Aug 10, 2006

The Emergent Emergency

I was biking home thinking about how I would post a blog entry relating to the conversations I had today at work. There was the usual Genghis activity, and in fact he was in rare form PLUS he was actively irritated with me, so we both got under each other's skin very badly. But more interestingly, at the end of the day when I already had my keys and my bike helmet in my hand, I wound up having a long conversation with two coworkers (I'll call them Bob and Kristen) about the nature of architectural education and the clash in the academy between the study of Architecture and the concept of Historic Preservation. We discussed the arbitrariness of "schools of thought" as they change from era to era, and whether or not it was a pipe dream to think that graduate schools of design could ever really do more than pay lip service to interdisciplinary education between architecture, urban planning, preservation, the fine arts, landscape architecture, and the other fields that are supposedly allied arts.

We also vented frustrations at the experience of being a creative but essentially science-minded person in an architectural program. There is a lot of stuff that goes on, a whole language of elaborate bullshit, and a somewhat new concept I call the Pseudoscience of Design, or "graphing irrelevant data." Now that we live with computerized construction technology that aids us in building whatever wacky shapes we choose, design schools have become obsessed with justifying these choices using science or nature or philosophy or basically ANYTHING in the world other than simply beauty or personal taste of the designer or (gasp!) utility.

So, the word "emergence" has come into fashion. Emergence as a concept is not new, and you can read about it here and here and here and many other places. If you clicked on those "here"s, you'd probably be intrigued. But imagine what happens when schools of architecture latch on to such a term and start doing this and this and fucking this. (If you can get over all the popups, you'll eventually be rewarded with nonsense.) God, especially that last one. It KILLS me that MIT is buying this crap as well, but no "top" school of design is immune to the emergent virus.

Here, try this one. Now click on the "About_EmTech." Get it now? Of course not, but you did get to see some wireframe wontons.

The notion that we should study the forms that emerge from apparent chaos and try to find order in them is interesting. But then take architecture students who often come to a top-notch grad program at Columbia or Harvard with no undergrad design experience, and hand them a software package and tell them to design a fishery using the emergent properties of slime molds in Finland. Did you just ask me to design a fishery based on the way slime molds regenerate? Yes, you did.

What I am talking about here, for those who may not be following, is a mass delusion among the non-vocational (read intellectual/academic) design programs that we should program computers to design buildings for us. Not only that, but that these programs should generate the built form based on natural processes, like patterns of cellular growth or the movement of bees through a colony, which are of dubious relation to the structure being designed. Let me repeat - we are teaching students to program robots to design our environment. What is missing? I'll tell you what's missing: the freakin' human spirit, that's what's missing. Go to any architecture school and look around at the cloned blobs on the computer monitors, then grab some young impressionable first-years and try to save them by dragging them over to the Law School and forcing them to apply. Much less scary in there, methinks.

After coming home and having a glass of wine, I find myself uninterested in writing part II of this Scourge of Emergence diatribe. I am more interested in going downstairs to have another glass of wine. But the conversation with Bob and Kristen about trying to merge a love for old buildings and an interest in urban contexts with what the architectural academic community is passing off as science really riled me all up.

This experience with contemporary architectural education may have been what drove me to the field of Historic Preservation in the first place... the field is certainly stodgier, but the reward can be serious -- I get to play with buildings like the former Cincinnati Union Terminal (my current project, see below). Instead of wondering which ant colony's growth to graph in order to inform the design of my daycare center, I get to provide real solutions to adapting this building to its current use as a museum. Stay tuned for Diatribe Part Deux!


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