SCHOOL OF SCHOOLS
BY ALBERT POPE
Buildings do not instruct, they only accommodate and, hopefully, inspire. Such was the common wisdom up until the mid-seventies when Michel Foucault re-introduced us to the Panopticon and suggested that “disciplinary” institutions constructed our social existence, if not our very selves. The prison, the factory, the hospital, and the school all functioned as social “technologies” in which instruction or training was implicitly encoded in a sequence of spaces tied to a program of normative behavior. Foucault’s disturbing idea that institutions form us, rather than we them, was outrageous in its time. It effectively turned our ideas regarding “functionalism” inside out. No longer mere accommodation or use, function came to stand for something that was wholly contrived, if not outright manipulative (and something that was politically and economically motivated). Foucault’s description constituted an inversion of our understanding of functional accommodation, an inversion that we are still grappling with today.
We have largely grappled with this redefinition of functionalism by assuring ourselves that Foucault was a historian researching conditions that existed at the turn of the nineteenth century, on the other side of the modernist divide. Modern architecture dispensed with the overt social agendas that were built into traditional architecture - such as the monumental expression of authority - and attempted to re-establish architecture as functional accommodation driven by its own autonomous logic. As a result, we have been able to conveniently neglect Foucault’s disturbing analysis. Modern buildings are imagined to be ideologically transparent containers, more or less functional, more or less beautiful, and more or less grounded in the art of the discipline. Modern buildings influence and inspire and they do function, but they do not instruct. They are not the purview of politicians, behavioralists, or social engineers, but of the creative imagination. The idea that a Modern architecture could manipulate the behavior of its inhabitants or otherwise “construct” its subjects calls into question its very existence.
I would like to draw attention to a flagrant contradiction in what one might call the naïve functionalism of Modern architecture: the School of Architecture. In the School of Architecture, the idea that buildings themselves “instruct” is unabashedly pursued; training is the order of the day and the idea of (re)constructing the identity of the student/architect forms its overt logic. As opposed to a lecture, a book, or a practice session, the idea that an institutional building would serve to indoctrinate a student is often accepted without question. Spatializing an overt program - the distribution of students, for example, in a series of partitioned workstations - is intended to construct new subjects as only buildings can. We routinely call this built-in, disciplinary logic “studio culture.” It remains in effect (as those of us who teach would have it) 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
This training function is on the agenda of some of the most important buildings of the twentieth century, including the Bauhaus, Taliesin West, Crown Hall, and Carpenter Center. These acknowledged “masterpieces” function in a unique dual role, as both canonical works of architecture in themselves and, at the same time, the institutional means by which the canon is imparted to future generations. In other words, these buildings function on two somewhat incompatible levels; they are both the content and the vehicle for the delivery of that content. They are not only the books in the library but the library itself, they are not only the paintings in a museum collection but the institution that exhibits art, they compose not only the musical score but the concert hall in which the score is received. As canonical works they are meant to inspire, enhance, and influence; but as institutional buildings - schools - they are also meant to indoctrinate vis-à-vis studio culture. Because of this dual role, architecture schools can be said to form one of the most significant subsets of the modern canon. The Architecture School is, in effect, the institution that produces other institutions; it is a school of schools.
While it is clear that the propagation of a canon and the propagation of disciplinary training constitute two different forms of social interaction, it is unclear as to whether these two functions could ever be reconciled to each other. Most schools manage to train, fewer manage to inspire, and those that inspire often do so by suppressing the training function. While you can certainly study architecture in a cathedral - Crown Hall has proven this - you can also study architecture in a spec office building filled with partitioned workstations. The point is that neither solution is adequate in addressing the problem that the School of Architecture poses and the potential that this school among schools actually possesses. This potential can be described as that specific interaction of building and program wherein that which inspires - the canon - comes to sublimate the idea of programmatic “training” that Foucault introduced so many years ago.
This brief analysis of the School of Architecture will serve as both the introduction and the critical lens though which I will look at a recent addition to this most significant subset of the Modern canon: Roto Architects School of Architecture at the University of Texas at Prairie View. I believe the building directly addresses the problem posed by the School of Architecture. It speaks of an informed functionalism that goes beyond the limitations implied by the school-as-cathedral and the school-as-spec office block.
Earlier I defined a Modern building as transparent accommodation driven by an autonomous logic. I hope it is clear that the accommodation or function of a building is often far from transparent; that it possesses institutional agendas that go beyond the workings of a naive functionalism. Too often it is the institutional agenda alone that constitutes a school. An obvious example of this would be an elementary “school” consisting of trailers set out on an asphalt parking lot. In a School of Architecture, the institutional agenda might consist only of partitioned workstations spread across standardized floor-plates. What Modern architecture added to the institutional function, of course, is the autonomous logic that is inherent to its practice. This logic constitutes the substance of the canon and, conversely, the canon subsequently constitutes the autonomous logic. What this means, simply, is that the rules/logic by which we develop a project are partially encoded in the canonical works of the discipline itself. This rigorous, inbuilt logic is characteristic of Roto’s architecture in general, and of their Prairie View school in particular. I would now like to explore how Roto used these rules to sublimate the institutional imperative inherent in the program type and to resolve the contradiction between the reproduction of the canon and the training function inherent in the program type.
The intrinsic logic of our architecture is best revealed by hypothetically reconstructing the development of the building’s design. The clarity of the logic, as well as its didactic character make this a relatively easy task. This reconstruction will be divided into four discrete stages. Imagine the starting point of our school as a simple H-shaped block turned on its side. This serves as a distillation of the massing as two parallel concrete framed blocks with bridges crossing over a void between them. From this starting point one simple operation sets the developmental logic of the building into motion. This operation consists of the orthogonal shifting of the south block one bay to the east. This shift does several things at once. It responds to the entrance of the Prairie View campus and the building’s important corner situation. The shift also sets up the logic of a front or “head,” building at this strategic location. The shift also sets up a spatial condition at the two ends of the buildings creating a formal courtyard at one end of the building and a service plaza at the other. The shift also has a significant effect on the interior. It creates a sheared space between the blocks prompting the complex play of stairs, bridges, and ramps. We refer to this interior volume as an “exchange space,” and it figures prominently in the programmatic operation of the building.
Following the slippage of the two blocks, the second stage of development concerns the relation between the concrete frame structure of the primary massing and their associated brick skins. (The craft of these skins are amazing, the subtly corbelled construction results in an animated surface module that is almost alive in its effect.) As in the center space of the building, the initial shifting of the blocks seems to activate the building skins setting up a complex frame/skin relation unique to each block. On the northern block, the skin lies loosely around the volume; its wobbly geometry gives it the appearance of a billowing fabric tacked down to the frame at strategic points. This brick fabric covers the entire volume creating a lateral façade facing north toward the bulk of the campus. On the south block, the relation of the fabric to the skin is entirely different. Here, the shifting of the block to the west seems to have torn the skin from the block completely. The displaced skin is thus free to form the complex sheathing of the head building leaving the concrete frame of the south block almost entirely exposed to the elements.
It is the formation of the head building or auditorium that constitutes the third stage of the building’s diagrammatic logic and what is perhaps the most significant design feature of the project.
In their descriptions, we refer to this appendage as the origin of the primary ordering lines. This does not mean, however that the auditorium is constituted as the dominant element within the project. I put “head” building in quotation marks because it is ambiguous whether the auditorium is the primary focal point of the building or merely a secondary appendage shot out from the south block. This ambiguity operates to the benefit of the building; it solves a major programmatic contradiction. The appendage contains a separate institution called the Cultural Center for African American History in Texas. Located in the “head” building it must exist both as a separate entity and as part of the larger complex that includes the School of Architecture. This equivocal status of the appendage is important because, despite the significance of the Cultural Center, it is not the programmatic driver of the building. Seen in this way, the logic behind the auditorium’s ambiguous connection to the main mass becomes clear. It is shifted off the central axis and only tentatively attached to the south bar by the brick skin as described above. This plastic tour-de-force precisely mirrors the complexity of the relationship of the two programmatic entities.
Finally, the fourth and last stage of design development concerns the metal cladding of the building that occurs on the south elevation as well as on the eastern wall of the treed courtyard. Though made of metal columns covered by a perforated mesh skin, these screens are not an extension of the frame and skin logic already discussed for the rest of the building. As the brick skin slipped off of the southern block to form the appendage or head building, it exposed the elevation of the block to harsh environmental conditions. The response to this condition appears at first glance to be of an ad-hoc or provisional construction. I call it provisional because the material and geometry of the steel framed cladding is altogether alien to the rest of the structure. This difference is highly exaggerated. The frames appear propped into place against the side of the southern block. It is also important to note that they are made out of standardized steel tubes and corrugated metal sheets that contrast the customized fabric of the rest of the building—the brickwork for example, and the idiosyncratic shapes of the appendage. This pragmatic solution to the problem created by the exposed elevation shows an entirely different sensibility at play in the building.
The autonomous logic of the two slipped blocks and the subsequent deployment of bridges, ramps, skins, appendages, and cladding, constitute the formal devices that animate the building but do not encompass its logic. If this were the case, we would be examining an exercise in formalism, and formalism always comes at the cost of a naïve understanding of function. It is in the handling of the deeper implications of the training function that Roto’s building makes a significant contribution to the School of Architecture.
The autonomous logic of the building constitutes the formal devices through which the training function is constructed. They are also the devices through which that function is ultimately sublimated. How do you both construct the institution and overcome it at the same time? Not by resorting to irony, built-in contradiction or any other forms of logical confusion built into the form of the building. The answer lies in the creation of subjectivities, specifically the creation of subjectivities that exceed those produced by training. I will explain what this means.
In spite of our naïve understanding of Modern functionalism, buildings construct us as subjects. To repeat, buildings produce us as much as we produce them. This is done by encoding institutional programs into forms—forms that are calculated to produce a certain range of practical behavior. This understanding of subjectivity led Foucault to an appreciation of the built environment as a distributed network of power relations capable of creating, in its entirety, an extended social field. While this may summarize Foucault’s analysis with regards to the built environment, it should not limit the implications of his analysis. While the buildings we make do produce subjectivities, it is important to remember that they are not necessarily the docile and defeated subjectivities produced by the disciplinary logic of the prisons, the factories, the hospitals, and the schools discussed by Foucault. In this regard, the projection of alternate subjectivities becomes our principal concern. This concern cannot be addressed until we are willing to concede the powers at play upon us. And while it is true there is hardly anyone outside of the discipline who is prepared to grant such importance to the built environment, the designers of this environment must nevertheless be willing to take responsibility for it. They must, in other words, be willing to address the problem of subjectivity. Roto’s school does this. It creates an alternative to the subject called “architect” in a remarkable way.
The construction of an alternate subjectivity would seem a huge task were it not for the fact that we do it every time we design a building. That we often do this unawares does not change the fact. The problem is how to set about creating subjectivity in a more determined fashion. This is where Roto’s building becomes instructive. To begin, we might ask: what elements of the building contribute to the construction of a subjectivity that exceeds that which is produced by mere training? Here we can return to effects produced by the school’s formal devices. Examining the building from a broader social perspective, we can see that its programmatic logic is organized around two significant axes. These two axes produce circuits of interaction within the structure around which specific subjectivities are formed. The first axis is the vertical axis that establishes an above/below organization of the building, and the second is the horizontal (longitudinal) axis that establishes its back/front organization. I would like to look at the programmatic development of both of these axes in turn.
The institutional program of the School of Architecture develops floor-to-floor around the vertical axis of the building moving from bottom to top, one program built upon the next. On the ground floor, public entry spaces, administrative offices, lecture hall, fabrication shop and formal galleries, give way to a second floor of classrooms, faculty offices, library, and a digital lab. This stratification forms an integrated vertical machine devoted to the various stages of architectural training. This stratification has as its destination the largest spaces in the building, the studio/loft spaces that occupy the entire third floor floorplate. These spaces are ultimately bound for subdivision into cubicle cells or workstations, one cubicle per student. With the studio loft space as its destination, the section transforms programmatically as it moves upwards from the associated collective spaces at the base of the building to the individual cubicles at the top. This upward movement can be seen to finally focus architectural training directly upon the individual activities of the student. While the size of the lofts gives the studio function its importance, their subdivision gives it an individualized or personal significance. In this manner, the program built up along the vertical axis constructs an individual subject in a progression toward the cellular subdivision of the studio. As a consolidated block, housed in the top-most reach of the building, these cellular spaces constitute an incubator of the famous architectural ego.
The horizontal axis functions in a similar, cumulative way by transforming a sequence of programmatic layers into a machine-like apparatus. Cutting across the grain of the vertical movement, the horizontal axis structures a program that pulls together diffuse and various activities into a promenade that moves from the back service end of the Architecture School to the front ceremonial end of the Cultural Center. This promenade is drawn toward the theatre or head building that serves as a focus for the organization of the ground plan. At a pragmatic level, the axis connects the public elements of the Architecture School and mixes them in with the Cultural Center creating a sequence that unifies these two incongruent entities. The sequence of lecture halls, two galleries, archive, offices, ceremonial courtyard, and finally the theater, create out of the two programmatic entities a third. Yet this is secondary to the main objective that is to shape for the occupants of both institutions a collective identity. As opposed to the individually focused subject construction developed along the vertical axis of architectural training, the horizontal axis produces its adversary and complement, a collective subject.
The movement along the two axes, from bottom to top and from back to front (from private to public, individual to collective) suggests an older mode of subjectivisation, the architectural promenade. The architectural promenade was invented by Corbusier as a didactic mechanism to instruct the inhabitant about the world around her, whether that world be a historical worldview (Mundaneum) or an idealized landscape (Villa Savoye). In Roto’s building, however, I employed the linear schema for descriptive purposes only. The building does not operate along one sequential path, or even two. Instead of a promenade, circuits of interaction structured by horizontal and vertical axes are a function of the bridges, ramps and stairs occupying the sheared space between the primary blocks. More than a scripted promenade moving from bottom to top, these circuits form discrete patterns of movement that are sequential and cumulative but also eccentric, random and intermittent. They are given added force by being not only ceremonial, but habitual, repetitive, and routinized. The programmatic components of the building are inscribed and reinscribed by the patterns of movement through the building’s so-called “exchange space.” I would argue that these habitual patterns produce a kind of subjectivity in which we can recognize the education of an architect.
To briefly recap the argument, two axes form the social organization of the school. These axes generate circuits of movement that produce individuation in the loft, and collectivisation in the theatre. It is the organization of these subjectivities by the autonomous logic of the building that allows them to transcend the subjectivities produced by institutional programming or mere training. What is the difference between subjectivities produced by Roto’s building on the Prairie View campus and those produced by a spec office building filled with workstations? The answer can come in the form of another question: what is the difference between an architect and a CAD operator or, alternately, what is the difference between a sensibility and a ten-step program? In other words, the answer is that difference.
It would seem that there is much we can learn from a School of Architecture—the school of all schools— not the least of which would be the limitations of our routine practices. The assumption of a transparent or naive functionality has obscured the survival of disciplinary programs well into the modern period. It has also blocked a clear understanding of the potential that exists in the production of subjectivity. Soon, there may be no other logic with which to defend the School of Architecture, or any other school, against a functional deployment of standardized spaces. Everything will become the equivalent of trailers in the parking lot. At that time, the need to construct that subjectivity called “architect” will have to be understood clearly if it is to survive. Crown Hall and all the other cathedrals of learning will be of no help. Architecture that addresses the problem of subjectivity, like Roto’s school, will hold the key.