Discussing University Works

April 5, 2010

On a Saturday morning, we assembled a panel of eight architects and educators that have lived, studied, worked or taught at locations around the world. The discussion centered around their thoughts and impressions of the project we undertook, University Works, and the differences in learning and teaching, not specifically the student work. It was meant to spark a discussion, not a resolution.

Participants included Andrew Clark (AC), Judith De Jong (JDJ), Alexander Eisenschimdt (AE), Iker Gil (IG), Jimenez Lai (JL), Paul Preissner (PP), Juan Manuel Rois (JMR), and Karla Sierralta (KS).


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From left to right: Jimenez Lai, Paul Preissner, and Juan Manuel Rois, UIC, 2010. © Iker Gil.

IG: We can start the conversation by sharing your first impressions of the work on the wall.

JMR: What I am thinking is how cultural material gets reproduced and, at the same time, where information is introduced in this discipline. And to me, what I am looking on the wall is basically the second tier of expression of cultural material, and not the first one. I don’t think that innovation is on the wall, but basically the enforced repetition by institutions of things that then become clichés. Of course, in every repetition, in every reproduction then you have variations. Institutions come with disciplinary enforcement and with ideologies, so ideas are appropriated and transformed to fit in a specific context of politics and economics. It is interesting how you can actually trace that genealogy. You can actually trace where every project on the wall comes from. Basically, many of the things that we have here on the wall we have seen before. There is some weird stuff too.

The weird stuff appears when there isn’t a practitioner, which is like the bad gene, or a very old gene, getting back into the conversation. There are probably drops of weird stuff all over the place, and you understand it as some kind of peak at the cultural material.

KS: Are you saying that the weird is the innovative?

JMR: Yes. They are moments of brilliance that they don’t get stratified or solidified, because we are practicing in schools and not in the real world.

KS: Do you think that with all these new blogs and the opportunity of students of publishing their own work, there would be more possibility of some of this work to get out there out there faster than before?

PP: I think it does get out and that is why it’s not surprising that so much of the work looks the same.

JDJ: One of the things that is interesting is that there are some universities up here where the five projects are so broad that it’s actually difficult to discern the direction of the school. Even when you read the description and then you look across the projects, they don’t necessarily correlate. My question to the rest of you then would be, do you think in a framework such as this, it’s a stronger idea to show range that may not in fact reinforce position or would it be more instructive to, in fact, select five projects that reinforce the position of the school?

IG: That’s a good point. Is it a unified direction of the school or is it a specific collection of projects that represent the interests of the curators’? That was one of the questions we raised as we approached the schools for selection. For example, in the case of ETSAM with 4,000 students it is clearly not the intention to have single identity for the school. Can you give an image or do they even want to give an image?

AC: Is the idea of this publication a successful way of exploring this discussion, or is this idea in of itself unable to obtain an image or position of school?

JMR: I think there are certain schools, because of their scale, scope and vision, that can craft a particular identity. But there are other ones that cannot, especially because they are not in the professional frameworks. Some of these schools have professional degrees so they have to train the nuts and bolts of the profession. Other ones are just asking the questions of the discipline because they don’t have that professional attachment. So it is very hard to try to establish a mutual relationship.

JDJ: I think maybe that’s a false distinction because all the schools have a certain obligation towards the profession. That’s not to say they are teaching the profession, but your distinction of schools that don’t teach the profession is perhaps unfair.

JMR: But that’s true. There are certain schools that their degree is the professional degree of Architecture —“I am an architect.” Where if I finish school in the U.S., I am not an architect.

JDJ: But it is still a professional degree.

IG: What Juan is saying is that in some schools, after you receive the degree, you can practice right away, and in the U.S. there is a next level of education required before you can practice.

JDJ: I see. You are saying in those schools where professional frameworks exist, they have the obligation that once you graduate from their school, you are a practicing architect.

JMR: They have a legal obligation. They are practicing the way they teach. I think the American model is more interesting to me.

JDJ: In that respect, do you think that the American projects are potentially more speculative because they have fewer obligations?

JMR: They can be.

PP: The ETH is an American model in terms of their curriculum, so I don’t know if that is fully true for all. I think everybody has the same legal and professional obligation. Certainly, given the five projects of the schools, I can‘t see how you would figure which ones do or don’t. I don’t think any of them are more or less speculative than other projects. For me, you can’t really evaluate the schools based on five projects without knowing the studio context that those five came from and what may be the other projects in that studio. These publications are always good because they can get a dialogue going between the different curators, but I don’t think you can get the dialogue between the different schools. But you do see that more or less everybody has the same technical capabilities at their disposal. I think that has a lot to do with what Karla brought up, which is that blogs and online journals have really accelerated the ability of students to be visually comfortable with what’s going on. I’ve noticed that, in the last 10 years of teaching things like software, it used to take a whole semester and now it takes two weeks because students are already more visually comfortable with what to do. They don’t have to grapple with what it looks like because they already have that expectation. Australia looks like Chicago, looks like Zurich, looks like…No one is better than anybody else anymore… maybe Argentina is a little behind. But you know, you would hope that Argentina would figure out that they shouldn’t just play catch up because it will never work. They need to figure out how to cheat and jump ahead of all.

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Jimenez Lai and Judith De Jong, UIC, 2010. © Iker Gil.

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Alexander Eisenschimdt and Jimenez Lai, UIC, 2010. © Iker Gil.

AE: But that’s exactly why curating an agenda would be important. Because it gets so homogenized through the technical capabilities and through the internet, blogs and these kind of things. The boundary conditions no longer exist, so having a strong agenda for the school or for a studio it’s actually really important. Otherwise, we get this kind of blur context.

PP: It is also tough because we are in a very mushy moment.

JL: We as in UIC?

PP: No, everybody in the profession. Schools don’t know what to do next.

AE: But there are always just a few schools. There was never a time where schools across the globe knew what they were doing. At certain point it was the AA, at another point it was Columbia, and this had to do with a person in the department or Chair that had a clear agenda. In a way, these publications are really good, and the ones that will stick out have an agenda. It might be that the discipline is in a moment of flux, but at the same time, it is usually at these moments of flux where schools suddenly identify a very clear position, at least that’s what happened in the 60s and 70s when Tschumi went to Columbia. In a way, the five works don’t give us the ability to identify their clear position, but nevertheless I think it is maybe too easy to just say it’s the situation right now and that’s why we can’t define it. There are certain schools that seem to position themselves, and, as Iker was saying, that there are some schools who just say, we are so broad, we have so many students and so many faculty that we don’t even try to plant a position, which I think is a fairly weak spot.

IG: For me, when I was studying in Spain, there were two models. One was the architecture school of Barcelona, where I studied, and the second one is the architecture school in Madrid. Barcelona had a more controlled way of teaching, carrying certain qualities throughout all the studios. The model of the architecture school of Madrid for me was always more open, where professors had really different interests but a really clear agenda and identity. And probably this is an excessive generalization but the younger generations coming from the ETSAM have probably had a bigger impact in the profession in Spain, especially in competitions.

JL: There is something about the choice of these schools that is a little flat. I feel that when Juan was talking about professional training he establishes a distinction between vocational training and surplus. For the discourse or discipline, we actually need the schools that have less connection to vocational training. Places like the Berlage Institute or Sci-Arc have less affinity to commitment there. Because when we are talking how slow or fast things are moving, they are moving all at once. Of course, the genealogies can be detected but the quality at which they are innovating is slower. But I think these things only happen when there is a surplus in the systems.

JMR: It’s not that I want to defend the Argentinean case, but in the catch up game, basically it is the only school on the wall that it is not part of an advanced economy or first world. We like to think that we are but we are not. In the catching up game, I think that before architecture was a discipline the only thing that you needed was a table, two or three tools, spatial imagination and architectonic ability. Right now you need to have routers, 3d scanners…

AE: In order to do what?

JMR: In order to play this game, in order to part of this wall. There is a big divide and it is called the digital divide. It’s an economic reality, and is also because we are an applied profession. We aren’t in a bubble, speculating about ideas. We are connected to economic realties and construction protocols. We don’t build with digital technologies in South America, there is no expertise there. When it is going to happen or if it’s ever going to happen is an open question.

AC: Is the digital divide shrinking faster?

JMR: I don’t see it shrinking. I actually see it becoming wider.

AC: It is an interesting point, because Argentina is the only school, outside one or two projects from other schools, that selected projects which were built or installed in a physical space. Does it represent this divide or the reality of the culture of South America?

AE: But that is a choice by the curator, isn’t it?

AC: It certainly is, but it’s also a distinctive quality for them as opposed to the other schools in the way in which they represent their work or direction there is actually going. From desk, drawing board, computer, to built, perhaps there is a condensation of time given their reality. In fact, built realities might not exist for the other schools, because their work will mostly stay in the world of desktop computer as they cycle through the machine of architectural education and practice.

AE: But one could make the argument that when Columbia introduced the paperless studio there was the model where, the only thing you need is the computer. It did not need the 3D router or 3D printer.

JMR: That was 15 years ago. Now you need the router.

AE: Do you need a router to teach your studio?

PR: We are obviously quite poor [at UIC]. We have two machines and one is always on fire. What you actually see is that regardless the finances, every schools ends up being the same. First of all, the students steal stuff, its not like everyone buys it. In that sense, you would think that Latin America should be stealing more than they are. But none of that matters. There is no clear direction that anybody is really making and if it was, we would know it. Columbia is a model, AA is another. When that happens, it is clear and everybody knows it. We are still too early for that to be clear because things have just changed at UIC and I don’t know the history of the direction of the other schools that are up here. As a curation, maybe all of these are a little too Eurocentric, with the exception of Latin America and Japan. Australia might be geographically different but Australia is not that different. We are all just looking at different Macintosh Apples.

JDJ: And within that, it’s also a very specific set of schools. It would be interesting, for example, to get some random school from Southern Italy and some random school from another location.

JL: But it shouldn’t be random. I think it should be a school with a distinct identity. For example, Y-GSA, the Yokohama Graduate School of Architecture, produces a really distinctive kind of architecture that is extremely different from Waseda University. But Waseda University is a very technically sound place.

JDJ: Actually, the one thing that I do see across all of these schools and again, I think this is maybe a question of the initial curation, is a very explicit interest in engaging with the city.

JL: Every university is located in a metropolis except for Virginia Tech.

JDJ: But even Virginia Tech has actually recognized that it’s an issue for them so several of these projects are from their Chicago Studio. They actually bring their students to Chicago because they realize that is a necessity. What do you do when you are located outside a metropolitan area? I think they are trying to, in fact, engage those metropolitan issues.

AC: To that point, if we take the same snapshot ten years ago programmatically, would we see different projects developed? Would we see less urban projects? Would there be a wider bandwidth to the work?

JMR: Program, in the schools, never changes. What changes are the forms they will take.

JDJ: I think that the level of engagement in the city in this set of schools might not have changed because they are located in cities, and that is potentially part of their agenda. I don’t know all the schools from 10 years ago so that’s a speculation on my part. I suspect that there are schools outside the metropolitan areas, like Virginia Tech, who have made explicit decisions to engage urban issues and have changed in 10 years.

JMR: But I don’t think that it’s about the urban issue at all, I think is about the digital technology. Digital technology has changed the way we think in this profession and actually how we work. And they have decided that they are not interested in that. I don’t know if it is a conscious decision or not but what is on the wall does not have any interest of computer in design. And if 10 years ago we have had the same snapshots we would have 3 schools less with digital examples.

JDJ: I was speaking strictly about their interest in the city.

JMR: I don’t think it is a programmatic issue, I think it’s more of an implementation of the technology in the design culture.

IG: If the projects selected by the curators represent the school, whether they are a comprehensive view or a small snapshot, what do the school introductions and studio pictures add to the conversation?

PP: All this work is from the schools, so it is representative of the schools. I like the pictures they sent to show their schools.

AE: These are the best.

PP: Every school looks like it could be the same school, except for University of Toronto. They really wanted us to know that celebrities speak in Toronto. Everyone else is the same, even Universidad Torcuato Di Tella and UIC look the same. What’s great is that UIC, which has a lot of digital projects shown, its picture shows “Maylines.” I think the pictures of the schools sometimes could be more telling.

AC: Also, the pictures of the schools are tied with selections of text from their website. It’s either the position of the school or what the school is about. So there is a dialogue between the image of the school and what they are actually saying to broadcast it on their website.

PP: Just knowing the example from the school we teach at, I don’t want to read any of these too much with just the curators. Because for example, Doug [Garofalo] curated the ones from UIC but none of them are from Doug’s studios. I don’t know if there is enough information in just these five projects to start making a discussion about where people come from and where they go. Those projects did not come from Doug’s studio so it really doesn’t matter what his history is for the productions of these projects. I think we have to be less deep about these things. These are five projects that represent each school and we take it as a face value. And then we have to see what their ambitions are instead of the technical competence. Juan and I were talking that the schools should try to figure out how to be cool instead of how to be rich.

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Karla Sierralta, UIC, 2010. © Iker Gil.

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Juan Manuel Rois, Jimenez Lai, and Paul Preissner, UIC, 2010. © Iker Gil.

KS: How do you become cool?

PP: It is like in high school, you are either from the rich group or you are from the cool group. Sometimes they are the same. If you want to be popular, which is what all these schools want to be, you can either be rich and then you have all the software, technologies, and the facilities that you can stay up to date, or you have to be really cool.

JDJ: The burden on the poor schools is to be cool.

JMR: It’s a survival strategy.

JL: It shouldn’t be about survival.

PP: You have to figure out how to skip ahead of the line. It happens in every artistic practice. Either you have high production value or you have to figure out how you can make cool music cheap, and that’s what rock music does as opposed to live studio music. I don’t know if we can tell that from these projects.

JMR: Survival sounds tragic. It is true that to be part of the conversation you need to find what is your position. It’s all about being in touch with your own expertise and how you can leap frog.

IG: One question that I want to ask is how do you distribute the information that is produced in the academic world, considering that some of them have more economic resources than others? Is it a website? Is it a publication, where the avenues of the publication are very tight and competitive? Is it self publishing? How do you get your work out?

AE: I guess there are 3 ways. One way is through the students. There are certain schools that utilize the graduated students that go off and hear about them because they pop up everywhere, because they teach in different universities, do good work, or they start offices right away. Another one is the university itself, either through their lecture series or their faculty itself, where they travel around. In those schools you hardly hear about the students work. And then, the third one I think is the student publications. While they all do them, I am actually not so sure how important they actually are. I always get the UPenn publication in the mail and it’s really impressive but I don’t think anybody else really sees these publications. They make 2,000 or 3,000 and then, they mail them out to the alumni, so it is a tight group of people that will get them. But I think the other two methods, the students and the school, do it more.

JDJ: I think the publication actually has more weight than the other groups you are speaking of. For example, we have 4th year undergraduate students with the UPenn publication from last fall. I do think that those things disseminate past the alumni and do, in fact, have an effect. Also, I think the websites do matter, because when students do their research on schools for the graduate program, the work on the site communicates the position of the school. We found that to be incredibly important in conveying our message. The digital catalogue, whether it’s printed on paper or not, is actually really critical to disseminating the ideas of the school.

AC: I think also the students are looking to other schools, and knowing who the professors are in many ways actually starts to dictate choices. So knowing certain faculty, or specific people that are teaching there is really interesting. There is definitely the university and there is also the faculty who are teaching and promoting their ideas that creates that kind of dialogue, and helps the students to select one school or another. It’s as much about the professor that I can encounter while there as it is going to the university itself.

JMR: The issue of choice is a very American model. If you are from Rosario you don’t have a choice, you go to the only school that is around. For me is not a competition and I am not looking for more visibility to bring something. To me, this is about the cultural discussion. You need to know what is going in your field. In my personal case, my field is mostly architectural education and also practice, so I want to know not only what is being done but also how it is told. Any kind of medium for being in touch easier is good, whether is this publication or a web page.

AC: We selected everybody for this panel because the book is a global look and all of you have either taught, worked, or come from another country to the US; or you have multiple degrees at schools within or outside the US; or you have lectured abroad. Is it advantageous for you to float among the schools, float among countries, to review in different universities? There are professors who obtained their degrees all the way to PhD and are still teaching in the same school. Is it an advantage, and is it a contemporary condition?

AE: It’s certainly interesting to see it. The only problem is that I know the schools that I see on the wall. I know Universidad Torcuato di Tella through Juan, I have sat on reviews of Parsons, I teach at UIC and I have visited some of the others, so I actually know these schools. What it would be really interesting for me is to discover other schools. I have no idea how architecture schools in Africa function, what kind of work they put out. For me it would be really interesting to say that every continent gets three schools. Either your pick them or somehow they are filtered out. That would be for me even more interesting because then we are really going beyond what we know—schools that for the most part do the expected things.

JMR: This, in the end, is a really tight network of schools.

IG: You are suggesting then moving to another network of schools.

JMR: There are schools that are outside this network.

JL: Regarding the question about different continents, without meeting a person from Nigeria who was working at OMA, I wouldn’t have known that perspective. I would ask him which schools are the most amazing in Africa, because obviously there are. I would even look within the US, for example Taliesin, which is weird, it’s a strange place. They operate their academic and ecological model entirely outside this spectrum.

KS: I wonder if it would be interesting to do a cross pollination not of the people who curated the work but the people who taught the work in the schools. Maybe then you could try to get out of that cross-pollination and find those schools we are now suggesting. I think the work might be different then.

IG: So what we are arriving at is that even though these selected schools are spread out, it might be possible that different schools, much closer geographically, are more different and part of completely different networks. So distance has less of a role in some networks?

PP: But I don’t know if you are ever going to find what you might want in that sense. The work has become more or less even at this point. Everybody is pretty rapidly aware of what’s going in on in the rest of the world. It’s not like there is natural Danish work, or natural South African work, that is distinctly in itself anymore, because everybody travels in one way or another too much. I remember Joe Rosa had this show at the art Institute of Chicago called “Young Chicago” and in all the criticisms of the show it came up that some of us who were in the show were not from Chicago, as though if that was going to happen anymore. You are never going to have any big city where its representative work is from people who have never left it. It’s not the nature of how things work.

At the level of a university, which is not cheap to go, you are in a pretty small minority of population. You are not going to find that localism that might have occurred 60 years ago, the means weren’t as quick. Now you know what happens in Japan because the blog “Dezeen” publishes it every two days. You don’t have to go there to actually be familiar with it, and everybody is so quick at assimilating what they are seeing that they can internalize and start doing it. So even the school that is starting to get there, has the stuff. We are just a little better at the guitar because we have been playing it longer.

AE: So does the publication want to show that across the globe all the schools are the same?

PP: I don’t think they are all the same. I think they are technically all at the same speed.

AE: That’s what we are saying; technology is no longer an excuse.

PP: Clearly the representatives from the ETHZ are very serious; they don’t like to joke around in Architecture. It is very evident. And UIC likes to joke around in Architecture. In terms of the level of production, they both take it seriously but in terms of content, one school has no sense of humor and the other one has a sense of humor about it. So I think you can see those kind of differences. One school has a kind of moral agenda and other schools don’t seem to have that. There are differences between them, but I just don’t think that the selection from a curator gives that proper conversation. All of these are in different circles, it seems like a speed dating event.
JL: If there is a criteria about the curatorial selection process, like the persona of the metropolis, we would have some impression of their position. I wonder if it has to do more with the school or the city.

JDJ: But, for example, within Chicago there are very different points of view among the four schools of architecture. So one cannot describe that to a city necessarily.

JL: In a way you could, because for me, I am here because Chicago is the capital of a really huge region, it’s exciting to be here, and somehow that seems to be the case for many other people.

PP: A lot of the reasons why people go from one place to another is because a job is offered to you. You might not have an intellectual commitment to a city until you have an economic interest. I don’t think that’s a false or fraudulent way to go about it but I don’t think we shouldn’t discount why people move. There are not these pure attractions to how cities are organized that made them what they are. You have a job here. Its not like we would hang out for free.

JL: Except on Saturday mornings for two hours with you guys!