New Dean Makes Case for Change

November 15, 2004 · by Garth Rockcastle

What is at stake is nothing less than a healthy future for the discipline of architecture and its alliances in planning, interior design and landscape architecture.

Can we collectively refocus, revise, and restructure the academic and professional spheres of our design and planning disciplines to take advantage of present opportunities? If enough of us agree, and strategically act on these opportunities, we could positively change the fate of our disciplines, for some time to come. There are reasons to be both pessimistic and optimistic about whether we could or should, but why not give it a try? As it always has, history will judge how we responded to our circumstances, so if we can agree and the time is indeed ripe, why not try to make a real difference? What is at stake is nothing less than a healthy future for the discipline of architecture and its alliances in planning, interior design and landscape architecture. Whether we seize this opportunity to enlarge and deepen the relevance and influence of our discipline, or allow it to shrink further into political, economic and cultural marginality and greater legal, technical and procedural vulnerability is up to us/now. While we have heard these or similar concerns expressed before, I believe the current circumstances and how we act on them are real and critical. What are some of the reasons for both optimism and pessimism?

My optimism is rooted in at least three separate trends having a real impact, that we could better nourish and support. First, there is an increase in numbers of faculty and recent graduates who are engaged in some form of alternative professional practice (or hybrid forms of conventional practice). I would argue that these growing practices (with design/build, design/develop, design/exhibit, design/critique, design/research, and design/advocate foci) are liberating, expanding and integrating the impact of design as a fundamental agent of critical insight and influence. Second, other faculty, students and a growing number of specialized researchers are contributing to an unprecedented blossoming of academic research and scholarship, providing us with unprecedented critical insight into the performance and value of well-designed and planned environments. This is making advocating and justifying the expansion and centralization of professional design and services easier. Third, the significance of new knowledge and entrepreneurial enterprise is enhanced by the dramatically more powerful and versatile digital capabilities emerging. These three factors are awakening a growing number of leading practitioners, critics, educators and clients to think and act in compelling ways. We have never known such an explosion of knowledge and insight, such far reaching implications of new tools, or so many diverse and revelatory models of practice or teaching/learning. It may be too much change, going in too many directions and making the discipline, profession and our academies too chaotic and confusing. If this were so, perhaps what we need is to simply find better ways to focus, organize, capture, and guide this creative enterprise. Might we even be on the threshold of another cultural and professional renaissance?

My pessimism, however, is based largely on the presence of three bad habits we inherited, continue to practice, and find difficult to overcome. The first is our preoccupation with placing matters of style, taste and ideology at the heart of our public discourses and ahead of matters of principle, fact and due process. Even when we try to disguise style, taste and ideology in arguments of principle (as too many do) the overall effect is to diminish and marginalize our discipline by exposing us as unrealistic, narcissistic and overly political. The second is the all too familiar accusations and internal squabbles that both practitioners and academics freely declare about each other “…if only they would better appreciate what we know is important.” It is true that academics tend to focus more on (and care more about) the relationship between architecture and its cultural value (meaning, history/theory, tectonic attributes, design process implications) and that practitioners focus more on applied value (client/market realities, delivery of services, building performance, corporate well-being). There are indeed two underlying cultures, with two distinct disciplinary roles. How can we become better off for their differences, and get beyond the conflicts? The third is the tendency for us to behave and think based on what we know worked yesterday, therefore, it must be right today, and should determine how we continue tomorrow, …seeing and acting on the world. Change and evolution are too often met with too much resistance by too many academics and practitioners. We need to be more receptive to changing how we work, the tools we work with, opening our insights into what is good, right and proper, and respond more sympathetically to what our diverse constituent think about us. Certainly change is not necessarily good or right and that much of what we need to do is to balance stable principles with contingent factors. This is at the core of our discipline, but it is ironic that as one of the primary change/makingprofessions in our culture, we have not mastered effective and enlightened ways to attend to ourselves in this regard.

From my vantage, as both an academic and practice leader for the past couple decades, I am far less inclined to blame “the other” for our inability to effectively build a dynamic and vital shared enterprise. But, I have also observed first hand, our tendency to do just that. At the root of our current challenge and opportunity is to overcome symmetry of ignorance (or antipathy), for each others nature, roles, and responsibilities. This needs to occur now. For us to ascend to prominence as a discipline with sustainable, appreciated, freely-granted authority, influence and power, we have to move from destructive to constructive relationships and enterprise. By this I don’t mean tensionless subsuming of each other’s activities and perspectives to the other (which is impossible and ineffective), but rather open and cooperative engagement of each other’s challenges and insights. If we miss the current opportunity, we may very well see the discipline of architecture become both, 1) a more marginal but compelling fiction enterprise, and 2) a more impotent support service to construction managers and/or client consultants.

When I decided to embark on the challenges of the Deanship at the School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at the University of Maryland, I committed to act on new ways to advance my optimism and overcome my pessimism about the future and promise of design and environmental intelligence in our culture. Below is an outline of how I intend to do this.

Empowering Optimism
The Next Phase of the Digital Revolution: First generation digital tools are becoming ubiquitous in both academia and practice, providing us with more accurate, flexible, creative and faster ways to provide our common trade representations (plans, sections, elevations, models, details, specifications and graphic images) but little has changed in the fundamental ways we work and what we deliver (2D documents and specifications) as part of the design and presentation processes. A second generation of “smart” simulations has the potential to change dramatically our roles and responsibilities. Smart documentation is a more fully versatile 4-D (space/time) simulation of buildings and environments, capable of being referenced by diverse constituents in the design and building processes (public, owners, contractors, suppliers, users, etc.) with imbedded information (intelligence) making representations much more than what they appear to be alone. This will soon allow complex simulations to be queried, examined or tested for almost anything anyone might have questions or concerns about. Understanding, performance and specificity are about to take a quantum leap forward in detail and literacy for public and professional benefit.

What will now need to follow is a transformation in the ways we teach, learn and communicate about what the design of buildings and environments are, or might alternatively be, given competing interests, assumptions and values. Discussion and insight can become more specific and interactive because they will not be limited to information available in the static frames of reference of the past. Experiential and environmental animations, systems or fragment isolations, shifts in scale and simultaneity could be almost instantaneous with creative speculation and alternative propositions. Design services could play a more dynamic, comprehensive and realistic (4D phenomena) role with successive stages of development becoming more elaborate layers of detail and performance assessment. This holds great potential to bring the environmental change and stewardship process back closer to professional expertise, responsibility and control. We should seize it.

Harnessing and Instigating more Research & Scholarship: Following the academic needs and trends in the sciences and humanities, professional schools are dramatically expanding their research and scholarship endeavors at our major universities. The most successful and honored faculty are no longer limited only to those great teachers or creative practitioners, but are establishing leading reputations by developing useful critical scholarship and funded research reputations in newly formed research Centers and Institutes. These entities often use such terms as Smart, Intelligent, and Advanced alongside Design, Environment and Planning in their titles, which alone speaks volumes about both our past and our future.

Successful research and scholarly activity is growing exponentially at some
universities with programs generating

well over $1 million/year and many faculty publishing books and/or dozens of peer reviewed articles a year. Along with this new responsibility to be more productive in advancing the discipline and its knowledge base, a new enterprising ethos is compelling academic leaders to find creative and effective ways to support and feed this expanding activity to advance or maintain their reputations and stature. As well, more needs to (and can) be done to properly qualify and characterize the creative and service value of our studio and case study work in academia alongside this growing research and scholarly work. In the near future, I believe the most reputable programs and faculty will be at the forefront of this development and find ways to balance this new activity with the standard measure of excellence; design and pedagogical leadership. What needs to now occur between academia and practice is the means and methods of transfer and instigation, so that each effectively feeds and stimulates the other.

Support of Emerging Alternative Practices: Across the country, alternative practices are blossoming and discovering new and rewarding ways to use diverse professional experience and education in powerful new ways. Often growing out of impatience with the conventions of traditional practice, and in response to new realities or opportunities, young practitioners and academics are forging new ways and forms of acting on the world. Hybrid work that combines design and planning with other diverse disciplines such as product design, community planning, preservation, real estate development, true design/build, product and systems research, public and installation art, facilities management, etc., and specialized consulting expertise in fields such as advanced visualization, design only brokering, production only support services, sustainability, building technologies and regulation, to name only a few. Many of these practices can be seen as vital new laboratories from which we can all learn how to better grow, diversify and energize our discipline and its cultural, social, political and professional stature.

How we grow, support and integrate them is important to the radiance and promise of our future.

Curbing Pessimism
Cultivating Expansive, Inclusive and Alternative Visions and Ways of Doing: Too many practitioners and academics, consciously and unconsciously, resist change and evolution. After all, it is fundamental human nature and organizational behavior to continue to do what has worked well and brought success. It is difficult to question or abandon the beliefs, tools and habits that have served us well. Change requires us to face re-education or revision of deeply held beliefs. Beliefs are at the constitutional core of professorial identity and value and difficult to question, let alone revise or abandon. Change is most difficult for those who see little need or little to gain because they are experiencing some level of success. Alternatively, change is easiest for whom conventional success has been allusive or without real reward. And, of course, change alone is not a necessary good, but neither is resistance to it. For us today, discerning what needs to change and what should endure is a difficult and often allusive issue and question to answer. Engaging each other and our dissenters (wherever they might be) in deeply reflective and inclusive ways will improve our success and reliability at doing so. We need to do much more of this. I do not believe the rapidly changing profession and educational realities of our time allow extra time for us to wait or for others to assess, explore or act. Tracking, facing and addressing emerging questions, insights and possibilities has become critically important and it is what our professional organizations (AIA, APA, ACSA, ASLA, the National Trust, etc.) should be focusing on and how they should be serving us. Coordinating and communicating with each other is now critical. Deep insight and collaboration, entrepreneurship and effective leadership will be a necessary ethos and practice in both education and creative work.

Putting Style and Ideology into Perspective:
I never thought I would come to this view, but we have become too preoccupied with building image and the reputed importance the underlying ideals such images reflect. Like what has happened to religious conviction in our time, too many self-righteous extremists and media brokers have polarized and demonized contrary positions about diverse expressive values and interests. It has become too difficult to find or participate in sane, reflective, open or balanced discussion of hybrid or subtle architectural expression. Our media outlets, their agents of discourse (reviewers), and their audiences have seemingly conspired to distill the complex, subtle and dynamic nature of architectural work to simplistic style labeling or to overly dramatic interpretation. Apparently this is done to keep us entertained and attentive (therefore mindful of the advertisements on nearby pages) but the overall effect is to distort reality and motivate us to obsess over these issues. Of course, building appearance and the convictions that inform these expressive attributes are an important architectural value. But we (practitioners, academics, and media) have become too obsessed with these attributes and their implications at the expense of so many others. While some in the building and environmental disciplines have taken up many of the other critical issues (cost/benefit, environmental impact, political process, etc.) we have done enough to balance and integrate all critical issues and this has contributed greatly to our losing ground to collateral “experts” and respect from important constituents. By making what we think buildings and environments say and mean too central, we lost ground on so many other fronts. Our discourses can have better balance and integration and will thereby hold up to the scrutiny of others who seek broader public and professional concerns (pragmatic, performance, popular, etc). I realize each generation is compelled to take up the question of its particular identity and search for a distinguishing zeitgeist, but we need to temper this for we pay a high price when that becomes too all consuming. We are all in a position to discourage the vitriolic grandstanding and jealous backbiting, by speaking out, for it harms us all.

Overcoming the Digital Deficiencies of our Academic and Practicing Leaders may be the most important and most difficult challenge to overcome.

Too many firms (especially the larger corporate practices) and too many academic institutions are led by technologically illiterate (and sometimes even nostalgic “the good old days”) decision makers. The effect of this is a compounding of the problems we face because it removes from the most important place (point of strategic decision making) insight, understanding and confidence in organizations to lead and practice by example. Even when our leaders are sympathetic to the need and potential of this literacy, the practice of deciding “who” to turn decisions over to and “how” to implement them often becomes problematic (culturally inconsistent, inefficient and lacking integrity). We can all imagine (or know) how difficult it is to ask those without professional skills or insight to lead our practices or programs into the future. Why would it be any different with the profound implications of the digital revolution? While it is true that time will eventually cure this problem, but so much of our potential will be lost if that is the process. It is not too much to ask our leaders to step fully into the digital fray. Our most effective and innovative leaders already have.

Action and Discourse
We need to both support and participate in the disciplinary explorations and experiments of our time, whether we are in practice at the academy. We need to be mindful of the yearnings, realities and limits of each others roles and we have to embrace our own possibilities and responsibilities. We need to cultivate the critical, diplomatic and collaborative requisites of the world around us and at the same time seek the new hypotheses and forge the new possibilities within our discipline.

Design and disciplinary intelligence is most effective and relevant when embodied and acted on. Discussion and debate should lead to plans and action, which can lead to more of each. If we want to be leaders, we need to act and lead by example. If we want a leading discipline, we need to envision and make it, together.

Rockcastle is new dean at the University of Maryland's School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation. He earned his B.Arch. from Pennsylvania State University in 1974; and his M.Arch. from Cornell University in 1978.

In 1978, Rockcastle joined the faculty of the University of Minnesota, where he taught as Professor of Architecture. He was Head of the Department of Architecture from 1991 to 1997. He initiated their new Continuing Professional Studies Program in 1998 and was the Founding Chair of the Professional Advisory Board while remaining a member of the Department Leadership Council.
In 1981, he co-founded the architectural firm of Meyer, Scherer and Rockcastle, LTD in Minneapolis. The most recent of many accomplishments is the new University of Mis is another focus of his professional and academic reputation.nnesota Regis Center for Art. The 155,000-square-foot, $41.5 million building is one of the most advanced art education and creative studio facilities in the nation. His unique approach to the adaptive reuse of existing and historic structure

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