Pragmatism and Polemics

Rendering by Höweler + Yoon Architecture, one of the winners of the 2012 Audi Urban Future Award

I hosted the final review for my research studio yesterday – entitled New Life for Urban Manufacturing Districts – and we had an excellent panel that included Sal Di Stefano, the BRA’s manager of industrial districts; Kevin Hively, an economic development consultant; Northeastern professors Ivan Rupnik and Suzanne Lanyi Charles, and Siqi Zhu, currently on sabbatical at the Sensible City Lab at MIT (and returning to Utile on February 1). We both discussed the content of the final research publication and the direction each student should take with their own individual design proposals in the spring.

My one thought as I reflected on the review in the context of the continuation of our work is how the students and I will need to balance pragmatism with the maybe-competing goal to be polemical – both with each project and as a studio as a whole. I don’t think that a design studio should exactly parallel the "real world" – because if it does, it will only recreate existing conditions (physically, socially, politically, etc.). Instead, I believe in a more critical position – framed as a polemic that is still "realistic-enough" that the plausibility of the proposal might inspire people to act on the proposition.

I am saying this, because some of the feedback yesterday erred on the pragmatic side – partly given our audience. Ivan is an expert on factory production, Suzanne is a real estate analyst, and Kevin and Sal are firmly in a world where "viability" is paramount. But to counterbalance our collective reality test yesterday, I will need to help each student to frame their polemic, so that it is relevant, actionable, inspiring, and not the least bit naïve. Balancing pragmatism and a polemical position is an important skill for the engaged architect and where we each fall on the pragmatism/utopianism scale might be the best way to gauge our relative interest in seeing our ideas actualized.


2 thoughts on “Pragmatism and Polemics

  1. hi
    Excellent approaches and corporate philosophy There is a very nascent interest in a multi season sports complex in a former industrial site in western mass at the crossroads of 3 major high ways. Have you been involved with a similar project?. I am the marketing chair of a nearby civic association interested in some professional opinions on this possibility. Thank you

  2. The last two sentences of this blog say a-lot about architectural education. I really appreciate your use of the word ‘naïve’ in your second to last sentence. As an architecture student, I agree that a student’s project should be an argument based on their ideals and theories. A final critique should be a rich conversation between student and professional. We should be so passionate and excited about our architectural proposal that discussing it in a polemic should come naturally, no matter who is critiquing. A student (or anyone for that matter) needs to be the top most expert in their design. Even if a project lacks pragmatism, there should be reason and well thought out ideas. I’ve seen too many classmates who create something thrilling or intriguing but fail to understand it. They do what they think the professor might want them to do, and nothing for themselves. Or go on a tangent to create something whimsical. Which is completely fine (and often necessary), except when the student fails to analyze what they have created or gain a sense of direction. It is when a designer is naïve about their own work that problems arise and miscommunications occur. The student will be challenged/criticized on half-thought-out ideas. There is a difference between ambiguity and nonsense.

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