Specialization + Curriculum
James Forren is an M.Arch thesis student at MIT
The first thing I thought of when I read “specialization” was a story I read in The New Yorker about the collapse of the Twin Towers. According to this article, a gentleman whose business it is to take down oversized structures (apartment towers, mammoth bridges, etc.) took one look at the planes plowing into the World Trade Center Towers and thought, instantly, “In 2 hours those buildings are coming down.” He frantically tried to phone people in charge, but couldn’t get through. When he saw fireman being sent up into the towers he could not believe his eyes. Leslie Roberts, the structural engineer for the towers, had no instinct for this. Putting buildings up and taking them down are specialized fields with separate knowledge.
A first response to this, or at least my first response, was that this is a sad, disturbing state of affairs. This is because I assumed (correctly or not) that these two bits of knowledge were once part of a synthetic discipline. I read both Mario Salvadori’s books Why Building Stand Up and Why Buildings Fall Down. I assumed that the responsibility of knowing why they stand up must, out of good, professional ethics, always be coupled with the knowledge of why they fall down. This is, in part, naïve. We know that erectors of Gothic Cathedrals had no clear sense of the threshold of their abilities. Perhaps, the early, cautious efforts were more cognizant of these limits. With success, perhaps, came distance from the specter of failure.
What I’m getting at is that I, with many others, have a longing for a synthetic knowledge that perhaps never really existed. But, I think, this is an ideal we can share and try to examine critically. When I think of the Twin Towers’ collapse, I wonder how can these threads of knowledge be woven back together. I don’t know. I have fantasies of CAD models on the web that all consultants can weigh in on and examine. I harbor fantasies of Uber-Architects whose knowledge and skills encompass everything an architect “should know.” Of expanded curricula that create a more synthetic blend of disciplinary knowledge. Again, on the larger, social and professional spectrum, I have no clue. I retell the Twin Towers story so often I hope that someone or someones may figure this out.
For the time being, I am finishing my time here at MIT. On the note of specialization and architecture, I have never, in my life, seen the discipline of architecture so forcefully and thoughtlessly rent to pieces as I have here. Nor, however, have I ever seen the discipline draw upon such deep resources from these many fragments of its personality with such ambition and elegance. HTC, BT, Computation, Visual Arts, Urban Planning, The Media Lab and Design. I may be missing a program or two. Efforts are made, different programs are invited to review and sit on thesis committees. But it is the students who are largely responsible for the effort of threading competing practices into a single synthetic or fractured vision. However, neither we nor the department are cognizant of that fact. The Department Welcome Page correctly heralds the variation and depth of our resources. The notion of richness and variety under a single Department implies a systemic connection among these parts. This is, however, misleading and, ultimately, disillusioning implication for many students and faculty arriving in the Department for the first time.
A strong indicator that this is not true lurks in the other heralded aspect of education here: the individualized pursuit of knowledge. It is fully expected that students will navigate these waters on their own. And, well, they may be expected to. But the effort this entails and the obstructions it engenders severely limits the success that can be expected of even the most ambitious students during their time here. This is not to say that the environment is not an excellent one; nor that it is unique in this lapse in meeting student needs. It does mean, however, that we are not as strong an institution as we have the potential to be.
I am not advocating specifically for an integrated curriculum, nor inter-disciplinary education. I don’t know enough about either to outright support them nor their alternatives. I am advocating that, amidst an environment of deep specialization, should the promise of synthesis be realized, measures must be in place that support this vision. It will not occur, as the laissez-faire pedagogy-without-a-pedagogy position of the administration seems to assume, organically on its own by the daily “balancing acts” of the students and faculty.
What are these measures? Steps are in place introducing curriculum integration at the Level I and SMarches years. This should help. I might naively propose a concerted attention to the required courses of the M.Arch curriculum beyond Level I. Our semester typically involves a tug-of-war between unusually demanding BT, HTC, Computation/Fabrication, Media Lab or Visual Arts courses. Working knowledge is not emphasized in these courses so much as disciplinary expertise modeled on the education of these instructors who specialize in these disciplines. This situation commonly undermines the laboratory of Studio where these concepts are, I assume, intended to by synthesized.
But this is a position marked by ambivalence on my part. I’m glad that I can take Building Science courses taught by engineers. Taking history and theory courses in a program where the discipline’s contemporary practice was practically invented is, likewise, an unprecedented opportunity. But, I am not alone in my disappointment a the collapse of design efforts at semester’s close. Nor in my sadness at the use of the M.Arch program by advancing undergrads as a place to study because they feel they’ve had enough studio prior to MIT and want to focus on other coursework. My suggestion is that, rather than anxiously resisting the notion of “some stratagem or directive” as a “once and for all” solution, the administration considers the situation at hand, develop concrete steps to address it and a framework to monitor the progress of these initiatives. Repeated knee-jerk defenses of a situation that many experience as untenable is simply short-sighted at best, and debilitating at its worst.