Historical promises of coproduction in architectural education

The Michigan Debates on Urbanism problematized motifs, methodologies, responsibilities and formats in emerging, dominant and residual modes of practices in and with urbanisms in the US. Margaret Crawford in opposition to Michael Speaks in volume 1 of Everyday Urbanism had to defend an ‘attitude toward the city’ in architecture as allegedly bottom-up and thus to incremental for urban planning’s general ambition to bring about sustainable urban development. Her many responses to the debate and later on in publications try to do away with the traditional scales and scopes of bottom-up vs. top-down and formal vs. informal by taking into account actually and actively engaging existing mutual perspectives. Her book Everyday Urbanism1 is a plea for engaging with different forms of urbanism unfolding in space. ‘Suburbia, in-between areas, everyday space or whatever you want to call it. All those strip malls and parking lots are our environment and we need to engage with them in a productive way. That is what Everyday Urbanism is all about, understanding the American built environment as it is rather than yearning for some other set of circumstances.’

The perspectivation of the urban as is has a prominent history in architectural education. About half a century ago, following Louis Wirth’s notion of ‘urbanism as a way of life’2, two architects worked against architecture’s purity as a discipline. In a recent interview with Denise Scott-Brown, she recalled that ‘Bob Venturi was the only member of the architecture faculty [at Penn] who sympathized with my attempts to straddle architecture and planning responsibly and also imaginatively.’ Scott-Brown joined Penn in 1960 and together with Venturi was hired to relate theory to design. ‘From that time, we worked together—first as teachers, communicating ideas and subject matter, tying coursework to studio, architecture to planning, and the subject matter that interested [us], to the students' work and ours as designers. In 1964 I ran the work topics, seminars and term papers for both courses. Bob's lectures introduced new ways for architects to approach history as designers and formed the basis for Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture.’3 There they argued to stop Mies van der Rohe-like modernism from becoming the building industry’s wet dream – pure construction. Both built their arguments on Kevin Lynch 1960s work The Image of the City4, which tried to operationalise the coproduction of meaning of places realised on the basis of doing field research and mapping its results.

Scott-Brown and Venturi used these methods in combination with others in their seminal project Learning from Las Vegas. The project started as a manifesto-like piece in Architectural Forum in March 1968 conceived and written by Denise Scott-Brown and Robert Venturi entitled A Significance for A&P Parking Lots, or Learning from Las Vegas. They wanted to do away with projects indebted to heroic and monumental modernism, transpose an existing urban situation into the academic realm of architectural production and re-negotiate education from there. In the piece Mourning the Suburbs: Learning from Levittown, Beatrice Colomina tells the reader about the ‘density of urban unrest and challenges to normative architectural education’ during Scott-Brown and Venturi’s tenure at the School of Architecture at Yale University5. ‘Yale provided a focal point for demonstrators who were angry about the ongoing Vietnam War and about societal institutions that were slow to act on matters of racial and gender inequality‘.6 Scott-Brown, Venturi transposed their thinking into writing and then into a prototype teaching project. The team taught and co-developed with their students from architecture and graphic design new approaches in an integrative, hands-on and explorative way. The final spreads in the first published edition represent Venturi and Scott-Brown’s efforts to be inclusive to alternative perspectives with the aim not only to process the relations between observers and their aesthetics, but also to convey an understanding of the city as a ‘set of acitivities7. Later the project was made public in the form of an exhibition and Scott-Brown and Izenour together with the student Virginia Carroll scripted a plan for another studio titled Learning from Levittown. However, the criticism within the School of Architecture about the approach and resources used in its operationalisation eventually drove Venturi to give up teaching at all. However, what in re-visiting Learning from Las Vegas appears pertinent for today’s efforts in coproduction in architectural knowledge is the plea towards the architect to sharpen the view of the existing world in its actual and not in its imagined complexity.
Looking at it today, we can find a shared presentiment with Crawford, Venturi and Scott-Brown and later Ostrom. Space comes into existence in a performative process through practical action. In other words: what such perspectives on urbanism call for is to develop a methodology for analysing practices in and of this formation process grounded in contingency. Such a methodology emphasises the formats that operationalize the engagement with forms through their ‘disciplining moments’8 and help to relate competencies acquired through this engagement to organizing, representing and projecting future forms of urbanism. Everyday urbanism as ‘an attitude toward the city that can have a number of formal outcomes’ promised to deliver projects in territories where authorities operate with insufficient resources to structure the realisation of projects.9 Many of these areas appear in fact anti-urban.

One of the crucial insights produced in the coproduction of the above mentioned mo(ve)ments was the acknowledgement of the unsuitability of methods in architecture to capture an understanding of the existing city in its use. Transposing this self-critical observation into a claim (we need new methods) and translating this claim into a practical undertaking (we are engaging in cataloguing and analysing the existing city with an interest to understand it), the studios engaged in what would somewhat ironically become itself an iconic mode of co-producing architectural knowledge10. This raises the question: what is Learning from Las Vegas/Everyday Urbanism today?

  1. Chase, John, Margaret Crawford, and Kaliski John, eds., Everyday Urbanism: Expanded, Expanded ed. edition (New York: The Monacelli Press, 2008)

  2. Wirth, Louis, ‘Urbanism as a Way of Life’, American Journal of Sociology, 44 (1938), pp. 1–24

  3. Scott Brown, Denise, Learning from ‘Learning from Las Vegas’ with Denise Scott Brown, Part I: The Foundation, 2016 https://archinect.com/features/article/149970924/learning-from-learning-from-las-vegas-with-denise-scott-brown-part-i-the-foundation (accessed 10 July 2018)

  4. Lynch, Kevin, Image of the City (MIT Press, 1960)

  5. Colomina, Beatriz, ‘Mourning the Suburbs: Learning from Levittown’, Public: Art | Culture | Ideas, 43 (2011) http://www.publicjournal.ca/43-suburbs-leona-drive-catalogue/

  6. Shelton, Jim, ‘The May Day Rally, in Words and Pictures’, YaleNews, 2015 https://news.yale.edu/2015/04/29/may-day-rally-words-and-pictures (accessed 10 July 2018)

  7. Venturi, Robert, Steven Izenour, and Denise Scott Brown, Learning from Las Vegas - Revised Edition: The Forgotten Symbolism of Architectural Form, revised edition edition (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1977), p. 76.

  8. Holert, Tom, ‘Formsachen. Netzwerke, Subjektivität, Autonomie’, in Kreation und Depression: Freiheit im gegenwärtigen Kapitalismus, ed. by Christoph Menke and Juliane Rebentisch, Neuauflage. Sonderausgabe. (Berlin: Kulturverlag Kadmos, 2012), pp. 129–48

  9. Speaks, Michael, Margaret Crawford, and Doug Kelbaugh, Everyday Urbanism: Michigan Debates on Urbanism I, ed. by Rahul Mehrotra (Ann Arbor, Mich: University of Michigan, Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, 2005)

  10. Ruhl, Carsten, ‘Der romantische Ikonograph’, archplus, Wohnen – wer mit wem, wo, wie, warum, 176/177 (2006), pp. 4–5