Progressive Learning

New technologies, globalisation, environmentalism and economic restructuring of academia have transformed the face of teaching and research in architecture schools over the last three decades


hen I began my academic career teaching architectural history and theory at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture and Planning in the mid-1980s, the PhD programme in Architecture there had not been established, Advanced Architecture Design (AAD) – an internationally oriented post-professional degree programme with over 100 students currently – did not exist, and the other ‘P’, Preservation, was not officially part of the school’s acronym (now GSAPP). There was no degree in Real Estate Development, today an important source of tuition money and reservoir of affluent alumni, and a new programme in Critical, Curatorial, and Conceptual Practices was a quarter-century off. Avery Library was, as it had been for three quarters of a century, the crown jewel of the Beaux-Arts building that housed the school, a venerable, slightly shabby sanctum of printed matter whose architectural holdings were rivalled only by those of the RIBA. In the late 1980s, when Bernard Tschumi took over the deanship from James Polshek, I was made responsible for a new publications programme, at the time including a newsletter, exhibition-related catalogues and pamphlets, and a fledgling book series which began with my own Architecture Culture 1943-1968: A Documentary Anthology; I worked with a shoestring budget, outside typesetting services, and a series of invaluable student assistants.

By the time I left Columbia in 2008, Avery Hall was bursting at the seams with nearly triple the number of students, half of them women; computers and the internet had transformed not only the design studio but also architectural publishing and research; and a third dean, Mark Wigley, had ambitious plans to set up satellite studios around the world on a model something like that of the Guggenheim Museum. The independently endowed Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture, which I directed for 14 years beginning in 1994, was poised for expansion under my successor, Reinhold Martin. Today the GSAPP website lists at least 15 ‘labs’, ‘units’, and ‘platforms’ operating at the school, each with a nominal director; a burgeoning list of books, journals, and digital publications; and evolving partnerships with for-profit corporations like Audi.1

Things have changed. The transformations in the architecture school at Columbia reflect not only the canny strategies of its two most recent deans to claim architecture education’s cutting edge, but they signify, more generally, profound reconfigurations that have taken place within architecture schools over the last generation under the impact of new technologies, globalisation and the economic restructuring of academia. Affecting everything from curriculum to the overall institutional culture, these changes have inevitably had collateral effects on the teaching of architectural history and theory. There are at least five notable trends.

First, the ever more cosmopolitan student bodies produced by globalisation have necessitated significant pedagogical adjustments. While schools have long had an international complexion – the experience of learning from and in foreign places goes all the way back to the Grand Tour and the École des Beaux-Arts – current student demography is highly diverse and fluid, and bound up with contemporary geopolitics and economics. Recently, for example, countries hit hard by the 2008 recession have sent fewer students to the US, while a much greater influx has come from Asia. This has increased pressure on teachers of architectural history to broaden the canon, incorporating non-Western places and protagonists and acknowledging the contributions of other experiences. The development is both welcome and daunting. Jean-Louis Cohen’s The Future Since 1889: A Worldwide History2 is one indicator of the shift; unlike most previous historiographies of modern architecture, from Giedion and Pevsner to Zevi, Banham, Frampton and Tafuri3 – all unapologetically based on selective narratives of Western architecture – Cohen’s encyclopaedic work ranges over the entire planet. It does not purport to be just a more inclusive survey, however; while necessarily written with broad brushstrokes, it makes the emergence of globalism a central theme in itself. Cohen’s history, which I’ve begun using as a textbook in the required lecture course in modern architecture I currently teach to a class of 75 incoming students at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design, reflects both the potential and the problems of this new framing. Despite the author’s extremely deft organisation of massive information, it’s easy for readers to get lost in the forest for the trees.

Globalism – the complex of ideological responses to globalisation – has also had deep effects at the level of doctoral studies. Here not only has the field widened greatly (more on this in a moment) but the opening of new archives in remote or previously inaccessible places, such as the former Soviet Union, and the introduction of new actors and objects have altered both the content and the ways we think about architectural history and historiography. I find it fascinating, and somewhat ironic, that many foreign students who come to the US to pursue a PhD end up, usually after much deliberation, choosing topics related to their own country of origin. It’s as if geographic distance provides some necessary psychological and emotional space as well as greater possibility for critical perspective on things close to home. This phenomenon can also pose problems, however, when a student from, say, Turkey or China, elects to work on a subject about which no one on the faculty has any expertise, let alone linguistic competence. Schools can obviate the problem with new strategies, such as bringing in specialised external scholars as advisers and even enabling them to be present at oral exams and defences by means of telecommunications like Skype. The point, however, is that global civilisation is transforming scholarship in not just quantitative but also qualitative ways.

The widening of architecture’s disciplinary boundaries, a second major trend, has been abetted not only by the rise of postcolonial studies throughout the university over the last few decades but also, and especially, by the impact of the slightly more recent intellectual and professional discourse of environmentalism. Two current dissertations with which I am acquainted, both at East Coast universities, both by students writing about their own countries from an American distance, are representative. One is on interconnected systems of agriculture, national infrastructure and architecture in postcolonial India, the other on a similar set of relationships in post-1948 Israel. Neither, most likely, would have been carried out within a department of architecture a quarter of a century ago. While the second is concerned with civic representation, the first is explicitly less so, redefining architecture simply as an embodiment of ‘contested ideologies of risk, techno-scientific expertise, and state patronage’. No doubt a revealing picture of the ways the intellectual territory has shifted could be compiled by analysing a list of dissertation topics in architecture over the course of the last half-century. Indeed, it comes as something of a shock today to realise that as of 1962, only one doctoral dissertation had yet been written in the United States on a topic in modern European architecture, let alone anywhere farther afield.4 The parochialism of American architectural scholarship was matched by its narrow disciplinarity, with questions of form and style reflexively predominating for a very long time. Today the pendulum has swung far in the opposite direction.

A third trend has to do with what I’ll call the acceleration of historicity. It used to be that an interval of at least 30 years had to elapse before the past could be detached from the present as an object of historical study. Now boundaries between architectural criticism and architectural history have become more blurred. Past events seem to recede ever more quickly in the onrush of technological and other changes, and new periods – ‘the seventies’, ‘the eighties’, ‘the nineties’ – pile up, lending themselves to immediate historicisation. In the early 1990s, when I put together my anthology on the quarter century after the Second World War, knowledge of that period was fragmentary and largely anecdotal. Much of the architectural culture of 1940-60 was still terra incognita to scholars, and few American students knew anything much about (for example) Ernesto Rogers or Cedric Price. But these lacunae in the landscape of late Modernism were rapidly and efficiently filled in by new scholarship, and efforts at more synthetic interpretation began. Today it is the rise of the internet and the events of 9/11 that appear as great divides, suggesting new approaches to periodisation. Doctoral students are already writing the history of Postmodernism in architecture, with theories of the ’70s and ’80s taking on a decidedly antediluvian cast.

My suggestion that an examination of dissertation topics over a particular span of history would be a productive subject of research was not just fanciful. I recall being astonished in the early ’80s when a professor of architecture at the University of Maryland walked into my office at a New York publishing house (this was before I had begun to teach at Columbia) with a proposal for a book based on a comparative analysis of the indexes of several hundred architectural books. He intended thus to assess and measure the reputations of individual architects. While such a proposal would hardly raise eyebrows in today’s age of computer analytics and data mining (not to mention a preoccupation with architectural celebrity), this was before.5 The invention of new methodologies and techniques enabled by powerful search engines, online institutional resources and databases, instant circulation of images, automatic translation programs, as well as more informal media that harbour troves of information has changed the way scholars do research. Archival work is still the Holy Grail for doctoral students, but sometimes now it requires only armchair travel. Like globalisation, convenient access to knowledge is both a blessing and a curse. While it saves a lot of time and trouble in gaining access to materials, it also shapes research in subtle ways, making us lazier about investigating things first-hand and also making it easier for students (especially less advanced ones) to appropriate others’ work.6

These varied but interrelated phenomena – of globalisation, the dissolution of disciplinary boundaries, the sense of historical acceleration, and the effects of new technologies and media – are among the salient trends transforming academic teaching and research in architecture in the early 21st century. A fifth one is apparently more an administrative issue, although it too has deeper consequences for the field. When I began my career, it was still possible to teach academic courses in an architecture school without an advanced degree (I have only a BA and a BArch on my CV). This is no longer the case. Nowadays the route to a professional scholarly career is far less flexible and more institutionalised. Graduate students are part of an increasingly regimented and sophisticated system. They quickly learn to master the variables of fellowship applications, travel stipends, job interviews and dissertation-to-book protocols, and to navigate the ever-expanding circuit of lectures and conferences. Such activities shape and punctuate their academic experience in many ways and have a formative influence on their careers.

Architecture schools are undoubtedly hotbeds of knowledge production today. While they remain intense and immersive enclaves of learning, they are also much less isolated from the real world than they used to be, largely by virtue of the developments just outlined. ‘Research’, an activity in which both designers and scholars eagerly engage, offers both an aura of scientific legitimacy and the cachet of innovation. Yet in the speeded-up world we inhabit, sometimes its premises go unexamined, and the collection of data substitutes for critical inquiry. All in all, it’s an exciting and creative time to be a student. For those of the generation straddling the chasm between the present century and the last, it can be an uneasy one.