The Fallacy of the Blank Slate

May 25, 2018 Blog, Texas, Vision and Style Comments (2) 1331

I am on the Dean’s Advisory Council for the College of Architecture, Planning and Construction at the University of Texas at San Antonio and we had a retreat yesterday.  Heavy in the discussion was the fact that many architecture students do not get “real world” training or experience.  They emerge especially underschooled in zoning and codes and the permitting process.

Let’s not forget plumbing.

I kinda don’t get it because I used to cover these issues extensively in my Master of Science in Historic Preservation classes.  I guess there is an historical tendency for architecture curriculum to focus on designing new buildings.

I want my name in lights!  And my tower the tallest!

My friend Stuart Cohen used to introduce my presentation to his class at UIC by saying “75% of all the architectural work you will ever do is on existing buildings.”  Add to this the tendency of architectural accreditation to load on course requirements and you have little leeway to help students navigate the actual path of constructing or reconstructing buildings.

Hence the proliferation of “C” level work.

The discussion turned on how both architecture professors and students use “creativity” as the reason they do not study rehabilitation and process.  This is a hoary word and a hoarier concept.  The implication is that creativity is GREATER or MORE when there are no constraints.

See how much MORE you can do with a blank slate?  Like, it must be at least 68% MORE!

The idea is that a blank slate allows more creativity.  But it is wrong.  Demonstrably wrong.  The “Green Eggs and Ham hypothesis” was proved years ago.  Look here.

This was designed in an extremely constrained environment.  By Frank Lloyd Wright, but still.

In fact, it is LAZIER to start from scratch.  Nothing to figure out, just let your mind wander, let your creative juices flow, and you will get…..something like the Libeskind building above where the creative juices just really, really flowed, like flowed.  And the mind wandered. And we who confront the building wander as well.

Unless it looks like it is going to crush us, then we walk purposefully away.

In any kind of education there is always a tension between information and practices that must be learned and the mechanism of learning.  One does not simply decant information into a vessel.  The best kinds of education create a permanent pathway for learning, so that new challenges that were never considered before can be met, not by specific example, but by processes developed and exercised.  Not so much gray matter memory as muscle memory.

Baby I’ve been there before, I’ve seen this room and I’ve walked this floor.

My friend Bruce Sheridan has written extensively on how science and art are both underpinned by the same human capacities, and that education must reintegrate art and science.   How our brains and even our emotions work reinforces this concept.  Creativity does not arise magically from an absence, but robustly from a muscled presence.

2 Responses to :
The Fallacy of the Blank Slate

  1. I take exception to your summation of architectural education and the generalization that students know nothing of historic preservation, or building in general. As a professor in the College of Architecture, Construction and Planning at UTSA, every course that I teach involves “real world” experience and education. Many of my colleagues do the same. The CACP is located downtown San Antonio as you know, which provides a proverbial laboratory of the already built environment. From first year through graduate school, students deal with historic buildings and historic context. It was with amazement and pride to see the number of grad students who chose historic buildings and adaptive reuse for their masters projects this semester. UTSA is recognized for Community Engagement by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Architecture was a major factor in UTSA receiving that designation.
    Architectural education is not as grim as you portray. The idea of object architecture is no longer the norm. There is a stronger focus on context than ever before.

    1. Vince Michael says:

      Dear Sue Ann, indeed the UTSA students have great opportunities for real world experience as you provide and describe. I do hope the field in general is moving in the direction you mention – I know from my previous experience that accrediting bodies and curriculum were still heavily object-based and we found it difficult to include historic preservation and construction in architectural curriculum because of all the other requirements.

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