Selected writings
Follow @jonochshorn

Fashionable Building: The Purpose of Architectural Education

Jonathan Ochshorn

cover of Building Bad book by Jonathan Ochshorn



How can the following observations about the form and content of architectural education be explained in terms of the purpose of this education?

Observation #1. The architectural program is typically divided into four or five areas: design; technical courses (e.g., statics, mechanical 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., computer-aided design, community/self-help, etc.).

Observation #2. There appears to be an emphasis on design compared to all other areas; in a ten-semester undergraduate program, anywhere from four to eight credit-hours are devoted to the "design studio" in each of the ten semesters. All other areas receive not only less time, but are regarded as being of secondary importance.1

Observation #3. Within the design studio itself, the most striking fact is the lack of a coherent syllabus: unlike other course sequences which are meant to impart a definite body of knowledge in a particular order (e.g., algebra to geometry to calculus), the design classes seem quite open-ended, as if each professor could decide to teach just about anything at any point in the ten-semester sequence. In fact, the names of the courses (Studio #1, Studio #2, etc.) reveal their indifference to any particular content.

Observation #4. Concerning the method of instruction, and quite unlike other courses in which a prescribed mass of information is produced by the instructor to be consumed by the student, design instructors do not "teach." Instead, the form their instruction takes is criticism. Only after the student produces does the instructor respond with his "crits."

Observation #5. Finally, we notice a rather superficial treatment of technology, energy, economics, etc. as they relate to the building process. Certainly questions of function and utility are discussed; yet after the south-facing windows are praised, after all the petty questions of bathrooms, fire exits, glazing details, etc. are raised and put aside, what really remains to be judged is the building as a work of art, as architecture.

"Style," "fashion," and "art" in architecture: art vs. utility

The explanation of architectural education starts with this fact about wealth in our society—that it takes the form of private property. This world of individual ownership, where each person uses his wealth against all others, and in turn is excluded from the private wealth of everyone else, is, of necessity, a world of competition. Architects compete against architects; students compete for grades; workers compete for jobs; etc. Competition is inherent in the relations of production called capitalism; as indicated above, it permeates every aspect of our lives. Moreover, competition appears as an external necessity—one cannot decide to play with a different set of rules. In fact, even the American Institute of Architects urges its members to compete against each other by sponsoring "How To Win" seminars. (What would happen if all architects enrolled is not discussed in the literature.)

The purpose of fashion is competition. People need fashion to compete. For example, people who are competing may buy fashionable clothes. Fashionable buildings are bought for the same reason. To the extent that buildings are needed for their utility only, i.e., where their quality as fashion isn't useful, we find utilitarian (i.e., non-architectural) building. That one period's utilitarian "style" becomes another's high art does not alter this conclusion; it only shows that it is not the content of the fashion that counts, but only the fact that it is fashion. The reason that fashion must change is the same as its purpose: competition. A static and universal style of art would be useless for competition since everyone would soon be able to understand and make use of it. Therefore, once fashion becomes commonplace, it has already been replaced by a new "avant-garde."

The fact that advocates of particular architectural styles do not understand the purpose of fashion in their architecture results in a never-ending debate on the merits of their favorite styles. Whether the debate is in terms of "morality," "economy," "contextuality," "complexity," etc., the criticism of last year's model for not solving some particular human problem is always possible, especially since its purpose never had anything to do with solving that type of problem in the first place. Likewise, next year's advocates will have no difficulty finding enormous defects in this year's avant-garde styles.

Utilitarian buildings are economical: there are no added "frills," wasted space, etc. Fashion, on the other hand, costs money. The conspicuous expression of the money it costs is, in fact, a necessary aspect of fashion.2 One can compete with fashion because it is expensive (if it was cheap, anyone could buy it). On the other hand, since the whole idea is to increase one's private wealth, there is simultaneously an opposite movement away from fashion, toward utility.

At times, one side of the contradiction comes to the fore; at other times, the opposite side. More often, both sides manage to find their expression in the various absurdities of our architecture: stucco scored to look like brick, gypboard fashioned into Classical pediments, etc.3

As tools of competition, both fashion and utility are desired in a positive sense, to the extent that they make a building more valuable to its owner. Yet they also seem to be forced on the owner of the building, since their omission places him at a disadvantage with respect to other owners.

Changes in style are called fashion. Changes in utility are called progress. Stylistic change incorporates and therefore reflects progress (in which technological change plays a major role), but technology is not the reason for style. Form follows function and form follows fashion. All its allusions to historic motifs notwithstanding, the postmodern movement would never abandon the computer floor. The particular blend of "art" and "utility" varies from building to building and from one period to another, depending on the usefulness of fashion in the particular case. Since fashion costs money, it is applied only to the extent that it is useful.4

One last point on the origins of the modern movement: At a time when the need for fashion appeared as an obstacle to the utility of buildings, the proposition that architecture could reject the very idea of style gained some advocates. That the "international style" was still a "style," in spite of its victories in rationalizing the building process, shows exactly how successful it was in eliminating fashion within the framework of a competitive society. Capitalism will dispense with fashion when it no longer pays.

The purpose of buildings/ buildings vs. architecture

Buildings get built for purposes of speculation (built to be sold); as means of production (factories, farm buildings, etc.), or as ancillary facilities to support that production and speculation (all state buildings, schools, etc.); also they get built for purposes of consumption (vacation homes, etc.).

Were it merely a question of utility, architects would be quite superfluous in building these structures; in fact, "utilitarian" buildings of all types can be designed and constructed by the various technical consultants and building trades without the services of an architect being required at all. The distinction between "building" (mere utility) and "architecture" (as art) already admits this possibility.5 And the fact that certain licensed architects are willing to design utilitarian buildings, or that some non-architects can produce "architecture," only shows that the purpose of architecture (to make buildings fashionable) does not necessarily require a license; and that acquiring a license does not automatically guarantee architecture.

Speculation. Where buildings are built in order to be sold (or rented) at a profit, the role of the architect will vary according to the developer's need for "design" (i.e., fashion) in maximizing his profit. Where the buyers of his product need utility only, or where the particular ratio of supply and demand assures him of selling his product in any form, the developer will cut down or eliminate altogether the costs of "design."

On the other hand, where the buyers of his product need fashion to compete, or where his competition forces him to produce "designer buildings," the costs of design become necessary costs in the developer's calculations. Where the costs of design are justified by the return on the investment, "fashion" becomes a positive means for the developer. For example, developer Gerald Hines credits postmodern fashion with higher rents and a 3% to 5% increase in profits.6

Production. "Showplace" factories and sleek corporate headquarters are forms of public relations; they are never built without the assistance of an architect. However, where the profit to be derived from a particular production process is independent of the architectural quality its building possesses, then "non-architectural" building is sufficient.

Both in production and speculation, architecture may simultaneously appear as a positive means to make a profit and as an external necessity forced on its buyer; or it may simply appear as a waste of money. The competition among the owners of buildings assures that architecture is never, however, built purely at the whim of architects.

The state, while necessarily outside the sphere of competition, nevertheless is always in the unhappy position of justifying its existence to the competitors it serves. To demonstrate and thus preserve its power, it makes use of "fashion" in its own buildings: public architecture. On the other hand, where it is only providing the infrastructure of transportation and communication, that is, the conditions for the growth and existence of private property (which nevertheless appear to the owners of private property as expenses taken from them), it is satisfied with mere utility: fashion is here seen as unnecessary embellishment.

Consumption. In order to live, people need shelter, food, etc. In our society, these conditions of existence are not produced because people need them—they are produced and exchanged as private property, and then only to the extent that they realize a profit for their owners. Thus, it is a commonplace to discover that people go hungry when there is food in the supermarkets, or that people need housing even when construction workers (and architects!) cannot find work. The fact that capitalists do "produce" useful things for people is not because they are useful, but because being useful is a necessary condition for being profitable.

Thus speculatively built housing needs to be a useful object of consumption in order to be sold; but because its purpose is not its use, but its profit, we classify it under "speculation."

When the speculator builds his home, however, he spends money, not for profit, but for use: in this case we have building for consumption. Yet it is here, where usefulness might seem to be the only criterion, that architecture truly blossoms. The architect-designed private home is the arena in which the "battle of the styles" is fought. Here, the reputations of the young architects are made; here, their bold experiments with fashion are carried out; here, the avant-garde establishes its credentials.

That the owners of wealth do not always choose to live in modest and utilitarian accommodations should not come as a surprise, in spite of the fact that spending money on consumption is in direct contradiction to their passion for accumulation. They need luxury and fashion in their homes just as they need it in their clothes, cars, etc.7 Like all forms of competition, it appears as both inner drive and external necessity.

Architectural education

We started by observing several facts about architectural instruction. Having seen how the purpose of architecture has a dual nature ("fashion" and "utility"); having seen that building becomes architecture to the extent that it is concerned with fashion; having seen that the explanation of fashion is the world of competition and that competition is inherent in private property; we are now in a position to explain the facts we observed earlier about architectural education.

The "design studio" is the centerpiece of all programs in architecture. Its separation from the technical areas of instruction reflects the dual nature of architecture as art and, on the other hand, mere construction for utility. Because these two aspects of the profession are 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 the merits of teaching design as "art" vs. "technology." Where students need it to compete as architects, the debate is settled in favor of "art."

In spite of all the lip service paid to the "complex" "technological" "processes" which the architect must deal with, a quick glance at the required courses in an architectural program reveals the lack of importance attached to them. There are, after all, mechanical engineers, structural engineers, energy consultants, technical representatives from industry, etc. 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 (the engineers are trained to do that), the purpose of the technical course 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 his technical consultants. In addition, the need for utility in buildings requires that the architect familiarize himself 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 of their criticism (outside of the purely utilitarian questions which also come up and are quickly disposed of) is that the student's attempt at making fashionable design is more or less inadequate. The form that this criticism takes ranges from praise to sarcasm to contempt. The most horrible thing that can be said to a student is that his design looks like a middle-class suburban split-level ranch house; in other words, that he has failed miserably to internalize the latest ideas of fashion.

Students quickly learn what it takes to succeed. 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."8 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 the society isn't interested in his problems, at least he still has a clear conscience ("...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 fact that it is fashion is the important thing. This development of artistic consciousness is no easy task, since it can't 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 learning the game sooner or later. 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-waverning student.

For this reason, a structured design curriculum is not required and, in fact, doesn't exist. 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 was 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 some well-known architect (the "slide show" is its most popular form), so that even those students who don't know where the library is can learn the constituents of fashion.

Because the purpose of architecture has nothing to do with satisfying human needs, there are always special programs that spring up in architecture schools to investigate how architecture can be changed to be "more responsive" to those needs. Sociological programs look into what "people" want and how "they" behave in "our" "built environment." Solar energy programs propose south-facing greenhouses for the masses. 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 small "improvements in the ways we design and construct environments can have enormous total benefits."9

Since none of these programs are interested in 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: the existing educational system, having found a form adequate to its purpose, has little need for outside help.


1 "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." Snyder, James, editor, An Agenda for Architectural Research 1982, The Architectural Research Centers Consortium, Inc., 1982, p.3.

2 "The superior gratification derived from the use and contemplation of costly and supposedly beautiful products is, commonly, in great measure a gratification of our sense of costliness masquerading under the name of beauty." Veblen Thorstein, The Theory of the Leisure Class, The Modern Library (New York) 1961, p.97.

3 Questioned on his Portland Building's interior detailing, Michael Graves commented: "I don't know whether lay people know it's gypboard. For many modern architects, on the other hand, it's a moral question: If it's gypboard, they feel it should be read as gypboard. That doesn't interest me. It's a surface that gains some identification beyond the junk it's made of, by virtue of its color, its texture, its placement." "Conversation with Graves," Progressive Architecture Vol. LXIV, No. 2 (Feb. 1983), p.112.

4 Houston developer Gerald Hines puts it this way: "We try to be on the cutting edge, but we don't want to be unusual for the sake of being unusual." Guenther, Robert, "In Architects' Circles, Post-Modernist Design Is a Bone of Contention," Wall Street Journal Vol. LXIII, No. 204 (Aug. 1, 1983), p.7.

5 Ruskin, who idealized the "art" of architecture, nevertheless expressed this distinction quite clearly in 1848: We must "distinguish carefully between Architecture and Building. To build... is by common understanding to put together," whereas architecture must also "impress on its form certain characters venerable or beautiful, but otherwise unnecessary." Ruskin, John, The Seven Lamps of Architecture, Noonday Press (New York) 1974, p.15.

6 Guenther, op. cit., p.7.

7 Veblen, op. cit.: see especially Chapter 6, "Pecuniary Canons of Taste."

8 Stone, Harris, Workbook of an Unsuccessful Architect, Monthly Review Press (New York) 1973, p.175.

9 Snyder, op. cit., p.iii.