Like a Virgin

It is rare for a seasoned professor to get that jolt of excitement one gets from teaching a class for the very first time, but that’s exactly what happened this semester when I was asked to to teach a history of architecture class in a new program. The material covered by the class was in my usual repertoire but it had to be re-presented for a new constituency (freshmen in college instead of my usual graduate students) so it all felt brand new again. The new audience put me in the mood to think on my feet, to not rely on what had worked before. I spent most of my Sundays getting ready for my Monday morning performance, pouring over materials old and new,  combining and recombining images and texts for greater effect, compiling mental lists of queries with which I could pepper my lectures so that the class felt like a participatory exercise even if I was the only one with the previous knowledge on the subject. How much are they paying you for this extra class again, my partner would inquire, peering over my shoulder. I’m teaching critical thinking to future voters, I would reply, it’s worth it.

About teaching early civilizations. The class covered “architecture from early civilizations to the start of the Industrial Revolution,” so on the first day I gave them the bookends: Chauvet Cave in France, a 10,000 year old structure with socio-cultural relevance, and the Brooklyn Bridge, built in the late nineteenth century and also full of social and cultural import (another requirement of this course was to examine architecture as “an expression of the culture and life of a society”). For Chauvet Cave I played the first few minutes of Werner Herzog’s documentary “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” (2010), a great film in and of itself but also an opportunity to introduce what would become a theme throughout the semester, the human compulsion to build structures for practical AND ritual needs. Here was a life full of hardships for Homo sapiens (find things to eat without getting eaten yourself) but they still found a way to make what is in essence an Upper Paleolithic gallery in Cave Chauvet. The course description specifically called out pre-Columbian America as a subject of study, and I was readying them to truly engage early cultures, to understand the very human motivations behind the early architectures.

Sometimes as a younger teacher and always as a student I would scoff at the necessity to start at the very beginning—why bother with a pile or rocks when you’ve got the Renaissance to consider? Because I’m training their brains to see! An early East Asia ritual site oriented on cardinal points and aligned with certain landscape features is easier to understand than the myriad articulations that differentiate Palladio from Alberti. The interesting thing about teaching architecture in chronological order is that the path between relative simplicity and complexity of form parallels somewhat the architecture student’s own increased understanding of complex design work in studio and in other design-focused classes.

There’s been lots of discussion in the discipline about teaching the history of architecture in a more inclusive way, starting with the accreditation requirements shift in language from “non-western architecture” to “global architecture.” Mark Jarzombek among others has organized conferences and even collaborated on a textbook around this idea of a global history that ceases to privilege western civilization. The now defunct term “non-western architecture” indicated that most of the world was a kind of exceptional “other” to the west and many of us teaching history have set out to correct this. What we’ve found is that treating early civilizations with due respect shifts the coursework away from a western-centric curriculum. We can’t privilege western technology when we learn that East Asia had cast iron first;  we are forced to recognize Stonehenge as one of many examples when we study the sophisticated structures built in the southern Pacific coast of America at around the same time.

About connecting history with the daily lives of the students. The students that ended up in my classroom had a wide range of attention spans, and that was just fine. I accepted the challenge to teach critical thinking to all, no matter their apparent intellectual inclination. And appearances deceive! The student that was surprised when I asked him to attend class sans headphones (I didn’t fall for “my other teachers let me do it”), in turn surprised me by writing one of the best final exams in the class. Besides, I move in a wide enough social circle to know that even if my preference is focused work in a quiet empty room, I must continuously adjust my teaching to an increasingly mediated and attention-span depleted society. A CTO I know and respect, for example, told me he has Netflix playing in the background when he’s writing simple code.

One thing that works for all attention spans is making connections to the students’ daily life. Is it the Parthenon in Ancient Greece and the Pantheon in Rome, or is it the other way around? All professions use some sort of nemonic to remember things forever, so why not freshmen architecture students. The Greek “cella” is missing the “r” from its etymological contemporary “cellar” because it’s being used in “Parthenon.” I asked for the description of a particular ritual site in pre-China China on the final exam, and everyone answered it correctly because I compared its size to a football field. For those students dreading the coursework, making connections to familiar things makes the history of architecture seem momentarily accessible and doable; if we provide enough of those moments of seeming accessibility students will start to feel differently about the course.

These sort of daily life connections benefit the serious students too. This new accessibility teaches them to be agile thinkers, to engage in new ways of thinking that further inform the architecture in question. On the very first class, as we were reviewing the syllabus, I queried: When you think of Ancient Egypt, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? The pyramids? What bad New Yorkers you all are! You should be thinking of the Brooklyn Bridge and its Egyptian style details! Gothic cathedrals in France, what??? What about the pointed arches in the Brooklyn Bridge?

My provocation had a serious purpose too. The terminus of the course was 1900, the students brought to the beginnings of modern architecture and all the technological and formal developments it had to offer. Towards the end of the semester, when we covered the nineteenth century wonder that is Labrouste, we had three such examples of that hybrid condition between the old and the new. Like Labrouste’s libraries, the Roeblings’ Brooklyn Bridge combined new technology with old notions of formal articulation; for the students it was a literal and metaphorical “bridge” to later coursework.

About teaching critical thinking. Reading, writing, and critical thinking form the structurally stable triangulation of history and theory of architecture pedagogy (if you will forgive, dear reader, an architecture structure analogy here). I thought we needed to do some close reading work, a couple of short essays read and discussed in class.

It used to be a given, even a rite of passage, to sit through a mind-numbing parade of slides in the required history of architecture courses. This was in part for practical reasons—the “slides” were physical unique things that if you were very very lucky you got to access in the library for a few minutes, but that mostly flashed during class and disappeared. My only recourse as a student was to sketch the general outlines of each image and commit it to memory best I could. Thank goodness I had a theatrical lecturer, Vincent Scully, who made everything memorable, whom I can still hear and picture talking about Furness’s buildings “thrusting into the ground,” or I don’t think I would have made it through the class.

Interestingly, the luxurious abundance of images now makes those in-class slide shows less precious. I could send to the students mobile-friendly slideshows of the images we discussed in class. This had the added advantage of touching base with them between classes. If I didn’t have any slides to send I came up with “About…” emails, short texts about something that had come up in class, like “About the broken pediment,” about the contrast between the Greek’s concern to express structural forces and Palladio’s unconcern for structural integrity when he broke the pediment in his Venice churches. I sent the students a picture of a broken pediment that I saw in Crown Heights and I encouraged them to look for more in their daily travels. I imagined them waiting at a bus stop scrolling through the slides, through my missives. I made no bones about requiring their physical presence in my class every week, but outside of class I was happy to dive into their mediated world any way I could.

One morning they arrived in class to find copies of Kahn’s essay on monumentality on their desks and those desks rearranged in a circle. The social and cultural relevance of the architectures we studied, across all continents, across all time periods, came down to the representation of aspirations in a combination of technological and ornamental prowess. There was, for example the pre-colonial architecture of South Asia, the architectural developments of never-colonized Bangkok, the use of classical architecture by the British to assert their power in India, the use of Greek Revival all over the world for the political association it had with the birthplace of demokratia… I thought of two possible essays that would emphasize the theoretical backbone of the course’s content, this one by Kahn, or Bloomer’s essay on ornament, a late twentieth century feminist critique of Alberti’s division of primary structure and secondary ornament. I opted for the Kahn essay and its meditation on materials, structure, and architecture value.

We read through Kahn’s essay together, stopping to restate what we read, to explain references the students may not known about yet, to check on reading comprehension—was the author being derisive about architects who use stock parts in their buildings even if he appears to be making a statement of fact? What’s the subtext of this essay? What is Kahn asking of his audience of architects and decision makers? The essay turned out to be the right amount of old as a first close reading. It was recent enough to have been written in immediately accessible language, but old enough to function as a great case study for teaching about the cultural context of writing. We learned to separate the specifics of Kahn’s proposal, the use of welded joints in steel, from the theoretical premise proposed, that prescribed structural parts will affect how our built environment looks and functions. I said the magic words “there will be a quiz after” so they paid attention and asked questions. Four of the five quiz questions where explicit about statements in the text, as when Kahn says that the magna carta did not have to be written with gold ink, meaning that architecture does not depend on the preciousness of the materials, that great architecture can be made out of ordinary materials.

The fifth quiz question was my way of gaging the critical thinking baseline for my group of students. The question relied on understanding the argument of the essay, but the answer was not to be found in the text itself. Kahn argued that monumentality cannot be borrowed from times past, that each time period must develop its own. We had been talking about the Brooklyn Bridge and its borrowed monumentality with its Egyptian allusions and its Gothic arches, so the fifth question asked which bridge would Kahn prefer, Brooklyn or Manhattan?

About primary sources. The whole exercise, the in-class close reading and the follow up quiz, was a warm up for reading primary sources later in the semester. The advantage of teaching with a textbook is its efficiency, specially when there’s a lot of ground to cover and not a lot of time. The disadvantage is that what the students read lack any texture that connects the form of the text to the architecture it describes. Even in a textbook by someone as smart and articulate as Jarzombek everything becomes even-steven when the writing abides by the textbook format.

I wanted the students to understand primary sources as sources of joy, artifacts that give us insight into how people built and lived a long long time a go, not as precious archived documents that only the few can access, that must be paraphrased and summarized before they are accessible to the rest of us. We started with the surprisingly legible and even humorous very early texts. I quoted portions of Vitruvius that recommended the establishment of towns away from foul smells. Turns out that after you get through the flowery presentation of the text, he has mostly practical advice about making buildings and cities that have equivalents in todays building code: clean water, enough air, structures that don’t fall down. I quoted portions of the even earlier Rituals of Zhou, which described early structures in East Asia that don’t exist today since they were made of perishable materials like wood. I made slides for them that had these quotes directly from the texts themselves to empower them as thinkers, not just regurgitators of someone else’s interpretations. The texts in Rituals of Zhou are literally a library of buildings—the descriptions of the architectures that no longer exist physically. In future courses I would like to try structuring the semester around the idea of the library, as an addition to how the Brooklyn Bridge anchored the course this semester. We would link the Mesopotamian library and its clay tablets, to the Medieval monasteries, to the library found in the Mogao cave in East Asia, to the Michelangelo libraries, to the two Labrouste libraries, to contemporary notions of library and our now multifarious exchanges of information. A course like this one, with so much scope, benefits from these sort of links—they are the ligaments extending across time periods that make the “body” of the course whole, in spite of its differentiated parts.

For the second close reading I lined up the usual suspects on my Sunday table and chose abbé Laugier’s “Essay on Architecture.” I was thinking about their subsequent course on the twentieth century and to get ready for that you must understand what was going on in the Enlightenment. Also, we had already talked about how Alberti wrote ten books on architecture to be just like Vitruvius, and here was Vitruvius again, but used in a very different way than it had been used in the Renaissance.

This was hands down the best class of the semester. By this time they had grown accustomed to my prods and had warmed up to the idea of saying something even when they couldn’t completely articulate the idea clearly yet. A couple of weeks before I had shown them Palladio’s Villa Rotonda and asked, without any introduction, what they saw. “Too many stairs,” blurted someone half expecting to be corrected, ah but how right she was. There are in fact too many stairs, four entrances that Palladio justifies as podiums from which to enjoy the surrounding landscape but which are in effect three entrances too many. This excess is the point of the work, of course, the perfect double symmetry inside and outside of the building with form trumping program. This unlike the not-built double symmetry of Brunelleschi’s plan for St. Peter’s in which one of the four legs needed to be longer to meet the church’s functional needs.

We read and discussed Laugier in class. We looked at the famous primitive hut illustration, laughed with Vidler at the artificiality of four trees that happen to be growing in a perfect square in the forest. I can wax on the legitimate pedagogical reasons for introducing at least a couple of primary sources into a course, but truth is I love it because it’s more fun. I worry sometimes that I might give my students the impression of being flippant about the subjects I teach. In fact, when I think back, as a teacher, to the best teaching experiences I had as a student, I only fully appreciated them in retrospect. Robert Slutzky taught me how to see more than anyone else in architecture school, yet his collage class felt like we were all just sitting around chatting about nothing in particular. I took Erwin Hauer’s so-called sculpture class only to spent the first month drawing elephant bones on graph paper, using only ballpoint pens—ugly, unromantic drawings completely unusable for our portfolios. It was two months into the semester before we got our hands on clay. I gritted my teeth through the exercises as only a nineteen year old can, and it’s only now as a studio teacher that I fully appreciate the understanding I gained so viscerally of double curvature surfaces.

I had taught Laugier before, I had taught global history before, but this was the first time I taught both of those things together and it changed the way I think about the socio-cultural imperative. It seems at first just a question of fairness—how can we limit what we teach to the western canon when the very composition of our students spans several continents? But it’s more than that—it’s the possibility of multiple readings, which is always good news for critical thinking purposes. Laugier in this class arrived, in part, as a re-examination of architectural purpose after Renaissance became Baroque became Rococo, as it does in a western canon course. But it also arrived in the context of colonial and post-colonial India with its particular use of classical elements and very different notions of what “a blank slate” could be. Laugier was now being taught side by side with pre-Columbian cultures in America that conceived public and private space differently than in Laugier’s native France. It’s just possible that introducing global and socio-cultural concerns into the usual canon might actually deepen the theoretical work.

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