Generally speaking I would agree with those of my esteemed fellow teachers who hold that architecture is fundamentally unteachable. The only thing teachers of architecture can do is to kindle their students’ enthusiasm for an occupation that is really a vocation. However, this only applies to architecture as a fine art. Architecture as the science of construction, in contrast, does include numerous skills that require formal teaching.
My “teaching” therefore focuses on the fields of “habitat”, “environment”, and “conservation”, and I would like to use this opportunity to make clear what my position is in each.
By “habitat” I mean a field that extends far beyond the walls of the residential building to encompass the entire urban context and people’s ways of life as such. Before the industrial revolution, habitat was the province of anonymous, vernacular building activities, the antithesis of the public or religious buildings designed by famous architects from the European Renaissance up to the Modern and even from today, that made up the body of “high” architecture. Today residential architecture in particular is no longer a local phenomenon with pronounced regional specificity, but the result of commercial mass production. While in the past local buildings were often embellished with stylistic elements borrowed from high architecture, today they increasingly reflect the changing whims of fashion. As public policy and development strategies supersede the role of architects, one might expect residential architecture to slip back into a vernacular idiom. The only problem is that most people’s notions of an ideal lifestyle are extremely confused, since they are shaped by the predominantly commercial agendas of the mass media.
And professional architects have long since lost their sensitivity to the real needs of people in particular and society in general.
Researching these phenomena could be one of the core tasks involved in teaching architecture. As the city will be the primary human habitat of the twenty-first century – indeed, more than half the world population already lives in cities – urban architecture will have a decisive influence on all aspects of building construction.
The experience of spatial dimensions within and among built volumes could lead to new and dynamic results. Meanwhile, the media have made it their business to bring the architectural formalisms produced in the western hemisphere to all four corners of the world. The effect is often extremely destructive, for what is required in the so-called third world are buildings that meet people’s fundamental needs rather than structures that not only squander the limited funds available but also cost exorbitant sums to maintain. Yet it is an incontrovertible fact that the majority of the world’s total construction activity is taking place in the third world – and that the influence of exploitative, neo-colonialist architectural adventurers is robbing many countries there of their precious cultural heritage and identity. To responsible architects this opens up another horizon for research and teaching at architecture schools.
If we trace human civilization back to the beginnings of architecture, what we find are the first human habitats which, however, also and inalienably include landscape. Modified in centuries of human intervention, landscape is an integral part of the habitat, providing the basis of human survival. This is why landscapes have always had a special significance, and why their ongoing destruction is robbing the human habitat of its most crucial context. The belief has taken hold that people are meant to subjugate the natural environment for short-term purposes and material gain, but this belief will ultimately lead to the complete exhaustion of our natural resources.
The current spread of urbanization follows a general trend to pursue purely economic goals without taking account of the environment or society, and it has resulted in increasing pressure on the few sensitive landscapes still to be found near the city. Large areas of what used to be cultural landscapes are being sacrificed to new development.
Our efforts should be directed at controlling the profligate use of land and interacting with our environment in a way that is humane and viable with regard to its aesthetic and cultural effects. To combat suburban desertification and unrestricted land use, we must develop urban planning methods that are firmly rooted in the concept of the habitat, including urban densification scenarios at all scale levels, namely, infrastructure, construction, and other functions including living and working with special attention to the original and cultural background to the area concerned.
By conservation I mean both the way we approach traditional building forms and the conversion of old building typologies to serve new functions for which they were not originally designed.
The obligation to preserve important architectural monuments and ensembles has come to be recognized across all political and economic divides both in the post-industrial world and in developing countries. Very often this recognition does not, however, extend to the context in which these monuments belong. As a result, historical lines are frequently cut and historical buildings left adrift in new architectural realities that take no account of the specific identity of the place.
Against this background, our job is to identify sustainable alternatives for those areas in which globalization has not yet taken hold. New functions in education, health services, etc., call for new forms of architectural expression that the traditional idiom lacks, so that simply renovating and preserving traditional structures is no solution. Rather, what is required is a case-by-case redefinition of building types and building forms referencing the basic elements of environment, material, and structure.
Young architects therefore need to study vernacular construction under changing social and cultural conditions in conjunction with anthropological methodologies. Compiling case studies teaches them how to integrate local interests into development projects, and, ultimately, how to help preserve regional identity. This is a field that will continue to challenge the creativity of architectural and environmental design and the universities at which they are taught. By rising to these challenges, we may be able to make a start on righting the architectural and environmental wrongs of the past.