Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Architectural History and Architects; Financial Crisis at Mizzou

My Story Begins in Los Angeles and Tivoli, Italy, in 1993:

In the Spring of 1993 I heard a lecture by the architect Robert Mangurian, delivered at the J. Paul Getty Museum, back when there WAS only one J. Paul Getty Museum and it was in Malibu. His talk was on Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli; more to the point, it was about the work that he and his partner, Mary-Ann Ray (in Studio Works Architects), had been conducting at Hadrian’s Villa for the past eight years, with M.Arch students from SCI-Arc (the Southern California School of Architecture) where they both taught.

Robert said that he and Mary-Ann felt strongly that every architect should “adopt” a building – in this case a vast complex of buildings – as a sort of unofficial caretaker; that architects had a duty to maintain and preserve the great buildings of the past, the buildings that are inspirations to all architects. This kind of advice, given to an audience consisting largely of architecture students, was a message that I think was unique coming from a high-profile professional architect.

Hadrian’s Villa is an amazing complex of buildings, I could write tons on it – in fact I wrote my masters thesis on it – but that’s not my intention in this blog post. I had the great privilege of joining Robert and Mary-Ann and their students in the work on Hadrian’s Villa for two months in 1993, learning a great deal not only about Hadrian’s Villa but also about architectural culture, from almost a sociological point of view. But that’s not the point of this essay either. Instead I want to write about the importance of architectural history to architects, based on my own first-hand observations of the Hadrian’s Villa project.

That project entailed measuring and drawing plans for all structures built for Hadrian in the early second century at Tivoli, and surveying the site as a whole. This project took many, many years – ten or twelve, though I don’t know exactly how many. Another salient feature of Robert’s talk was the tension between the work of the architect and the work of archaeologists, as each profession approaches such an undertaking very differently. Robert told me that the archaeologists didn’t like him and didn’t approve of his and Mary-Ann’s methods. Based on my limited first-hand experiences with archaeologists (I have worked on three digs), I am not surprised; some of them can be quite territorial about their field, not to mention their specific findings.

What Robert and Mary-Ann were doing at Tivoli was more akin to the work of amateur archaeologists, who flourished long before archaeology became institutionalized as a profession and an academic discipline (and we all know that becoming a profession and a discipline means you have to lay exclusive claim to a field). Ever since the early 15th century, with the Florentine architect Filippo Brunelleschi, architects have been making the pilgrimage to Rome to study, measure, and draw the architecture of the ancient Romans. The 16th-century architect Pirro Ligorio, who partly designed the Villa d’Este in Tivoli, had done excavations at Hadrian’s Villa and was, in fact, the “Superintendant of Ancient Monuments” under two popes.

Architecture Students and Architectural History:

While performing an internet search recently I ran across a website called, a forum for discussing architecture. On Jan. 3, 2009, this question was posted by an architecture student: “Hi, I'm a new architecture student. I wonder why we need to study architecture history. Can somebody kindly explain how important it is to a [sic] architecture student?”

Of course it’s hard to read the tone of this message, but I think most architects and architectural historians familiar with architectural education would recognize in it the attitude found among some students who seem not to understand -- and hence not to care about -- the architectural history classes they are required to take; in my teaching of architectural history at the University of Missouri, I have had many students over the years question the necessity of any class that asks them to learn architectural history rather than teaching them to create their own designs. As if knowledge and practice are not intimately connected.

In contrast, the architecture grad students I got to know while working on the Hadrian’s Villa project shared Robert and Mary-Ann’s passion for architectural history. Conversations about the Villa ranged from the serious (“why do these two walls meet at an angle that is slightly less than 90 degrees?”) to the whimsical (“where would Hadrian have put his darkroom?”).

What would I say to this anonymous student on I would say that architects, more than any other group of people in the world, have a need to understand the myriad ways in which architecture has responded to the needs, desires, hopes, and fears of its creators, its patrons, and its users – including the ways a particular building’s response has been able to change over time. Architects need to understand that buildings can express power and privilege, or community, home, and inclusivity, and the whole gamut of ideals and ideologies. They need to understand how buildings have sheltered, comforted, inspired, propagandized to, and, yes, even oppressed their intended and unintended audiences. Designers need to think about all those aspects when they make their own buildings, or interiors: how does architecture speak to people? Who are their audiences, and what happens when they have conflicting needs?

Architectural History Shot Down by MU Architectural Studies Department, 2009:

In March 2009, the faculty of the Architectural Studies Department at the University of Missouri decided to discontinue one of its two architectural history courses that are required for all undergraduate majors. The course they are cancelling is Architectural Studies 4410, “the History of the Designed Environment to 1750” (beginning with ancient Egypt), which has the daunting task of covering 4,000 years of architecture, interior design, furniture, city planning, and landscape architecture. (Ironically it is still a requirement for students, it just isn’t going to be taught any more.) Having taught that course for six years running – every Fall semester from 2003 through 2008 – I admit I have a vested interest in its being offered. But the course’s being cancelled – not just this Fall but permanently – is a greater disservice to the students than to anyone else. This was a very bad decision by the faculty, and one that will have negative repercussions for hundreds of Architectural Studies students.

Students in Architectural Studies have two potential career paths. Many of them plan to be architects, and many of them go on to graduate school to pursue their Masters of Architecture degree. The others plan to be interior designers, and with a Bachelors degree in Architectural Studies, they are qualified to work in that field without further schooling, because the department is accredited by the Council on Interior Design Education (CIDA).

The Interior Design accreditation depends in part on students taking a full year of architectural history. Architecture schools also expect students entering graduate programs to have studied architectural history. But it doesn’t take a panel of experts or a graduate admissions board to apprehend the importance of learning about design history to future designers. These students, whether they plan to be architects or interior designers, will be contributing to culture; as one of my colleagues (not in the Architectural Studies department) has commented to me, how can they make culture if they don’t know about culture?

This decision by the department demonstrates that its faculty does not really value history as much as their own professional accreditation board thinks they should. The message this sends to their own students is also clear – that the students don’t really need to value history either. Such a message is one that many students are all too eager to accept, because the course is challenging. The class covers such a broad time frame, and such a wide range of topics, that students must work hard to master these many historical periods. It is a 4000-level class, an upper-division course intended for students in their 3rd or 4th year, so the level of difficulty is consistent with the expectations we have of advanced undergraduates; it is hard, but not too hard for the outstanding students that the University of Missouri and the Architectural Studies Department pride themselves on.

The chief reason cited for the course’s being cancelled is budget cuts. The current economic crisis seems to have triggered a budget crisis in the College of Human Environmental Sciences (HES), where Architectural Studies is housed. This strikes me as odd, since the president of the University himself has stated in emails to all faculty and staff that positions would NOT be cut. Deans in the College of Art and Sciences have also not cut faculty or staff. Ironically the College of HES, in order to save money, has decided not to re-hire non-tenure-track and adjunct faculty, who teach courses for a ridiculously low amount of money, in order to protect the jobs of tenure-track faculty who get paid at least three times as much to teach the same classes. It doesn’t make economic sense to me.

The secondary reason cited for the course’s being cancelled is to encourage students to go on the department’s European trip for two weeks in May. If they go on this trip, focusing on one or two countries (Spain in 2008, Italy in 2009, and other destinations in previous years), and if they write a paper, they can substitute that for the 16-week, 3-credit-hour course. At a time when many families are struggling just to send their kids to college, the department thinks students should spend a few thousand dollars to travel for two weeks with 35 classmates and a professor (whose trip is fully paid for by the students, although they might not realize this). Believe me, I’m all for students traveling and studying abroad. But for the same amount of money, with a backpack and a Eurail ticket, a student could spend two entire months in Europe travelling on their own; they would see a lot more, but wouldn’t get college credit for it. Going on the departmental trip means they get to spend two weeks with their classmates from the University of Missouri, and they get to see a lot of architecture; they never have to navigate a foreign city on their own, or overcome a language barrier, or encounter a foreign culture in a meaningful way. They remain insulated from the foreign culture by travelling as part of a large group of Americans (one kind of travel I do not recommend to anyone except retirees!).

The Architectural Studies Department bolsters the number of students signing up for the trip by telling them that if they go, they won’t have to take 4410 – a challenging upper-division architectural history course lasting an entire semester. This has been the case all along, even when 4410 was being offered. I am all for travel, believe me – travel has been one of the most important experiences in my own life and in my education as an art / architectural historian. But I strongly believe as well that a comprehensive study of history, taking in many different cultures, is essential. Two weeks in Europe is not really an adequate substitute.

Not to sound too cynical, but I might as well point out that the substitution of two weeks travelling in Europoe for 16 weeks learning about architectural history inside and out encourages students (those who can afford it) to buy their way out of a tough requirement. The faculty are saying look, you won't have to take this difficult architectural history course if your parents will pay for you to travel with us in Europe for two weeks. It is the most transparent example of catering to the "student-as-customer" mentality that so plagues the modern public university. No wonder those students who can't afford the trip to Europe resent having to take a challenging course that some of their fellow students get to opt out of.

Does This Make Financial Sense?

For those students who can’t afford the luxury of the departmental trip to Europe, the Architectural Studies Department will allow them to substitute a course from the Art History department to satisfy the requirement – since Architectural Studies won’t even offer the course they require their own students to take. That’s more money that goes to the Art History Department and the College of Arts and Sciences rather than to Architectural Studies and the College of Human Environmental Sciences. Go figure.

“To provide meaningful architecture is not to parody history but to articulate it.” – Daniel Libeskind

“...history is essential for architecture, because the architect, who must now deal with everything urban, will therefore always be dealing with historical problems -- with the past and, a function of the past, with the future. So the architect should be regarded as a kind of physical historian, because he constructs relationships across time: civilization in fact. And since civilization is based largely upon the capacity of human beings to remember, the architect builds visible history...” -- Vincent Scully, 1969

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