Norman Foster, Richard Rogers, Daniel Libeskind and Denise Scott Brown share their crit memories
Paul Rudolph set the master’s class at Yale University (1961-2) a project for a laboratory on a greenfield site in New Haven, Connecticut. I suggested to Richard (Rogers) that we teamed up to do it together and we started right away. Our concept was a spine of horizontal movement for people and goods with laboratory blocks connected to it at right angles - each block was high at the junction with the spine, marked with towers of lifts and escape stairs. The heavily serviced lab blocks stepped down like ziggurats into the landscape.
As we developed the design, it became apparent that other functions were needed - common facilities such as dining and meeting spaces. We agonised over whether these should be incorporated into the spine, or whether they should - like the laboratories - be attached as another kind of building. Rudolph, in one of his customary tours of the studio, came by to discuss our project. We shared with him our indecision as to where to place these elements. He felt strongly that they should not interrupt the clarity of the spine; said so in no uncertain terms and strode off as impatient as ever. After much exploration, we decided that the spine should contain these shared facilities after all and set off to prepare the final drawings with an ambitiously large-scale white cardboard model.
For the final jury, Rudolph assembled a team including Philip Johnson. When it came to our turn, there was much heated debate - which Johnson finally interrupted, declaring loudly that the spine was cluttered with unnecessary little buildings. ‘Just what I told them,’ said Rudolph, whereupon Johnson grabbed the offending structures, ripped them off the model, threw them on the floor, and declared: ‘There now; that’s much, much better.’
Norman (Foster) and I had worked together on a scheme for the science laboratories at Yale, which followed Louis Kahn’s distinction between served and servant spaces, with services concentrated in towers. Philip Johnson was like a mafia godfather in the way that he dominated American architecture in the early 1960s. Descending on the crit, he didn’t really speak to Norman and I. Instead, as if engaged in an internal dialogue, he wrapped his fist around the model’s balsa wood towers and crushed them, before throwing the remains on the floor.
It was a curiously aggressive gesture which made quite an impression on me. In fact, 10 years later when Renzo Piano, Su Rogers and I were talking about entering the Pompidou Centre competition, Philip Johnson’s flirtation with Postmodernism and his presence on the jury was one of my strongest arguments for not wishing to enter.
As it turned out, despite his early flirtations, Johnson and Jean Prouvé were two of the strongest advocates for our scheme.
At the Cooper Union, I took a course on structures in architecture given by Ysrael Seinuk, a renowned engineer famous in New York for his skyscrapers.
Our assignment was to design a structure for a suburban house for a wealthy person. This was the late 1960s, and I raised my hand and said that I refused to do this bourgeois project because I had no intention ever to build a rich, suburban house
So I went off on my own. Because it was all about structures I visited a bus terminal in north Manhattan (G Washington in the Bronx Bridge), which had recently been completed by the celebrated Italian structural engineer Pier Luigi Nervi.
I sourced all the drawings I could get my hands on of its beautiful concrete structures and I did my analysis on the calculations, all the rebars and the loads … it is a very complex piece of engineering and a very beautiful terminal.
When the end of year review came, all my colleagues, of course, had these houses all nicely sized with beams and structures and beautiful drawings. And I hung up my structural analysis of Nervi’s bus terminal.
On the jury was John Hejduk who was the dean of the school at the time - a very famous thinker and architect - and Robert Slutzky, a professor of architecture and famous painter.
When it came to my project Seinuk said: ‘I’m sorry I detest this project, I just don’t accept it.’
Whereas Hejduk and Slutzky were really laughing because it was a quantum leap above their requirements in terms of knowledge of complexity.
So there was a kind of laughter and irony and support from Hejduk and Slutzky, but contempt from Seinuk for not doing the assignment which had been set.
He gave me the lowest grade that I ever received in school - ‘b’.
That grade had such a profound affect on me. But it became a statement - you can be degraded, but you have to pursue your own path - and I was lucky that Hejduk and Slutzky saw the virtue in that.
My advice to students preparing for their first crits would be not to submit to authority just because its authority - think freely.
Often people are cowered by famous names and professors or whatever, but I think the most important thing is to be free and to think for yourself. You might get in trouble, but that’s part of it.
Denise Scott Brown
The problem with authoritarian crits is that when students’ work gets ridiculed or torn up or stamped on, they take it in and end up doing exactly the same thing.
I’ve witnessed one-upmanship wars in crits at the AA during the early ’50s that didn’t teach anyone anything other than how to be mean. And I’ve seen awful politics in American crits during the ’60s - with faculty waiting until the dean has spoken and then agreeing.
When I taught at UCLA I took my studio of 15 students to watch the mid-term crits at Berkeley. I had been invited by Jack Seidner, my former student, teaching then at the school, to be on his studio’s crit, and I suggested he invite my students to join me on the jury.
I believe that being on the power end of the relationship helps students learn, but my students really took down the other students. Although I had been carefully nurturing with them, they were as mean as could be - worse than faculty. When we got back I asked: ‘Why were you so harsh with those students? Especially when you are students yourselves?’ The answer was simply that the same thing had been done to them and I heard the horror stories that had shaped their personalities, turning them toward authoritarianism.
But my questioning caused them to reflect on why they behaved the way they did, I hope it taught them to be more thoughtful.
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