by Rob Fleming
Young students in K-12 classes are increasingly taught that we
are all interconnected through the proverbial web of life, that
protecting earths resources is an important part of being
a global citizen. So, while the world is becoming environmentally
literate, architecture remains in the dark, fixated on form, image
and professional practice as the primary issues of design education.
A case in point is the current accreditation standards for architecture
schools written by the National Architectural Accreditation Council,
which controls the quality and direction of architectural education
in America. Only one out of a possible 37 educational criteria
ranging from structures, to history, to professional practice
targets the issue of ecology. Even then, the word conservation
is used instead of sustainability.
Surely architecture could be more than what it is today if there
was a motivation, a means to a better end, a new paradigm. Luckily
for us, and for the rest of the planet, the concept of sustainability
has finally built enough momentum to overcome the uninspiring
solar architecture of the 1970s. Sustainability is becoming
a movement in design not because we architects have brought it
along, but because society at large is beginning to ask for it.
At the Philadelphia College of Textiles & Science (PCTS)
the issue of sustainability is approached not as a means to satisfy
minimum accreditation criteria, but as a vehicle for discovering
the fundamental components of a new design ethic for architects.
From the perspective of post-modernism and deconstructavism, the
word ethic can never be used because architecture, which is solely
fixated on style and appearance, must be hollow - devoid of intrinsic
quality. To the contrary, "sustainable architecture"
implies so many intrinsic design guidelines that it creates a
design ethic. Once a powerful design ethic is established, architecture
of integrity, transcendence and ecological soundness can emerge.
The ethic of sustainability straddles almost every area of the
architecture curriculum, from building technology to professional
practice to environmental systems. It impacts every decision a
young student makes during the design process: where is the sun,
what materials should I use, how can I contribute to the urban
fabric, where does the buildings water supply come from
and where does the waste go? The questions and solutions are never
ending and complex, thus requiring a new kind of architecture
student one who is concerned with more than form and image.
The new architecture student cares about how things work both
in nature and in the building. The line between site and building
is broken down until the project is viewed as an integral part
of a continuous and specific eco-system. Building design is considered
within the context of a particular region with unique stories,
cultures and physical characteristics.
When a group of faculty members at PCTS became serious about
teaching sustainability as integral to the design process, we
quickly discarded those lessons that promoted unsustainable design
and modified others to raise their level of environmental awareness.
Part of the process involved confronting the foundation of architectural
education itself to reveal its antiquated, boundary-conscious
past in order to form a new, more sophisticated curriculum of
the future. In order to accomplish this, we began by clearing
up numerous "misconceptions" that the profession holds
about design. We confronted each of these "misconceptions"
and began to offer a response. The responses eventually became
the ethical backbone for a new architecture studio. Below is a
short review of the major misconceptions we uncovered followed
by our responses.
Misconception #1: Buildings are sculptural objects floating
in a neutral field
[Response: Teach landscape architecture as a required part of
Its not surprising that design students choose to perceive
their design projects as sculptures given that the majority of
them were raised in the suburbs where almost all the buildings
that they have ever seen are objects floating in a sea of parking
or lawn. As a response, we try to teach architecture as a holistic
process where site considerations, landscaping, ecological systems
and urban/natural context are as important as the building itself.
Students are continually required to draw their buildings within
the larger context of the site showing trees, slopes, existing
buildings, wildlife, sky and water. Last fall, for the first time,
we required students to literally stake out the perimeter
of their building proposal so that they could come to terms with
the ultimate impact of their design on the micro-climate.
Misconception #2: Architects are heroes and will uplift the
huddled masses with their design solutions
[Response: Collaborative projects]
In almost every case, students want to work alone. Group projects
are often seen as an undue burden to the creative process. In
the studio, we stress collaborative projects with large groups
of students sometimes as many as 12 at one time. This allows
a diversity of viewpoints and teaches the students how to campaign
for their ideas while also learning how to listen and respect
the ideas of others. The benefits of these kinds of projects are
often not realized until years later. Sustainable design is inherently
more complex than our culture's reductionist post-modernist architecture.
Sustainable design therefore requires many individuals in an interdisciplinary
setting to achieve its goals.
Misconception #3: Architecture is the "mother art"
[Response: Multi-disciplinary design]
Architecture students are notorious for possessing a superiority
complex over other design majors such as interior design and landscape
architecture. Because the students see architecture as technically
more demanding, they begin to believe that they are involved in
a more important field. As a response, we continually introduce
cross-disciplinary projects. Most recently we paired interior
designers with architects in the master-planning phase of a proposed
research retreat. The project helped break down the stereotypes
that have developed about each design major. Students also have
difficulty understanding their designs within the larger ecological
fabric. As a response, we invite professors of ecology, biology
and geology from the science school to speak to the architects
in some detail about the inner workings of the given ecological
Misconception #4: Great architecture transcends its region
and its time
[Response: Teach architecture history within a broad context]
Many of our students feel no responsibility or desire to develop
a design project with reference to a regions physical, historical
and cultural context. This is not surprise considering that many
design students are raised in communities devoid of any distinguishable
cultural characteristics. As a response, we ask the students,
as part of their traditional site analysis, to complete a visual
and verbal history of a given project site and its region. Often,
we invite guest speakers from the given region to enlighten the
students on the nuances of their site and its history. We ask
the students to understand the history of the site from a pre-European
point of view. For example, how did Native Americans use a particular
site? Was it considered sacred? What wildlife existed on the site
in the past?
Misconception #5: Design is a rational process
[Response: Introduce the concept of spirit]
For many students, the design process involves the development
of a building that satisfies certain minimal educational and program
requirements. Unfortunately, there is no spark of imagination
or excitement in their proposals. In order to raise their expectations,
we include as part of the design process a spiritual analysis
of a given site in order to determine what locations have "inherent
value" and to define what elements (usually natural) combine
to create a sense of sacredness about a given location. The decision
of how to locate a building becomes both more difficult and more
meaningful as the student becomes attuned to the essential energy
of the site. In the end, students go beyond merely solving problems
to creating inspiring designs that work within the unseen spiritual
context of their given site.
Misconception #6: Architecture is only about form and image
[Response: Teach systems integration]
Rarely will a student attempt to integrate environmental systems
into the conception of a building design. Invariably, students
wait until the teacher requires them to do it, and by then the
impact of integration is often unrealized. One of the responses
has been to study animals in their habitats as a metaphor for
buildings in their environment. Part of that study always includes
a look at the following components of the animal: its skin as
a weather modulator, its form as a response to its habitat terrain,
its digestive system, its respiratory system and its aesthetic
appearance. We then ask the students to consider their building
in much the same way: how does it get its air and water, how does
it respond to its terrain, how does it modulate temperature and
shed water and how does it exist within its own habitat. By asking
the students to perceive their buildings as live entities, a systems
approach towards design can emerge.
By the end of the semester, students have expanded their perceptions
about design beyond the often-limited understanding of the scope
of the architect. At the same time, we have found that the issues,
responsibilities and complexity of designing for sustainability
overwhelm many students. They have come to realize that it takes
much more than simply placing photovoltaic solar panels on a roof.
They have come to realize that the current state of architectural
design in America is, in many cases, a cultural and ecological
disaster that must be stopped. They have come to realize that
architects in the future will collaborate with different professions
in a meaningful way, early in the design process, rather than
adopting the segmented method currently in use among design professionals.
If modernism, the great reductionist paradigm of the 20th century,
was fostered in the architectural academies of the not-so-distant-past,
it may be possible for the architecture schools of the 21st century
to possess the unique opportunity to turn the tide towards sustainability.
In order to accomplish this, there is need of much more than a
single design studio focusing on these issues. What is needed
is a comprehensive rethinking of the entire architectural educational
process including: reconsideration of accreditation requirements;
reformation of design curricula to incorporate environmental literacy;
breaking down of constructed territorial boundaries between disciplines;
and the enlightenment of architectural faculty to issues of ecology
and sustainability. If these tasks can be accomplished, architects
can move stride by stride with other professions towards a sustainable
Rob Fleming is an assistant professor at the Philadelphia College
of Textiles & Science, School of Architecture & Design.
He also co-founded ArchiGlyphics, an interdisciplinary design
firm based in Philadelphia.
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