technical competence, a backlash against transdisciplinary expansion. However, this backlash will likely not come from the current young generation of educators and practitioners at this last conference–they seem to have all drunk the proverbial Kool-Aid and are happily (and productively) riding this current wave of disciplinary expansion, rewriting design pedagogy in the process.
There is little doubt that technical developments of the last 30 or so years have had, and will continue to have, radical impacts on the form of our societies and on its institutions. The Brazilian-Czech media critic Vilém Flusser posited in 1993 that the computer has ushered in a new species of human–no longer Homo Faber, man the maker, but now Homo Ludens, man the player, as our ages-old ability to grip becomes less important than our newfound facility with our fingertips on a keyboard (and now, with the advent of motion-sensing systems, our gestures in space). Fittingly, next year’s annual conference will be entirely dedicated to architecture’s newly developed “digital aptitudes.” In these times of drastic disciplinary transformations, it is good for us to remember that the institutions that govern architecture–the schools, the practices, and the professional bodies–are all less than 200 years old, with many dating only from the last century, and all products of the series of revolutions that at that time ushered in the modern world. At such times when institutions come under new pressures to adapt to changing societal conditions, we will all have to ask ourselves: Where do we stand? CA

Colin Ripley is an Associate Professor in the Department of Architectural Science at Ryerson University, where he is Director of the Master of Architecture program. Kathy Velikov is an Assistant Professor at the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Michigan. Ripley and Velikov are partners in RVTR.