There are some small signs of movement, especially in the stirrings of fungibility on the part of planning and landscape. Although I run a program in urban design, I have a fundamental disbelief in any unitary discourse of the city and try to offer access to many. Originally conceived as a way of recuperating physical design from a planning profession that had fallen in thrall to the social sciences, urban design is often taught simply as big building and fixates excessively on historic patterns. But urbanism’s most desperate needs devolve on the new morphologies of sustainability and equity that an exponentially urbanizing world so urgently needs. The urban population increases at the rate of a million people a week and, to me at least, that means that we need to create numerous new cities on an urgent basis, cities that are able to provide for themselves and provide rich lives to diverse populations.

Photo ' Robert Ivy
Dubai presents visitors with a still-evolving skyline of the latest and sometimes craziest architectural forms.

The emergence of “landscape urbanism” as a position, if not a discipline, is a hopeful sign. Not simply does the conceit represent the rejection of a hard boundary between the practices of landscape architecture and urban design and planning; it stands, in theory, for a more holistic view of the environment and the indispensability of an integrated perspective in thinking about projects that exceed the architectural scale. And it suggests a strategy of inclusion, rather than an endless consideration of what the disciplines are not. Still, from the perspective of education, it feels a little like rearranging the deck chairs while preserving distinctions that have outlived their usefulness. As environmentalism becomes more and more the central authority for all design, why retain any boundaries at all?

I’ve been dreaming about a school of design that takes the unity, not the autonomy, of disciplines as its predicate, a way of opening the field to the real possibility of its diversity. Our boldest experiments haven’t gotten us too far. The Bauhaus focused, in varying degrees, on social production but retained disciplinary compartments and continued to see architecture as the eternal mother. It had indifferent ideas about the city and virtually nothing to say about the environment. More idiosyncratic, home-grown experiments like Taliesin or Arcosanti also fixated too much on the leading role of architecture (and the infallibility of their particular popes), and were passionately unscientific, though they did have deep commitments to craft and the earth. Alas, architecture’s historic and dangerous conflation of megalomania with the big scale led them to social and organizational dead ends.

Our divided professions tenaciously guard their turf and look disdainfully at neighboring disciplines. How tiresome this is! While I am not suggesting that each designer be an impossibly learned polymath, I am arguing that the common ethical and environmental basis for design is becoming more and more apparent and more and more urgently part of the necessary equipment of anyone who aspires to take an active role in shaping the planet. One solution is to give each student entering a school of design a common grounding on which to build later specialization. This would include rigorous introductions to the environment and natural systems, deep immersion in the social and economic modes of production of the built world, and a vivid grounding in the global histories of physical responses to the question of habitation at every scale.

New kinds of schools

Providing this foundation will take time. Just as so many undergraduate architecture programs are formulae for fundamental illiteracy (too much time spent learning structures and CAD, none on Shakespeare, Oceanic art, or The Tale of Genji), so this reform of the design curriculum carries risks. If the years devoted to education aren’t expanded, then something crucial must be eliminated. Or we can begin to think that design education might be dedicated to producing activists who are prepared either to step into the design environment in a literate and engaged way or to continue to deepen a particular specialization. I don’t argue that the professions must die as autonomous pursuits, rather that we recognize — with new kinds of degrees and new kinds of schools — their deep common basis and the need for new and refreshed syntheses.

Received writ prescribes isolating the men from the women at that school in the Gulf without any particularly satisfying arguments — beyond obedience or human frailty — and so does it keep our own practices and people apart. Witness the appalling state of the earth; we clearly need to educate designers differently. This will mean focusing on what brings us together rather than what keeps us apart. Designers should be equipped with the knowledge of what makes a building sustainable, what drives construction workers to despair, what makes the city humane, what deepens our connection to the landscape, what gives us a sense of real connection to each other. n