Contributor:  Ann Lui

Creative Discipline: Architecture, Writing

Location: Roma, Italia


Ann Liu has been writing for The Cornell Daily Sun for over two years. Currently studying in Cornell University’s Rome Program, Ann and myself met over the not so infrequent Pratt-Cornell gatherings at Bar San Calisto here in Rome. In her article intitled,  A House Divided: Bridging Architecture’s Culture War, Ann  begins to open up the obvious ‘factions’ within architectural academia.

A House Divided: Bridging Architecture’s Culture War

Sometimes it feels like there is a deep and growing abyss in architecture, an impassible trench that forces students to jump to one side or another or risk falling in.

On one side are robots: great and shiny unmanned weapons, chrome plated, with long, moving steel members and blinking red eyes. They beep and whirr in the sun and are more powerful than anything we could have imagined: We are cowed by them. Their forms look mysteriously like the Guggenheim Bilbao. These robots are controlled remotely by uninterested generals miles away who chat to one another about algorithms and three-dimensional modeling, safe inside their bunkers. We call this side the “new school.”

On the other side of the gaping trench are the late great cavalry captains, the Whites going gray. We call them “old school.” They sit in an infinite library (it’s very Ayn Rand in here, you know) filled with Vitruvius’s Ten Books of Architecture, Colin Rowe’s theories on phenomenal transparency and more maps of Renaissance Italy than you’ve ever seen. Unfortunately, no one speaks the same language. There are some love stories, of course — concerning those who used body language and the power of pen-and-ink drawing to communicate — but they are rare.

These two sides say only one word to you the second you decide to join the war: “Choose.”

And there you are at the abyss, a virginal 17 years old, full of dreams about architecture saving the world, and they’re saying: “Pick now or forever hold your peace: Are you going to draw by hand or on the computer?” They may as well be saying to you, “Choose between AutoCad and pencils, between programming and intuition, the power of 3D printing and the warm curve of wood on the lathe. Choose now, kids, between virtual reality and love, Frank Gehry and Mies van der Rohe.”

I actually had that question posed to me at a third year review: “Who are you, Terrangi or Hadid?” Fuck that, I say: I am neither. I choose none of the above.

Ultimately, the issue is that there is no choice. “Old school” versus “new school,” as it’s waged at Cornell, is a completely false dichotomy, a propaganda war. The time that we spend in picking sides, like kids on a playground, is time wasted.

This divide — the gaping abyss — is purely invention; everyone knows we can’t abstain completely from computers, from Revit and Rhino, the arsenal of the “new school.” These are tools from the frontlines of the profession that, notably, have hugely advanced sustainable design (facilitating accurate modeling of energy gains and losses and resulting in buildings which perform better ecologically and economically). Aesthetically, the new school has also produced never-before-seen forms with the help of CATIA (Gehry’s modeling software which interprets physical models into virtual space), Maya, etc.

Neither can we discard the “old school” — there is no complete rejection of history, no matter what Howard Roark believes. Designers don’t speak through their designs; instead, generations of past designers speak through every designed column and facade via the literacy of the populace. Because buildings are experienced (“listened to”) rather than read like a text, they are interpreted through the eyes of people who have prejudices, conscious or otherwise, of architectural vocabulary. Put a row of columns on your portico — Corinthian or not — and your building is already being judged. Make a Greg Lynn fetus-like blob, and you’re being judged, too.

The divide between “new school” and “old school” is a self-imposed illusion. There will, of course, always be a rear- and an avante-garde. Both camps are co-dependent — when the new school works alone, the result is an oeuvre which is highly fetishized, part of the “cult of the object,” composed of superficial works … but enough has been said about the soullessness of digital architecture that I don’t need to linger.

Comparatively, the old school, when alone, becomes a dinosaur entrenched in theory and history while exponentially losing its ability to communicate to the rest of the world.

Conflict usually prevents a lazy decline into static discourse without contest — however, for some reason, the war in architecture alienates more than it redeems.

The abyss was born out of a mutual disrespect, instituted by academia and propagated by students. Last year, some students (who we might consider “new school”) yelled and kicked (anonymously) about the average age of the tenured faculty and lack of young visiting critics — forcing the divide wider by their vocalization of contempt. Their decision to post signs around Rand Hall and Sibley insulted the older faculty and forced individuals to choose sides (“Jump now!”) in the debate. This year in the department, we spend time making false distinctions between the computer lab and the wood shop (as was done by the new Chair apropos the two “opposing” senior / pre-thesis option studios), and consequently lose a certain complexity in the discourse.

In the wider world, architects like Zaha Hadid and Frank Gehry — desperate for sites and money to build their wildly formal, digitally designed, frequently under-performing and yet indisputably beautiful buildings — stray to places like Dubai and its sister cities in the UAE where human rights standards are lax and sustainability has barely been heard of.

This battle makes both sides close-minded: The works of the professors who are the loudest defendants of programming and algorithmic modeling lack soul and an interest in human experience. Students in those studios struggle to use analog methods of design — and risk academic failure when they voice criticism of works that, like glorified doodles, have no social or personal meaning.

We know better, after all. My studio class was told by an architect (who, I mention in a hopefully non-obsequious way, is prodigiously talented and has been recognized as such by the field) that if we could do something by hand — drawing or modeling — it didn’t belong in our (highly computer based) studio. This architect, ironically, admits to designing exclusively through drawing.

Stop this choosing of sides. I’m straddling the gap while trying to find a third route — my own — and, every day, it’s getting more and more uncomfortable.

[previously published by The Cornell Daily Sun]

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