Thursday, April 28, 2005

Origins of the urban crisis

After watching the thesis presentations of several M.Arch students at Michigan this week, in addition to several other studio crits, I am not optimistic about the future of our built environment. How does a cliche become a cliche? By architects' taking a narrow and self-serving object for their work.

One thesis investigated new ways of using vinyl siding on the detached single family residence -- how plastic can be used to create new types of porches, sun rooms, and so forth. Unfortunately, she did not acknowledge that the reason we have vinyl siding is because it looks like wood siding (sort of), except that it has lower maintenance requirements. Its introduction and adoption were in response to our long-time understanding of what a house looks like -- four walls, a pitched roof with asphalt shingles and maybe a dormer, lapped clapboard siding or brick, and a front door in the midde of the facade. I don't think you can expect to alter consumers' use of siding significantly unless you alter their conceptions of houseness.

Aside from that there was a lengthy comic strip for a thesis and a set of models and images for another questioning architects' received ideas of scale that took about 5 minutes, literally, to explain. I am incredibly skeptical of any "thesis" that can be presented in 5 minutes. Fortunately, one member of the commentary panel took the student to task, acknowledging what I felt, "Maybe I'm not getting it, but I can't see that you've told us anything about architecture." She stumbled in her answer and offered that the project had helped her become more aware of scale in her own life. This may be a valuable outcome, but I object to the notion of this as a "thesis."

Only a very few projects acknowledged the surrounding built environment in the cases where they (gasp!) designed a building at all. The antipathy of architects vs. planners and the objects of their professions (see My Architect for a great illustration) is alive and wll. During my recent trip to Vancouver, we met with Arthur Erickson, an architect who had spent decades advocating densification and citywide planning and who had also designed some of the best buildings in the city (and province). On the day we met him, the Globe and Mail named him one of the 10 most important people in the history of British Columbia for his architecture and his urban vision. Sadly, he is an incredible rarity and I don't see that kind of broad vision coming from today's students.


Post a Comment

<< Home