An architectural opportunity being missed at PU

I am going to flesh out this post later. It’s going to pick up some of the threads from my earlier post (and the much-appreciated subsequent discussion!) about technology and transparency. For now, I encourage you (especially you, JD) to read this article about how Princeton University is addressing students’ concerns about the university’s impact on global warming. Two questions burned in me as I read it:

1. Where are the architects? Where is the architecture school?

2. While the students’ initiative and the university’s support for it are admirable, is there not a much broader issue to address when considering the technological ‘greening’ of the campus?

The answer to #2 is obviously what I want to write about here. Is it enough for a pre-eminent educational institution like Princeton to just reduce its own ‘footprint’ on the world? Perhaps to focus bloody-mindedly on checklists will complement nicely the faculty’s far-reaching thinking on environmental issues — artillery must stand on solid footing. But is the university itself, its physical ‘plant’, if you will, not an educational space? The student body consists of future masters of the world, among whom are sprinkled the few who will be actual leaders. Would it not serve the world better to focus on making these people aware of environmental issues, rather than fretting about how much carbon is produced by the fluids lab, or whether the dorm windows could be more efficient? If a constantly burning oil well in the middle of Cannon Green were to turn all Princeton students towards lives of environmental activism, would the concomitant reduction in air quality for the campus not be worth it? Of course the students directly involved in the analytical process (through a seminar as described in the article) are learning something about the issues, but they are also helping to reduce the potential openness of the campus to certain kinds of connection and understanding.

The easiest way to avoid the coming trap (where a few engineering students learn a lot and everybody else just feels like the issue has been resolved) is basically to positively resolve question #1, it seems to me. This is one of the things architects do: they help create a sense of context that fosters a shared understanding of our place in the world. I believe, as I’m sure all the people at Princeton affiliated with the initiative do too, that this must include our relationship to the energy and resources we consume and modify. It’s not a technical problem per se, and to treat it like one is to abandon so many of the ambitions of Princeton’s early campus designers.

1 comment to An architectural opportunity being missed at PU

  • jd

    What is at stake here (at least for my own narrow field of interests) are the (myriad) definitions, and more critically, the specific qualities, of the architectural field of inquiry. It seems clear that operating in contemporary, information-age cultures has necessitated a staking out of a particular territory. Now, this does not mean that one must align oneself with conventional academic departments or industries, just that the (sense of) value of research is locating itself more and more within the specific. It is not simply a lack of sure-footedness that has resulted in a dearth of manifestos from architectural thinkers since 1968, or the lack of interest in creating total-systems within any serious recent philosophical work. Rather, there has been a growing recognition of the very limited horizon of individual activity and simultaneously the collective computational intelligence of the human endeavor writ large through analyses of the historical benefits reaped from parallel streams of work carried out within communications range of each other.

    So why should architects or the Princeton school of architecture have been involved in this seminar or the larger Princeton Environmental Institute (PEI) project? This may well be too broad a question; maybe its opposite is more manageable – why should architects, et al, have not been involved? The simple answer is that the current format for interdisciplinary action created by the PEI, “focused chiefly in the sciences,” (http://web.princeton.edu/sites/pei/whoweare.html) has no immediately apparent overlap with the school of architecture as it defines its field of inquiry – “architecture is a collective art-form” (http://www.princeton.edu/~soa/01sch/sch_frame.html). George has already explored this mutually exclusionary tension when he asks if it wouldn’t be more ‘effective’ to create a public ‘sculpture’ spewing oil fumes into the atmosphere. Another question would be whether or not this solution would be more or less (or equally) ‘architectural’ than creating cost-estimates for increasing the R-value of the glazing on campus. The current theoretical crises within many architectural circles revolve around not only this tension, but the tensions within each pole.

    At the ‘architecture as art-form’ end of things, Kenneth Frampton refers to the destabilization and hence loss of significance of the entire field of architectural signifiers, and in a surprisingly similar vein K. Michael Hays updates Victor Hugo:

    “…in the face of electronic communication, air travel, global finance markets, and the like, it would be a combination of naiveté and hubris to think that traditional architectural semiotics could any longer manage mass communication and perception.”

    A question I’ve been asking myself – how is this a good thing? Another question, actually anterior to the first – is this true to the extent that we’ve been led to believe? With the theorization, excitement and anxiety surrounding the proliferation of situated and mobile technologies and their promise/threat to create a fully globalized, interactive quotidian environment, has the realm of the material environment (i.e., the exterior of the internet) really fallen silent? And even if it has, do we not vacate it at our own peril? If a rain forest is cleared and there is no web cam there to integrate the images into the globalized perception machine, does it still result in filthier air?

    It is this excitement/anxiety that I would claim is driving people educated at schools of architecture toward ever broader definitions of (the role of) the architect. It is this same expansionist, generalist impulse that would engender a certainty in saying “yes!” to the question, should architects, et al, have been involved in this PEI project. For in this new ken of ‘the expanded architect’ (Columbia University’s School of Architecture uses this as the primary caption on their current homepage (http://www.arch.columbia.edu/)), there is no field in which architects should not engage, and that is being a bit euphemistic – architects, it is claimed (implicitly), should provide the kernel of vision, the primary structure of the endeavor. The danger of this is that it actually isolates the architectural discipline on very shaky, very small ground – the territory of the essentialist, dealing in concepts alone, which is to say, in the epistemological quagmire of generalities.

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