When Intellectual Diversity Mattered

arch students via d.lob.ncsu.edu

Featured image via ncsu.edu.

By Duo Dickinson

In August 1973 I was one of 140 freshpeople entering Cornell’s top-ranked BArch program. We were clueless. It was a bumper crop, as 40 females were admitted to take a stab at diversity in the extreme male playpen that was 1970’s architecture. But attempting gender diversity was not the story at Cornell that year.

Amazingly enough, it was intellectual and pedagogic diversity that was headline news in the spring before we got there. We were the first class to matriculate after an ideological purge. Today, if you heard of an architectural school having an ideological purge, you would assume a closet Modernist was outed out at one of the few Classical Architecture Programs, or a subversive Non-Modern/Traditionalist mole was expunged from the other 100-plus schools.

Earlier that spring Alan Chimacof, Fred Koetter and Roger Sherwood, were fired from the architecture faculty by then Dean Kermit C. Parsons at the encouragement of Matthias Ungers who ran part of the graduate program. The departed were, apparently, acknowledged to be great professors: but with a hiring freeze, the only way to get new faculty was to fire old faculty.

Why fire these men if they were good academicians and beloved teachers? Perhaps to hire—gasp—a woman, or an African-American? Well, maybe later, but the immediate reason was they were part of a small herd of then young professors (all white men BTW) from the new University of Texas Architecture Program formed in the early 1950’s where they, among others, had created a “formalist” academic pedagogy that had pure fine arts abstraction in its origins. The purity of their intellectual product was so galvanizing to this young expatriated crew that they were dubbed the “Texas Rangers.” That original group included Bernhard Hoesli, John Hejduk, Robert Slutzky, Lee Hodgden, John Shaw, Werner Seligmann and their pied piper Colin Rowe, who was to become my thesis adviser. Their abstracted outlook of fine arts education principles applied to architecture was soon offloaded from Texas to any number of schools, but chiefly Cornell.

Freshman in this approach started with concepts like “space,” “line” and assorted other universal design principles to initially dissociate architectural design from building, and unify its origins to fine arts abstraction. Architecture was merely one venue for this conceptual enterprise. It was a radical idea in 1954. The Texas Architecture program described its mission in the “Conduct of Courses In Design” portion of the its official handbook, stating its perspective in perfectly sexist language of its Mid-Century origins: “The purpose of architectural education is not alone to train a student for professional occupation, but above all to stimulate his spiritual and intellectual growth, to develop his intellectual faculties and to enable him to grasp the meaning of architecture.”

This fine arts “above all” approach meant European Modernist precedents were the fundamental architectural indoctrination for 18-year-olds, that soon became dogma in the course of a 5 year layering up of a distinctly abstracted and theoretically based perspective. A 1971 study at Cornell’s architecture school had recommended that the school “broaden” its curriculum. (Imagine a school of architecture reaching that conclusion in 2016?)  But the result in 1973 was to swap out faculty to achieve intellectual diversity. It’s odd to think of abstracted modernist pedagogy as an island, as today it is far and away the largest intellectual landmass in the world of academic architecture, but these first outposts of making building secondary to theory were the tender shoots of the invasive rain forest of intellectual collectivism that followed.

That Mid-Century reductionism has now predominantly triumphed in academia, but at the time, there was resistance to its ideological purity in a profession that traditionally had building as a starting point and end product for its educational institutions. For the Texas Rangers, buildings were only the last part of a long path of intellectual aesthetic canon, a canon that dovetailed perfectly with the era’s dominant Modernist aesthetic paradigm as seamlessly as computer software applications have been cast into the sculptitecture of the present day.

In 1973, when I walked into the former 19th Engineering School factory space in the north wing of the architecture school’s Sibley Hall, the first year drafting tables all faced a blank wall. It was blank because the Modulor Man that all those desks had faced before the purge had, reputedly, been white washed over. The removal of the Modular Man as the central focus of 140 empty 18-year-old minds was the symbolic creation of a blank canvas, where a varied, diverse, open-ended educational platform could expose students to different ways of thinking about buildings and their design.

Rather than a central initial focus of purity of aesthetic elements applicable to any artistic expression, we completely clueless froshlings actually designed building-ish things in freshman year. We thought nothing of it, but that had not happened recently until the purge. It was an initial, now almost quaint, rejection of what has now come to be the typical path for students.

Perhaps Cornell’s program wanted to nip a fundamentalist cult of “formalist” theory in the bud, before its overwhelming orthodoxy prescribed an ironically unthinking intellectual outcome. Indoctrination at a tender age tends to make one approach to anything the only approach, whether it’s the Catholic Church before the Renaissance, Marxist theory in Soviet Russia, or the panoply of politically correct canons overwhelming campus life today.

Cornell’s reformation was sadly temporary. The forced infusion of diversity encouraged the formation of a faculty that I found to have wildly divergent ways of teaching and exquisitely distinct built product in their portfolios—yet the program itself maintained a cut-throat, full-on, no-holds-barred ethic of  “swim or sink.”

Demographic diversity was also attempted at Cornell my freshman year as well. We had several Asian and African American students, some exotic foreign representation, all paralleled by several new professors amid the large contingent of Rangers that still dominated the faculty. But only one attempt at diversity ended up being successful. While fewer than about half of our 140 matriculants graduated on time, a much smaller percentage of BArch graduates were female. However forty years later more than half the students in the program are women.

I have yet to discern, from all the alumni propaganda received, that the 1973 Cornell experiment in intellectual diversity survived beyond my generation. This generation’s version of the fired “formalists” seem in full control: focusing crop after crop of young clueless folk like me, in 1973, into a perspective that most will find hard to see beyond, just as Dean Parsons feared.

When do polemic and pedagogy combine to create orthodoxy? When does education slip into indoctrination? It happens when a dominant paradigm—like architecture being the exclusive province of white males, like me—is allowed to narrow facts to the point where the paradigm creates a canon that prescribes prejudice. Absent demographic diversity any organizational outcome is distorted.

Despite some newly achieved gender inclusiveness, I sense aesthetic diversity is leaving or has left the halls of architectural education. The resultant prescribed aesthetic “truth” creates some very beautiful things and some exceptional designers, but less and less diversity of celebrated built outcomes. It would seem that bandwidth is valued more in technological application than architectural expression.

The 1970’s saw Charles Moore, Louis Kahn and Parsons as deans of Ivy architecture schools. They were, in fact, (once again) all white males, but I know that their pedagogic, professional and aesthetic diversity was liberating to 18-year-olds, like me. I wish that kind of diversity for the increasingly diverse demographics that are enriching my profession—but, if wishes were horses, beggars would ride.

This article originally appeared on commonedge.org, and was republished here with permission. To view the original post, visit: http://commonedge.org/when-intellectual-diversity-mattered/. Common Edge is a non-profit organization dedicated to reconnecting architecture and design with the public that it’s meant to serve.


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