WHAT IS “IT”? An Open Letter to Students of Architecture

WHAT IS “IT”? An Open Letter to Students of Architecture

Dear Students of Architecture,

Perhaps you are right now dozing off in your theory class, or with bloodshot eyes casually glancing at this website wondering why architects are so dense and verbose, or perhaps you are under the influence of rather substances-that-I-should-not-mention (potified, acidified or mollified—take your pick) trying to get through architecture partly imagining how it will dramatically get better once you get out of school and partly knowing that it won’t. After spending sleepless nights and countless hours slaving at the computer, with intermittent coffee and periodic disasters, you have stood at the gates of hell also known as the crit / reviews / jury, only to be told that you just didn’t get ‘it’. This “it” is never defined and only talked peripherally—”it” is vague, “it” is a shapeshifter and like Mystique in X-Men, “it” changes according to the need of the professors to smack you down.

What is this “it”? In this letter, we wish to dispel our take on it, and hopefully show to you that the discipline and Academia of Architecture has been unable to grasp the Trans- condition (which we shall attempt to define shortly),  even though it has been ever present in the works of architecture that we take as examples to follow. We wish to show you that the inflexibility of the language, the concepts and the theoretical grounds on which Academia largely stands on today, masks a deep uncertainty about the knowledge of architecture, which gets projected onto unsuspecting students. We also seek to explore the idea of the transient, the transitory and the impermanent as tools that will enable us to break this impasse. We shall conclude that this transience is lying at the root of the experience of life itself. For us to work as architects in the 21st century where we can no longer overlook our social, political and ecological, and therefore, ethical role, we must seize this trans-moment.

For starters, to explain our stance, the language currently used in a studio is of no use since the professors talk in Archispeak (1)—a language akin to the hieroglyphics of the Egyptian pyramids and no less morose than the mummies themselves. The Urban Dictionary defines Archispeak as: "Large, made-up words that architects and designers use to make themselves sound smarter than you (you being the client or the confused observer of design or the student). It does nothing to inform or enlighten the inhabitant of architecture and mostly serves to numb them into obedience or self-doubt.". After the crit, this self-doubt shatters what you thought you knew and as you unpin / untape your sheets from the wall, you can’t help but feel belittled, dumb and misunderstood. Reflecting back, you feel that more often than not your project became the playground for academic semantic battle, wielding words and concepts that offered no real conclusion, and honestly after staying up all night, the dreary play of words could cure your insomnia. They seem to know how they are determining good or bad (i.e. a criterion), and beyond the obvious ones such as ergonomics, structure or usefulness, there seems to be a miscommunication about what they are.

There is no common space in the studio culture that allows for to question those very criteria. Only when the academics cast out their hubris and start with a humble admission of the uncertainty and complexity embedded in the practice of architecture, can there be a much-needed reshaping of the culture of academic practice. You have noticed how biases and inclinations are post-rationalized in the reviews and how architecture schooling often is trapped in loops of intellectual (seemingly) battles that are ridiculous (2). If all these experiences resonate with you, do not fret—you are not alone in this and as your disciplinary ancestors, we urge you to read on. We hope to offer a respite.

To be clear, our stance is not against what is taught in Academia or the varieties of philosophical / conceptual positions that professors take, it is the certainty with which they are projected. It is as if there is a claim to the Truth and the professors know it and you don’t. We curiously think this is a trace of modernity—this claim to the Truth. We postulate that we have never been truly modern (3) since we fail to see that the problem of gaining certainty gets worse with complexity, and hence, to claim that there is only one grand Truth to architectural discipline is a fallacy. Ask a physics professor on the origins of the atom, and he will admit that now there are 6 competing theories of quantum mechanics which paint very different pictures of reality. He cannot arrogantly claim what he believes in, is the ultimate explanation. This is what we are trying to aim at, to bring to the foreground a new sincerity, which admits that there could be different possibilities of what architecture is.

In other words, there resides a conceptual permanence in Academia, a stagnation in the way architecture is taught and this is very well put into the mind of the students that each project must be resolved in a concept first i.e. the student must create a semblance of Truth, by which all other aspects shall be defined. Failure to do so will only result in ridicule. What we suggest is quite the contrary, we suggest that the conceptual should allow for flexibility and should grow along with the design project, co-evolving based on inputs from the clients/ professors/ collaborators/ users/ other disciplines. The practice of this type of transience, i.e. the impermanence of the concept as absolute truth, is what we can term as the trans-conceptual condition. What this allows us is to arrive at the end of a design project with different starting points and different methodologies that suit how we intuitively think about architecture, people and their intersection, as long as we do not compromise our competence.      

What we are saying is simply this, the “it” that the professors seem to know about, is, in fact, something that is a priori, a classification done beforehand, a set of criteria that has been set before. Imagine this Truth to be 1 and not knowing it is 0. Using this binary mode of thinking, schools seem to drill in your head that the professors somehow know 1, and you are stuck at 0, trying to get to 1. Instead of this clear distinction between 1 and 0, we see multiple fractions in between 0 and 1 (like Fifty Shades of Grey, not black/white), where architectural exploration can take place, which is not about trying to “get it right”. Rather for the student, it is to try different avenues in pursuing building together the concept and the project, in collaboration with the professor, and evaluating each option with as much objectivity as possible i.e. a non-romantic approach. This corroborates with the idea of the “fuzzy logic”, a term used by mathematicians, logicians, and philosophers who have come to the conclusion that it is impossible to think of the world in clear binary terms. Not only it's difficult to defend a position of absolute Truth but rather, there exists many trans-conditions in between the two opposite poles. It is not that absolute Truths don’t exist, just that we are unable to prove it beyond doubt.   

This flies in the face of what we were taught by the modernist genius architect Howard Roark (4) who came to be epitomized as the symbol of how architects should be like. Dismiss the client (they know nothing) and wait for the flash—the architect being the artist, waits for the moment of the genius lightning to strike and illuminate the mind with a concept so dazzling that everyone must bow down to its Truth. Since the collapse of the Grand Truth of modernity and despite the honest intentions of the early Postmodernists, the discipline of architecture seemed hell-bent to ignore the architecture as-is and deduce hypotheses from the ‘real’ world. Postmodernism allowed for a relativity of the concepts and instead of one grand Truth, there emerged different ideological stances that each seemed to be saying that their way was the only way to do Architecture.

Let us be clearer on this. In the post-war period until the early sixties, there were revolts against the CIAM’s (Corbusier’s modernist buddies) reductionist ideologies and architects like Team 10, Cobra and others openly dissented. The sixties saw a flurry of counter-movements and utopian thinking such as the ones by Archigram, Cedric Price, Aldo van Eyck, Ernesto Rogers amongst others. Interestingly, the lack of complexity in architecture and in city planning were acutely felt. In this backdrop, the linear, mechanistic conception of architecture and cities was challenged curiously in close temporal proximity by four important texts—Jane Jacob’s The Life and Death of Great American Cities in 1961 which explicit stated cities as organized complexity; Christopher Alexander’s seminal essay in 1965 titled “The city is not a tree” which articulated non-linear overlappings; Robert Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture and Aldo Rossi’s The Architecture of the City, both in 1966 (read these if you haven’t already), which showed anachronistic juxtapositions being essential part of architecture and the city. This texts talked of architecture being rooted in the practices of everyday life, being governed by habits i.e. traditions, having a randomness to it that allowed for transient moments of complexity to emerge in the architecture. Their theories were based on rational conclusions regarding informal logics pegged in tradition but which also allowed for innovation.

Despite this moment of clarity for that time, mainstream architecture devolved into a self-referential theoretical exercise, aka, exercises in semiotics (signages and representations). Led by Peter Eisenmann (who had a famous debate in Harvard GSD with Christopher Alexander in 1982, where seemingly Eisenmann won, and Architecture lost if we may add) (5), this camp used French literary criticism as devices to create a sense of intellectualism. We might add that only a few of the architects that were exhibited at the “Deconstructivist Exhibition” in 1988 really had any deeper understanding of the philosophical root. Rather, architects applied his concepts formally, as tools to propagate a neo-mannerism, a pursuit of the formal qualities or the shock or the awe coming from artistic geniuses (read Gehry), and you come to realize that the demon of Howard Roark lived on and rebirthed in the concept of the starchitects.

We must say that Robert Venturi’s ideas were only taken up superficially by the latter postmodernists and as you can tell by many of their buildings getting torn down now (Michael Graves's Portland building), they failed the test of time. What we are postulating is that Venturi was hinting strongly at the trans-condition, a co-existence of this-and-that. We find that this is one of the key features found in all great works of architecture and great cities as well. Take the National Assembly in Dhaka by Louis Kahn, for example. Thought to be his seminal work, we say this work is miscategorized as a work of brutalism. It is born of brutalism, but it transcends its limits; and this quality of a trans- or beyond- or other-, is what we postulate as one of  the defining criteria to assess the quality of architecture. Looking from the outside, the National Assembly resembles a concrete fortress, the heaviness inescapable and yet, stepping inside and in the corridors, Kahn uses the light and the volumes to create an interplay of lightness, the opposing condition, to the point that people (not architects) sometimes have the illusion of being in a tent-like structure.

The architecture is able to create a sense of strong contradiction that defies the initial premise. That is, it contradicts itself and creates a multiplicity of being, a plural existence. It creates both an aesthetic experience also a moment of pause, a moment of reflection that forces you to be conscious of yourself experiencing a strong aesthetic effect, hence, creating a sense of detachment. You are there, and somehow, for a fleeting moment, you are not. Creating transient moments seem to be a subtlety for architecture, that presupposes construction, the craft, the physical integrity of the built object. This is precisely the reason we fail to mention about the physical object of the building itself. Architecture emerges in the well-crafted, technologically sound, built object but does not consist of it.

Note also the work of Alvar Aalto in Villa Mairea, or of Frank Lloyd Wright in Fallingwater—there is a strong trans-condition where they successfully blur the boundaries between the natural and the cultural artifact of architecture, to the point where there are strong transgressions between categories. Talking about the city, Is Venice successful only because it creates a very urban condition of people and nice architecture to enjoy? Take a walk in the dead middle of the night, get lost in it, with no one in sight, and the building features vanishing in the darkness, and you shall discover a completely contradictory nature of Venice. The forlorn emptiness evokes a different sensibility that you can not imagine having in the same place only hours apart.

We must note that this feeling of crossing over the boundaries are fleeting, and can only be experienced in the transitory moment, and like apparitions, they pass us by only hinting at the possibilities of diluting the one with the other. This emergence of such transient moments are parallel in nature and it seems that the architecture, which produces such in-betweenness i.e. trans-conditions, are always taken in high regard (by people, not necessarily by architects).

For us, the practice of architecture resides ultimately in the possibility of such transience.

Unlike a lot of your professors, we shall not argue that this is “it” i.e. the only way of looking at architecture. This is our take on it, this is to say, it’s our “it”, and you may agree wholly, partially or absolutely not. All we can corroborate is that the old modernistic thinking is coming apart, the world is becoming transmodern. You can see this new world all around you—uber and airbnb ushering in an era of shared resources—no longer falling neatly in public / private dichotomy  Every discipline is exploring the ramification of this transforming world and so shall Architecture.

What we would persuade you to do is to question critically the practices, norms of teaching and practice of Architecture as you move out of Academia and to voice your concerns that intuitively tug at your heart. How to stymie your gut feelings is taught effectively in schools and we caution you strongly to refrain from being complicit in its murder (6). Know that the empty feeling in your stomach (despite your sincere efforts), after the review, is undue and the urge to prove yourself “right”, is outright silly.  

For the time now that you necessarily need to spend in Academia (hopefully in the meantime we figure out a better way to teach this, if that is possible), we recommend you to fake this game and develop a pseudo-affinity with your professors. Learn a few words of their Archispeak, refer to the masterpieces (sometimes arguing “this” and other “that” at your convenience), and use all this artillery for defending the architecture that you have been producing with passion and risk. Go with your gut. Use your life as a benchmark for what works and what doesn’t. Douse in the transient experience of life and once you can enjoy the smallest things in life, you will know how to create architecture that reproduces that. If the trick doesn’t work, don’t doubt yourself. Your professors are not the judges of this game, they are only the guardians of the dungeons, most of the times with a very scanty interest in building something, which also means serving people. You will be your best judge guided by the love that you have for making things, by the passion you feel for this profession and the ethical responsibility for the community and the clients you work for, reasons pushing you for doing something better to the best of your ability at every moment and in every commission.

Finally, the people, who will inhabit your buildings and cities, will be the definitive ones vindicating you, not with a piece of paper or awards or money, but with living their lives to their fullest in projects that you build. The brick and mortar and 3d printed fabrication pieces are going to create places that will host the most precious memories of people’s lives—you are not the architects of the buildings only, you create the background on which lives unfold with all its richness and absurdities. And all the while you are at it, you will surely be rewarded with the most transient gift— the oldest gesture of appreciation and respect in human history—a smile.



(1) If you want to learn these vagaries, and we suggest you don’t, read Archispeak: An Illustrated Guide to Architectural Terms by Tom Porter.

(2) As Witold Rybczynski, Emeritus Professor of Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania coins it in his essay called “A Discourse on Emerging Tectonic Visualization and the Effects of Materiality on Praxis or an Essay on the Ridiculous way Architects Talk”, in Slate magazine in 2011.

(3) Read Bruno Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern.

(4) Read Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, or better yet watch the movie to get a taste of how the architect is the genius-hero with immutable ideas that cannot be compromised

(5) Read the debate here: http://www.katarxis3.com/Alexander_Eisenman_Debate.htm

(6) If you want scientific evidence of why you should go with your gut, read Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious by Gerd Gigerenzer.

Collaborators: Tanzil Shafique and Paco Mejias



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