Wednesday, December 1, 2010

"An Uncertain Journey : The Education of an Architect" by Christopher Charles Benninger (2009)

From the moment a youngster decides to study architecture they begin a journey. At first it is an uncertain journey guided by glamour, images and hopes.

Their experiences in the classroom, in the studio, talking amongst fellow students and through chance meetings with practicing architects begin to shape an agenda. They begin to hear stories of architects; they see architects’ houses and walk into interesting studios. They study magazines and journals and books. Slowly they integrate within themselves the images seen through the mirrors of others. Some have heroes, some are silent and some are the heroes of their own lives. Gradually these students start drawing realistic pictures of themselves and embark on the journey of meaningful self discovery. It should be the most beautiful time of their lives!

We as teachers play a pivotal role in shaping their drama of self discovery. We guide them onto paths of their journey. We expose them to the alternatives and possibilities. Most important we as teachers can inspire students. We can give them an insight which makes them realize something about themselves that they never knew before. We help them see within themselves a picture of what they are, what they want and what they can be. This realization is inspiration! I often say that, “there is only one kind of good luck in life, and that is the good luck of having a good teacher.”

The experience for many students is exhilarating and transcendental. As a mature and a wise person we can see them in their totality from a distance. With objectivity we can guide them toward the path they need to follow. We can see their weaknesses and their strengths and help them ameliorate and reinforce these.

There is a critical point in their education when they either imbibe the concept of “being a professional,” or they drift off into fashionable, glamorous or celebrity paths. This is the first moment when our education fails young architects!

As mentors and guides we have to ask “why do young people enter architecture?” Let me pose a few possible reasons:

Journey One: “My father is an architect and I am planning to enter the family business as the second generation.”

Journey Two: “I saw an architect’s picture in the newspaper and, by chance, the next day I saw him get out of a Mercedes Benz. I want to be rich and famous!”

Journey Three: “I would like a calm, artistic life, sitting in a serene studio surrounded by plants and paintings, contemplating beauty and letting art flow!”

Journey Four: “I wanted medicine, but my SSC scores were too low; then I tried electrical engineering, but I failed the entrance exam; so I paid a capitation fee and entered architecture.”

Journey Five: “My parents want me to get married to a good professional as soon as possible, so they just want me to graduate so that I can get a good partner.”

Journey Six: “I want to migrate to America and I think architecture is the best way. As soon as I graduate I will apply for a Masters’ Degree course in South Dakota, get my visa and leave India.”

Journey Seven: “My art teacher introduced me to the subject of architecture. He showed me a book on Frank Lloyd Wright’s houses and I was amazed. I want to be that person!”

Journey Eight: “I want to serve society and make a decent living while doing it. If I hone in on my skills, study technical systems, learn about materials and learn professional ethics, I can be a serious professional.”

These multiple possibilities continue. But we as teachers need to know where our path own path merges with those of our students; and where our paths will part. Where do we touch a student’s life during that short spell and what are our limitations to change them? What small gifts can we give them along their way? During a short juncture of their journey can we make a small impact? Can we do this without becoming involved with students, as their friends or as their personal confidants?

Can we leave personalities and campus politics out of our relationships with students? Can we see the strong points of even our weakest teaching colleagues and help them to be better teachers, instead of ridiculing them! Can we keep the distance of a wise guide and still pass on values, inspirations, sensitivities and understanding to students?

On a larger canvas the course curriculum is the highway, or even expressway, down which all of our students are racing. It has many lanes, many entries and many exits. This road can be made monotonous or exciting. It is the quality of teaching that makes it either a smooth and scenic ride, or a bumpy and tortuous one.

As teachers, I feel we have two kinds of gifts that we can bestow on our students:

One is to make youngsters see an image of themselves. We give them images of what they can be and how their own inner strengths and values can transform into a “life” and a meaningful role in society. That is a very personal gift from one person to another. It is called inspiration!

But our collective gift, our group goal, must reside within the course content, the required reading, the meaning of projects and the experiences we create for them and into which they immerse themselves. We have to be good at teaching this curriculum and skilled in making it real and lively to the students.

In brief we have to provide an excellent grounding in essential knowledge; in necessary skills and in underlying values. As a group we have to decide what are those skills, knowledge and sensitivities.

I can compare the first year of medical education and that of architecture and I know that the young doctors have mastered Grey’s Anatomy, embracing the nervous system, the skeletal system, the circulation system, cells and their nourishment and all of the organs which control, monitor and fix this complex system. I am sure that at the end of the first nine months of architectural studies our students will not have a clue of the electrical, plumbing, air conditioning, structural and functional systems which are elements of every building. Even upon graduation we are sending ill-prepared people out to solve the problems of society.

The history of architecture is not made up of the sum of all of the buildings constructed, but the structures in which a new insight, a new material, a new technique or a new way of looking at space is employed. I wonder how many young architects are equipped with a complete knowledge of this stream of history and if they know where they can make a contribution, or how they can employ what has already been discovered?

I even wonder how good our new graduates are at free hand drawing and sketching so that they can quickly study options and conceptualize solutions? Most of our youngsters are imagining 3D images on a 2D computer screen. Are we making a marriage between the real and the virtual world?

Do students know the values and design logic of harmony, proportion, scale, and balance?

Do they know that architects can become the touts of builders who only care for municipal drawings and how much FSI can be harvested?

Are we exposing our students to the processes of urbanization and the roles of architects, builders and planners to create a vessel in which the multitudes can live a beautiful and poetic life?

Do our graduates know what phases one goes through to make a real building?

Do they know that there are numerous roles they can play within this maze of procedures and expected outcomes?

Within this conundrum it is very important that young architects know that being “creative” comes far down in the list of logical, rational and responsible professional things they will have to do to be good professionals.

We spend far too much time trying to teach what we cannot teach, which is creativity, and very little time teaching what we can teach, which is social responsibility, knowledge, skills and sensitivities.

The result is that our graduates have a very wrong impression of what we actually do in an architectural studio and they lack the real skills to do those things. Many imagine that after a two or three years stint of work they can open their own offices and do large scale works! They are not ready to suffer the low salaries and long working hours endured by chartered accountants, young doctors and lawyers in training. We have not properly grounded them on the path they must endure!
We have to bring our students and young architects back to basics! We have to make them into responsible, capable and sensitive young professionals. I believe this is DO-ABLE!
The greatest gift we can gift a student is the knowledge that they will always be students. We must teach them how to be continuous seekers and learners. We must show them how opening one window of knowledge, shows one the way to still more windows and still more! We must leave them hungry to explore these windows of knowledge, voracious to consume ideas, and vibrant to study from tired to tired!

12 03 09 ccb : all rights retained by the author.

**This article is condensed from two talks to students and teachers at the Rachana Sansad Academy of Architecture (Mumbai) and the Vadodara Design Academy (Baroda) in January 2009 and March 2009 respectively.

*Christopher Benninger is the son of a Professor of Economics and began his career teaching design at the Graduate School of Design, Harvard University. At the age of 26 he was made a Fellow of the University and a tenured professor. In 1971 he came to Ahmedabad to found the School of Planning in what is now CEPT University, where he is a Distinguished Professor. He founded the Centre for Development Studies and Activities in 1976, where he was the Executive Director for twenty years. He ahs served on the BUTR and the Senate of the Pune University. He has been on the Board of Directors of the Fulbright Foundation (India) and is on the Board of Governors of the School of Planning and Architecture [SPA], New Delhi. Articles about his works and by Professor Benninger appear in more than fifty journals in many countries.
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