ARQ, n. 61 La Profesión / Practice, Santiago, december, 2005, p. 17-24.
Juan Ignacio Baixas *, Alberto Sato**, Juan Román***, Albert Tidy****
* Director Escuela de Arquitectura, Universidad
Católica de Chile, Santiago, Chile.
Baixas & del Río arquitectos, Santiago, Chile.
** Decano Facultad de Arquitectura y Diseño de la Universidad Nacional Andrés Bello, Santiago, Chile.
*** Director Escuela de Arquitectura Universidad de Talca, Talca, Chile.
**** Director Escuela de Arquitectura Universidad de Chile, Santiago, Chile.
Profesor Escuela de Diseño Universidad Diego Portales, Santiago, Chile.
Schools of architecture are spreading all over Chile. How can these institutions outline their specific operative field, ensuring a space in society for their graduates? These topics are part of the definitions set by the chairs and deans of four Chilean schools of architecture.
Key words: Architecture, practice, schools of architecture, architecture studios, architects.
About the formative process of architects
Juan Ignacio Baixas
When confronting the problem of the formative process of architects, two main questions come up to my mind:
The first is: Which aspects of the architectural profession should students acquire during their university training, considering that the complexity of this profession demands an expertise that can only be acquired in the course of a lifetime devoted to it, and that in Chile university training does not only lead to an academic degree but also to a professional title?
The second is: How can architecture be learned, keeping in mind that it is a profession that combines the utilitarian focus of technical and scientific skills with the purposelessness of artistic occupations.
In answer to the first question, I believe the main thing about the university training of architects is the acquisition of an ethics related to creativity and the determination to transform reality through their work.
An ethics of creativity and the determination to transform reality are two of the main premises on which our school’s instruction has been founded. Throughout the years, we have attempted to consolidate and preserve these two principles as the center of the school’s spirit.
The first of them has to do with the fact that architectural works are always created in response to a commission and to a particular set of circumstances, i.e. with a given time, place, and potential users in mind, and so they are necessarily original works. This originality aims at the creation of a possible cultural future, and thus belongs to the realm of creative work.
This originality, however, must also have as a result a potentially habitable construction, and so it must consider all of the conditions required to produce that habitability. This is often difficult in an increasingly specialized world where crucial matters are often overlooked, a world that, as Heidegger has put it, is threatened by the concealed essence of modern technique: a production no longer conceived under the model of Greek poiesis but rather as unlimited exploitation of the planet, with all the risk such an attitude entails.
In this world, our university, guided by its commitment to Christian ethics, attempts not only to follow the basic ethical principle of justice, but also to complement it with an ethics based on charity, together with a fostering of the greatest talent given to us by our Creator, creativity destined to the production of beauty, utility, and habitability.
The second of our guiding principles, the determination to transform reality, has to do with the fact that our teaching methods require a great degree of abstraction: even though our ultimate goal is the construction of actual architectural works, our academic activity as instructors does not include it as part of the formative process of future architects due to the time and resources such a commitment would require.
A consequence of this gap between architectural instruction and actual professional practice is that, even though innovation and creativity have a central place in this and other schools, these qualities are not always observable in the architectural production that determines the quality of life in our cities.
We should, therefore, attempt to maintain links to the professional reality and the actual conditions of its exercise in the outside world: our ability to reflect on these conditions and abstract them should always be tempered by a strong determination to transform reality. This determination should be present in all of our academic tasks, and it should have as a result a strong grasp of building techniques in all of their delicate details, a commitment to the use of environment friendly energies; a good command of structuring and management techniques and of all the other aspects involved in the generation of architectural forms. These aspects cannot be taken for granted nor can they be considered as simple “extra features” that can be added later to an architect’s training. Much to the contrary, they are part of the productive process of any architectural work, and they give it the richness and density that characterize an accomplished work.
Architectural form thus conceived is not entirely representable through bi- or tri-dimensional models, since it includes many much more complex aspects, including for instance the entrepreneurial impulse that made it possible, or the energies that make it perceptible to the senses. When we speak of our determination to transform reality, we refer to this concern with the totality of the factors that result in the true architectural quality of a constructed work.
In response to the second of the aforementioned questions (how to teach this to architecture students), I believe the two key points are a gradual approach to the transmission of skills that characterizes all educational processes, and the transversal perspective that distinguishes modern university instruction.
The emphasis on the gradual acquisition of skills, however, must not be taken to mean that from the first day of their studies on, students should not face all of the challenges of their future profession in all their complexity. In other words, the familiarization with architecture must be gradual in the sense of a slowly increasing degree of depth and intensity, not in the sense of being incomplete. Just as a living being develops, not as an inarticulate set of separate limbs and joints, but as a whole, architectural training should be all-encompassing from the beginning on.
For this global scope, architectural workshops are fundamental. Even though sometimes it is convenient for a workshop class to focus on a particular aspect of the architectural profession, it should always give room for the consideration of all the aspects that contribute to the realization of a complete architectural work.
As for the transversal perspective, our profession requires it on several levels. One of them is the size of the objects it focuses on: from small objects to buildings, from cities to huge extensions of territory; another are the diverse degrees of abstraction with which it is possible to engage in it, from theoretical reflections to concrete constructive work.
In relation to the first of these levels, our Faculty of Architecture, Design, and Urban Studies encompasses all the possible ranges of this problem, and that should make it possible for students to embrace them in their years of training.
The second of these levels (the varying levels of abstraction with which we address the problems of our profession) requires an effort to relate the academic realm (characterized by the rigor of its theoretical reflection) with the professional realm (characterized mainly by reflections derived directly from experience). We attempt to keep these diverse levels related through the participation of highly qualified professionals in our workshops as well as the option of a project-centered thesis as the final task in our Graduate programs. These instances, together with a further development of our Graduate programs, will allow the improvement of the level of theoretical reflection while keeping it closely related to professional practice.
This perhaps too short text is an attempt to present in an orderly manner what I take to be the main aspects of the formative process of architectural professionals.
Learning and practicing architecture
In the Western world, the systematic teaching of the architectural discipline dates from 1675, with François Blondel’s famous Cours d’architecture at the French Royal Academy of Architecture. Since then, the permission to practice the profession of architect, due to the civil responsibility it entails, has been granted not by the Academy, but by authorities that assess and certify the adequateness of the candidate’s skills.
These authorities emerged from a varied set of historical and social realities, ranging from professional guilds, town councils, states, central governments, kings, queens, and princes. Their common characteristic is that they all differentiate between the knowledge of the discipline and the authorization to practice it.
A significant moment in this history of the profession was the creation of the Institute of British Architects in 1834, which in 1836 received from Queen Victoria the title of Royal. From then on it has been known as RIBA. From its inception, its goal has been making possible “...the acquisition of knowledge about architecture in order to promote the many branches of science related to it, as well as establishing uniform and respectable standards for the exercise of the profession”. This emphasis on unified and respectable standards implied having agreed on the most appropriate ways to teach architecture, even though someone like John Ruskin could still be strongly opposed to the idea that architecture was susceptible of being taught within a university (a position that remains legitimate). In 1863, the Architectural Association was the first academic institution to include in its curriculum a course designed to prepare the voluntary exam needed in order to become a member of the RIBA. That was the first time a university offered a systematic preparation for the professional habilitation through an exam. In the United States, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology –MIT– was the first academic institution to be authorized by the American Institute of Architects to give the special exam in 1865.
Thus, a certified exam was instituted in many Western countries as a requisite to obtain the professional title of architect. In Latin America, however, in contrast with the rest of the world, it was the Universities that took upon their shoulders the responsibility of granting professional titles, without resource to any external supervising instance. One could perhaps venture the hypothesis that this did not happen as a consequence of deep theoretical of pedagogic reflections, but rather as a result of the state of the institutional structures of our continent. Thus, the university became one of the main ethical and moral references of Latin American societies, and so it was not only responsible for the transmission and production of knowledge. As a consequence of this tradition, architecture has remained enclosed within the narrow circle of the university disciplines, with the effect that its exposure to the so called real world is always mediated by its position as part of the academy. Universities can grant a lifelong permission for the exercise of the profession because no institution is in charge of determining the conditions for the actualization or renewal of this authorization. This model of learning is presently in a state of crisis made evident by the many voices who complain about the alienation of the universities from the rest of reality, and more in particular the enormous distance that separates the skills acquired during university training from the actual demands of professional practice. What can be called “professional” or “instrumental” tools are, in fact, introduced to the students during the first years of their training, inflicting the university’s focus on relevant knowledge towards a preoccupation with operational efficiency that too often remains blind to its own conceptual basis. In terms of the discipline’s demands, the acquisition of relevant knowledge must be complemented by experience in architectural projects as a form of knowledge. On the other hand, professional practice requires mastering skills and techniques that enable an architect to deal with the actual demands of the market, but in a university the transmission of this know-how is complicated by theoretical reflections that distort its true instrumental character. This is the result of the overlapping and mingling of two different goals, each of which would require its own set of contents and methodologies in order to be effectively transmitted. As a result of this hybrid approach, several important architects declare that their most important experience during their university training was not any particular curriculum but the exposure to some relevant personal influences. In this sense, it is still possible to share Ruskin’s opinion about the teaching of architecture.
Spending five years in college is obviously different from, let us say, spending them in the streets. In the same way, it is different to exercise a profession than to study it as part of a university curriculum: the university is supposed to provide tools for a future professional practice, but must not necessarily take that professional exercise as its pedagogic model. It may seem a truism, but we should not forget that university education is less a transmission of ways of doing certain things than a transmission of modes of thinking; thus, it is less about acquiring certain specific sets of knowledge than about figuring out how knowledge works; less than about becoming informed of certain facts, than about understanding the way information works. In other words, if we simply attempt to translate professional practice into the academic setting we could teach it for four, six, or twenty years, as in a medieval apprenticeship training. Instead, what we are supposed to do is transmit in four or five years some intellectual skills, and it is with that goal in mind that we have to transform some features and rhythms of the outside world, but also must continuously transform the ways in which we teach and learn (Morin, 1999). As Novak-Godwin puts it, true education changes the meaning of human experience. This is the difference with life, which also teaches us many things, but without the systematicity and the periodic structure that our university years demand.
The university’s mission is not only to produce professionals, but also to create new knowledge. Doubtlessly, the progress of any given discipline requires this constant production of new knowledge, and it is even better if such a growth takes place as the result of the interaction between teachers and students in an academic context, that is, if the transmission of knowledge through teamwork and experimentation results in new, significant insights about the profession.
This conception of the university’s task is radically different from the traditional modes of teaching wherein professors merely pass on a set of notions in the production of which they did not play an active role, and which thus could also be easily acquired through textbooks or other sources. Of course, universities cannot be expected to be producing new knowledge during every single moment of their work, but they are expected to generate it on the long run, and so our ways of conceiving the pedagogical approach for the training of professionals in a given area should contribute to the fulfillment of this goal by creating the conditions it requires. Architecture is a discipline that creates new knowledge through experience and research -as in Le Corbusier’s recherche patiente -, and thus it must engage enthusiastically in the search for new pedagogical paradigms, as part of an epistemological approach that acknowledges the fact that the experience of architectural projects based on problems and questions does constitute a mode of innovation and knowledge.
I teach architecture?
That evening in the COAC at Barcelona(1), the central place given by Josep Quetglas to the question “where do I teach architecture?” helped me to put in perspective the work that we, the students and instructors of the School of Architecture at Talca University, have carried out in the central valley of Chile over the last seven years, to the extent that this site has become the main foundational ground of our academic endeavours.
The pleasurable memory of that talk is a good starting point for the following reflections, an attempt to contribute from the region of Chile where I work to the discussion of how to teach architecture in our country.
I. The question “where do I teach architecture?” taken together with the question “to whom do I teach it?” were the two basic foundations starting from which we designed our curriculum for a school that would be situated in an area where architecture had never been taught before. These two questions allowed us to define the profile of our future incoming students and to contrast it with the projected profile of our future alumni(2), so as to be able to determine the main tasks to carry out during the following years for the creation of our school.
We also believed that in carefully addressing the problems posed by those two questions, we would be able to design our own particular way of teaching architecture, as it had been already done by schools such as the ones of the University of Chile, the Catholic University of Chile, and the Catholic University of Valparaíso. Thus we could in time become the fourth important school of architecture in the country.
II. The Marika-Alderton house designed by Glenn Murcutt, which I got to know through a publication in 1996, served as one of the main referents in the task of bridging the gap between the profile of our incoming students and the projected profile of our alumni. Murcutt’s ingenuity in turning a completely ordinary commission into a major work of architecture was the ability that we needed to transmit to our students. (Melhuish, 1996)
III. We conceive the architect’s job in a dialectic movement from the territory to the detail(3). Thanks to such a conception the site ceases to be conceived as the mere context of an architectural work: this has allowed us to conceptualize architecture as a non-specialized field and in turn generate a non-departmental organization for the faculty of our school.
This, together with the great flexibility of our project for the school, has allowed the good development of this school situated in a distant region of the country, at a moment when there are not enough architecture professors to fully respond to the demands of the more than thirty schools of architecture presently operating in the country.
IV. These days, changes in the professional and institutional market happen at such a fast pace that the typical university professional trainings have ceased to be the stable entities they used to be(4): because of this evolution, the model of an architectural training as mere projection of buildings has become obsolete.
This new situation has also transformed the traditional social responsibilities that we as architecture instructors have: on the one hand, making sure that our students are qualified to respond to the demands our society places upon them (being able to project buildings); on the other, training those students so they can have access to a well paid job in the future.
These demands have lead to the organization of our curriculum in the three following domains:
Operational know-how, including the acquisition of the necessary skills for an adequate professional performance in a competitive world.
Professional training, including the tools required for the conception, projection and supervision of the construction of a building, understood in the widest possible sense.
Innovation, a set of tools destined to enable the students to transform their knowledge in material wealth.
We believe that a good training in these three domains will give our students the ability to insert themselves in the diverse professional contexts (including, but not limited to, the projection of buildings) that require an architectural perspective.
V. The combined problem of where and to whom de we teach architecture has resulted in a pedagogy that centres in the formulation and solution of problems through intense and persistent work, an approach that, combined with the diverse procedence of our faculty, guarantees the originality of our academic project.
As I final remark, I would like to recall Ernst Jünger’s notion of “the woods” as an analogy to our conception of what a school of architecture should be: for him, the woods are a symbol of freedom of the individual living on his or her own means, of the person whose actions are not perceived because they do not take place in the open space, the one that knows when to wait and when to act, the one that understands processes and their results, and thus knows what to hope for (Jünger, 1993).
I believe Jünger’s metapor is a good image for what we have been trying to do in the School of Architecture at Talca University: for him, life in the woods was an option; for us it is more of an assumed condition.
1. I am alluding to the Conference “Barcelona – Madrid: a Seminar on Architectural and Urbanistic Initiative”. Third day, May 5 2005: Teaching Architecture. Architectural Association of Catalonia, Barcelona chapter.
2. The project Creation of an Architecture School for the Talca University was approved by the Comisión de Autorregulación Concordada of the Consejo de Rectores of all Chilean universities in July 1998.
3. The idea of a dialectic between the territory and the detail had its origin in a conversation that took place in one of the sessions of Peter Zumthor’s workshop at the Architecture Academy in Mendrisio, Switzerland, July 2001.
4. Flores, Fernando y Varela, Francisco: “Educación y Transformación: Preparemos a Chile para el Siglo XXI”. http://www.atinachile.cl/pdf/educacion_transformacion.pdf
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