Building Bad: How Architectural Utility is Constrained by Politics and Damaged by Expression
Jonathan Ochshorn

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The education of architects, derived in large part from Beaux-Arts practice, has three primary characteristics:

First, the program is typically divided into four or five distinct areas: design; technical courses (e.g., statics, environmental control systems, etc.); history and theory; professional practice; and electives in the liberal arts. In addition, there are often special elective programs which address other topics (e.g., computation and digital fabrication, community design, etc.). However, as researchers for the Architectural Research Centers Consortium recognized in 1982, design is clearly prioritized: "It is probably fair to say that architectural education focuses primarily on design and technology, with a strong emphasis or tradition in the studio experience."1

Second, design studio classes seem quite open-ended, as if each professor could decide to teach just about anything at any point in the undergraduate or graduate curriculum. In fact, the names of the courses (Studio #1, Studio #2, and so on) often reveal their indifference to any particular content. Furthermore, design instructors do not "teach." Instead, the form their instruction takes is criticism. Only after students produce do instructors respond with their "crits." This reluctance to explicitly "teach architecture" in the design studio has its most revealing (and wonderfully arrogant) formulation in the mission statement of the department of architecture at Cornell University, where the idea of internalizing the proper attitude within a landscape of constantly shifting stylistic tendencies—rather than learning any concrete strategies or practices—is made clear: "We do not teach architecture; instead we try to teach students how to learn about architecture (witness, for example, the inordinate number of Cornell alumni teaching in architecture programs). Rather than train architects who think of buildings as autonomous objects frozen in an assigned ideology, our goal is to produce architects who are capable of making independent judgments rooted in an ever-changing context of architectural thought."2

Third, questions involving technology, energy, economics, etc. are treated rather superficially. Specific functional or utilitarian issues are sometimes discussed—especially when the design brief foregrounds these issues as candidates for expressive elaboration—but the actual object to be judged is still the building as a work of art, as architecture. For Veblen, addressing ostensibly useful questions is nothing more than a smokescreen employed to soft-sell fashionable (wasteful) content. Writing about fashionable clothing or dress, he argues that "the principle of conspicuous waste requires an obviously futile expenditure; and the resulting conspicuous expensiveness of dress is therefore intrinsically ugly. Hence we find that in all innovations in dress, each added or altered detail strives to avoid instant condemnation by showing some ostensible purpose, at the same time that the requirement of conspicuous waste prevents the purposefulness of these innovations from becoming anything more than a somewhat transparent pretense."3 In an earlier chapter, Veblen grudgingly admits the possibility that "ugliness" is not necessarily the outcome of all wasteful expenditures, but still foregrounds waste as the essential element in the service of luxury: "If beauty or comfort is achieved—and it is a more or less fortuitous circumstance if they are—they must be achieved by means and methods that commend themselves to the great economic law of wasted effort."4

The idea that waste is an important element of architectural design not only precedes Veblen, but survives, intact, well into the 21st century. But unlike Veblen's negative and caustic analysis, some influential theorists, both before and after him, turn his critique upside-down. John Ruskin, for example, criticizes the "modern" interest in efficiency by extolling the virtues of apparently wasteful expenditures, writing that the "Spirit of Sacrifice … is a spirit, for instance, which of two marbles, equally beautiful, applicable and durable, would choose the more costly because it was so, and of two kinds of decoration, equally effective, would choose the more elaborate because it was so, in order that it might in the same compass present more cost and more thought. It is therefore most unreasoning and enthusiastic, and perhaps best negatively defined, as the opposite of the prevalent feeling of modern times, which desires to produce the largest results at the least cost."5

On the other hand, the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas acts more like Veblen's acolyte. Referring to his own work for the luxury Italian fashion house Prada, for example, Koolhaas remarks: "At the time we started collaborating, everything in the world of art and fashion was polished. Everything was smooth, so we felt that Prada must be rough. We put an emphasis on concepts like waste. In real estate terms, the ultimate luxury is wasted space."6 Compare this with Veblen's "great economic law of wasted effort" in the service of luxury.

These characteristics of architectural pedagogy arise from the dual nature of architecture (embodying both "fashion" and "utility"); from the use of fashion to transform mere building into architecture; from the need for fashion in the world of competition; and from the necessity to compete, using fashion, when socially produced wealth takes the form of private property. The design studio's separation from technical areas of instruction reflects the dual nature of architecture as art and mere construction for utility. Because these two aspects of the profession occupy opposite poles of a contradiction, it is usually expedient to deal with them separately in school, so that their synthesis can occur in practice according to the particular needs of a given situation. That this contradiction is misunderstood as being a problem of the educational system is the cause of the recurring debate among educators about how technology can be better integrated into studio instruction.

Tension between the "art" and "science" of architecture is often acknowledged, even if the negative consequences are underestimated:

It is widely perceived today that there is an intrinsic tension between freedom of ideas in architectural education and the pragmatics of negotiation in the building process. Architecture remains one of the few professions that still allow dreams, but all designs, banal or avant-garde, must endure constraints of reality and seemingly unbearable compromises when put to realization. To their credit, architecture schools largely privilege abstract thinking in the design studio. This discrepancy between the education of architects and the practice of architecture produces an obscure yet revealing dynamic between the two realms, and it is this disjunction that enables the distance necessary to stretch and expand the boundaries of the architectural vocation.7

Yet it seems clear, even to those who value the types of abstract thinking encouraged within design studio pedagogy, that somehow—at some point—such abstractions must be reconciled with real conditions encountered when projects are actually constructed and occupied. What is less clear in such formulations are the specific aspects of "reality" which ought to be addressed, if at all, within the academic studio, and the proper means to accomplish this synthesis.

In fact, the types of building technology issues that might impinge upon a purely formal or expressive design pedagogy are quite numerous, and include things like structure (strength, stiffness, and efficiency); control of air, rain water, vapor, and heat at the building perimeter; fire (and other life) safety issues; energy use; production of global warming gases (carbon footprint); daylighting and electric lighting; site orientation issues (sun, wind, drainage); acoustic isolation and interior acoustic environments; toxicity of building materials; use of renewable materials and renewable (or on-site) energy; reduction or recycling of potable water and waste water; and so on.

All of these issues need not be addressed in every design studio, and some are almost never critical in terms of influencing or altering the conceptual basis for the design; that is, some technical issues can safely be left out of schematic design without compromising the viability of the scheme as it is further developed. For example, the ubiquitous use of electricity within buildings (at least when generated off-site) is never considered within schematic design, in spite of being perhaps the most fundamental of all the technologies necessary for the functioning of modern buildings. This is because buildings, no matter how they are formally configured, can accommodate panel boxes, conduit, switches, and outlets in routine ways that have almost no impact on the design concept or on a project's overall cost. Electrical contractors, in fact, routinely run conduit from panel boxes to switches, lighting fixtures, and so on based on nothing more than abstract drawings with curved arrows pointing in general directions, leaving the specific pathways for the field installer to work out; and architects routinely let electrical engineers determine the pattern of outlets, or sometimes even of lighting, well after schematic design decisions have been made. In this case, the technology can be "added" to the design

Such a model (technology added to design) is often extrapolated to encompass a much greater range of technological decisions. For example, Mohsen Mostafavi, former Dean of the College of Architecture, Art, and Planning at Cornell University, describes an integrative design studio project at Cornell as follows: "We asked a group of students whether, as an experiment, they would be prepared to continue working on their old project, the one they had supposedly finished, and to take it to another level of development."8 By "another level of development," Mostafavi means factoring in issues of building technology not ordinarily considered within the design studio. However, while it may be rational to "add" certain technologies to projects that were conceived without prior consideration of building technology issues, framing this as a general model for pedagogy or practice is both dangerous and counterproductive.

This strategy—"adding" technology to design—presumes a kind of symmetry between the process of abstract design and the requirements of building technology. That is, it is presumed that one can begin at either pole of the art–science duality and still end up with a viable building. But this is a false symmetry based on numerous logical errors including a misplaced confidence in the power of science to compensate for any a priori design decisions. In other words, some aspects of building technology are so fundamental, and also so sensitive to unusual or peculiar geometric manipulation, that their underlying logic must inform, if not precede, a schematic design process that prioritizes abstract form and expression.

Yet even when integrative design—defined as the "ability to make design decisions within a complex architectural project while demonstrating broad integration and consideration of environmental stewardship, technical documentation, accessibility, site conditions, life safety, environmental systems, structural systems, and building envelope systems and assemblies"9—is mandated by accreditation agencies, the technical content to be integrated is treated superficially. Technical subjects are, after all, fairly complex, and cannot be rigorously taught within the architectural curriculum. Furthermore, there are mechanical engineers, structural engineers, energy consultants, technical representatives from industry, and so on to supply the actual expertise in any building project for which the architect is hired. So just as the purpose of the architect is not to provide technical skill (engineers are trained to do that), the purpose of technical courses in architectural schools is not to train technicians. In order to create architecture, a minimum of knowledge is needed in the technical areas so that the architect can at least communicate with technical consultants. In addition, the need for utility in buildings requires that the architect be familiar, in a general way, with the latest structural and mechanical systems, since the need for "fashion" does not eliminate the competition for more efficient, utilitarian, economical buildings.

The design studio, then, is left with the task of teaching the "art" of architecture. Unfortunately, art cannot be taught (if it could be taught, too many people might learn it, and it would become useless as a means of competition). For that reason, design instructors do not teach—they criticize. The content and form of their criticism has been studied by numerous researchers, who typically find both "intuitive" and "rational" components, corresponding to the "art" and "science" of architecture—the idea being that "as a general rule, the main aim of design is to satisfy human needs, but the enjoyment of architectural aesthetics is also an important goal."10 Yet it is equally clear that the refinement of formal qualities—appearance—is prioritized by both critics and students. For example, the AIAS Studio Culture Task Force concluded in 2002 that "the current studio culture rewards students with the 'best looking' projects."11 Peggy Deamer reaches the same conclusion in her discussion of first-year design, arguing that "the role of form and aesthetics cannot be overlooked. No matter how smart a student's concept is, if it isn't visually appealing, no one will pay attention."12

Other researchers, notably Donald Schön, scrutinize types of reflection in (or on) action that take place within professional (including architectural) culture, hyphenating the terms (i.e., "reflection-in-action") to give some rather commonplace observations the appearance of profundity. Thus, we learn that baseball pitchers and "good" jazz musicians have a "feel for the ball" or a "feel for the music" that allows the former to win and the latter to successfully improvise.13 Such theories can be easily refuted (e.g., when both the pitcher and the batter opposing each other in a given game are conscientiously "reflecting-in-action," one of them will still lose), as they fail to account for the world of competition that, by its very nature, creates winners and losers in every domain.

Architecture students quickly learn how to compete in the studio context. Architect Harris Stone describes the behavior of the top students in his class at Harvard: "After the assignment was given out, they immediately went to the architectural library and found out how the currently popular architects had dealt with this or a similar problem … They got good grades learning how to take advantage of the work of others while I got bad grades trying to understand and work things out for myself."14 Mr. Stone correctly sees what it is that students who are competing need to know about fashion ("the currently popular architects"), but fails to understand the purpose of fashion in architecture. This leads him to try to "work things out" for himself—that is, solve problems he thinks are important. If society isn't interested in his problems, at least his self-image as a moral individual remains intact ("…while I got bad grades").

The purpose of this type of instruction is to force the student to internalize, not only the current fashion, but the very idea of fashion: that the existence of fashion is the important thing. This development of artistic consciousness is no easy task, since it cannot be "taught" like other subjects. The preferred method is therefore to subject the student uninterruptedly, for a period of up to five years, to the form of abuse described above, knowing that few will survive the ordeal without either learning to play the game or finding some other non-design niche within the profession. And if this method of criticism by individual instructors isn't enough, its extension into the end-of-term "jury" system provides an unassailable verdict for the still-wavering student.

For this reason, a systematically structured design curriculum is not required and, in fact, rarely exists. Since fashion changes, it is impractical to make a long-term commitment to one particular style, such as would be required in developing a curriculum. The fact that competition requires that a body of knowledge be learned within each particular style (if it were too easy, anyone could do it) may, however, result in some actual instruction occurring within the design studio, but only if the instructor determines that the preferred method of criticism is failing to get some crucial point across. The usual design "lecture" consists of an examination of the work of up-and-coming or established architects, so that even those students who don't know where the library is can internalize the constituents of fashion.

Louis Sullivan understood that the purpose of architecture has little to do with satisfying basic technical or programmatic needs. For example, he characterized the actual technology and functioning of tall office buildings—where "all in evidence is materialistic, an exhibition of force … the joint product of the speculator, the engineer, the builder"—as something almost trivial and certainly unworthy of his architectural passion. Rather, the question he asked about architecture took aim at a different problem—that of formal expression: "How shall we impart to this sterile pile, this crude, harsh, brutal agglomeration, this stark, staring exclamation of eternal strife, the graciousness of those higher forms of sensibility and culture that rest on the lower and fiercer passions?"15

In reaction to this design studio ethos—one that prioritizes "higher forms of sensibility"—special programs invariably spring up in architecture schools to investigate how architecture might be changed to be "more responsive" to precisely those things strategically left out. Sociological programs look into what people want and how they behave in the built environment. Solar power and daylighting programs show that a sustainable world is just around the corner. Community activists and advocates go into "the community" with the offer of free design services for those unable to pay, or they solicit opinions about what should be built in their neighborhoods. Numerous research projects are proposed to study everything from the "design process" to "disaster planning" since even "incremental improvements in the ways we design and construct environments can have enormous total benefits."16

Yet since none of these programs are concerned with why architecture takes the form it does in our society, but attribute its alleged "shortcomings" to lack of information, faulty methodology, or inequality in its application, they can at best serve as public relations efforts for their particular architectural schools, or act as means of getting funds from outside sources. And the difficulty in convincing the state or private industry to give money for these projects, compared to the research budgets of other departments in the university, is perhaps the best indication of what architecture is and isn't useful for. In any case, architectural pedagogy, having found a form adequate to its purpose, has little need for outside help.


Of all the many technological systems that fall loosely under the umbrellas of building technology and environmental science, the most important for both pedagogy and practice, at least in terms of their relationship to abstract and formal design decisions, are the control layers and cladding systems that together comprise building enclosure systems, constraining in various ways the movement of air, vapor, rainwater, and heat between the outside and inside of buildings. There are many specific requirements and attributes that characterize each control layer but the most fundamental—common to all four layers—is continuity. As discussed in Chapter 11, if continuity of all four control layers is maintained, and if control layers are properly configured so that, for example, materials that absorb water are able to dry out, vapor does not condense, rainwater is directed out of cavities, air leakage is limited, and heat loss is minimized, then the overwhelming majority of building failures will be prevented.

Conversely, if control layer continuity is made difficult or impossible because of formal or expressive design decisions that abstract from the underlying logic of such enclosure systems, then the probability of experiencing various types of building failure will increase. Unfortunately, many of the formal design conceits that prevail within schools of architecture (and in practice)—even and especially those that fetishize "materiality," or are based on abstract compositions of figure-ground or solid-void, or are derived from complex geometric or generative manipulations, or are otherwise governed by peculiar manipulations of site, surface, or mass—work against such continuity. Complexity and peculiarity, qualities that characterize many of these compositions, correlate strongly with various types of building failure.

The idea that changes in the nature of both abstraction and building technology have contributed to a virtual epidemic of non-structural building failure relies on probabilistic reasoning rather than on some definitively causal smoking gun and, for that reason, is relatively difficult to grasp.17 Moreover, the problem and its causes remain largely invisible. This is because even well publicized instances of non-structural building failure can be easily dismissed as exceptional cases, pointing not to a general crisis but only to the hubris of a few architectural superstars. The bulk of evidence that might otherwise point to a bigger problem is largely unavailable, and so cannot be systematically compiled and analyzed. Manufacturers are not required, and are not generally interested, in publishing data about the reliability of their products, even if there were standards for how to do this. For one thing, competition with other manufacturers, and the absence of mandatory disclosure based on established protocols, favors hyperbole over accuracy. In addition, manufacturers are often unwilling to evaluate or describe the behavior of their products in relation to adjacent or connecting products over which they have no control.

It is this context that provides cover for an architectural pedagogy that supports bad building practices, one in which design studio instruction leads the way, with ancillary courses in history, theory, and technology—to the extent that they reinforce the heroic tendencies of formal expression—equally complicit.

It does not help that architectural critics educated primarily in the history and connoisseurship of culture and form can be counted on neither to understand architecture from the standpoint of building science, nor to challenge it on that basis. They tend, therefore, to lend support to a mode of education and practice that reinforces their own educated prejudices. Control layers are fundamental to the functionality of buildings. Because the probability of control layer failure is directly correlated with the proliferation of discontinuities in both geometry and material that are characteristic of complex and peculiar designs, and because the education of architects (reflecting and enabling the intense competition among practicing architects for recognition based upon increasingly complex and peculiar formal manipulation) often abstracts from the underlying logic of control layer design, one can conclude that architectural design pedagogy is complicit in the epidemic of building failure within the U.S.

Hannes Meyer famously attempted to devalue the role of the artist while emphasizing functional and technological issues within the curriculum of the Bauhaus. Such an extreme formulation of the art–science duality is only marginally relevant to the argument advanced here, since there is no reason to "abolish" or even to denigrate the role of artistic expression within the design process. Even if—as Meyer wrote in 1928—"the idea of the 'composition of a dock' is enough to make a cat laugh,"18 such a finding should not be extrapolated into the realm of human cognition. To an extent unique among all creatures, humans construct—and, in doing so, compose—our world irrespective of any desire, however rational, to prioritize function and technology. The American neuroanthropologist Terrence Deacon argues that not only is the "compulsion to treat objects or actions as signs" a characteristic of the "human aesthetic faculty," but, most importantly: "We almost can't help ourselves."19

The question, therefore, is not whether art should be eliminated from architecture—art is unavoidable. The more important question considered herein is whether and how the art of architecture can adjust its trajectory so that it aligns with the most fundamental requirements of building science.


1 Michael Joroff, James Snyder, and John Templer, "Introduction," in Joroff et al., An Agenda for Architectural Research, 3.

2 "Department of Architecture Program Mission," Courses of Study, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University, 2010–11, 136, here.

3 Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class, 176–77 (my italics).

4 Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class, 82–83 (my italics).

5 Ruskin, The Seven Lamps of Architecture, 17.

6 Jack Self, "OMA AMO w/for Prada," 032c, February 16, 2017, here (my italics).

7 Angela Pang, "Implementing Architecture: Cornell and the Education of Architects," Architecture and Urbanism (a+u) , no. 428, May 2006:9.

8 Seng Kuan and Angela Pang, "Education in Process: New Directions at Cornell," Architecture and Urbanism (a+u) , no. 428, May 2006:18 (my italics).

9 NAAB Procedures for Accreditation: Professional Degree Programs in Architecture 2015 Edition, s.v. "Student Performance Criteria," approved May 6, 2015, here.

10 Bashier, "Reflections on Architectural Design Education," 427.

11 Koch et al., The Redesign of Studio Culture, 11.

12 Deamer, "First Year: The Fictions of Studio Design," 11.

13 Schön, The Reflective Practitioner, 54–56.

14 Stone, Workbook of an Unsuccessful Architect, 175.

15 Sullivan, "The Tall Office Building," 403.

16 James Snyder, "Preface," in Joroff et al., An Agenda for Architectural Research, iii.

17 This discussion of building failure and pedagogy is based on Ochshorn, "Architecture's Dysfunctional Couple."

18 Hannes Meyer, "Bauen," quoted in Hays, Modernism and the Posthumanist Subject, 158–59.

19 Terrence Deacon, "The Aesthetic Faculty," in Turner, ed., The Artful Mind, 25 (italics in original).

contact | contents | bibliography | illustration credits | ⇦ chapter 15 | epilogue