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Architecture for the 1%: Thoughts on Education

January 9, 2012

Let me start by saying historians should be able to study what they wish, free from coercion. That said, Fall of 2011 was been an incredible time for rethinking architecture education.  This post will discuss three seemingly disparate news items.

Thing 1.

September 17, 2011 saw the beginnings of a loose movement to finally recognize decades of wage inequality. The unfocused rage of the “Occupy Wall Street” protests emerged as recently published studies verified beyond doubt that for most of the United States (and the World), there has been a frightening and rapid expansion of what economists call the Wage Gap.  This is characterized by the stunning global (not just U.S.) statistic that the top 1% (actually .1%) of the population controls around 40% of wealth.  Of course, as the image below reveals, this has been a 40 year trend.

Thing 2.

In October, “star” architect Frank Gehry announced that, due to a slow economy, he was having difficulty finding work in the United States.  Given our housing crisis, decaying cities and all the “work” that might be done, this in itself is a stunning announcement.  Although, given the price of such an architect, the announcement is none too surprising.  To drum up business, the architect is traveling to the Persian Gulf and to China, in search of wealthier commissions. (One might argue that Gehry is merely fleeing the 2007 lawsuit for the many failures and poor detailing of his relatively new and failing Stata Center at M.I.T., completed in 2004 at the “low” cost of $300 million, for which his firm was paid $15 million).

Thing 3. Finally, on October 31, the United Nations estimated that the World welcomed its 7 billionth global citizen.

These three seemingly disparate news items are connected, and have some potentially dire ramifications for Architecture and Education.

What is 20th C. (Modern) Architecture?


Architecture and Architecture History educators frame a shared past.  In architecture survey courses across the Western World, architecture of the modern period, late 18th C. to the Present is largely taught as an evolution of style, form and context—a history of unique one-off buildings and ideas by influential, singular individuals created within a varied sensibility for urbanity, art and politics.  Any student of architecture history remembers passing a course that required memorizing the dates, names and locations of authored, avant-garde structures, carefully curated and edited over the decades.

Yet, what have we gained from this art historical frame for the history of the built environment?  Has architectural history in the classroom helped to shape the architect? Or worse, for all its visual acumen, has it contributed to a professional blindness towards society, hiding rising inequality, environmental degradation, and economic fantasies? Even with a light sprinkle of the vast diversity of complex building cultures within a broader historical landscape, has architectural history and its broader educational meme been a failure?

Architecture students currently graduate from college with, on average, $140,000 dollars in debt, and they enter a job market where even Frank Gehry cannot find work.

The question we should ask, is why?

Architecture historians have invariably pursued an endless and productive stream of important research on building environments at all scales and for many peoples.  Yet, for all this remarkable scholarship, the contents of survey courses and increasingly irrelevant textbooks, with rare exceptions, remain largely unchanged.  I have yet to see a textbook (or many lectures) that assess the real cost of architecture within its context.

For example, at the beginning of the 20th Century, a brand new mail-order home was designed to cost the equivalent of one years wage for most Americans.  During the past 40 years of wage stagnation and design elitism, the cost of a standard house grew to  more than 5 times median income. That remains true as housing prices are contracting along with wages.  The average cost of a fancy new avant-garde museum (the favorite subject of studio and star-chitects alike) is somewhere between $200 million and $1 billion dollars.

Which of these is vitally important characteristic of 20th C. architecture?

What about social, environmental, and social costs?  Over the past few years I have asked students in modern survey and in my own studio courses if they have ever been asked to design a project with a limited or even austere budget.  Almost all have answered in the negative.

Architectural historians would likely recoil from the suggestion that the way they frame history in some way shapes the selection of limitless-budget, avant-garde projects in studio.  Yet, think hard about the exemplary architectures and architects we teach—in any era.  How many historians know the cost of the building in the slide? Or how much the architect was paid? Or who paid for that project? Or where the resources to build that project were harvested?

I once asked a venerable and respected scholar of the Baroque period if the creative financing of costly  new St. Peter’s in Rome might have contributed to the dawn of the Protestant Reformation.  He replied that it was a stunning question, and the answer, if anybody bothered to research the topic, was probably yes.  Given the invention of the bond market in Venice and the origins of Medici fortunes in currency arbitrage, how many Renaissance scholars have examined the social and economic costs associated with the lovely villas and edifices erected and studied in this period?

More importantly, what if an architectural history course is the only history of culture course a student, or even a future-architect, takes while in college?  What have they learned about human history, building cultures, and the totality of the built environment?  If you only have 20 lectures for a given time and place, how much of your time is dedicated to the work of singular individuals? How much time do you give solely to the Bauhaus or Le Corbusier or Louis Kahn?  Is that biopic focus really representative of 100 years of building culture?

Demographics and the Failure of Architecture History

The population of the earth took hundreds of thousands of years to reach its first billion people, in 1800, the arbitrary beginning of the modern sequence at this school and many others.

By 1900 (the transition between the 19th C. course and the 20th C. course), the world’s population doubled to 2 billion people.  England alone went from a 40% urban population to 80% urban population in that period.  London grew from a city of 100,000 to 4.5 million in 100 years.

In October 2011, at the “end” of the Modern II sequence at SCAD, the world became home to 7 billion human biengs.  How are the ideas of Eisenman or Venturi, or CIAM or Kevin Lynch, or New Urbanists going to help house those people or address the enormous environmental and economic crisis that is linked to providing for their shelter in rapidly growing 21st C. cities?  Where was this population explosion in our history of 20th C. courses?

If architecture is a history of building cultures as conveyed through shifting meanings, power structures, and symbolisms, is it not also a history of people, shelters and cities?  Is it not also a history of community-formation and destruction?  What about the people who must build and occupy the built environment?  If we map architectural history over the history of a rapidly growing humanity, what does it look like? What are we missing?

If the task of the historical scholar is to study the past, what is the task of the educator? Do we not have a responsibility to continually update our lectures with new research, particularly in light of where we are?  I am not asking for revisionist demographic determinism.  Rather we must insist on a critical reappraisal of course content and the methodological re-organization of our scholarly responsibilities.

The History of 20th Century Architecture, particularly how it is framed for students in the classroom in most universities and textbooks, must be more than a story of authorship, form and connoisseurship.

The population of the world grew from 2 billion to 7 billion from 1900 through today. The shelter requirements alone reduce past aesthetic developments, from “turning the corner” to the postmodern façade fetish, to an indulgent and elitist conceit.  How does the multiplication of humanity inform our understanding of cities, urban migration, the use of materials, and the understanding of shelter within the broader cultural landscape?  And who is going to build that future?  Gehry aside, there is obviously plenty of “work” to do.

Architecture for the 1%

Perhaps we should rethink our original problem: Gehry’s inability to find “work.” Given the amount of work that should be done and needs to be done, his “struggle” is less about a structurally weak economy than it is a symptom of a failure of architecture education.

Defining and redefining architecture has been a vital component of architectural history for centuries.  Yet, that dialogue is largely ignored in modern survey courses, beyond shifts in avant-garde and reactionary formalisms.

Increasingly, architects are involved in less and less of the world’s built environment—current estimates range from 2-5%.  Thus, despite mountains of research on power, gender, poverty, and all types of building cultures, architectural historians of the 20th C. who continue to emphasize the importance of authored structures in a consequence-free, unlimited cost, historical narrative risk framing themselves ever more rapidly out of a job, following a tendency to not be able to work (and build) already at a crisis point within the architecture profession.

Architecture is history.  That history has a pedagogical frame, particularly within professional architecture programs.  We must begin to come to terms with how its narrow pedagogy has enabled a dangerous historical tendency towards ignoring extreme wealth disparities and the long-term consequences of avant-gardism in a resource constrained, economically challenged and demographically accelerating world.

How many small schools, or water treatment plants, or low-cost sustainable houses or “invisible architecture” could have been built for the cost of Norman Foster’s $500 million museum in Boston ?  For an environmental comparison, it costs $500 million dollars (and counting) just to remove (but not process or store) contaminated soil from 20 miles of polluted river (1 of 41) on Lake Michigan due to pre-1970s industrial activities.

How many architecture students could have gone to school for free for the cost of Moshie Safdie’s $1.2 billion Walmart-heiress-financed “crystal masterpiece” in Arkansas?  Would this alternative be better or worse for the future of architecture than another “glorious” museum masterpiece? What is the true cost of High Culture?

Given the patron of Safdie’s project, we should (finally) ask: where did that money really come from?

It came from exploiting a stretched and stagnating American middle class desperately trying to cling to a decaying standard of living amidst rising costs—one low-cost deal at a time.

Is limited aesthetic development without cost or consequence the only architecture that matters?  To most of the Architecture and Architecture History profession, the answer seems to be a resounding, and unfortunate, yes.

Architecture in Context: What can we afford?

When U.S. Housing collapsed, it sent the global financial system and its economies into a tale spin. One year later, Dubai, the architectural playground of the world for the past decade defaulted on almost $20 billion of nearly $80 billion debt.

Dubai World, Inc., had to refinance, sending risk careening, yet gain, through the international financial system—especially the British banks that lent them money and whose balance sheets exceed the total value of the British Economy by a factor of 10.

Currently, sovereign debt burdens are crushing long-time social democracies in Europe and Japan. What is the relationship of a prolonged credit crisis to leveraged finance?

Fantastic buildings by super-star architects can only ever be built on extremely large amounts of borrowed money, leveraging financial schemes at a tremendous cost to to democracy, transparency and ultimately, humanity.

Meanwhile the demographics of basic human needs demand at the very least access to hope, food, and shelter in ever-increasing quantities within an ever-shrinking resource-constrained global environment.

In a world awash with Debt, as nations unwind a massive Credit Crisis whose origins have remained tenuously hidden for decades, is it time to think once again about the role of architecture in society?

What can we afford to build?

More importantly, what can we no longer afford to build?

The United Nations predicts that one out of three people will live on a dollar a day by 2030.

70% of them will live in Urban Conditions.

I asked my students a multiple-choice question on their final exam this past quarter that questions the elitist housing pretentions born out of 20th Century Modernisms.

Which of the following is now the DOMINANT housing typology in most of the world’s fastest growing cities?

a)    Mass Housing

b)   Residential Towers

c)    Single Family Homes

d)   Informal Settlements

The answer, both now and in the coming decades is D.

Given the contents of Modern History courses, how many of architecture scholars or students can answer that question correctly?

This is not about so-called liberals versus conservatives, radical anarchist theories versus pragmatists or utopians.  This is about History.

Baron Hausmann, Daniel Burnham, City Beautiful, CIAM, Kevin Lynch, and New Urbanism—they all FAILED by focusing on the Aesthetics of the Diagram in the absence of Human Cost.  They ALL prescribed elitist formalisms and costless assessments of how something appears over how it works, for the “good” of architecture and the public.

History tells us they have all failed to account for the only thing that really matters in cities, and indeed, in all forms of architecture: People.

This is the 21st C. Metropolis:

And THIS is its Architecture:

What are we teaching?  What are architecture students learning from us? How can we provide good historical value for their $150,000 in student loan debt in a world where Gehry can’t get work?

More importantly, what are we teaching our students as we ask them to understand the totality of the built environment over time?

To borrow from an old Woody Guthrie song: Which side are you on?

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