a conversation with michael osman
ON EVIDENCE AND DATA
I want to begin by summarizing a point from an essay1 by John May, one of the best theoretical treatments of post-war architecture pedagogy that I’ve read.
He says that at some point around the middle of the 20th century, architectural pedagogy developed a jurisprudential, or legalistic form of argumentation: the student presented the “case” in front of a so-called jury. May thinks that this is a strange alignment of things, and particularly strange in relationship to architecture because it hinged on the unit of evidence. In this format, architecture students were pointing to various parts of their projects as evidence, and their arguments were judged by the faculty in relationship to that evidence. That leads to what he calls “the condition of dullness.” In addition, because of the status given to research in the university and the difficulty of placing it in the practice of architecture, when science was established as the dominant mode of research, it too came to easily dominate architects’ self-evaluation. You might say the legal defense of architecture became scientific. And there’s no reason for our pedagogy to be this way except for the cultural dominance of two regimes—science and law.
1John May, "Under Present Conditions Our Dullness Will Intensify," Project, Issue 3 (2014): 18-21.
So he defines the legal evaluation as units of evidence—what would you describe as the scientific evaluation?
Data, yeah. I wanted to start there because May does say that we’re now living under the power of data, marshalled as if it were evidence.2 New arguments are no longer arguments about, let’s say, history or the humanities, even—but instead a scientific claim about efficiency, sustainability, performance—these sorts of things. And you can see how this would be especially true when that essay was published, maybe five years ago. I think that unit is... not changing, but data is presenting itself in new and multiple forms.
2 Zeynep Çelik Alexander, "Neo-Naturalism," Log 31 (2014): 23-30.
There is a history of architectural practice for how these kinds of identities and their associated media and data circulate. I think what may be contemporary about that is that it has exerted itself in the studio, in the space of the institution, in a way that hasn’t been possible before.
Yeah, I want to talk about that, but I just want to be clear about why I introduced the conversation in this way, which is that there’s a certain kind of technological determinism that I want to avoid: that now these networks—data bots, or whatever—exist, and therefore our subjectivities are changing. Maybe it’s better to just say: “we seek these data machines out, we build them, and we submit ourselves to them,” perhaps out of a sense of the architect’s identity being dislocated from the humanities. So if, in the middle of the twentieth century, one identified oneself with a canon, or historical precedent to defend one’s work legalistically, by the end of the twentieth century the identity of the architect became more technocratic, and the work was defended with a kind of expertise which was called research.
Now it seems like an identity is emerging out of an exhaustion with data. Even though it is fundamentally data-based, it’s an exhaustion of the research-based model of identity formation. So, “what is your project,” that is to say, “what is your identity,” is a question that can almost no longer be asked. At one point, [Peter] Eisenman argued for a so-called disciplinary project, and I would say no one really believes in such a thing any longer. Nobody believes that from Alberti to the present there is a kind of genealogy of architectural difficulty. I think nobody believes that anymore. And, just as well, nobody really believes that architecture school is the way we’re going to find new and better forms of performance, either. Nobody believes in that science model anymore. So, in the death of two, now, false gods, there might be a third attempt at forming an identity through data exhaustion, deus ex machina, literally out of the data machine, a new kind of godhead. The question is, in a certain way, what’s at stake? I don’t think that studio has ever been isolated from these prevailing, normative identity-formation techniques. I think that studio is always inflected against a changing set of cultural values.
AFFIRMATION OR TRAUMA
But the question about architectural knowledge is bigger and more ethically charged, more immediately political. I have always felt that it was difficult to know, as a student, what was being transferred to me from my professors. Specifically: how does knowledge get transferred in studio? I understand how it would have been transferred in the legal regime, I even understand how it would have been transferred in the regime of research—you know, count the number of birds that land on a building over the course of a day.
From the 60s onward there were certain methods you could learn. But now, I think, perhaps what’s being transferred are techniques for affirmation. That, I think, is new. That’s what I’m worried about. I don’t know if it’s yet solidified into anything, but the shape of the heart that you put on an Instagram post, to me, is an iconic image of an emerging economy of affirmation. The heart. Each heart is a number, which adds x number of hearts to x number of hearts that already exist. Andrew [Atwood] told Anna [Neimark] that when he posted one of her pictures on his Instagram, he immediately got almost 200 likes. The conversation they were having was not whether or not the image was any good, but simply that she’s getting him some more likes. At that level, it’s affecting their practice. At the level of knowledge production and its transmission, those are harder to identify…
There are other similar functions that this kind of platform either facilitates or prevents. On the one hand, you can’t necessarily critique someone. Not because it’s viewed as aggressive, or that you’re trolling, but the fact that no one is going to look at the comments section in three hours. There’s a certain lifespan to these things
I also pointed out that there’s a much shorter lifespan in the jury format, which disappears instantaneously—aside from the pain that lingers after a scathing review.
Well, let’s talk about emotions... You can see in this picture of poor Ira Rakatansky, a photograph taken in 1946 of an open jury, [May] says, “linger for a moment on the student’s face. Imagine that his bewildered expression is not the sort of momentary surprise we see so regularly today provoked as it often is, by the adolescent behavior of one’s supposed mentors, but rather belongs to a more generalized and sweeping shock induced by the sudden realization that his own objects now require legal counsel.” I think that what you’re experiencing emotionally on the jury is not new. It’s this sense that there is some entelechy between you and the product you have produced; your authorship is embodied in it and your body only further represents an alienated relationship to your project. The jury is not a form of therapy for your alienation. It’s a form of counter-therapy. It’s a format for producing trauma. It seems as if it was intentionally made to produce trauma and produce neurotics who will reproduce their neurosis under as a pretense of discourse. Some of that trauma has to persist in order for there to be such a thing as discourse. Somebody needs to suffer.
The fact that there are bodies, and that it is an embodied performance is exactly the kind of sanctity that I think the flatness and the infinite accessibility of social media seems to threaten.
Yeah. So are we defending the institution that produces trauma against an incipient institution that relieves it? I told my class about my nephew who is now 14: I asked him why he has an Instagram account—I think he’s had one for two years, since he was twelve [raises eyebrows]—and I said “Adam, why do you have an Instagram account?” And he says, “If I didn’t have one I wouldn’t exist.” [Pauses] Yeah. So my feeling is that that’s a new form of trauma, too. It’s not that you’re going to be bullied or trolled or anything, you’ll just be ignored.
Perhaps that’s where the twelve-year-old and the 1st year M.Arch I student are a perfect analogy. The worry, or fear is that as students are being thrown into this practice of identity formation, one that is commodified and that requires a certain kind of duration requires certain commitments, and this practice has been part of architecture’s professional life for a very long time.
You mean this particular practice of the jury?
I mean the identity formation like Le Corbusier practiced—an entirely constant and continual production. And I think institutions do this, too.
[Phone rings in Michael’s office]
I can’t believe they still have phones down here.
What are the real products of this new regime?
I think the fear of students engaging with this flattened datascape is that it displaces, interrupts, or even confuses the traditional power hierarchy.
Yeah, like there’s an erosion of the traditional power of the family… here, I sound like David Brooks—euck. You see this when your kids get friends for the first time, when they’re around five, and they act differently with their friends than they act with you.
[Short burst of laughter]
And you’re used to this daughter or son, and then they become that kind of daughter or son because the friend has influence. Or, the same thing happens when your son or daughter finds a boyfriend or girlfriend, in a heightened version of this. Institutions—especially educational institutions—are deeply, psychoanalytically fraught in the same way. Strong ideas about mentorship and advising—you know, “you’re my student,” and “I’m your teacher”—create a deep identification. It’s probably an unhealthy thing to begin with, those problems of identification. Or, not unhealthy, but very dangerous and very risky.
To me, the community of affirmation and its “flattened form” as you’re calling it—rather than the hierarchical one—is pathological in its own way. It produces that sense that your friends are with you in a kind of ghostly presence all the time, and they protect you from the transmission of power.
They buffer you from the potential insult, or the potential criticism, all that. And I see that as problematic.
I sound authoritarian, a little bit, but I do believe in the value of power and the value of institutional power. And I believe that if you don’t assert your will that someone else will. You’ll have to submit to their thing. That’s basically the Nietzsche in me. For me, then, the question is: why would you go to school and not submit yourself to power? But by that logic, in the economy of affirmation it would be distinctly possible to have an erosion of faith in the educational apparatus: if you get products out of your studio and out of your students in your studio that you can put on Instagram, who cares whether or not you’ve written a good syllabus.
Who cares what they’ve learned? [Sighs]
That’s what you think, or that’s what you’re afraid of?
It’s my deeply cynical view.
[Long, exasperated laughter, with gasps inward]
Here are some objects that I think we are in danger of losing:
The Lesson Plan, The Syllabus, The Critique, The Desk Critique, The Pin-up.
What is left, Michael?
Of course, we wouldn’t say there was once a pristine state of the architecture school, we have not fallen from any kind of grace…
Just that it’s now publicly available.
The evidence of our fall.
The evidence of the lack of our formality.
Yeah. So, there are two solutions for that: one is to ratchet up the level of formality (euuhk); the other is to distinguish between the informal and the formal, better.
We’re super aware of these formalities more so than ever before. You might even say that if the legal regime responded to its cultural context with formalism, ours might be the regime that responds with formality. We might actually be entering into...
A regime of evidence?
Yet I would argue that there’s another side of the practice that is sitting very stubbornly in the project.
You mean the intellectual project?
Yes. What’s interesting about architecture dealing with increasing legislation or technicality is that it reveals the frailty and vacuity of some of its intellectual projects.
That’s true of every field. I don’t think that any field is any more or less vacuous than ours, and I think that intellectual projects are typically not authored, or monovocal. So, for example, these are reasons why I belong to Aggregate, inasmuch as it exists: our little group of historians get together because we believe that none of us can be working on an “idea” in isolation. None of us can have an intellectual project, even, in isolation. And if someone could, it would probably be not that interesting because it would be impossible to get any kind of social traction without bringing more people on board to create a platform that is open enough, or general enough to get multiple points of view on the same topic. Which is to say: the intellectual project in architecture has been overly assigned to an author, overly assigned to a professor, and therefore overly assigned to, say, original research.
But what is being laid bare by the jury is a difference between the historian and the design professor.
If there is a distinction there, it is purely technical: historians are trained in an academic system where their authorship is developed through a process of formal citation, and designers are not. It’s structural. Authorship, in this way, is almost technologically determined. A historian’s conceptual and imaginative capacity is directly traceable to the way they build upon a genealogy of citations. A designer’s is, perhaps, based on the removal of citations.
Historians have a structure and have some kind of identifiable hierarchy and system of power that produces their work.
[With uncertainty] Right...
The analog to the design professional is the identity
It’s an apparatus. Historians have an apparatus. They have the citational apparatus. I agree. Here’s the real tragedy: if Instagram becomes a citational apparatus for the design professor, we have nothing.
I think there were moments, and there have been such moments even in the recent past, where design professors would get together and say, how do we teach what we teach? Unfortunately, there’s a problem when how you teach what you teach and how you do what you do are actually...
One and the same.
Or so different that they can’t be squared. So the question could really be: What forms of collective discourse exist for designers, both in practice and in pedagogy, that allow for collective forms of intelligence? The syllabus would be one. I imagine that you might start there. I think that’s something Jason Payne is interested in doing.
But we would agree that the kinds of media that we’re now being saturated with make the syllabus obsolete.
That’s tragic. To me, the syllabus is a pedagogical format that actually nicely does the work that it needs to do in design. In fact, it does a better job in design, in a certain way, than it does in history and theory. [Laughs]
If a student feels affirmed or empowered by such a power or structure outside of the university, might that also mean that they could be empowered to resist the space of the jury? Could that maybe not be a good thing?
We happen to be lucky enough to not be at the site of elite privilege. Here—here, at UCLA.
Let me be clear, we are lucky to be outside of the center of privilege. Because you pay for your education, you have a voice. For students who don’t pay, everything that they say is inflected by the fact that someone else is paying for their education. [Hoarse, exhaled laughter] Right? Presumably, some Ivy endowment has made it possible for them to be there. It’s a bit crazy how institutional power weakens the capacity to resist. So, I’m totally in support of the outspoken and emboldened student at UCLA. I know, as a design juror or whatever, that I can help amplify such a student’s enthusiasm and make it productive. And I think my colleagues are really good at that. I’ve watched Jason [Payne] do it very well too. Amplify enthusiasm. Sometimes very brilliant people will do slapdash work. He’s very good at showing how the asymmetry between their intelligence and their work doesn’t work to their advantage [long, drawn out laughter]. It’s good. That’s worth pointing out. No, I’m not afraid of a resistance to the jury in our context, not at all. No, on the contrary I’m afraid that it doesn’t exist enough. There’s a complacency and a reduction of the students’ identity in relationship to their jury, or to their institution. The one thing I do worry about, and I hear all too often, is that there’s just too much to do. And I’m like, “Well why are you doing it all?”
So there are those that say that they have too much to do. They don’t understand that by paying for their education, they can assert their choices as long as they can back those choices up with an obvious, visible dedication to their self-education. So you can’t just say, “No, I prefer not to,” in a Bartleby kind-of-way. You have to do something very well to show the institution why you didn’t do the other thing. This is my dad talking, not me: at an undergraduate level you come to be educated. You come, and you submit yourself fully to the institution. [Laughs]
And then you become a graduate student—you try to become a master. And to be a master is different than being a bachelor. You don’t submit yourself to the institution any longer. You choose, you pick, you select. And that’s what I’m calling self-education.
It’s not the same as being autodidactic, it’s a process of refinement.
Yeah, it’s intellectual adolescence, actually. Because you’re not yet capable of making all the decisions. You still submit yourself to some other people’s mastery. And to other people’s technical facility, and to their syllabi, and to other people’s identification of salient knowledge, and ah-ah-ah-ah- But! You can choose which of those you accept and which of those you reject, and which you will pursue and which you will not pursue, and so forth