One-off: That was now, this is then
One-off: That was now, this is then

By Robert Somol
Director, School of Architecture

The 2017–18 academic year marks the 50th anniversary of the School of Architecture’s first graduating professional class and the phase one completion of Walter Netsch’s debut field theory building on campus, the definitively unfinished Architecture and Arts Laboratories (now Architecture + Design Studios). Locally and internationally, this year has also witnessed the second installment of the Chicago Architecture Biennial (CAB), with its significant theme “Make New History,” itself a sly recollection of 1980’s inaugural Venice Architectural Biennale, “The Presence of the Past.” Taken together, the two commemorations (ours, projecting the past, and CAB’s, historicizing the future) provide possible alternatives to the current politics of temporality, or what might be seen as the midlife crisis of postmodernism.

Two months after graduating, UIC’s class of ’68 would directly experience “the siege of Chicago” during the Democratic National Convention. Though they were probably not aware of this at the time, the school those architecture grads had just left would pose a similar generational challenge to its more established local competition, the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), whose Miesian legacy had turned 30, and, in the youthful wisdom of the day, could no longer be trusted. The coincidence of these political and architectural events (and the death of Mies himself a year later, in 1969) was not lost on key members of the UIC faculty (in particular Stanley Tigerman, Stuart Cohen, and, later, Tom Beeby) who subsequently dubbed their group “the Chicago Seven,” in homage to the yippies charged with conspiracy to incite a riot during the ’68 convention. Despite a few notable exceptions on both sides, the storyline of IIT as an academy that embodies the Miesian dicta of “Build don’t talk” (a slogan whose rhetorical articulation and apparent necessity, it should be noted, belies its content) and UIC as a school built on incendiary words still holds some credible sway. Whereas IIT maintains its standing through an identification with selected design realizations in Chicago, UIC communicates a discursive epidemia that has spread through the field. Given this ongoing contrast of IIT’s corporate tragedy against UIC’s boutique farce, it is probably no coincidence that the College of Architecture at IIT has for the last five years promoted its thematic relevance through the trademark temporality of “Nowness” (think driverless cars), while UIC has exploited a disciplinary anachro-futurism of untimeliness. This latter approach represents our ongoing wager that the promiscuous mixture of a forgotten past with an unknown future provides one of the few remaining ways to stage an alternative to the pervasive political and cultural closure of the now. In this regard, the disciplinary is the political.

Under contextual cover of the pragmatic “city that works,” the UIC School of Architecture’s paradoxical strength has been its fevered generation of disciplinary ideas, or projects for architecture, that it has, equally systematically, been unwilling to capitalize or institutionalize as products of building. Centered around design, the most significant and continuous contribution of the school over its 50-year history has been the proliferation of antithetical ideologies and movements that it has launched and then abandoned, often to wild institutional success elsewhere: infrastructuralism (via Alvin Boyarsky to the Architectural Association, ca. 1971), postmodernism (via the Seven, everywhere, ca. 1976), neo-traditionalism (via Tom Beeby to Yale, ca. 1985), deconstructivism (in the form of Paul Florian and Steve Wierzbowski’s “violated perfection” to MoMA, ca. 1986), neo-classicism (via Thomas Gordon Smith to Notre Dame, ca. 1989), digital organicism (via Greg Lynn to Columbia and later UCLA, ca. 1991), public interest design (via Stanley Tigerman and Eva Maddox to Archeworks and beyond, ca. 1993), landscape urbanism (via Charles Waldheim to Toronto and later Harvard’s GSD, ca. 1997), and so on. In today’s context such attention to ideas without “impact” appears quaintly obsolete, if not ethically irresponsible, as the contemporary university increasingly moves from staging a marketplace of ideas to incubating ideas for the marketplace.

In the dominant political-economy of “the now,” the institutional clichés that motivate universities and biennials alike are “innovation” and “engagement,” the measurable twin engines that generate the unholy alliance of market technology with social entrepreneurship, the new gospel of making money and doing good. This temporality of the now is endlessly constructed by a Zeno-like thin-slicing of the present, through continuously updated models, dashboards, feedback, and big data mining. The now has no past and no future, but exists in a perpetual limbo as new numbers roll in, like an election that never ends. And indeed everything is now exactly an “option” that one is compelled to elect, meaning something that can produce a return. Think only of air travel over the last decade: entertainment, food, boarding order, baggage, network access, or seat assignments next to your underage children. Even parental responsibility is converted into a preference that can be monetized.

As goes United, so goes the University, in its post-2008, new and improved, RCM-format, where everything, from courses to space, becomes a derivative that can be invested in, charged for, sold off, or colonized. Attempting to produce greater returns on a more or less static population, academic units are compelled to micro-target to a saturated pool of available students by inventing new degrees, along with more on-line courses, Gen Ed options, concentrations, certificate programs, and minors. As more players enter the game, today’s profit-making large lecture course becomes tomorrow’s under-enrolled loss. If any part of an academic area or discipline is not explicitly named, it risks being absorbed by another college or department, regardless of its appropriateness in that location, such that formerly synthetic disciplines are distorted and fractured into mere specializations, a series of divisible “core competencies.” Design programs in particular have come to connote the vague promise of increased innovation and engagement (measurable “impact”), or student demand (enrollment), or development possibilities (gifts), and are introduced despite their hosts having no tradition or culture of studio-based design education (see the University of Chicago’s initial forays to initiate an urban design program for instance, though more proximate examples could be given on this campus).

Just as this derivative process unnaturally extends disciplines by accumulation, it also shrinks them by subdivision. In a recent exhibition at the Bridgeport Art Center, “Outside the Practice,” architects presented “artworks” that they did in their spare time, beyond the “practical requirements of professional practice.” Here, the presumption is doubly offensive. First, it assumes that architecture is limited to the contracted services provided in one’s capacity as a professional, while in fact the real “matter” of architecture is more often found in the research studies and self-generated projects one undertakes beyond the confines of a narrow commission. In other words, this kind of disciplinary speculation is not an optional add-on, it is the work of architecture. Reciprocally, the show implies that if you are not being paid for your work, you must be doing art. But unless work engages the equally specific disciplinary issues within art, it cannot be considered art by default any more than it can be seen as architecture—it could just be a hobby (which might account for most of the “artwork” in this show). In this regard, the show evinces a peculiarly reductive market version of disciplinary identity: if it’s not for money, it’s art. Perhaps the inverse attempt to compensate for this popular misconception has led contemporary art practices to embrace or exaggerate their impact around current urgencies, to take up the “labor problem” as specific subject matter, or to adopt a new metric standard of community engagement and participation. In any case, it is perhaps now possible to paraphrase Roland Barthes’s famous observation about sexuality in America, and suggest that aesthetics is everywhere except in art.

While I suspect one could say this about most academic endeavors in the university, I will restrict myself to the case of architecture and flatly declare that it has next to nothing to do with the metrics of innovation or engagement, or with the evaluative criteria of the now. In this way, architecture makes its appearance in distinct contrast to technology and building, which are easily exhausted by those measures. As one example of architecture’s untimeliness, take Le Corbusier’s Villa Stein at Garches (1927), which recapitulates the Cinquecento organizing geometries of Palladio. Its “modern” manifestation to the contrary, the villa is born, as Colin Rowe’s analysis suggests, already four hundred years old. At the same time, consider the photograph of the house taken at the time of its completion, with Corbusier’s 1927 Avions Voisin parked in the driveway, staged to indicate (at least in part) the new industrial machine-type toward which the house aspired, through its association with the most up-to-date technology of its day. Now, almost a century later, the “new” car appears antique while the house could have been completed today, its freshness still in evidence. The villa’s “youthfulness” is almost an embarrassment to the car, the technology that, like Dorian Gray’s portrait, takes the hit and decays for the architecture. One of the things that makes architecture architecture, you might say, is this capacity to invert time. Like Benjamin Button, architecture undergoes duration in reverse: born as old as it will ever be, it gets younger as the future figures out what to make of it. This kind of anachronism is demonstrably not the case for technology, or for building, or those other practices of enforced obsolescence whose expiration date is called innovation.

Many schools of architecture, in a desperate attempt to stay current through associations with du jour technologies (innovation) or causes (engagement), become as quickly obsolete as Corb’s Voisin, having only managed to model the world as it exists. In a gloss on Robert Mitchum’s acting style, Dave Hickey offered that the actor would always set the pace of the scene, often in contrast to everything else around him: acting quickly and violently in quiet scenes, and remaining perfectly still with everything else moving out of control around him in others. Schools might do well to take Mitchum’s lead and be more attentive to establishing their tempo rather than following the alternating demands of the market or the bureaucracy. Sometimes this approach will entail acting faster than the former, and at others being slower than the latter. The issue is simply which tactic is the most effective at injecting surprise and maintaining a slightly out-of-sync alignment. Within the current situation of academic anxiety that has distorted disciplines for the sake of enrollment numbers and problem-solving relevance, the Mitchum playbook might suggest a more casual languor. Confront urgency with indolence. At 50, the School of Architecture may be halfway through, but the question remains: which half? As that kid from Hibbing, Minnesota once sang, “I was older then, I’m younger than that now.” We can get by without the crisis.

Photo credit: 086 UA 90-999 0010, Photograph Subject File, University Archives, University of Illinois at Chicago.