Well, THAT Explains a Lot

Nail it to the seminary door
(Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, image in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Nora’s been clearing out old papers yesterday, and came across a few things I’d sent her ages ago. One of them was the proposal for a day-long conference session I hosted in 2000 at the Environmental Design Research Association meeting. The session was called “Environment-Behavior Research as a Field of the Humanities,” in which I invited lots of other folks to come deliberate on the idea that maybe EBS (as we called it) was misplaced by being categorized within the social sciences. Maybe instead we’d be productively housed with the other branches of the humanities: literature, philosophy, history. I didn’t use this language at that moment, but my argument was that EBS could be fundamentally hermeneutic rather than analytical, even while retaining a shared interest in the careful, empirical study of real people in real places. Novelists do that, too, without any expectation of coming to some immutable laws of behavior. We watch people, and report back on what it looks like and what we think it might mean.

I can tell you that attitude did me no favors in my academic job search. Architecture departments are variously housed in larger institutional structures alongside the fine arts, or engineering, or “applied sciences,” or in independent units they share with urban planning and interior design and landscape architecture. Every time I was making my case about why architecture mattered, I was making it not merely to my prospective colleagues, but also within an institutional structure and set of values that I almost never considered.

Anyway, Nora found another thing this morning that also did me no favors. It came from work I did as part of a team that was trying to redevelop the first two years of a college design curriculum. That process taught me a lot of things. It taught me that all of the experimentation and suspension of assumptions we teach in studio get left aside almost immediately when designers have logistical problems to solve—Oh, we could NEVER do that, because… Rather than attempting what we believed in, we reverted immediately to managerial expediency, house-trained to follow the channels pre-cut for us. And as Audre Lorde reminded us, the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.

Anyway, as an early process in our team’s work, I started by asking all the team members to put our foundational values on the table. None of the rest of them did, just me. I still believe all of it, but it never found traction. And now that I’m safely out of the game, I can offer them to you, the sixteen things I believe about education in environmental design.

  1. Environmental design is primarily a civic and political activity rather than an artistic expression. We are fundamentally in the business of creating the stage sets on which people will live out the dramas of their individual and communal lives.
  2. The criteria for successful environments are that they are helpful, dependable, satisfying and fair. Every place is owned by some person or organization with goals, and inhabited by other people with other goals. We have to understand and value the entire range of goals, create for future fluidity, and ensure that our work enhances the lives of all who come into contact.
  3. All problems of citizenship, including environmental design, are wicked problems, impossible to even fully define much less correctly answer. This implies that realistic process management and facilitation are core skills of citizenship in any of its forms.
  4. The photograph has drastically changed both design and design education, to the loss of context, sequence and experience. Buildings are taught in isolation, but can only be experienced as part of a larger landscape. Design students need to be trained in careful, naturalistic observation and study of real places.
  5. The vast majority of the built landscape is created by people who are not trained designers; thus, design guidelines and strong performance criteria are more influential than objects. We need to help students define and understand desired outcomes.
  6. The education that designers need is more similar to that of other professions than it is different. Our students may not remain in the design professions for their entire lives, but they will always be family members and citizens. We want students prepared to engage the world from whatever position they might find themselves.
  7. The academic curriculum of design programs should be heavily weighted toward general education, with the expectation that those interests have a role in their design work. We need a strong focus on strategic thinking, the “why” that lies behind the “what” and the “how.”
  8. Design education should cover the entire building sequence, from conception of need through habitation, revision, and ultimate demolition. The weight of design education currently falls within conceptual design, with successively less attention in the curriculum as one moves away from that five weeks of initial excitement about a new problem. Students need to understand their role in the hundred-year cycle of the work, not just the moments of blinding creativity.
  9. Every student can be a successful designer, if we think more broadly about success. Students will differ in their capabilities across content areas. What does design look like for the talented graphic artist who writes poorly, or a skilled writer with a math phobia, or a brilliant design historian with poor graphic control? It takes a broad community to make powerful contributions to the built world, and we need to be equally diverse in our thinking about how to help all students be their best selves.
  10. Any educational setting needs strong and clearly stated outcome criteria, combined with great freedom in achieving those criteria. What we hope students will be able to do is more important than the paths they each follow to arrive there.
  11. The most vulnerable people deserve the greatest amount and highest quality of our resources. We need to offer our least experienced students our most experienced and proven instructors, the best physical resources, and the most curricular attention.
  12. Collaboration is a core educational value; students should work together far more often than they work individually. For the rest of our professional, civic, and family lives, we work as team members, and projects are achieved through the quality of our collaboration.
  13. We must devise ways in which students can do fewer hours for greater impact rather than simply asking for more hours. The charette and the all-nighter may be great social experiences (for extroverts), but students deserve to go home, be with their families and friends, get sufficient rest, and still do good work.
  14. Mentorship and advising are everyone’s business. Every student should have one or two allies among the permanent staff who know them, check in with them about their progress and their happiness, act as a sounding board, offer counsel. We are all complex wholes, and need to be considered and mentored with that awareness in mind.
  15. Leadership is everyone’s business. The best definition of leadership I know is “taking responsibility for something that matters to you.” We should be fostering that attitude among students and faculty from their first moments in the program, knowing that it will raise contentious and messy issues. We can teach mediation and negotiation better through working with live issues than with the canned and bland.
  16. We do not have to replicate the ways we were educated.

Yeah, all this would be hard to do. Yeah, we might get it wrong once in a while. But we are not proposing to abandon some perfect present condition; the costs of continuing as we have are also real, and substantial. Alas, though, inertia is powerful, and things in motion continue in motion. As one of my characters put it in considering his own academic life, universities are simultaneously dedicated to advancing the furthest frontiers of human knowledge, and to ensuring that nothing about their own operation must ever change.

I didn’t know any of that, so I was perpetually working against the current. If you choose to pursue any of these, you need to recognize that you also will face significant headwinds. Be prepared.

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