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ARCHITECTURE AS ACTS OF COMMUNICATION

Clive Knights, Director, School of Architecture
College of the Arts
Portland State University
knightsc@pdx.edu
Why study Architecture? I guess we can rule out
to make money, to enter a stable career path and
to gain the respect that comes with professional
status.
So, why study Architecture? Maybe, to learn how
to make it. But then, why make architecture?
What contribution does it offer its culture?
Well, most obviously architecture offers a place in
which to reside that’s fit for a purpose. I would
call this the pragmatic or instrumental aspect of
architecture, its embrace of the mundane architecture as a great piece of equipment for
getting the job of habitation done, producing a
tight fit between human activity and its
accommodating vessel, eliminating ambiguity for
a singular, conclusive solution.
But also, perhaps less obviously, architecture
offers a place to affirm or challenge the fitness of
that purpose, that pragmatically accommodated
human activity, in the quest for the ‘good life’. In
other words, architecture can ask ‘Should we be
acting like that?’ I would call this the poetic or
representational aspect of architecture, its
gesture towards the profound - architecture as an
engaging piece of insight into what the good life
ought to be, prompting questions, producing
revelations such as “I hadn’t thought of a life like
that before”.
I’m suggesting that the instrumental function of
architecture accommodates us technically and
efficiently in place, whereas the representational function of architecture moves us intellectually
and emotionally to a better place.
Of course this characterization of architecture as
a duality, as two-sided or double-edged, is an
affliction of modernist culture - one in which the
instrumental, being most explicit, quantifiable,
predictable and therefore manageable, has
overcome and annulled the representational
because it is ambiguous, somewhat rogue and
susceptible to, indeed reliant upon, interpretation.
This dualism afflicts the other arts much less
since they have become sadly, steadily removed
from the contingencies of everyday living, to be
harbored and caressed adoringly in the protective
environment of the museum, the concert hall, the
gallery, the movie-theater and so on. In these
sanctuaries
they
still
revel
in
their
representational
role,
issuing
insightful

projections of
contemplation.

our

culture

for

our

pure

Architecture, of course, is right out there in the
thick of our lives, in fact it sets the scene,
configures the layout for our everyday life at the
same time that it offers the setting in which those
other arts find their place.
But getting back to the first question…why study
Architecture? I would answer: to learn how to
imagine and represent the good life on behalf of
our cultural co-habitants, our community.
Now this begs the further question…How do you
teach architecture having recognized this,
essentially, ethical responsibility, a responsibility,
I would argue, that all artistic enterprise must
acknowledge and address?
How do we encourage students firstly, to
acknowledge a responsibility toward the common
good, to accept that their work will not be about
themselves as individuals but about others, about
the community they share?
Secondly, how do we encourage students to
recognize, with confidence, that they have
worthwhile insight, that they have the capacity to
imagine the good life, to comprehend the way
things are and to propose the way things ought to
be?
And thirdly, how do we encourage students to
discover and practice the means of effective
communication, the capacity to frame and to
argue for a particular vision of the good life?
At PSU we see making architecture as,
fundamentally, such an act of communication
before it is a technical enterprise, or a realty
investment or a professional service.
Figuring out what matters to the participants of a
setting and translating this into a transformational
possibility in which what matters is re-figured,
stated anew, re-laid, reformatted, articulated over
again through a new configuration of materials this is the instructional task at hand, and I really
do mean AT HAND.
To this end, from the beginning design studios
on, we aim to foster in each student an irresistible
desire to communicate their unique response to
the question of what matters, to require them to
tap into their already active and engaged sense
of responsibility and to articulate it to others
through the expressive capacity of handmade
material artifacts.
Students are not dumb novices to be initiated by
incremental learning into the realm of specialist

architectural knowledge. We don’t set out to train,
to produce mere functionaries. Our students are
potent,
positioned,
opinionative,
deeply
ensconced cultural agents. They have things to
say, and they want to say them with architecture.
At school, we assist them in finding, gathering
and manipulating the appropriate media to get
their messages across - forging the artifact as
intermediary between an ‘I’ that proposes and a
‘we’ that responds with affirmation and critique.
Our design studios are not taught with a linear
methodology of knowledge and skill acquisition
but rather by unfolding thematic emphases that
stimulate a contest of opinion. Studio themes
identify familiar cultural territories that are
animated by a series of ‘primary questions’ posed
to instructor and student alike.
We begin by asking ‘What is a drawing?’ and
‘How does the body of the draftsperson in the act
making, and the choice of media, influence
possibilities for the projection of meaning?”
Students engage from the start with the
fundamentally creative act of translation, in refiguring the unfathomable depth of human
experience into graphic marks and artifacts.
Asking themselves, their peers and their
instructors: How are we oriented in both the
mundane context of everyday life and the
profound context of a life worth living? What is it
like, what should it be like, and how do you
employ the metaphoric capacity of drawings and
artifacts to tell it to each other such that we might
discuss and agree?
Second year studio themes focus this orienting
endeavor by asking firstly, how does the animate
human body situate itself in relation to the natural
orders, to the vastness of the region, to spatial
horizons
presented
by
topography
and
landscape, and to temporal horizons presented
by hunger, fatigue, the cycle of the seasons, the
beat of the heart, the rhythmic heave of lungs
and the inescapable fact of mortality.
Second year studios continue by asking
questions of the other arts, the artwork we gather
around together and valorize. How can
architecture set the scene for this collective
experience? How can architecture support and
contribute to the expressivity unique to each art
form, begin to share agendas, conspire to enrich
the environments we inhabit and integrate this
work better into the places where we live?
And finally these intermediate studios ask if
analogies can be drawn between human group
dynamics and the fabrication and assembly of
disparate parts into a unified whole. Here the
tectonic complexity of an architectural work is

equated with the social complexity of a
community. How can participation in acts of
design and building inspire a deeper sense of
belonging to a community? And how can this be
embodied and revealed in the work the group
makes?
Upper level and graduate studios tackle the
realities of urban experience through questions
concerning the predicament of dwelling in the
city, orienting a home in the city and the
negotiation of shared territories; discerning the
identity of the city through multiple acts of
mapping - again a depth brought to the surface
by the graphic enterprise, in this case mapmaking. These studios also address the literary
contribution to our understanding of architecture
as a form of conceptual mapping, where written
texts, theories and histories, manifestos, poetry,
narratives, and published criticism frame a
possible architecture.
This revelatory student journey through our
program culminates with the self-motivated,
deeply researched, cultural polemic that we call
the Master’s Design Thesis. Here students will
articulate and pose critical questions as impetus
for a 9-month exploratory response formed
through drawing, fabrication and writing.
The zenith of a formal schooling in architecture
should never be about architecture itself, should
never conclude within the already defined limits
of a discipline predominantly determined by a
technical competence and less and less, these
days, by a cultural or humanistic competence in
relation to what matters.
We aim to challenge this, in the best sense, by
activating what we believe to be the true role of
the academic setting on behalf of the discipline of
architecture and the culture it represents: to pose
difficult questions, to invite conversation and to
encourage innovative response, to re-figure its
practice over and over and over.
We all have things we care about passionately;
it’s part of what makes us vital human beings. It
is only by expressing these things that we can
discover the degree to which what we care about
is common to others. Communication makes
community. We gather around communicative
acts and the artifacts they bear in search of
agreement. They embody a locus for what
matters. They make meaningful places. This
making activity is architecture, and this is what
we try to teach at the Department of Architecture,
in the School of Fine and Performing Arts, at
Portland State University.
Presented to a public forum in Portland Oregon,
th
on 5 October 2009.