Radical Pedagogies: Global Education and Upheaval

Ilze Wolff takes the opportunity to discuss the Radical Pedagogies project with Beatriz Colomina - a highly acclaimed architectural theorist and professor at Princeton University. Colomina recently presented her work at the annual Architecture ZA conference in Johannesburg.

Currently, South Africa is experiencing a countrywide student-led movement, to end entrenched colonial systems of learning, neoliberal market-driven management of public universities and institutional racism. Various movements have been formed on social media networks, using hashtags such as: #RhodesMustFall, #FeesMustFall, #EndOutsourcing and #Luister, to track and digitally archive the events surrounding them, says Wolff.

Beatriz Colominas’ Radical Pedagogies project, in collaboration with PhD students at Princeton University, resonates with South Africa’s current situation. The project was designed as an open-ended conversation, placing global architectural education within the context of ‘upheaval’. It serves as a provocation for the reviewing of architectural education today. To date, the project has had three iterations: A [Provisional] CartographyAction-reaction and Interaction, and Reconstructing Architectural Education. 

In conversation

Ilze Wolff (IW): What, through Radical Pedagogies, did you uncover as the basis of architecture?

Beatriz Colomina (BC): The word radical comes from the Latin radix, which means ‘root’. So the concept of radical is not only what we now commonly understand as upsetting the norm, it is also going back to the roots, the foundations, the deeper structure of something.

In that sense, when we talk about radical pedagogies, we are talking both about upheaval, about transgressive and revolutionary practices, but also about those experiments in which radicality meant turning back to the roots of architecture. In the 1960s and ’70s, students and some faculty members revolted against an educational system that was paying too much attention to the single figure of the architect and to the individual building. They argued that schools should focus more on how people live, though processes of participation, and address issues of social justice.

All of this resonates with today’s situation: the rejection of the starchitect system, of the iconic building, the preoccupation with the environment, with the lack of social housing

IW: So what do you regard as the ‘roots’ of architecture?

BC: Each experiment redefined the roots. Part of what makes this period [the ’60s and ’70s] so radical, is the undoing of any singular stable sense of the foundations. For Aldo Rossi, it meant going back to the primordial forms of architecture; the beach cabins of his childhood, for example. For others, like Leon Krier, it meant going back to Classicism. For others, it meant going back to the body, to performative practices of occupation of space.

It is not just the healthy body of the Renaissance that acts as a reference to architecture; it is also the unhealthy body, the sick and the disabled body. Ideas of health are also informing what architecture is in this time, just as they have all the way back to the Greeks. The idea of a healthy city for the Greeks was the idea of the four humours; an idea that came from medical theories of the time. The post-war years, likewise, responded to ideas about health and developed new ones.

IW: Do you think there is a risk of collapsing into nostalgia with this idea of going back to the root?

BC: The idea was, in fact, rarely nostalgic. What is interesting about the Radical Pedagogies project is the re-examining that has been done of the mentality of the ’60s and ’70s. So many of these experiments later became institutionalised, meaning that we forgot what important questions they sought to probe. Likewise, at that time, going back to the roots was actioned to ask what the important questions are that are hidden by institutional norms.

So for different people, different answers will emerge. Some people will return to formalism. Some will say that the problem with architecture is that architecture is autonomous. That would be a way of going back to some kind of essential stable truth. And Rossi, and [Giorgio] Grassi, and all these people surrounding the La Tendenza group in Italy, go back to very simple form; to squares, triangles, the little hut, the essential enclosure in the 19th century, in their idea of what architecture is. But they are surrounded by other figures that are going back to very different things, so even these architectural fundamentalists end up participating in a destabilisation of the norm.

IW: I quite like the idea of a reflexive nostalgia. A critical reflection versus a romanticised, mythologised view of history often presented as ‘an essential truth’. The idea of an essential truth bothers me.

BC: Yes, it is totally bothersome but I recognise in this moment a profound transformation in the discipline, because different people took different positions upon different realities. For me radical pedagogies, and that’s how we represented it in the exhibition, is a map of the world organised by latitude rather than by countries, which you realise that, simultaneously in different parts of the world, they converged on the same question: What is architecture; how do we teach architecture?

And they came up with different answers. For example, it was very interesting for me to look again at the Ulm School1 [The Hochschule Für Gestaltung, Ulm, Germany], started by Inge Aicher-Scholl, Otl Aicher and Max Bill in 1953. I did not know that so much money from the United States supported this school. [The leaders of this school] really thought, and maybe they were right, that they could reform Germany through design… That’s fantastic, no? That through nice cups and forks we could educate a new generation of democratic Germans! It’s a fascinating fantasy and [shows great] confidence in design, don’t you think? It [would be] a lot of responsibility.

IW: I was very intrigued by the Valparaíso School2 case study in Chile: the idea of obliterating boundaries between living, working and learning.

BC: More like a commune, more like a hippie idea. Living in these houses together and going down to the beach to [create] these performances in the street. It’s communal living, working and learning.

IW: I find it a fascinating concept. As a woman with children, who directs a practice and is engaged in scholarly work: how does one navigate various dispersed aspects [of life]? With the Valparaíso School, these boundaries did not exist and different activities interlocked in ways that supported productivity. With this in mind, I want to go back to this idea of gender and boundaries that interlock. When you were doing this big map of the world’s radical pedagogies, did you come across any people, particularly women, on the margins?

BC: Oh yes, they are all on the margins. But there were definitely women in that revolution changing assumptions about architecture. And now that we are going to open in Warsaw, Poland, even more examples have been highlighted.

We did 40 more case studies, some involving groups of women from Africa, Australia and New Zealand. The US Women’s School of Planning and Architecture (WSPA)3 was a very important case for the advancement of women in the male-dominated architectural profession of the ’70s. It is a fantastic example of an experimental pedagogy, with a strong women’s liberation agenda. Conceived around the idea of a travelling summer school, its purpose was to form a network of women interested in urban studies and architecture, without them necessarily [needing to have] an academic background.

There are more such cases, and very soon we are going to put the new cases on our website. We are making [the project] even more global – both in case studies and in the people participating in the writing, who now come from all over the world.

 IW: On the idea of different ‘schools’ that address people outside the traditional academic system: there is this whole initiative in Japan, by Toyo Ito, of teaching children between the ages of nine and 12 about urbanism and architecture.

BC: It is so important. Part of the problem we have in society is that nobody understands what we are doing. If you go to a good high school, you can go to a museum and not be surprised by a Mondrian or a Duchamp because you have a frame of reference – and so you can also understand an avant-garde film or literature. But people do not have the simplest idea of what architecture is [all about]. In practically every context, nobody understands it; [this is even so among] the highly educated. I think it is because architecture is not part of their education. So I think [it is a] really good idea to think about children.

I was in Santa Fe, Argentina, last week and there is a centre there, in an abandoned factory, where materials are provided and the space for kids to design anything, from clothing to mobiles, photography, collages, even furniture…. And it does not cost anything [to go there]. Kids love it, and stay there for hours over the weekends or after hours. I think a whole new generation will emerge out of this kind of education.

IW: I’m not an academic, but I am a practitioner engaged in scholarly work. In South Africa, we have a very fixed system that you cannot teach and practice simultaneously – completely restrictive and limiting in some ways.

BC: That’s ridiculous. In the United States, it’s the exact opposite, i.e. having a practice is seen to energise and validate your teaching. But there is no rule [about the matter] and should be no rule. There are so many ways to be an architect, a writer and teacher. If anything, we need to incubate even more ways to make ideas and buildings.

 

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