Comment: Dean Monica Ponce de Leon

Disciplinary Transgressions

Comment by Monica Ponce de Leon

The Architectural Record

The field of architecture is poised to undergo dramatic changes. Beginning in the 1990s, we saw the emergence of the “star” architect as a cultural force, along with the consolidation of architecture as an agent for physical and economic change in cities across the world. The 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing were a culmination of this era, and a demonstration of the potential power of architecture. However, this model of practice has already shown its limits, its weaknesses, and its flaws. It is safe to say that a new generation of practitioners will not be able to follow in the footsteps of its predecessors—and more importantly, that it should not.

Most of us are aware that technological advances paired with economic forces are significantly altering the construction of buildings and the practice of architecture. Conventional techniques will no longer suffice if architecture is to remain a viable venture. In addition, architecture’s role in the construction of culture has become globally associated with elite societies, and as a result, has remained outside of recent and dramatic cultural shifts.

It is not surprising that in the new economy, architecture has been one of the professions most badly hit. According to the National Endowment for the Arts, architects’ unemployment rate for 2008 more than doubled from the previous year. With more than 50,000 architecture students in schools across the country, this figure should give us pause. At the same time, it is evident that architecture is being left out of the most critical issues on the national agenda, despite the fact that historically our field has proven to have the tools and expertise to address these very pressing problems (such as the environment, housing, and infrastructure, just to name a few). This has precisely coincided with a golden era of architecture in which we have demonstrated extraordinary abilities with an unprecedented sophistication in the use of digital technology. And thus, we must wonder if our concern for very narrow and mostly formal problems has led to our failure to engage the world.

The time has come to examine these issues and to begin to chart a course for the future of the discipline. This will require new approaches to cultural engagement, and for architecture to rewrite its own rules. These changes need to begin “at home” with our own cultural institutions—namely architecture schools. After all, at pivotal points in the history of our field, the academy has given us critical perspectives with which to measure and evaluate the impact of architecture upon the world. Academia provides a lens independent of the demands of the profession, and as such it has the potential to advance the field in extraordinary ways. But so far pedagogy is not living up to this potential: Our teaching methodologies and the predominant model of studio instruction has remained virtually unchanged for more than 100 years.. More importantly, in the last 20 years architecture has stagnated in the midst of architectural research that focused too closely on topics that proved to have little consequence.

The conundrum of academic specialization is not exclusive to our discipline, of course. Our current environmental, economic, and societal crises have exposed the limits of conventional notions of specialization as a mode of research and scholarship in every field. Many disciplines are beginning to recognize this, and are moving toward an interdisciplinary model of research and education. In no other area does this become more poignant than in the environmental arena. In this first decade of the 21st century, it has become painfully clear that by looking at technological advances in isolation during the 20th century, we missed their broader impact. Efficient production methods led to the global proliferation of goods, and it is now unambiguous that unbridled consumption has had disastrous consequences for our planet. This is certainly true for architecture as well. In the last century, as we exalted the benefits of new materials and methods of construction in terms of efficiency and economy, we overlooked how they impacted natural resources. For most of the 20th century, we promoted the comfort and convenience of the suburbs, while ignoring their effects upon a larger network of natural ecosystems. We have become rapidly aware that environmental degradation has no easy solution, and that the responsibility lies amid many fields. Transgressing the boundaries of academic disciplines may be the only way to address the complex challenges of our time.

Because of its history and its own nature, architecture is best suited to develop an academic model that works across disciplines. After all, unlike most other fields, architecture is an intricate area of study that indeed encompasses distinct branches of learning in the sciences and the humanities. It is not surprising that several schools of architecture mention interdisciplinarity in their mission statements. However, for most of them, this is limited to relationships between architecture, landscape architecture, interior design, and urban planning. Instead, I believe that the discipline of architecture should re-examine its place within a larger body of knowledge and develop a new pedagogy as a means of advancing the profession. Only through new teaching methods that work across disciplines will we be able to allow future generations to look at design holistically, and in this way write a new chapter in the public mission of architecture.

These issues are particularly pertinent today not only because of the dose of reality the new economy has afforded us, but also because I believe architecture finds itself in the midst of deep-seated changes at its core. Educated in the 1980s, I experienced firsthand how digital technology altered the way that buildings are conceived and represented. In addition, this digital revolution fundamentally changed how we practiced, including our relationship to consultants and builders. For 20 years we argued that the new technology was simply a “tool,” but the sobering fact remains that these tools (like any tool) have had a major impact on our design process at all levels. During this first digital revolution the reaction of the field was to strengthen disciplinary boundaries and to demonstrate what we are capable of. Much of our fascination with formal problems has been the result of this encounter with new technology. It is safe to say that during this period architecture looked inward, and technical concerns came to be understood as somehow independent of social engagement, almost with obstinacy.

Today, with accelerated advances in digital fabrication technologies and their widespread application, I believe that we find ourselves in the midst of a second digital revolution. Not unlike the 1980s, as we argue over the significance of these “tools,” digital fabrication is fundamentally changing construction methods and transforming the building industry. This second time around, however, we have a remarkable opportunity to take a more critical stance toward technology and articulate its potential for social engagement, or else we risk perpetuating the divides that threaten to limit the relevance of architecture to the actual circumstances of the building industry—as the current economic downturn has demonstrated.

Other fields are wrestling with these very same issues. Not only will architecture be best served by entering into a conversation with these disciplines, but architecture will best serve and participate in the construction of culture. Much of what lies at the core of our discipline is already playing a central role in the redefinition of other fields. It is telling that design is now an integral part of the curriculum at top business schools across the country. Engineering departments have developed coursework around notions of creative practices, while schools of social work and public policy have aligned social activism with entrepreneurship and design thinking. The value of design has increased in all aspects of society, at the same time that the pertinence of architecture has decreased. By remaining hermetic and, dare I say, self-absorbed, we run the risk of relegating to other fields the cultural power of design as an agent for social change.

Monica Ponce de Leon, founding partner at Boston-based architecture firm Office dA, is dean at the A. Alfred Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Michigan, and former director of the Digital Lab at Harvard University.