Conversations; The Keys to Teaching Architecture Today

Conversations; The Keys to Teaching Architecture Today

These conversations take place in the framework of the preliminary tasks of the book Cutting-edge Landscapes. This book goes beyond being a collection of student projects from Final Design Project TFG year of Esarq_UIC 2014/2015. Actually it’s a publication that aims to share an intense 11-month structured reflection with the objective to provide new opportunities to peri-urban landscapes. Rather than discuss the evolution of the workshop or any other specific aspects, due to the experience of Carlos Pereda as special teacher invited last year, we wanted to delve into a relaxed conversation about the keys of the teaching of architecture and the different sensibilities to deal with.

Carlos Pereda, Marta García-Orte and Miquel Lacasta

Il Giardinetto restaurant, Mai the 21st, 2015, 14.00h

Miquel Lacasta: Instead of talking about this year’s workshops, which you’re not familiar with, we’d like to make the most of your visit to Barcelona to exchange opinions about the keys to teaching architecture today.

Carlos Pereda: Quite honestly, I have to say I don’t know. Though I do think that teaching should keep reality very clearly in its sights. Your academic strategy, which I had the pleasure to share last year as course mentor, and which I see is ongoing, not only seems interesting and rewarding; it is also a course that raises issues about our reality. Obviously, if we want the students to be architects of their location, time and place, they have to deal with exercises that have a degree of complexity. How could it not be a great learning experience to bring together in the same exercise and workshop situations where one student is concentrating on the edge, another on the landscape, another on the productive system, or on construction, while yet another is working on an intervention at the urban scale? This is the definition of a rewarding exercise that brings students right up to date.

One of the keys is, then, looking at what is happening and trying to open students’ eyes to what they are going to find, rather than lapsing into the endogamy of thinking that the profession and society are unchanging.

I would say, then, that the key is to look at and listen to what is happening.

ML: I agree. In an introduction to one FYP course, I told the students that an architecture degree is like a wind tunnel: it’s a place where you test the aerodynamics of your knowledge, gradually increasing the pressure to see your reactions and behaviour.

This is, ultimately, the reality that students will find when they’re out there on their own, as qualified professionals, in the face of changing situations.

So it’s a testing ground where the student learns on the basis of her own experience, rather than being offered a closed parcel of knowledge. Of course, part of the studies are like that, but it’s not the case of Projects.

Pressure is gradually changing and increasing the complexity of conditions in this artificial climate of the testing ground that is a school. Conditions that change year after year until they produce the proposed FYP we offer at the ESARQ, like a pre-professional project which, apart from the budget, offers all the components of the equation that go to make up a project: installations, construction, accessibility, urbanism… This formula is possible thanks to the fact that the university places all its departments at the service of the course, led by Projects, but it is the project of the school, not just of our area.

Marta García-Orte: Exactly, we submit them to greater complexity to equip them with more mechanisms, tools and capacity to manoeuvre.

CP: The degree course is long enough and yet short enough for the student to realize what architecture is, and, by means of this pre-reality and the inputs of our profession and their professional dynamic, start to form a more precise idea of what each hopes to do professionally.

There is an aspect of the briefs that you propose in your courses that I think is very interesting, because architecture is based very clearly on need. What do we need today? Housing? Yes, of course, but we also need programmatic, geographical and urban research, to solve problems. And there are problems that really do need help and rather more complex solutions for production, circulation or movements, because we live in a global world.

Approaching reality in terms of this complexity is valuable both for the student and for the whole workshop, and it seems an ideal path to take in the times in which we are living.

Need is a basic condition in architecture.

ML: I like that; it reminds me of two interviews with Víctor López-Cotelo that I’ve read. He referred to architecture in terms of intelligence. He said that what matters is not what your project is like but its intelligence. What’s more, beauty comes from the intelligence that you bring to the project. To associate this with what you’re saying, the very purpose of intelligence is to meet this need you refer to. And this disarms any pseudo-artistic approach to the design condition that left formal fever years behind. By this, I don’t mean that a project shouldn’t be beautiful—it has to be extremely beautiful, organoleptic, even! It has to be capable of enveloping you and constructing, using intelligence, a complete and complex response to this need, which is where the concept of beauty comes in.

Beauty is in fact the contraposition to today’s austere, conservative trend, where things have to be apparently cheap in order to be architecture for times of crisis, just as it is also the contraposition to trivial formalism, or the parametric craze.

CP: I completely agree; I’d just like to mention a comment I read about the concept of beauty. Beauty in architecture does not refer to aesthetics; it has to be the final utility of architecture. Architecture is useful for many other things before that.

ML: Beauty is useful, too…

MGO: And beauty is necessary!

CP: And as for the austere line, architecture is based on need and measure. So if an auditorium is needed, you have to exactly measure all the questions of brief, function, concept, construction, economy and the times in which we live, but without turning all that into a formula.

ML: Exactly, not lapsing into automatism, or a reductionism of complexity.

CP: Because when this austerity becomes a safe formula for immediate consumption, it then becomes a fashion. We have to respond to a need with the measure that that need requires.

ML: Let’s talk about more personal experience. Now you’re returned actively, deliberately and successfully to teaching in Saragossa, tell us what you’re doing, what approach you’re taking, and the pleasure of getting out of the studio for a day!

CP: It is a pleasure! It’s so intense that the next day, or even two days later, I still have a kind of hangover. After doing studio work for years, when you go back to teaching, you realise that it is very rewarding if you take it as a mechanism to convey not knowledge but an attitude. You realise that the students notice this; they are receptive and they believe it. You see that they’re not the same when they start and when they finish the course.

It’s like being young again, seeing their ingenuity and freshness; the way they consider and present projects is fantastic.

In Saragossa we’re teaching a course that corresponds to years three and four, in which we consider architecture as the product of ideas, and the ideas are not predetermined; we try to open their minds. For reasons of closeness, the exercises are located right in the city, and this last semester we’ve had them working on high-rise buildings. They had to work in a group and the magnitude of the task was sufficiently ambitious to enable them to learn about team work and organization, as well as learning with the project.

The model had to talk about construction and structure—we’re talking about models that were two metres tall!

Something singular about our courses is the fact that we always refer to cubic metres, not square metres. In this way, the briefs are declarations of space, not surface area, which forces the student to have recourse to other documents than floor plans. What stood out most about this last task was how much we enjoyed the last day, with the staging of the project that goes beyond teaching to form part of architecture: how to present projects, how to explain them. This made the last workshop particularly intense.

I particularly remember one team that transported their model packed up in ten cardboard boxes. They got to the university at 10:00 and finished at 13:00. They were assembling it in the university lobby in a double-height space where the corridors of classrooms met, and when they finished, the students in the engineering part came out to applaud.

ML: The moment of joint project design when they start to work as a group is fundamental. It is also perhaps one of the most defining moments in the way of practising contemporary architecture. Authorship is diluted among a whole bunch of people who are involved in a project. The processes have become so complex that the architect is a manager of complexity who cannot do it all herself.

We are the ones who design the project, and lead and monitor it from start to finish, but it’s very important to have good engineers beside you whose structural resolution can give the project great spatial quality, for example. The same goes for all the professional branches that surround a project, and part of our genetic code should be the ability to surround ourselves with the best, so that they improve the project. The architect may have led the process throughout, but who is the author?

CP: As I see it, these days it’s a job for a group, and the responsibility belongs to the group, too. I understand that real learning lies in difference. When you get to a point and then, in the next job, you reach that same point, you really haven’t learned much. When you advance a little further and you find differences between the two jobs, that is when you have really learned something. Difference is always at the bottom of the learning process.

When it’s well coordinated, a group project is obviously capable of going much further than an individual project, which is limited by personal capacity.

Then there is a transcendent leap that we make as architects; rather than individuals producing marvellous projects, the transcendence lies in the group, in moving forward towards civilization. We tell the students that a lot of arguing is needed—a lot! It’s in this tension created by realising that you’re not 100% right, or someone else telling you something you don’t quite understand but then suddenly it clicks—it’s this and nothing else that generates an identity for the team or for the school. In your case, the fact that all the departments place themselves at the service of the FYP is a great exercise in architecture that also generates a positive twofold effect as an architect and as a human being.

ML: And it reminds you what a professional is these days, and that you can’t sort out everything yourself like architects did 30 years back. Today, you form part of a chain of value and, along with the client, you’re the one who knows most about the project. There’s a word I like that’s used a lot in innovation: disruptive. It means when, in a conversation between two people where each is talking about something, there is a sincere desire to listen and understand. Unless there is a desire to share, you’re going nowhere. But if you really want to generate something, sharing can prompt a disruptive idea that has nothing to do with what either one is saying—it’s the product of the two. As though a new idea emerged from the confrontation of two others, but this happens in a conversation marked above all by the desire to listen and understand, because in your difference from the other, there is something you’ll be able to use in your favour.

CP: To return to something you said earlier, I have the bad—or good—habit of looking at project credits. And when a project really interests me, it rarely involves just a couple of people. If it does, I find that rather suspicious. It seems to me obvious that a project is not the work of just one person. There are very good people who have a lot of good things to contribute.

ML: Carlos, if we could convey this 110% to our students, we could really say we’ve done our job! You’re so passionate about architecture, I’m sure it gets across. Thank you for the talk! Let’s do it again some time.

MGO: Thank you very much, Carlos. Once again, it’s been a pleasure.

CP: Thanks to you two! I’ll come back soon so we can carry on talking about architecture.

The image that illustrates this post come from the exhibition and the final jury week we did last year at MNAC with the splendid collaboration of Carlos Pereda. This year we will repeat at MNAC the next 21st to 26th of July in Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, MNAC, in Barcelona. You are all invited!

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