The Fallacy of the Blank Slate

May 25, 2018 Blog, Texas, Vision and Style Comments (2) 319

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.

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A San Antonio surprise

November 4, 2017 Historic Districts, Texas, Vision and Style Comments (1) 2262

So here is the photo I posted on my first day at work nearly a year and a half ago.

This is the main office of the San Antonio Conservation Society, and has been so since 1974, when the organization was already 50 years old.  It is the Anton Wulff House, built in 1870 and described as Italianate style.  This is reasonable since it has that Tuscan tower, those paired windows and doors and other hallmarks of the most popular style in America from 1850 to 1880.

After the tower and the main front-facing gabled mass, there is a half-gable mass that almost reads like an addition, but everyone assured me the building was built this way.

Maybe it is the nature of the slightly irregular limestone blocks, but that last mass (which contains my office) seemed less designed, reflective perhaps of the isolated and emergent city some seven years before the railroad arrived.

What did seem clear was a complete absence of any influence from Anton Wulff’s home country, Germany, and specifically the Alsace region adjacent to France.  Alsatians had clearly brought European architecture to nearby Castroville at the same time.

Huth House, Castroville, 1846.

But I was wrong because I did not have an encyclopedic knowledge of early 19th century high style European architecture.  If I had, I would have recognized a homage to the MOST famous German architect of the 19th century, Friedrich Schinkel, he of the Altes Museum.  In 1829, Schinkel designed the Römische Bäder, an expressionistic complex at Potsdam for the romantic Prussian Friedrich Wilhelm IV.  This is what it looked like:

Credit for this discovery goes to Michael Guarino, who left me a stack of images of the structure.  All of a sudden the Wulff House had a fairly grand legacy, and that half-gabled section made sense for the first time.

 

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What Are You Reading This?

October 9, 2017 Blog, Technology, Vision and Style Comments (0) 645

“We live today in the Age of Information and Communication because electric media instantly and constantly create a total field of interacting events in which all men (sic) participate.”  – Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media, 1964.

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The Construction of Nature

August 19, 2017 History, Interpretation, Technology, Vision and Style Comments (1) 2207

Over the dozen years of this blog I have sprinkled in historical facts about how old certain ideas and institutions are. This is because these things are so fundamental to our way of seeing and interacting with the world that we assume them to be eternal, not a few decades or a couple centuries old.

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HemisFair at 50

July 12, 2017 Blog, Texas, Vision and Style Comments (0) 1181

San Antonio is gearing up for its Tricentennial next year, but there is another important milestone as well.  Continue Reading

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The problem of architectural modernism

May 29, 2017 Vision and Style Comments (0) 727

I was riding my bike the other day and I figured out the problem of architectural modernism.

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Viva FIESTA!

May 6, 2017 Blog, Intangible Heritage, Texas, Vision and Style Comments (0) 750

This year marked both my first rodeo and my first Fiesta, which is San Antonio’s 126-year old celebration of the Battle of San Jacinto.  The greatest party during the 10-day Fiesta is the San Antonio Conservation Society’s A Night In Old San Antonio®, which runs four consecutive nights.

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Alamo Plaza: Design and Program

April 16, 2017 Interpretation, Texas, Vision and Style Comments (0) 849

The Alamo Plaza Reimagined team released a video with images of the proposed redesign of Alamo Plaza this week.  The reaction has been a mix of concerns, but most seem focused on the large, vacant plaza surrounded by glass walls.

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Passive Aggressive

April 5, 2017 Economics, Sustainability, Vision and Style Comments (1) 1506

Passive Aggressive behavior is a terrible character failing.  It is a sign of immaturity or stunted development.  I know something of this and work to avoid it.

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Latest Issues in San Antonio

March 10, 2017 Blog, History, Interpretation, Texas, Vision and Style Comments (3) 1599

Things have been busy at the San Antonio Conservation Society, not only because our major fundraiser Night In Old San Antonio® is coming up next month, but because it is Spring already and a host of development and legislative issues are heating up.

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