2016 – Stocktaking

 

TESS MCNAMARA (M.Arch I & M.E.M ‘18)

 

In 1960, Reyner Banham assessed the state of architecture. Titled “1960—Stocktaking,” first published in the Architectural Review, Banham presents a discipline divided into two narratives: tradition and technology. Two trains, on different tracks and moving swiftly in opposite directions, Banham’s traditionalists lament the expansion of architectural roles beyond “carefully balancing horizontal things on top of vertical things,” believing this extension threatens the integrity and identity of the profession.[1] His technologists on the other hand (or track, rather), believe that “architecture, as a service to human societies, can only be defined as the provision of fit environments for human activity.”[2]

Sound familiar? The debate still persists in the architectural profession, and rages at YSOA. So today’s battles are nothing new, in revisiting their history we add perspective to our contemporary arguments. Anthony Vidler, Vincent Scully Visiting Professor and teacher of YSOA’s “Architectural Theory II 1968-Present,” has lectured on the evolution of the two polarizing authorities of form and technology, which he argues spawned from the initial 1950s split between the respective camps of Colin Rowe and John McHale. In a 2008 lecture at Syracuse, Vidler sets out the dichotomy: those who believe in the primacy of architectural form define themselves in opposition to those who include technological, social or consumerist logics in design. The characters on both sides of the debate are iconic, including Buckminster Fuller in all his dymaxion glory, as well as Peter Eisenman, a Rowe disciple, with his “save architecture” movement.[3] The technologists today lack an icon, perhaps because of the ideology’s pervasiveness. I might venture our own Keller Easterling as its new boss, with her credo that we architects, as masters of space, should employ any and all tools in our arsenal to make environments more ‘fit’ using active form, which sometimes has no physical form at all.[4] Easterling writes that by sometimes looking beyond object form, we can use our unique artistry to meddle in other disciplines that influence space, possibly gaining the widespread power enjoyed by fields like economics or politics.

Here at Yale, Dean Stern’s mandate of pluralism has ensured that traditionalists maintain a seat at the table, a position unique among architecture schools. (GSAPP, with its stated desire to “re-imagine the future of architecture,”[5] doesn’t exactly invite the likes of Leon Krier to teach studio). While the tradition-technology dichotomy has morphed, 56 years later, into what feels more like Formalism vs. Everything Else, the fundamentals of the debate remain the same, and the problems that follow from this division are still at work. At YSOA, this tension is consistently palpable and often entertaining, but I think we can do better to have productive discussions and collaborations. Vidler agrees: “unless we can reconstruct a vision of bringing architecture together in some non-polemical way in relationship to the authority of technology, the authority of form, the authority of future and the authority of the past, we’re lost.”[6] As we face a changing of the guard, the time is ripe to reflect on our discipline and how it is rendered in the pedagogy at YSOA.

Vidler presents a compelling rallying point, which has only become more relevant in the eight years since his lecture: “our survival as architects, from form-givers to problem-solvers…depends on [us confronting] the future of the planet.” His “pitch” is for a brand new discipline, a “truly radical ecological architecture”[7] that would bend the tracks of our two warring trains.

Can ecology really unify our discipline? I’m sure today’s formalists would shudder at the thought, but in the spirit of new beginnings let’s all consider it. Vidler uses Patrick Getties’ definition, the first brought to architecture, which claims ecology as “a holistic examination of the problem.”  It seems tame enough. In a time of ever more complex and pressing world issues, how could you argue against comprehensive analysis when working within the built environment? For the traditionalists, can’t form itself respond to holistic assessment, and shouldn’t it acknowledge changing times? Vidler proposes an “Ecological Bauhaus,”[8] a vision for architectural education that would pool the knowledge of formalists, landscape designers, urban designers, urban ecologists, and conservationists into a pedagogy that might begin to tackle the spatial problems of global warming, densifying cities, and urban slum conditions that he says architects must confront to survive. Having sat on a number of curriculum committees, he is not optimistic about this change. But I think now, if ever, is our time for optimism.

 

 

[1] Reyner Banham, “1960—Stocktaking,” The Architectural Review 127 (February 1960), 94.

[2] Banham, “1960—Stocktaking,” 93.

[3] Anthony Vidler, “Whatever Happened to Ecology? Technology and Sustainability from Banham to Today” (Syracuse University: Slocum Hall, November 12, 2008).

[4] Keller Easterling, “Launch,” Perspecta 47: Money (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2014).

[5] Amale Andraos, “Letter From the Dean,” Columbia GSAPP, <http://www.arch.columbia.edu/about/letter-from-the-dean>.

[6] Anthony Vidler, “Whatever Happened to Ecology?…”

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.