I was on an panel today at the ACSA conference entitled "Digital Aptitudes" continuing an ongoing dialogue about the intersection of practice and education. My fellow panelists--Daniel Friedman of the University of Washington, Billie Faircloth of Kieran Timberlake and Kiel Moe of Harvard--each spoke on how various issues often considered "contingent" to design would better be incorporated in to a broader definition of architectural competency, and that our schools need to reexamine our teaching models accordingly. My introductory remarks suggested that competitive pressures, low employment rates and the influence of new delivery models and technology challenge the traditional "heroic designer" pedagogy that is the basis of the architectural curriculum. None of this stuff is particularly new, but it was refreshed by Billie's explanation of how a research (literally, "searching and then searching again") redefines the design process at KTA, and Kiel's suggestion that if the discipline of architecture was both more formally ambitious and convergent such conversations would be unnecessary.
After our remarks the floor opened to questions from the 50-odd faculty in attendance. We were asked about alternative teaching models, what was happening in places like Yale and Harvard (where Kiel and I teach, and we readily admitted "not much") and whether this question really addressed the intellectual agenda of the profession. But it was the last question, from a former faculty colleague, which made me realize that the frame of this conversation often skips the precedent condition. This professor asked whether in all this talk about collaboration with engineers, integration of new disciplines, and blurring the formal boundaries of the design discipline, why had the priority on "the visual" disappeared? She was "disappointed" that our discussion didn't acknowledge that architects think differently than those in related disciplines and the entire examination failed to hew to that basic fact.
Whether the "visual" aspects of design should be elevated to the top of the issues stack is the subject of another examination. But her impassioned query made me realize that those of us who are really interrogating education and practice, and wondering how the profession can survive its current crisis of relevance, should remember to emphasize that what we are advocating is not the replacement of formal, compositional or ineffable aspects of design with more prosaic issues, but rather that those explorations are logical extensions of--and in fact empowered by--questions of material science, energy flows, and delivery process design. Our argument should remind everyone that the former is made much more possible, potent and valuable by convergence with the latter. The alternative is likely the marginalization of the ineffable for the practical, and the result the creation of some very disappointing--or worse--buildings.