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The messy divorce between architect and builder
by Katy Purviance on 02/07/09 @ 11:09:37 am
Categories: Books | 558 words | 2688 views

In my last post I quoted a book I just read about Jersey Devil called Jersey Devil: Design/Build Book by Michael Crosbie.

This morning I finished another, called Devil’s Workshop by Susan Piedmont-Palladino and Mark Alden Branch, which likewise has a quote about the place of architectural education that continues to be relevant.

The question of whether it is theory or practical experience that forms the primary knowledge base of architecture has remained one of the central dilemmas of architectural practice and education since the Renaissance. During the nineteenth century, France and England exemplified this dilemma in the divergent ways in which they educated architects. France, where architects were educated at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, considered theory primary; England, where education tended to rely on apprenticeships, considered practical knowledge primary and thought of architecture as a trade than as a learned profession. For most of the nineteenth century the United States followed the English model, as it had during the colonial era. American architecture in the eighteenth century had relied on pattern books written expressly for the owner-craftsman who found himself “in the remote parts of the Country where little or no assistance for Design can be procured.” While the more theoretical treaties of Vitruvius or Palladio were available in colonies, they were expensive. The pattern books were popular and contained details, elements, and entire buildings that could be “executed by any Workman who understands Lines…” Over the course of the nineteenth century, however, American education abandoned its craft-based tradition and turned toward the Beaux Arts model as the path to professional legitimacy. Consequently, the values of apprenticeship, such as construction and craft, were marginalized by a curriculum that emphasized delineation, history, geometry, and engineering principles. The knowledge gained from making buildings became peripheral to the professional definition of the architect, and so remains today.

The professional internship, which would seem at first glance to redress the division between theory and practice, in fact reinforces it. The internship derives from the recognition that a theory-based education has certain limits, yet even here the novice architect is rarely offered field experience, and never actual construction experience, but rather the chance to apply to a “real” project the same abstract design skills learned in the academy. Those design skills, developed and refined on monumental and idealized studio projects, are more often than not applied to the proverbial fire stair and bathroom details. Students who look to the internship as the time to learn finally “how things go together” find that budget and expedience often conspire to limit their access to the construction process. More than that, however, the segregation of the architect from the activities if the building is endemic to a professional culture in which practice is defined as the rendering of a service, The internship is dedicated to training, some might say indoctrinating, new professionals in the “how” of serving the client, rather than the “how” of building the building. The perceived loss of respect for architects throughout the construction industry can be seen as one of the inevitable results of this situation. The increasing interest in design-build in the part of many architecture students (and the media) might be said to be another, though the design-build studios now offered by a number of academic programs are still seen largely as supplements to a theory-based education.

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places where you could probably learn more about designing and building in just a few days than I did after a year of grad school

Know of some others I can add here? Let me know. Have you already visited some of these places...or planning on it? Let me know and I will feature your story and your photos here!

I am starting a new kind of architecture school. Unlike most architecture schools, you wouldn't have to submit GRE scores or good grades or letters of recommendation. You wouldn't have to put the rest of your life on hold for 3 to 5 years. You wouldn't have to accrue tens of thousands of dollars in debt. At my architecture school, anyone could come for a few weeks and learn how to build a house with their own two hands. My teachers would take skills and concepts from some of these other workshops I've listed above... except classes would be held year-round to make it easy to fit into your schedule. I would have a number of different campuses around the country that would teach building designs appropriate to the local climate. And I need your help. Can you donate land for a campus? Can you dotate books for a library? Can you teach a workshop? Can you provide start-up capital? Let me know.

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