Schools of Architecture / Jana Fečkaninová in a conversation with Bart Lootsma

06 28th, 2018

Schools of Architecture

Interview with Bart Lootsma


The following interview is one of a series of interviews on the topic Schools of Architecture that has recently been done. It offers complex reflections on the issue regarding the question of the possibility of teaching architecture and the opinion on the ongoing development of architectural schools. In this interview, Bart Lootsma, who studied and taught on numerous Schools of Architecture across Europe, responds to ‘How we imagine the ideal school of architecture of nowadays?’. His expertise includes rich experience gained from schools of architecture having an artistic approach to architectural education, from universities that stress the technical basis of the occupation of architects, as well as from famous Dutch academies. Lootsma explains: „One can teach architecture as a profession. What is more difficult is to teach people to become good or maybe even great architects. To become a good architect does not just require technical skills and knowledge, but also the ability to create designs that deal with the physical, social and cultural context of a project.”


1, Is it possible to teach architecture?

Of course, one can teach architecture as a profession. The learning outcomes are clearly defined in the EU-Directive 2013/55. What is more difficult is to teach people to become good or maybe even great architects. The latter can’t be taught, as it will always be different from what one would expect. To become a good architect does not just require technical skills and knowledge, but also the ability to create designs that deal with the physical, social and cultural context of a project. According to the directive, it’s expected that students get the ability to do so with courses in history and theory as well as in art. Still, in the end it’s in the hands of the individual architects, the clients, urbanists and politicians to what degree that will succeed.


2, Does the design of the building play a role in this process?

Yes, that is crucial. The “ability to create architectural designs that satisfy both aesthetic and technical requirements” is the first required learning goal in the EU Directive. It can be taught to a certain degree (see above) and it must be trained, by providing students with a series of studios increasing in complexity, allowing them to incorporate an increasing number of different requirements in one synthetic whole.


3, What are your thoughts on the building of school of architecture as an instrument of didactics? For example, in FAUP (Faculty of Architecture, University of Porto) the different geometries of the building, for example rotation and location of windows etc. convey different emotion. This can be seen not just in the main composition of the school building, but even in student’s studio spaces as well. Students also have to change the location of their studio space within the building from year to year and so are in turn taught by their own experience. However, as we know there are also schools of architecture that act as anonymous factories where all the design and fabrication processes are done. Their spaces are very neutral as they are halls that can serve for any other function. What is your opinion on the school building as instrument of the architectural education?

I think most aspects of life would benefit from a qualitatively good environment, also an architectural school. Most important for an architectural school are in my opinion the availability of working spaces for the students and also the availability of good workshops. These working spaces should allow for students to leave their work and equipment and they should allow for a certain messiness, which is inevitable when making drawings and models. That is more important than the quality of the architecture per se. I would rather reverse it and warn for an environment that obviously has a lack of architectural qualities or suggests too specific a direction. In this sense, I think the architectural program of the FUAP, with its overtly specific didactic character, goes too far in its belief in architectural determinism. Like any good architecture, whether it’s an office or a museum, also the architecture of a school should avoid being too deterministic. On the other hand: in the case of Porto it might also provoke students to revolt against it in their work and thus produce new qualities.


4, What’s your opinion on an online school of architecture?

I think online teaching will be increasingly important, but more to replace lectures and, to a certain degree, seminars when they intend to improve skills rather than discourse. We have already been witnessing that over the last decade or so in Innsbruck, where only a minor part of the students visits the lectures “live”. In Innsbruck that’s about 10% and often even less. The rest prepares their exams with the podcasts of those lectures. These podcasts are also watched by students in other schools and even by a generally interested audience worldwide. The podcasts could become better if we could focus on producing them as such. Questions or debates could also happen online.
For studio teaching, the teaching of design, and for seminars that involve discourse, I do not see how architecture could be taught online yet. It’s a discursive and therefore inherently also a social practice. There’s a lot of non-verbal communication involved that is largely performative in nature. Also, hand drawing and artisanal modelling will remain didactically important in the next decades, how easy digital printing may become.


5, Where would you see the future of schools of architecture? Where is it all going?

That’s a very general question. We’re in the middle of a second digital turn. This has implications for all professional fields and our daily life in general. Large parts of the architectural profession will become obsolete due to robotics and artificial intelligence, as it’s the case in almost all professions. Emotional, performative, aesthetic, social, cultural, political and generally discursive aspects of the profession will remain its essential cores. What makes it more difficult than in any other era before us to come up with prognoses is that the developments go so much faster than they used to do. This is partly inherent to the kinds of technology we are talking about, which develop in a staggering speed, but it’s also related to the growth of the world’s population and the way it’s networked. That means that creativity is no longer the privilege of a few but arises from collective processes. In the Asian principle of Shanzai, creativity van even be the consequence of minor mistakes or improvements in copying. In general, this means that the cultural dominance of the West is coming to an end and is in the process of being replaced by first an Asian and soon also an African dominance. Also, issues that are important for those parts of the world, like mass housing and how we will deal with the increasing amount of shanty towns will be increasingly important. Over the last decades, the best and the richest Asian students formed that major part of the student body of the best Western schools. I’m curious what they will do with what they learned there. It will be mostly something different than their teachers learned them when they bring it home. This year already, we can see a decrease in Asian students in the leading London schools, the AA in particular. That probably means a shift in favour of the schools in their countries of origin, which have developed immensely in the last decades as well.


6, The building of Faculty of Architecture of the University of Innsbruck, that was initially built in 1969 according to design by architect Prachensky was redesigned and refurbished by ATP Architects 3 years go. What was the primary call and driver for a such change? Did the renovation meet the needs of the faculty? How would you compare the life in it before and after renovation? Did this change influence your workflow somehow as well?

The primary call and driver for the renovation of our buildings was to reduce energy consumption. One could literally look through the old facades, and not just through the windows. It’s one of the reasons my institute built closed boxes for the staff: one could easily close them in winter and put an additional heater inside. The second reason were fire regulations, which demanded additional stairs. As the new facade
is moved outside, to where the balconies used to be, we would theoretically have had more space. However, because several aspects of the renovation, the new facades and the air conditioning system, do not function according to expectations, the amount of people in the building is limited to an amount way under that of the smaller old situation. People working in the offices are either too warm or too cold. What is still lacking is a place to meet, like a cafe or a bar.
A major change is that the current vice rector responsible for the buildings wants to keep everything as clean as possible and maintains ridiculously high safety standards. This seriously hinders the use of the spaces and makes that we constantly have to fight to keep the students drawing rooms.


7, Which part of the school of architecture do you find the most important one? Where all the exchange of ideas happens and without what spaces a school wouldn’t anymore be ‘The school of architecture’?

Without a doubt this would be the student’s studios. They are, as I wrote a couple of years ago, Social and Cultural Condensers. If necessary, everything else could find a place there, as it’s the case in the first-year studios at the ETH Zürich, for example.


8, Of course, to the work/study environment—especially to the studio and workshop space is very much related the need of such spaces. In the strongly practice based school of architecture—The Rotterdam Academy of Architecture and Urban Design, there are students required to work in the architectural firm via their Master studies 3-4 days a week and attend their classes at the Academy on one evening and one day each week. This naturally changes also the use of the school space. What is your opinion on a such work-study combination, is there still a call for studio spaces environment in such faculty of architecture?

I’ve been teaching at several Academies of Architecture in the Netherlands and
was Interim Director of the Academy of Architecture in Rotterdam. Almost all Dutch architects you know, even Van Eyck, Hertzberger and Rem Koolhaas, taught there in their free time. They were founded around 1900 by enlightened architects like Kromhout and Berlage to give the kids that worked in their offices sometimes already from an age of 8 years old a proper education. Until the nineteen seventies teaching was unpaid or hardly paid. The students have finished a Higher Technical School first. The office works the students are involved in, is not any work but it’s carefully monitored to avoid situations in which they only make coffee or don’t work at all because the architect is a nice uncle. The students also learn in the office and their bosses have a responsibility in that. I always loved to teach there, and all of my friends as well, because of the motivation of the students. Also, because they would already work in practice, the students would be mainly interested in issues that they found lacking there, such as artistic, cultural and social issues. Before Bologna, the Academies of Architecture were unique schools with a longer program, which could last more than 10 years, depending on the personal circumstances of the students. The adaptation to the Bologna structure, meaning the Academies would become a Master to the HTL in the late 1990s, the period I was an Interim Director in Rotterdam, reduced the possibilities of the schools and brought them in the more banal context and culture of the HTS. Still, they are good schools, even if the possibilities are more limited today. That was the reason I only wanted to be interim and gracefully thanked the school when they wanted to keep me as a director.


9, As you have a rich international teaching and research experience and expertise on the Media and Architecture, where would you see the main influence of media on architectural education?

That is a different question than one about the role of media in architecture: there I would say that media form a new layer in Gottfried Semper’s “Stoffwechselthese”, some new tectonics, incorporating virtual and augmented realities. Learning to deal with that has to be a part of architectural education of course. As the main occupation of architects is to draw and design, this means that their activities are largely limited to communicating ideas. That means that media—whether pencil, model or computer—have always been and will always remain central to the education. Tutorials through E-learning are important to develop skills. A fourth influence is the outer-academic influence of media through the Internet, notably in the form of images that circulate in increasing speeds. This outer-academic influence is much bigger than in any period in history.

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