- Precedent: noun
- an earlier event or action that is regarded as an example or guide to be considered in subsequent similar circumstances.
Architectural education is oddly self-referential. Reviews and critiques of student projects will include variations of “your project reminds me of…” “you should check out…” or “have you seen…” followed by a juicy precedent if you’re lucky. Precedent has become—perhaps always has been—a device used to inspire or direct a reading and development within a project. Students are encouraged to look and learn through the lens of established work and thought, and this cycle begins to define an insular pedagogical timeline. Continual acceptance and rejection of ideas and theories direct architectural discourse inwards towards itself—and so students learn to do the same. Presentations include dedicated slides for precedents and research to frame projects, and the resultant conversations often revolve around passing precedents and references back and forth.
- Have you been to the Glass House?
- Take a look at the University of Virginia as an example of the Neoclassical.
- You should look up the Looshaus.
- Look into the writing of Viollet-le-Duc for more on gothic principles in architecture.
In the current age of information, it is much easier to access and get lost in the search for the perfect precedent for projects; One click leads to images of projects, drawings, and models related to a topic of interest. The past year of Zoom architecture school has made it even easier to quickly shake up some references in hopes they can serve as the ideal precedent cocktail. However the optics of at-a-glance precedent delivery overlooks the social baggage associated with many past ideas and circumstances. Problematic individuals, oppressive systems, and insensitivities established throughout history have been accepted as integral to modern architectural thought. As discourse stands now, these facts are either ignored or simply afterthoughts that follow popular precedents. Canonical hall-passes are given out based on pedagogical “importance.”
- Oh yeah… Philip Johnson wrote articles sympathizing with the Nazi Party.
- Oh yeah… A large part of Jefferson’s layout of the University of Virginia was to account for slaves.
- Oh yeah… Adolf Loos was arrested and convicted as a pedophile.
- Oh yeah… Viollet-le-Duc also wrote on racial typologies in architecture—characterizing non-“Aryan” races as “repulsive,” “abject,” and “simple.”1
Does architecture give too much weight to precedents? In our current and rapidly-changing world context, is using an architectural past as an identifier for present-day circumstances still relevant? As history progresses through significant world events, there is a consistent cycle of manifestos and new ideas that blossom alongside. Pedagogies accept precedent as a reflection of their respective eras, and are thus meant to be abstract. Specifically, the conversational use of precedent within the context of reviews lessens any emphasis on background in favor of educational relevance. As the architectural timeline lengthens, new precedents extend the chronological baseline of thought whereby new work and ideas are speculated against. As our culture shifts, this branching of new ideas becomes more socially aware as well; however, irresponsible precedent-slinging returns the discourse right back to the same problematic and racist ideas it is now so quick to condemn. The “oh yeah…” context of a precedent needs to hold just as much canonical significance as the precedent itself. Back to that perfect precedent cocktail—all references should be shaken alongside their context in equal measure for longer than just a couple seconds. After the final pour, it’s up to the architecture student to decide whether the result is sweet or sour.
- Precedent: adjective
- preceding in time, order, or importance.
- Irene Cheng et al., “Structural Racialism in Modern Architectural History,” in Race and Modern Architecture: A Critical History from the Enlightenment to the Present (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2020), pp. 139-142. ↩︎