design thinking, creativity and its sources – fearlessness

“there is hope in honest error, none in the icy perfection of the mere stylist”

Charles Rennie Mackintosh

If there was a motto of my undergrad school, the College of Architecture at the University of Kentucky, for the time I was there at least, the above quote would have been it.  Like many schools of architecture at big, state universities, maintaining a really good program over many years is extremely difficult and rare.  Most ride along, doing decent work, a valuable asset to their institution, for decades.  And then something happens – a critical mass of  new, energized instructors, a new dean that can bring in, by force of will and calling in all their favors, strong teachers and working pros, at least for as long as these favors can outweigh the stasis of the institution, the poor pay, the frankly difficult fit of educating architects in a purely academic setting.  I was very lucky to have arrived and lived through such a period at Kentucky, merely good timing and luck on my part.

The famous schools of architecture – Cornell, Yale, Harvard, etc. have consistently produced good work and good students.  But, in my experience, rarely do they spark greatness.  There is frankly a lot at stake at these schools – students are too smart to take too many risks, instructor’s positions are so competitive that they rarely challenge conventions, the school’s reputation hangs like distant, forest-fire smoke all over the place.  RISD and Cooper Union have figured out how to extend these creative periods for longer spans.   But,at the lesser-known state schools, a brief, white-hot creative environ can emerge, lifting all the students and instructors alike.  This happens at places like Kentucky, Montana State, Arizona State, VPI; all respectable schools, mostly drifting along,  but strongly marked by these periods of amazing productivity and indeed, greatness, however fleeting.

When I was at Kentucky, the Italian architect and educator, Leonardo Ricci, taught studios and seminars along with his colleague and wife Maria Dallerba Ricci.  Leonardo seemed old as the hills and was our resident sage.  Having taught at schools around the US and Europe, he would say of Kentucky:

“You students at Kentucky, you know nothing, no history.  But, you have big balls!”

At the time I had no idea what that really meant.  Only after having practiced in Boston and grad school at Yale, did that really take on significant meaning for me.  Tucked away in little Lexington, Kentucky most of us had never seen that much of the world.  We were not surrounded by amazing buildings, neither the rich, thick history of Rome or Venice, nor the thrilling Modernism of New York or LA.  That ignorance, along with a stridently experimental atmosphere engendered by the faculty and a staggering work expectation, made for a great architectural education at an unlikely place.

A fellow architect and I were speaking the other evening and wondering aloud about what makes for a creative environment.  Management seminars, science foundations and engineering departments are all clammering to implement ‘design thinking’ as part of their DNA.  The creative environment that sparks into life at these smaller, lesser-known schools of architecture is the goal of these heavily-funded, highly-sponsored, but stolid institutions.  In my experience, creating this environment is not a patentable process or a set of strategies.  It does depend on some strong, amazing individuals, given free-reign to teach and inspire in their own way.  But it also depends a bit on a kind of naivete’, an unselfconscious, passionate curiosity that has only one essential ingredient – fearlessness.  Anything you make, anything you attempt, any honestly approached work, passionately sought and doggedly pursued, is given the space and time to play itself out.

Why can’t some institutions ever produce this environment?  I have no idea.  It is not something you can thrown on like a set of clothes and be happy about the new “look”.  To be in that place is thrilling and bit scary, it is bold, and daring, and delicate. And rare.

Maria Dallerba and Leonard Ricci at their Palace of Justice, Savona, Italy

see also the work and thoughts of Alex Bogusky, former director of CP+B, certainly no stranger to creativity.

And, Architect Magazine’s recent article on design thinking and architects.

architect’s lineage, part 2

a look at some of the more interesting aspects of the connections between architects as outlined in last week’s post.

architect’s lineage, part 1

I am certainly no scholar, so please take this as a more distanced view than any rigorous academic pursuit would reveal.

Although not strictly associated with Penn, there is a kind of Philadelphia School of architecture that moves from Furness through George Howe and Louis Kahn to Robert Venturi.  This is one of the most important confluences of the two major education traditions of the Ecole des Beaux Arts and the European modernist polytechnical schools.  In the end, despite the ostentatiously high-tech and even futuristic forms,  the structural expression seen in the work of Foster and Piano and Rogers owes as much or more to the more plastic and sculptural training of the Ecole as filtered down through Howe and Kahn rather than the materialistic and technical influences of the polytech schools.

On another note, a look at the New York Five – Eisenman, Graves, Meier, Hejduk and Gwarthmey – shows the influence of Gropius and Breuer at Harvard  (Meier did not attend Harvard but worked for Breuer) more than anything else.  Their Modern revisionism came more from outside of the paths of Mies and LeCorbusier than their forms might suggest.

And a final note on this kind of lineage is the fascinating case of California Modernism.  Rudolf Schindler, educated by both Loos and Wright, blends the tradition of European Modernism with the Chicago School via Wright.  Schindler and Neutra, both working, and at a time living together, generated an amazing body of work, reconciling the abstractions of Modernism with the California climate and landscape.  Their legacy, in the Case Study Houses and through Harwell Hamilton Harris in the gathering of the Texas Rangers, echoes through every school of architecture in the States for the next 50 years.  And in the photos of Julius Shulman, their work influences every architect in their generation and next.

architect's lineage, part 2

a look at some of the more interesting aspects of the connections between architects as outlined in last week’s post.

architect’s lineage, part 1

I am certainly no scholar, so please take this as a more distanced view than any rigorous academic pursuit would reveal.

Although not strictly associated with Penn, there is a kind of Philadelphia School of architecture that moves from Furness through George Howe and Louis Kahn to Robert Venturi.  This is one of the most important confluences of the two major education traditions of the Ecole des Beaux Arts and the European modernist polytechnical schools.  In the end, despite the ostentatiously high-tech and even futuristic forms,  the structural expression seen in the work of Foster and Piano and Rogers owes as much or more to the more plastic and sculptural training of the Ecole as filtered down through Howe and Kahn rather than the materialistic and technical influences of the polytech schools.

On another note, a look at the New York Five – Eisenman, Graves, Meier, Hejduk and Gwarthmey – shows the influence of Gropius and Breuer at Harvard  (Meier did not attend Harvard but worked for Breuer) more than anything else.  Their Modern revisionism came more from outside of the paths of Mies and LeCorbusier than their forms might suggest.

And a final note on this kind of lineage is the fascinating case of California Modernism.  Rudolf Schindler, educated by both Loos and Wright, blends the tradition of European Modernism with the Chicago School via Wright.  Schindler and Neutra, both working, and at a time living together, generated an amazing body of work, reconciling the abstractions of Modernism with the California climate and landscape.  Their legacy, in the Case Study Houses and through Harwell Hamilton Harris in the gathering of the Texas Rangers, echoes through every school of architecture in the States for the next 50 years.  And in the photos of Julius Shulman, their work influences every architect in their generation and next.

an architect’s lineage

For a while now I have been interested in how architectural ideas and attitudes are formed and passed down from one generation of architect to another.  So I have put together a very rough chart that shows how the two major institutions of Western architectural education, the Ecole des Beaux Arts and mostly European polytechnical architectural schools, have combined and filtered down through many of the twentieth centuries most well-known and accomplished architects.

As you can see this is pretty rough and if anyone has more connections or people to include, let me know and I will see if I can work it in.  The idea here is not to show links of ideas or influences, but actual physical connections – attended, worked for, colleagues in the same office, etc.  The chart runs vaguely chronological, left to right, starting with the first generation of Modernists and proceeding to about 1980 or so on the far right with still much more to add.

Some thoughts:

It is the combination of the two education models that really established Modernism.  The work of Le Corbusier and Louis Sullivan, representing the European Modernism and Chicago School is a comingling of influences.  In the case of Le Corbusier, he worked for architects who come from both traditions, Josef Hoffmann and Auguste Perret.  For Sullivan, he worked for Furness who was educated in the studio of Richard Morris Hunt of Ecole des Beaux Arts lineage.  Sullivan also worked for and with Dankmar Adler and William LeBaron Jenney, both more engineers than architects.

For as much as a champion of small state university architecture schools as I am, I must admit to the central position of Harvard and Yale and the other East Coast architecture schools as focal points in this chart.  Harvard brought in first generation Modernists, Gropius and Breuer and extended the Bauhaus tradition.  Much of Yale’s campus was designed by James Gamble Rogers and Albers and Rudolph’s influence there is unmistakable and profound through students like Foster and Rogers and buildings by Kahn, Rudolph, Saarinen.

Imagine the heady times at the office of Peter Behrens with LeCorbusier, Mies and Gropius all working away.

Or the camaraderie and competition in William LeBaron Jenney’s office between John Wellborn Root, Daniel Burnham, Louis Sullivan and William Holabird and Martin Roche.

More in a later post including the strange lineage of California Modernism (Otto Wagner via Adolf Loos meets Louis Sullivan via Frank Lloyd Wright) and the confluence of Kahn, Piano, Rudolph, Foster and Rogers.

If you have more connections please drop me a note.  I have not yet included the AA in London or the importance and influence of the Texas Rangers (Rowe, Harris, Hoesli, etc. ) and the Institute for Architecture and Urbanism in NYC in the ’60s and ’70s (Eisenman, Frampton, Tafuri, Koolhaas, Vidler, Gandelsonas) and ETH Zurich (Berlage, Calatrava, Herzon & de Meuron, Rossi, Semper, Tschumi).

Part 2  in an upcoming post in about a week.

an architect's lineage

For a while now I have been interested in how architectural ideas and attitudes are formed and passed down from one generation of architect to another.  So I have put together a very rough chart that shows how the two major institutions of Western architectural education, the Ecole des Beaux Arts and mostly European polytechnical architectural schools, have combined and filtered down through many of the twentieth centuries most well-known and accomplished architects.

As you can see this is pretty rough and if anyone has more connections or people to include, let me know and I will see if I can work it in.  The idea here is not to show links of ideas or influences, but actual physical connections – attended, worked for, colleagues in the same office, etc.  The chart runs vaguely chronological, left to right, starting with the first generation of Modernists and proceeding to about 1980 or so on the far right with still much more to add.

Some thoughts:

It is the combination of the two education models that really established Modernism.  The work of Le Corbusier and Louis Sullivan, representing the European Modernism and Chicago School is a comingling of influences.  In the case of Le Corbusier, he worked for architects who come from both traditions, Josef Hoffmann and Auguste Perret.  For Sullivan, he worked for Furness who was educated in the studio of Richard Morris Hunt of Ecole des Beaux Arts lineage.  Sullivan also worked for and with Dankmar Adler and William LeBaron Jenney, both more engineers than architects.

For as much as a champion of small state university architecture schools as I am, I must admit to the central position of Harvard and Yale and the other East Coast architecture schools as focal points in this chart.  Harvard brought in first generation Modernists, Gropius and Breuer and extended the Bauhaus tradition.  Much of Yale’s campus was designed by James Gamble Rogers and Albers and Rudolph’s influence there is unmistakable and profound through students like Foster and Rogers and buildings by Kahn, Rudolph, Saarinen.

Imagine the heady times at the office of Peter Behrens with LeCorbusier, Mies and Gropius all working away.

Or the camaraderie and competition in William LeBaron Jenney’s office between John Wellborn Root, Daniel Burnham, Louis Sullivan and William Holabird and Martin Roche.

More in a later post including the strange lineage of California Modernism (Otto Wagner via Adolf Loos meets Louis Sullivan via Frank Lloyd Wright) and the confluence of Kahn, Piano, Rudolph, Foster and Rogers.

If you have more connections please drop me a note.  I have not yet included the AA in London or the importance and influence of the Texas Rangers (Rowe, Harris, Hoesli, etc. ) and the Institute for Architecture and Urbanism in NYC in the ’60s and ’70s (Eisenman, Frampton, Tafuri, Koolhaas, Vidler, Gandelsonas) and ETH Zurich (Berlage, Calatrava, Herzon & de Meuron, Rossi, Semper, Tschumi).

Part 2  in an upcoming post in about a week.

architecture juries

The basic process for eons for educating architects has relied heavily on the jury system.  About once every six weeks or so, every student is asked to pin up their work in a semi-public place and a panel of jurors, usually other instructors and architects, are each given time to comment on the work after the student’s brief description of the project.  Sometimes this can be very public and as a student you might look up to see 6 or so very dour jurors staring at you along with dozens or more of your fellow students.  To say that it can be intimidating is a gross understatement.

jury at Yale, in 'the pit'

However, as someone who was very shy and frequently terrified by this kind of public speaking and criticism, I do believe that is one of the very best ways to educate an architect.  Through this often-fraught crucible, every student has to become sure of their ideas and committed to their projects.  It is a very real and early reminder that architecture is not a pursuit practiced only in isolation, but a public art, with all that that entails.

In undergraduate and graduate school I took part in and was a victim of an awful lot of juries.  (It is not really a ‘jury’ of your peers by the way – it is experienced instructors and architects that have been down the same path and know all the tricks to reveal you and your project’s shortcomings)

I have seen crying, screaming, panic and the occasional fist-fight break out.  I have seen instructors tell students that their work is so dreadful or incomplete that they should just pack it up right now and leave, and never, ever return.

jury in 'the pit' at Yale

I  mention all of this because I have heard of disturbing trend of the diminishing use of public juries to evaluate student work.  I hope I am not being an old curmudgeon, but I really do think this is a great loss.  Each year as a student the process became a little easier to the point that I looked forward to the criticism and advice in graduate school.  Now, as a working architect, I have to present my designs to my clients.  I could simply present the projects and tell them to take it or leave it.  However, the jury system has convinced me that to make really good buildings it is best to describe the projects simply and briefly and then listen.

some juror’s comments collected on the Politically Incorrect blog:

http://politicallyincorrect007.blogspot.com/2008/12/architecture-jury-critique.html

photos from the Yale School of Architecture website

architecture at Yale, 1993

yale-01.jpg

This is a quick sketch of Yale’s campus from Paul Rudolph’s A+A Building, the top floor cafe. A recent renovation has made the former low-rent cafe on the top floor back into a visiting scholar’s residence.  As a financially-strapped grad student, I’m afraid I ate a lot of egg salad sandwiches and bagels up there, the cheapest, if not freshest, things on the menu.  Most of my two years there you could look down on the campus and see the continuous repairing of slate roofs – 6 guys standing on a roof with one guy working.

I believe the builidng in the center here is Sterling Library, a hybrid of cathedral and warehouse.

Sketch by Mark Gerwing, 1993 or so.