Who should be taught in the architectural canon?
[Student Shows 2013] Essay 6: Penny Lewis
There is a commonly held prejudice that architecture students are still nurtured on a diet of the Masters. It is imagined that they are subjected to hours of history lectures dominated by the canon of Dead White Men: Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Louis Kahn. The truth is that the canon is long gone. We have no agreed consensus as to what constitutes the important lessons of history for contemporary students. As a consequence, students often see their history courses as little more than a basic studio source book. Rewriting history to include the ‘excluded’ is not going to solve this problem.
As a lecturer, I devote time explaining Le Corbusier’s work (buildings and texts), but my belief that a serious personal exploration of his work is essential study is frequently undermined by others who like to dismiss ‘Corb’ with a single gag. He is repeatedly discredited: there is the Villa Savoye’s leaking roof, his treatment of Eileen Gray and (for the most philistine) the miserable residential output of authoritarian regimes. I am repeatedly reminded that Mies stayed too long in Berlin under the Nazis, that FLW’s arrogance knew no bounds and that Kahn was a philanderer. It’s very unfashionable to talk about ‘pioneers’ and it’s very rare to see the word ‘Masters’ used without the obligatory quotation marks.
We appear to have arrived at a moment at which the ‘critical’ impulse that began life as a scholarly and healthy engagement with the past (Tafuri et al) has degenerated into a destructive cynicism. There is no shortage of scholarly and interesting history books, journals and conferences but they launched into a world in which we struggle to convey the value of history as part of a student’s specific knowledge and broader education. The difficulty stems from the fact that, while we might admire Michelangelo’s drawings in a focused, instrumental way, in general we are pretty indifferent to our ancestors and their achievements.
Cicero wrote that ‘not to know what has been transacted in former times is to continue always as a child’. Are we in turn in danger of infantilising architecture students? As Andrew Leach explains in his excellent book What is Architectural History? contemporary architectural history is not canonical, but chaotic. Today, the history of the discipline is not packaged as a story of ‘great men’. It may be organised according to style, period and biography, but it’s often structured around culture, type, technique, geography, theme or analogy - the content depends upon the teacher. There are ‘conservatives’ -teachers who persevered through the years of ‘critical’ and ‘post-’ theory and continue to teach the survey of important buildings and architects - but they struggle to communicate the value of their surveys in the broader culture of relativism. On the other side, there are the critics who have constructed ‘the other tradition’ and the accounts of those excluded (due to gender or geography) from the old ‘grand narrative’. All of these approaches have academic value.
The aspiration to ‘open up the canon with post-structuralist and post-colonialist theory’ could be useful, were it not for the fact that it coincides with a broader culture that sees little value in the past. Much of contemporary history teaching involves a public display of our insecurities and doubts about the ‘canon’. In this context it’s not difficult to understand why students find it hard to study the achievements of the past, whether it is Mies or Palladio, with any conviction or passion.
Our problems are compounded by historiography. As Leach says, ‘the emergence of … architectural historiography is symptomatic of a desire to understand the transition from the sureties of modernism and the modernist project to the absolute relativity of knowledge.’
Historiography is valuable - but it is in danger of becoming a means of recycling our insecurities. The understanding of the ‘relativity of knowledge’ should not mean that we abandon the task of identifying the achievements of the past and passing them on with a sense of conviction.
Some imagine that the current difficulties with teaching stem from that fact that ‘History’ can be understood in a variety of ways: as a tool for practice, an art form, or a cultural mirror. However, this rich heterogeneity does not explain why we fail collectively to give students a real sense of why history is important. The difficulties could be connected to broader approaches to education.
We are constantly reminded that we live in an ever-changing world and that all knowledge is provisional. Educational theory stresses the importance of developing students’ research skills, rather than their understanding, and teachers are urged to make their lectures ‘relevant’. But the drive to be relevant and to develop transferable skills undermines the argument for history. The ARB/RIBA criteria for the education of the architect describe the knowledge and skills needed by the contemporary architect, and these include an appreciation of the relevance of history and theory to the discipline. The aspiration is genuine, but do we have any idea what this actually means in practice? In his book Wasted: Why Education Isn’t Educating (2009) Frank Furedi argues that ‘properly understood history is the subject that probably contributes most to the broadening out of our imagination’. He also argues that ‘probably the single most important driver of educational philistinism is the compulsive impulse to render education more and more relevant’. In a bid to make education relevant to the current generation we place undue emphasis on what is new and changing and little time explaining what has gone before.
Hannah Arendt, in The Crisis of Education (1968) explains that it is the responsibility of teachers to pass on their accumulated knowledge to the next generation, who, being young, will make sense of that understanding for their new world. Arendt argues that all teaching is fundamentally an act of ‘conservation’, not to conserve the past for nostalgic reasons, but because the conservation of the old provides the basis for renewal and innovation.
Penny Lewis is a lecturer at Scott Sutherland School of Architecture in Aberdeen and a founder of the AE foundation (www.aefoundation.co.uk)