Deschooling Architectural Pedagogy: Counterculture and What We’re Missing Out On

Publication Date
August 30, 2021

Architectural education is one of the most time-consuming disciplines in academia, where most architecture students spend their late teens and early twenties in studio. All the while, our peers in fine art or other design disciplines have ample time to engage with the city. This time is spent experiencing and participating in cultural production, partying, and ultimately being immersed in counterculture. Furthermore, the patriarchal Beaux-Arts master-apprentice model of architectural pedagogy requires us to learn top-down—turn 90 degrees up to our professors rather than horizontally to our peers. This also teaches us to be non-participatory in cultural production, unfamiliar with other peer-to-peer forms of collaboration in fine art and other design disciplines. We leave school with these lessons learned and relationships missed. Due to such immense educational time demand during the architecture student’s young adulthood, they struggle to engage with counterculture, hindering their capacity to interface with other cultural spheres.

Counterculture is anti-institutional, anti-capitalist, anti-racist, and politically engaged. It is a subculture that has historically been youth-oriented. After 1968, the period of widespread student movements resulted in radical architectural pedagogies. As Beatriz Colomina explains, during this period the discipline was seeking to stake its claim in the Cold-War landscape by articulating its relationship to new utopian visions of technological, sociopolitical, and cultural transformations. As architecture itself became indeterminate and was forced to evaluate its own epistemic boundaries, students realized that the institutions of education were fruitful battlegrounds for challenging systemic norms of intellectual labor and praxis, where free time became a political tool for integrating architecture into a larger cultural milieu, whether it be socio-economic or political.1 This free time allowed students to take to the streets or reimagine the studio space as a site of protest, with the 1968 occupation of the Triennale di Milano, the 1968 student revolts in Paris rejecting the Beaux-Arts pedagogical mode, the strikes at Columbia University, and the 1969 burning of the School of Art and Architecture building and the ‘Free the Panthers’ demonstrations at Yale. It is through these agendas that we can begin to understand the political and architectural potential of free time. Architecture students during this period had to fight for this free time, but today due to the growing bureaucracy of educational institutions and the pressures of the dominance of knowledge-based, late-stage capitalism in producing young people as “homo economicus,” our intellectual capital is too precious to risk expulsion, so students won’t fight for this free time unless it is afforded to us. Political potential of free time will only be realized when structural changes allow new forms of temporal and spatial pedagogical models.

Archizoom founding member Andrea Branzi’s 1973 review of philosopher Ivan Illich’s book Deschooling Society in “The abolition of school – Radical Note no. 4” published in the Italian architecture magazine Casabella, served to insert a pedagogical component into Archizoom’s Marxist critique of the nexus of city, labor, and capitalism. Branzi quips that “in effect the basic aim of a radical critique of institutions, whether scholastic or urban, is not to make them instruments of revolution but instruments in the hand of man, thereby enabling him to take a decisive step towards liberation from work.”2 Branzi understood that for Illich, the growing late-stage capitalist constraints of the post-Fordist knowledge economy required institutional boundaries, temporal constraints, and spatial frameworks for commodified human knowledge and information. However, what Branzi supported was what Michael Polanyi in 1958 had named “tacit knowledge,” which Illich outlined as an epistemic form that depends on an environment for sharing that adds a level of informality to the formal mechanisms of learning. Deschooling meant defining the possibility of learning as a condition that is not confined within any particular spatial or temporal boundary whose ultimate aim was the liberation from work. This review also served to reinforce Archizoom’s conceptual approach to their proposal for the University of Florence (1970 – 1971). Their entry refused to equate learning with fixed spatial and formal boundaries by creating a new learning terrain of superimposed surfaces of infrastructure for the support of continuous cycles of the production and consumption of information that was represented as circuit boards of a computer. This polemic raised by this review and project proposal, aimed against the post-industrial city and its social and economic logic of institutional spatiality, brought Illich and Archizoom together. Here, it illustrates that in keeping architecture students constrained to the time demands of studio, there are valuable forms of knowledge production and sharing that are lost.

It is important to consider through these historical examples that radical challenges to architecture students’ engagement with cultural spheres outside the discipline with free, spontaneous forms of tacit knowledge produced radically new forms of architecture that came after. Rem Koolhaas reflected on the value of tacit knowledge generated by free and collaborative architectural teaching when he explained the context for his own educational experience at the AA:

“THE SCENE. London’s Architectural Association 1970-72: a school awash in sex, drugs and rock and roll. David Bowie hanging at the bar; flash to a person with experimental hysteria quickened by the visionary projects of Archigram, architecture’s answer to the Beatles; galvanized, sort of, by the European action politics of May 1968; intoxicated by the spontaneous American Love-urbanism of Woodstock and its shadow, the erotic violence of Altamont: edified by the froth of the rumors of French intellectual thought; drawn to design, to mod and Carnaby Street, and to antidesign, to the swagger of the infinite cities of Yona Friedman and Italy’s Superstudio and Archizoom. Anything goes, everything goes. For studio, write a book if you want. Dance or piss your pants if you want. Structure or codes or HVAC? Go to Switzerland.”3

Deschooling is exemplar of the anti-pragmatic spontaneous social environment that Koolhaas is addressing here, as it is a form of knowledge gained from social relations that results in accumulation of experiences and skills not directly quantifiable as with explicit knowledge. Even Beatriz Colomina characterizes this period as collective defiance against the authority of institutional, bureaucratic, and capitalist power relations, but goes on to explain that we are now in a period where:

“Students wait for a sense of activist engagement with a rapidly evolving world but graduate before this happens. Teachers likewise worry too much about institutional hierarchies… As schools appear to increasingly favor professionalization, they seem to drown in self-imposed bureaucratic oversight, suffocating any possibility for the emergence of experimental practices and failures.”4

Archizoom and Illich’s concerns over the increasing standardization of human knowledge under late-stage capitalism are being realized in full intensity in our architecture schools today.

How can the architecture student engage with the politics of youth-oriented counterculture when they are beholden to studio demands? After the summer of activism in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and open letters written by architecture students demanding structural change within academia and the profession, this activism lost steam during the school year as students were burnt out and overburdened by their academic demands.

Youth-oriented counterculture offers a reservoir of urban, architectural, and political lessons. Productive misreading of the urban landscape in the anti-capitalist act of graffiti art and skateboarding, Underground rave culture which détournes unused urban structures into spaces for free expression and acceptance within marginalized communities, and the radical praxis of Indigenous youth land and sea defenders, are just a few examples.

It is crucial to consider the spatial and temporal dialectic of studio culture, to consider what we as architecture students are not doing in our young adulthood, the spaces we do not occupy, and the time not spent with others when we are expelling energy in studio spaces. In realizing the limited capacity in which we are able to participate in counterculture, it becomes evident that we are missing out on many lessons from our young peers and the city. Physically stuck in studio, and mentally imprisoned by pedagogical expectations, counterculture has never felt farther away. Free time is a key ingredient to plugging into the social, political, and cultural spaces around us, and without it we simply become atrophied by the bureaucratic and economic pressures of late-stage capitalism.

  1. Beatriz Colomina. “Radical Pedagogies: ACTION-REACTION-INTERACTION.” Learning Environments. Lecture presented at the KTH Arkitekturskolan, February 26, 2015.
  2. Andrea Branzi, “The Abolition of School – Radical Note no. 4,” Casabella 373 (1973): 10.
  3. Rem Koolhaas, Elia Zenghelis, Madelon Vriesendorp, Zoe Zenghelis, Exodus, or the voluntary prisoners of architecture. 1972, in Jeffrey Kipnis, ed., Perfect Acts of Architecture, exhibition cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, New York, H.N. Abrams, 2001, p. 14
  4. Beatriz Colomina, “Beatriz Colomina on Education,” The Architectural Review 120 (2017).
Publication Date
August 30, 2021
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