Reforming Cornell’s architecture curriculum: a manifesto

Architecture students, as future professionals, need real guidance on how to make zero-carbon (aka sustainable) buildings. This needs to be implemented primarily through Environmental Systems courses, but also—importantly—through Design Studio courses. My feeling is that the current design sequence at Cornell adequately addresses virtually none of the important architectural issues discussed within the Environmental Systems/Construction/Structures sequences in a coherent and systematic manner, focusing instead on design as a means of formal expression.* This is increasingly anachronistic, as the planet spirals into some sort of climate-change catastrophe. Michael Pollen famously summarized his dietary advice in seven words: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” One could summarize viable strategies for sustainable building design, per Joseph Lstiburek, in a similarly concise manner: “Use lots of insulation, airtight construction, controlled ventilation, and not a lot of glass.” Similarly concise words of wisdom could certainly be found for life safety, structural design, and construction. But such sage advice needs to be reinforced within all the design studios (and not just one “sustainable” or “integrative” studio). Of course, this poses a threat to the way we foster design consciousness in our students.

So be it. It’s the only way I know of to make a curriculum that takes issues of human and environmental well-being—including global warming—seriously.

* To the objection that our design studios actually deal with issues affecting human and environmental well-being, I offer this passage from Veblen: “The psychological law has already been pointed out that all men—and women perhaps even in a higher degree—abhor futility, whether of effort or of expenditure,—much as Nature was once said to abhor a vacuum. But the principle of conspicuous waste requires an obviously futile expenditure; and the resulting conspicuous expensiveness of dress is therefore intrinsically ugly. Hence we find that in all innovations in dress, each added or altered detail strives to avoid instant condemnation by showing some ostensible purpose, at the same time that the requirement of conspicuous waste prevents the purposefulness of these innovations from becoming anything more than a somewhat transparent pretense.”
— Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1912—originally published 1899), 176–77. (Emphasis added.)

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