The most popular show on American non-commercial radio is "Car Talk." For an hour, two auto mechanic brothers from Boston ostensibly do just that: they talk about cars. People call in and describe automotive problems, and Tom and Ray Magliozzi offer suggestions on how their cars might be fixed. What makes the show so listenable, even to people like me who don't know or care that much about cars, is the fact that the show isn't really about cars, it's about life. A simple question about an alternator digresses quickly into a discussion of psychology, economics or geography; the Magliozzis function as marriage counselors, career advisors and therapists just as often as car mechanics.
Listening to "Car Talk" got me thinking about the pleasures of truly discursive discourse. Does it occur often enough in the world of design? And when it does happen, who gets to hear it? Which brings me to the Yale University School of Architecture.
I have been involved with Yale Architecture's promotions and publications program since Robert A. M. Stern came aboard as Dean in 1998. Stern takes his school's publications seriously because he knows their power first hand: in the sixties, as a student editor of Yale's architecture journal Perspecta, he was the first to print Robert Venturi's seminal manifesto Complexity and Contradiction in Modern Architecture.
Perpecta, which is published to this day, has a counterpart called Retrospecta, the school's annual review of student work. Retrospecta is edited by students from the School of Architecture and designed by students from the graphic design program in the School of Art. The designers and editors are different every year; I serve as advisor and "continuity director" for the project. Most of the space of the book is taken up by reproductions of student projects and brief descriptions of the assignments that inspired them.
A critical part of the design school experience is the critique, where student work is reviewed by faculty and outside assessors. Previous issues of Retrospecta have included quotes from the visiting critics, sometimes simply to punctuate the layout typographically. In the latest issue, however, the editors (Jason Van Nest, Yen-Rong Chen and Mathew Ford) and the designers (Willy Wong and Yoon-Seok Yoo) have brought the transcripts of the review sessions front and center. Much of what passes for architectural writing, particularly in academia, is turgid and stilted. In contrast, "the diverse arguments, critiques, and provocations" faithfully recorded here are compulsively readable.
This drama inherent in the design critique has not escaped notice. In fact, Oren Safdie (an architect-turned-playwright and son of the legendary architect Moshe Safdie) used it for the setting of last year's off-off-Broadway play "Private Jokes, Public Places," in which a young architecture student defends a thesis project against two increasingly combative professors; the New York Times praised its "verbal acrobatics." And there are acrobatics of sorts to be had in the pages of Retrospecta, where the cast of characters include Peter Eisenman, Leon Krier, Charles Jencks, Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Lise Anne Couture, Greg Lynn and Rafael Vinoly.
What I find interesting is that when the conversation is lively enough, just as in "Car Talk," I don't need to understand much about architecture or even the specifics of the problem at hand; I can just enjoy the give and take. Some examples:
Jeffrey Kipnis: Where did this public and private thing come from? Did they assign you to think about public and private? Or did you just assume it was a natural way to think about ti? I have seen it all day long. When I think about the Schindler House and I look at the plan, it is labeled in terms of "his" spaces and "her" spaces, not public and private.
Zaha Hadid: It is definitely not part of our repertoire.
Kipnis: I didn't think it was.
Hadid: I think it is a Yalie repertoire.
Charles Jencks: Yes, it was [Louis] Kahn who...
Kipnis: And he's dead, right? I asked Nathaniel [Kahn] and he was pretty sure. I lot of the things you take for granted stop you from making more objective use of your research and that is where you should pause, as soon as you think something too quickly.
Kenneth Frampton: ...I could tell you to cut six more slots into this thing, and it wouldn't make a difference. It's a negative critique of the project, but it's also a critique of the whole god damn situation. You have to have a principle, otherwise you can not communicate anything to anybody. Why should I invest my money in this, as opposed to some other project? You have to have a reason; otherwise the architects don't even talk to the society. Don't you see that predicament? These computer renderings produce aesthetic effects very well, seamless, very seductive, but they are not about anything. They are delusions! They are mirages! I'm sorry, it's very aggressive to say this, but aren't we going to start talking? It's just ridiculous to say, "Ok -- individual interpretations," "So on and so forth." One has to talk about something fundamental, otherwise we're never going to talk about anything anymore.
Demitri Porphyrios: I'm not sure what you're talking about.
Frampton: I'm talking about the fact that there is a total degeneration...
Porphyrios: Do you want some coffee?
Frampton: No, I don't. Sorry, I don't...
Porphyrios: Look, look, look. This is a disgusting situation. It's not right to get upset...
Frampton: It's something to get upset about. We always have polite discussions; we have to sometimes get upset, because otherwise we just don't talk about the things that matter.
Jorge Hernandez: I think this jury, this studio project, brings up this whole question of "history and modernity" and the confidence, or lack of confidence that this age has in its own capacity. There is uncertainty whether one believes in the capacity of this age to build like it intended to build. These are questions the architects have to ask about their own moment of working...That's what it is, and yet, the building gesture is not confident in its own epoch, it fiddles around with the past epoch, and doesn't assert its epoch. It is a manifestation of a lack of confidence in its own epoch. It's using the syntax of the epoch, but doesn't want to build at the full capacity of the epoch.
Peter Eisenman: Is that a historicist argument?
Hernandez: Why not, why not?
Eisenman: Is that what your argument is, Jorge, the spirit of the age?
Hernandez: The problem is this, when society loses confidence in its own capacity to build, it gets completely confused.
Robert A.M. Stern: It's not the spirit of the age argument. Kenneth [Frampton] was saying that the Victorians had a total confidence in their own time, they weren't trying to reflect the time, in the Gideon historicist way. The just had an assignment, they had a problem, and then went out at it full-bore. They used iron and glass and they made it in old forms or new forms - whatever they thought was right. They just did it.
And, finally, this comment on an Advanced Studio project:
Rafael Vinoly: I think it's great! [Long pause.] You know, one always feels obliged to say something past this point, so I hesitate to go on. However, I must say...
Needless to say, Mr. Vinoly goes on. You may hear echoes here, as I did, of dialogue by David Mamet, Michael Frayn, Tom Stoppard and even (I'll go on) Harold Pinter. But unlike the work of playwrights, these are the kind of conversations that are almost always unrecorded and forgotten. There is real value to have them set down for the record. How many other spirited critiques - some even about graphic design, perhaps - have been lost?
Once I told a radio producer I know about my million-dollar idea: "Car Talk," except for design. A few quick-witted experts could take calls from people seeking advice on typefaces and color choice, directional signs and ballot layout, while the rest of us listened in to the supremely diverting proceedings. With a sigh, she said everyone had this idea: Car Talk for Opera, Car Talk for Grammar, Car Talk for Macrame, Car Talk for...well, you fill in the blank. But that was before I had my pilot episode. I'm sending her a copy of Yale Retrospecta: Car Talk for Architecture! The phone lines are open.