- April 3, 2021
First impressions are always challenging to overcome, and despite my best efforts, the memory of the first lecture I attended as a graduate student at Yale School of Architecture is pretty much seared into the back of my retinae. For the inaugural lecture of the Fall 2019 semester, British developer John Spence delivered a marketing pitch for his hotel and resort enterprise, Karma Royal Group. In a slideshow where every page seemed to be covered in glitter and gold dust, we were fed twenty minutes of sweeping drone shots of extravagant luxury resorts on idyllic Balinese beaches while Spence waxed lyrical with vacant business-forward banalities. You had to see it to believe it—the whole spectacle was frankly unreal.
I do not mean to balk at Spence’s presence as some outsider—this was indeed a lecture about architecture. To deny it as such is to ignore the corporate-capital systems through which much of our built environment is produced. Still, I left that night fearing what this opening event might bode for my time at Yale Architecture—what this lecture represented of the school’s ideological limits.1 Much to my confoundment, I learned that the reason Spence was speaking as part of the year’s speaker circuit was that he was the Distinguished Edward P. Bass Fellow of Fall 2019, and as part of this role, he would be teaching an advanced design studio at Yale that term. What did it mean for Spence’s belief system—that is, the ideology of the Bass Fellows’ studio—to have been offered to us the first lecture of that year, this annual homecoming event by which the year’s tone is set?
Announced in 2004 under former dean Robert A. M. Stern, the Edward P. Bass Fellowship is intended to “bring distinguished private and public-sector clients to the [Yale] School of Architecture on a regular basis to give students insight into the ‘real-world’ development process and the architect’s role on a development team.” 2 As it turns out, as wildly extravagant as Spence’s enterprise is, he is by no means the exception to the rule of the Bass Studio. The inaugural fellow in 2005 was billionaire Gerald Hines; in 2008, Charles L. Atwood, then vice chairman of hotel group Harrah’s Entertainment; in 2010, Katherine Farley, senior managing director at megadeveloper Tishman Speyer; and more recently, in 2018, Michael Samuelian, former Vice President of Related Companies, the development firm behind my favorite playground of the ultra-rich, Hudson Yards.
When the Bass Fellowship declares itself the baptismal font of “real-world” methodologies of development, it disguises realism—an ideological posturing—as the real material ontology of architectural practice. As Nico Dockx and Pascal Gielen write in their introduction to their edited volume, Commonism: A New Aesthetics of the Real:
“[Ideologies] are… aesthetics of the real. They claim to be the only real truth and through this claim those belief systems give form to society as ‘real…’ They are make-believe and as such they function as self-fulling prophecies. Ideologies are performances of reality in name of what is real.”3
Inherent in declaring something as “real-world” is an implicit statement that lays claim to the real. So what models of development are declared real by the Bass Fellowship? Is designing neocolonial villas for sunburnt millionaires our reality? What does the inclusion or exclusion of particular development vehicles do to our understanding of the limits of possibility?
That is to ask, what are the components of an architect’s education that are intended to prepare them for this so-called real, and how does that realism confine the architect’s capacity to reexamine their role in the built environment? As the executive entourage of visiting fellows suggests, a typical Bass studio engages with private client-based—or, at best, public-private partnership—development models. Our “professional practice” courses—at Yale called “Architectural Practice & Management”—teach existing standards of labor as given constants rather than a variable disciplinary territory worth critical examination and speculative reinvention. Before we even make it out of the institution, capitalism and bureaucracy are dropped over our heads like a bucket of ice-cold water, quickly dousing our dreams of being just architects, and reminding us that, in the “real world,” we’re just architects —all in time for us to wade into the alphabet soup of initials-based architecture firms.
For a discipline that largely concerns itself with the projective question, “What if?” through the design of things, we seem to spend very little time in academia interrogating the organizational design of our own profession. What if Gather New Haven (formerly New Haven Land Trust) or Sogorea Te’ Land Trust were the 2021 Bass Fellow? What if the Building Project developed sustained proposals for alternative programs beyond giver-to-receiver models of housing? What if, as Gabrielle Printz has proposed, 4 “Architectural Practice & Management” was taught as a theory course where the nature of practice was reevaluated, rather than a box to be checked for NAAB and NCARB as our well-meaning administrators shuffle us out the door, diploma in hand?
These reimaginations are already underway in the world—organizations like the NYC Real Estate Investment Cooperative and Homebaked Anfield approach urban commercial programming and development through a cooperative land trust. These models guarantee a directly democratic participation of community stakeholders in development decisions and, bit by bit, can buy back the urban environment and reinvest its social currency into the local community. Community-based development presents a completely distinct ideological framework from that of the profit-focused private client or top-down public authority, and as a result, the architect’s design work within, their contractual relationship to, and even their language and values by which they communicate with community development groups must be rethought.
Crucial to making a new social reality possible is believing that it is possible. This is evinced by a Palestinian collective land ownership model called al masha:
“The Arabic term al masha refers to communal land equally distributed among farmers. Masha could only exist if people decided to cultivate the land together. The moment they stop cultivating it, they lose its possession. It is possession through a common use.”5
The commons of al masha exists only in continual practice—it is the collective belief in the system itself that makes the system’s existence possible and protects through ritual its participants’ claim to land and survival. Courses like the Bass Fellowship studio and “Architectural Practice & Management” that prepare architects for professional practice could be the sites where such beliefs are cultivated. It would be challenging work fraught with unknowns, but it is in these unknowns that we find possibility. Rehearsal in academia is necessary, not only to practice these distinct roles, but also to enable our sensibility of these possibilities’ realism. The “what ifs” of the academy offer a space in which to reimagine and rehearse what is possible, and by rehearsing what is possible, we might define for ourselves what is real.