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The Good, the Bad, and the Unaffiliated

Peter Lang

Judging from the innovative report on the New York region's schools of architecture published in The Architect's Newspaper (1), it appears that there is a renewed urge to transform the content of architectural education, one that might better reflect the unstable social and environmental pressures influencing today's architectural discourse. Moreover, it is increasingly significant that, with great deliberation, these schools are moving towards internationalizing their visions, opening the way to establishing the prerequisites for a more sensitive global practice.

But elsewhere in the world, where the educational resources are less evenly distributed, it is even more compelling to observe how the job gets done. In Italy, where a poorly funded and overpopulated national university system has been the norm since admissions were relaxed in the late sixties, the situation is very different from that in the United States. There are many obvious disadvantages for students attending schools that lack up-to-date libraries, workshops and studios, though a number of smaller universities currently cropping up (Ascoli Piceno, Ferrara, and Pescara), as well as larger, more established universities with tighter restrictions on admissions (Roma III, Venice Istituto Universitairio di Architettura di Venezia—IUAV)— have gone a long way to address these problems. For the most part, the shear number of students—enrolment at the Sapienza in Rome, for example, is in the tens of thousands—makes manoeuvring through the educational system a major challenge in the struggle for academic advancement.

In short the Italian educational experience resembles a mass game of survival, which may help to explain why alternative educational opportunities abound especially in Italy. One of the more proliferate is the new breed of alternative independent workshops that are increasingly international, multidisciplinary, and urbanistically grounded. The most critically demanding workshops are those that free-float over university systems and professional networks, attracting an international array of artists and activists, thinkers, and visionaries who, along with students, forge experiments against rote or routine practices.

In the States, workshops are typically developed within the university structure, often held inside the classroom or studio setting itself, assembled to facilitate collective tasks or group projects for the entire design studio together. But rarely would they be open to participation from students from other schools, or other countries, let alone from other disciplines, or backgrounds. Instead, in Italy, the recent crop of workshops promote themselves primarily through their multiple connections, straddling when convenient existing academic structures, but also leaning on local academies and foundations, or sympathetic municipalities or regional entities, as well as occasionally autonomous political groups. Students, post-graduates, and anyone with an interest in a particular workshop subject can get into the mix. It is not uncommon to find oneself surrounded by a group of highly motivated individuals, from impressively diverse backgrounds, applying very sophisticated techniques to complex set of running issues based in and around hard urban constructs. The workshop thus acts as a "contact" network, putting together people, issues, and living contexts that reflect conditions to be found only in situ: reflecting a real world that is both un-controlled and unfiltered.

But the workshop also represents a microcosm of a larger phenomenon that reflects the state of experimental architecture in Italy today. If there are no recognizable young super-stars commanding the Italian stage at present, this is most likely because the familiar academic venues no longer monopolize architectural discourse, as Tafuri and the IUAV at Venezia once did. Instead, a younger generation of Italian architects and theorists have honed their skills precisely in these unofficial think tanks, and they continue to make use of the workshop to conduct and develop strategies that are increasingly gaining international currency. Stripping away all references to their own individualities, groups like Cliostraat, gruppo A12, ma0, UFO, IaN+, AVATAR, Multiplicity, Stalker/ON (Osservatorio Nomade), Sciatto, 2A+P, MetroGrammA, Ellelab and others are formulating an entirely new field of research and practice that resembles nothing like the last decade's wunderkinden who hailed from London, Barcelona, Rotterdam or New York.

If today’s unaffiliated and loosely anchored workshops reflect the miasma of the world outside, it is because these working environments feed into a whole alternative set of public sponsored architecturally mediated shows: symposia, biennials, triennials and themed debates that spill out into larger public audiences, mixing spectacle with research, crossing theater stage with city piazza. In a sense, the yawning kitsch and glitzy flamboyance so characteristic of Italian television cabarets hovers somewhere in the background of these architectural extravaganzas, for reasons which might have to do with the absence of pedantic academic control and oversight. These free-forum environments, set against brilliant temporary installations, promote highly unorthodox and loosely configured programs that feature talk shows, video screenings, exhibitions, off camera appearances all focused on an audience not to be contented with single-issue topics.

Though the great and prestigious institutions in America would appear to behave otherwise, its possible that flexibility and fluidity, the hallmarks of the liberated workshop, is the right model to aspire to. Exchange is in the air, as we can see from Mark Robbin's concern for "student engagement," Stan Allen's search for a new "dichotomy," Tom Hanrahan's desire for "living experimentally," and Tony Vidler's focus on globalization. All suggest a direction towards greater awareness of the differences outside our familiar modes of learning. Wigley wants to encourage "a fertile biodiversity of people and positions, a lively ecology that allows the whole school to operate as an intelligent organism, adjusting itself in order to think through each new issue." The idea of a school as a workshop or a workshop as a school is coming, I think, closer to becoming a reality.

Peter Thomas Lang, Ph.D., Architect.

1. This article was written by Peter Lang for the Architect's Newspaper <www.archpaper.com> in response to the commentary "Deans List" curated by Anne Guiney, Cathy Lang Ho, William Menking and dedicated to the schools and the state of architectural education in New York (issue 14, September 7, 2004). We are thankful to Peter Lang for allowing us to re-publish his article on our pages.
Peter Lang, a Fulbright Fellow, (Italy, 1996-97) holds a Bachelor in Architecture from Syracuse University and a Ph.D. in history and urbanism from NYU. He is a licensed architect in the State of New York. Peter Lang currently is Assistant Professor for the College of Architecture at Texas A&M with the Santa Chiara Study Center in Castiglion Fiorentino. Peter Lang co-curated with William Menking (Pratt Institute) the exhibition Superstudio: Life Without Objects for the London Design Museum March-June 2003 (now travelling, New York, Pasedena, Middleburg Holland), and is co-editor of the book catalogue published by Skira International He also co-edited, with Nicholas Boyarsky, the September issue of AD, Urban Flashes: Asia, He was also editor of two anthologies, "Mortal City" (1995) and "Suburban Discipline" (1997), with Princeton Architectural Press and Storefront for Art and Architecture. Peter Lang is an active member of StalkerON, the international urban research group based in Rome and is a Board Director with MAP Book Publications, Hong Kong.


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