This issue of Perspecta represents our attempt to give shape to the sense of incompleteness that shadowed our years at the Yale School of Architecture. As students at Yale in the late 1980s, we gradually came to recognize that something essential was missing from the educational environment in which we were to develop our professional skills, values, and aspirations. As we now know to have been true throughout architectural discourse over the last quarter-century, our graduate training was almost entirely disengaged from the social and professional dimensions of design. While form and formal theories were analyzed exhaustively, questions of social planning, technological innovation, user participation, and professionalism—concerns that naturally arose in our thoughts and conversations—were largely ignored in the studio and classroom. Missing, too, was any sense of architecture as a vehicle for opposition to the social and economic directions of the nation as a whole—a failure of vision we found particularly incomprehensible given the drift of American public policy in recent years.
As we began to pursue these larger questions of context and purpose, we discovered that what was missing from our school, from other schools, from the journals and exhibitions and manifestos, was missing not because it had been neglected, but because it had been expelled. We discovered that during a specific period of the recent past, amidst the turmoil of the 1960s, a struggle had arisen within the academy over the social role of the architectural profession. Students and their mentors among the planning-oriented faculty confronted the proponents of aesthetic purity and the holders of institutional power. On one side stood the idea of the architect as a social agent: seeking technological salvation, engaging the ghettos, resisting development or working to redirect it towards positive social change. On the other side stood the idea of the architect as critical artist: reasserting the primacy of theory for the generation of form. The outcome of this conflict—an outcome that has been nothing short of disastrous for the practice of architecture in this country—was the utter defeat of advocates of a wider engagement. By the early 1970s, the studios had come back indoors and the believers in architecture’s ability to initiate or even participate in social change—from advocacy planners to techno-freaks—had been cast out.
Nowhere had this conflict been more combative, we discovered, nor its consequences more explosive, than at Yale itself. The following narrative gradually emerged as we excavated records and tracked down those personally involved. By 1968, the City Planning Department of the School of Architecture had become active in advocacy projects throughout New Haven. The department’s central concern was to get planners out into the streets in order to involve neighborhoods in the planning of their own housing and transportation. The racial barrier between academy and inner city, which made it difficult to gain the confidence of disaffected communities, alerted faculty and students to the need to address the racial imbalance of the department itself. The Black Forum was created to widen the pool of African-American applicants, a goal for which university approval was sought and received. In the spring of 1969, the departmental admissions committee recommended ten African-American candidates for matriculation the following fall, out of an expanded class of twenty.
Shocked at the scope of the department’s move towards integration, the university balked at the recommendations. At first, citing a lack of funds, Provost Charles Taylor, Jr. limited the size of the entering class to fourteen. Then the university went further. Howard Weaver, Dean of the School of Architecture—acting, it seems clear, at the behest of the central administration—approved only eight students for admission, only one of them African-American. After waiting three weeks for action on the remaining twelve candidates, the City Planning Forum, the department’s governing body of students and faculty, voted to proceed without the dean’s consent. Twelve unauthorized letters of admission were sent. The following day, calling the letters “cruel and immoral” and “an extraordinary lapse of judgement,” university Kingman Brewster removed Christopher Tunnard, chairman of the City Planning Department, and Louis DeLuca, Assistant Dean of the School of Architecture, from their posts. Professor Henry Wexler, chair of the Planning Forum, would not be reappointed to the faculty. The six students who signed the unauthorized letters were informed that they were “in danger of losing their degrees.” The other students already enrolled in the department would be permitted to complete the graduate program, but they would be the last: the department was to be shut down. For the planners, such a stunningly disproportionate reaction only confirmed their suspicion that the administration was using the issue of admissions as a pretext to terminate the advocacy work towards which both university and school had long been hostile. In letters to the twelve unauthorized candidates, President Brewster wrote, “I am sorry we cannot be more encouraging about Yale as a place in which to receive a degree in urban planning.”
The situation escalated. The Planning Forum publicly charged the university with “organized racism” and continued to meet in the weeks following the dismissals. A candlelight ritual was held in front of President Brewster’s house to “spook” and “cast a spell” over it. As spring wore on into summer, the possibility of compromise receded ever further. On May 28, the Planning Forum issued a series of demands: admission of the twelve unauthorized applicants; reinstatement of administrators and faculty members dismissed from their posts; recruitment of three new faculty members, one of them African-American; and official recognition of both the Black Forum and the Planning Forum. The demands were met with silence: as far as the university was concerned, the matter was closed. Then, on the night of June 14, the Art and Architecture Building at York and Chapel Streets ignited in a sudden rush of flame. Fueled by paints and solvents and funneled by the building’s chimney-like design, the fire burned throughout the night, reaching an intensity sufficient to deform the structure’s steel reinforcing bars inside their concrete slabs. Arson, though never proven, was universally suspected. Even after the damage was repaired, the conflagration left the building markedly diminished, its original open design closed off by the addition of fire-rated partitions. The events of that spring left the School of Architecture markedly diminished as well, stripped of its planning department and constitutionally disinclined towards engagement with the human contexts in which real buildings get built and used.
It was this confrontation, together with the larger struggle it symbolized, that constituted the buried history that shaped our experience as students a generation later. In retrospect, studying at Yale was like growing up in a family that harbored some appalling secret the adults never talked about. Instead, our education offered a different narrative of post-War architectural history, one that papered over the gap left by the suppressed memory of engagement and resistance. In the story we were told, the story that told us how to fit ourselves into the discipline we were preparing to enter, the two decades after 1945 were denigrated as a period of Bad Formalism—naive, formulaic, brutal. The years since then, by contrast, were a period of Good Formalism—sophisticated, inventive, witty. So when we started to ask questions about the rattle we could hear coming from the closet, started to plan a Perspecta that would deal with the issues missing from our education, we were informed, with equal parts condescension and fear, that we would merely end up reproducing the positivist failures of the 1960s. (Ironically, it was this very criticism that alerted us to the 60s as the most recent period of political engagement on the part of the profession.) What we’ve since learned, of course, is that the Bad Formalism/Good Formalism narrative is simply false, and the no formalism, good or bad, is an adequate model for architectural practice. An awareness of the socially transformative responsibilities of design demands a view far broader than the reclusive aestheticism and baroque theorizing of the last thirty years.
It was out of a knowledge of these events and a profound concern with these questions that we designed the present issue of Perspecta. Documents relating to the events of 1969, as well as transcripts of our 1992 conference on “Rethinking Designs of the 60s” represent our attempt to unearth the history that was buried twenty-nine years ago, and thus to reconnect with an earlier generation of oppositional practice. The bulk of the journal, however, is devoted to the architecture of engagement as it exists today. For while questions of planning, participation, and technology were expelled from the center, they continued to maintain a vital existence on the margins. Much of the work and thought presented in these pages addresses itself to what might be called the political economy of architecture, particularly to questions of urban planning and design as they are deformed by the pressures of a speculative economy. Another topic of examination and response is the technological dimension of building: material sciences, locally appropriate design and construction, post-industrial challenges and potentials. Both modes of investigation naturally take place within a third overarching set of concerns: those relating to the responsibilities of both designer and building to the human and natural worlds. How can we create an architecture that enhances the health of societies and of the planet?
Approaches to these questions tend to divide into two broad categories of sensibility. The visionary approach urges us to dream as imaginatively as possible. Truly revolutionary advance, it argues, requires a leap away from the logic of the present. What appears fantastic from the standpoint of today will seem commonplace tomorrow; what seems inescapable today will tomorrow be scarcely remembered. Against this impulse stands the ethic of responsible pragmatism. Our shared spaces must take their form, it insists, not from the theories of the few, but from the desires of the many. Planning must be democratic, deliberate, and prudent, the architect’s chief tasks those of facilitation and implementation. But as the work presented in these pages demonstrates, the conflict between imagination and responsibility demands, not that we choose between them, but that we recognize their interdependence. Pragmatism without aspiration is lifeless, vision without expertise is futile. Together, expertise becomes the scaffolding of more robust and articulate dreams, while vision crowns pragmatism with purpose and meaning. The pages that follow embody the forms of skill and modes of imagination that architects must relearn if we are again to function as relevant and responsible members of our society.
“Re-Thinking Designs of the 60s”
Susan C. Piedmont-Palladino—"Building Alternatives"
Michael Reynolds—"Solar Survival Architecture: S.T.A.R. and R.E.A.C.H. Communities"
Michael Sorkin—"Future Zones"
Doug Michaels—"Blue Star Project, Future Idea Manifesto"
Virginia Scharff—"Appropriate Technology"
Emilio Ambasz—"Worldbridge Trade and Investment Center, Fukuoka Prefectural International Hall, Nichii Obihiro Department Store"
Thomas Fisher—"Nietzsche in New Haven: How One Philosophizes with a Hammer"