Beyond Buildings


Students Have BIG Ideas

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BIG is big among students. At least, the large-named firm headed by Bjarke Ingels is big among those attending the University of Kentucky, where I just finished teaching a course on the last 30 years in architecture. As one student wrote in her final paper, entitled “Bjarke Ingels Is Going to Save the World (of Architecture)”: BIG is "addressing the need to move through the diametric reality for the contemporary architecture [OK, I haven’t figured out yet what that means], seeking a pragmatic utopianism that finds at its core the ideals of socially, economically and environmentally responsible design.” Or, as another put it: “Bjarke Ingels Group creates the most progressive and forward thinking architecture in the world today… Their projects are aesthetically pleasing and their idea that 'yes is more' demonstrates that they understand the relationship that modern architecture must have with modern society.”

But the role models for students at Yale and Columbia, where I attended final reviews, appear to be different. In a studio taught by Joe Deegan Day at Yale, students seemed to be looking most to the work of Morphosis, Coop Himmelb(l)au, and Eric Owen Moss, FAIA: canted planes, bullnoses, prows, whiplash curves and armor plates abounded. At Columbia, where any form seems to be a scary apparition unless it has been generated by a computer, Laurie Hawkinson’s studio was admired for the rational piling up and shifting of volumes.

What do these formal preferences say about where the discipline might be heading? After all, these graduate students will soon enter the profession, and, I hope, the discussion, and will help to shape our future buildings. To me, it indicates that there is an overwhelming interest in compromise between the reduction of form to the most minimal translation of program and available resources, and the creation of a one highly memorable image or form. When I asked my students to read out a manifesto for where they thought architecture might be going, few provided a ringing call for a particular style or approach, but many proposed exactly this kind of combination. They felt it would answer the need to be careful about using resources while developing the ability to express something beyond the sum of the needed parts. What that was remained a bit less clear. No student dared say it was their own intuitive, expressive, or willful design approach imposing itself on and deforming the puzzle they hoped to solve as the basis of their design work.

So perhaps Ingels has figured out the zeitgeist–he certainly seems to be winning enough commissions to merit that suspicion. Meanwhile, the reduction of form into analysis and projection, started by Koolhaas, the concentration of memetic form, spearheaded by Herzog & de Meuron, and the use of computers to twirl expression out of reduction, first practiced on the West Coast, have defined the landscape out of which new building designs arise.

Whether this means anything, given the isolation of thought to a few havens of academic thinking or discussion within a profit-driven profession, or whether it even matters what students think they are going to do before they confront the so-called real world, I think depends on whether you think that architecture needs to keep finding ways to make buildings that mean anything, and whether students are the future searchers in that area.




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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.