Utopic Pedagogies: Alternatives to Degenerate Architecture

By Coleman, Nathaniel | Utopian Studies, July 2012 | Go to article overview

Utopic Pedagogies: Alternatives to Degenerate Architecture


Coleman, Nathaniel, Utopian Studies


ABSTRACT

Although Utopia makes reasonably frequent appearances within humanities and social science teaching, it remains at the far periphery of architecture education. Thus, any essay proposing the relevance of utopic pedagogies for architecture education, and its subsequent professional practice, must come to terms with the strange absence of Utopia from the heart of the curriculum (and from the concerns of most architecture students, educators, and practitioners). With the pervasive omission of Utopia in mind, in this article I will first offer an overview of how and why Utopia has become anathema for architecture education (no doubt associated with the failures of orthodox modern architecture during the post-World War H years and the explanation of this failure as down to Utopia), followed by counterexamples drawn from my own teaching, in which Utopia is as much the subject as the object of architecture and urban design education, in equal measure for history, theory, and design. If the postmodern conviction in architecture is that Utopia equals totalitarianism and defeat, my argument is that without Utopia, architecture and urban design have no vocation other than to adorn capital and its processes (which of course explains its disappearance: Neoliberalism confirms Utopia's irrelevance, or does it?).

Part I: The Absent Presence of Utopia

Although Utopia makes reasonably frequent appearances within humanities and social science teaching (at least as a topic, even if only to be denounced), it remains at best at the far periphery of architecture education. Thus, any essay proposing the relevance of utopic pedagogies for architecture education, and its subsequent professional practice, must come to terms with the strange absence of Utopia from the heart of the curriculum (and from the concerns of most architecture students, educators, theorists, historians, and practitioners).

It is with such a pervasive absence in mind that in this article I will first offer a brief overview of how and why Utopia has become anathema for architecture education (something to do with the failures of orthodox modern architecture during the post-World War II years and the explanation of this failure as down to Utopia), followed by counterexamples drawn from my own teaching, in which Utopia is as much the subject as the object of architecture and urban design education, in equal measure for history, theory, and design. If the postmodern conviction in architecture is that Utopia equals totalitarianism and defeat, my argument is that without Utopia, architecture and urban design have no vocation other than to adorn capital and its processes (which of course goes far in explaining Utopia's absence: for architecture at least, neoliberal currents in procurement and practice appear to confirm Utopia's irrelevance).

Even so, in many ways, even at its most conventional, architecture and urban design education is inherently progressive in the sense articulated by the pedagogical theorist David Halpin (2007). On the one hand, the studio basis of design education, steeped as it is in ancient models of craft, originating in the medieval guild traditions of the direct transmission of knowledge between masters and novices (although now ideally mediated by a healthy dose of postmodern doubt), inevitably encourages modes of inquiry that are "student-directed" rather than "teacher-initiated" and as such emphasize "learning" rather than "teaching" (Halpin 2007, 244). On the other hand, this potentially progressive aspect of architecture education is only minimally theorized either in the literature on architecture pedagogy or performatively by architecture educators in their teaching practice. The professional nature of architecture education has a great deal to do with this. Subjected as architecture degree programs are to the regimes of professional accreditation (intended to protect the professional title of architect and consumers of architect's services alike), there is a tendency toward a relative standardization of curricula across schools, which is partnered with a general overemphasis on technical and representational skills, over and above the cultivation of social imagination and, its correlate, architectonic expression.

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