May the force be with architecture

7th April 2006 at 01:00
May, 2005. George Lucas's long-awaited Star Wars finale, Revenge of the Sith, puts us geeks out of our 28-year-long misery. A few days later and Hayden Christensen, the young actor who played the troubled Anakin SkywalkerDarth Vader combo, makes a shock revelation to The Sun newspaper:

"I don't find Hollywood interesting, so I'm thinking about studying architecture instead." News of Christensen's about-turn spread through the gossip galaxy at lightspeed. Architecture? More interesting than fending off the dark side of the force? How?

If I were 11 years old now, would I believe Christensen's crisis of career faith, or assume he was just playing Jedi mind tricks on me? At 11, I didn't know what architects really did, other than somehow make buildings.

Nothing at school enlightened me about what architecture had been for, so, when I decided to apply to study the subject at university, I did my own research. I watched Peter Greenaway's The Belly of an Architect and scoured BBC2's The Late Show for snippets. When asked by an admissions tutor what I thought architecture was, I replied smugly: "Architecture is sculpture you can live in."

My proclamation had been naive, but it was the best I had to offer. Since architecture didn't appear on the national curriculum, the only thing I could do was situate it in a field I knew about and had been taught very well, namely, art.

Now, having studied the subject for several years and taught, written and curated on it for several more, the disparity between the vitality of architecture as a cultural medium and its absence in education seems glaring.

Architecture is experiencing a renaissance in the form of over-subscribed Open House days, exhibitions and events, such as the London Architecture Biennale. Britain has produced the two Lords of hi-tech - Foster and Rogers - as well as noted emigre experimentalists such as Zaha Hadid. Since the mid-1990s, British architecture has transcended Wren and Hawksmoor.

Yet none of this seems to insinuate itself into schools. If it is true that in Britain we are not "visually sophisticated" due to a suspicion of intellectualism and aestheticism inculcated at an early age, this reinforces the case for the cultivation of an architectural understanding.

But there's no early foundation. Could the encompassing nature of architecture be partly to blame: is it art, science, sociology, iconography or economics?

In medieval times, craftsmen put buildings together and wrote nothing about them. By the Enlightenment, the architect Etienne Louis Boullee drew sublime buildings, wrote a lot, and built almost nothing. Architecture entered the academy and the split between "practice" and "theory" began.

Hence, today, "architecture" can be used to describe abstract practices that have nothing to do with buildings, yet also denote out-of-town shopping malls whose very anonymity dispels the idea that any architect was ever involved. How do you teach something as unwieldy as this to children?

Well, you can't. But you can introduce architecture as one of the most profound forms through which civilisation articulates its identity. In history lessons, teachers could present Hitler's occupation of Europe alongside his Berlin vision, drawn up by his architect Albert Speer, to illustrate the ideological monumentalism of the Third Reich. In English literature, one might introduce Ayn Rand's neo-Nietzschean fable, The Fountainhead, to analyse lust for power. Spanish architect Gaudi could be cited when tackling static forces in mathematics or physics. And art teachers should name-drop seminal architects the way they do with Rembrandt, Turner et al.

This isn't easily done. An engaging vision needs to be formulated and trickled down into the existing educational structure. Either that, or get Darth Vader to do a schools tour on why the Death Star was a seminal piece of anti-gravitational architecture way before its time.

Shumon Basar is a writer, editor and curator, and teaches at the Architectural Association. His co-edited book Did Someone Say Participate? (MITRevolver) will be published this summer

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