Faculties for Architecture
         

by Arjen Oosterman

The attention paid to the burning down of the architecture faculty building at Delft Technical University in May of this year was remarkable. It made the 8 o’clock news, the national newspapers and was reported internationally. But what triggered all this attention? We’re not talking about the loss of a famous building or listed monument. There was the odd heritage specialist bemoaning the loss of its monumental qualities, but the public at large hardly knew the building even existed. This interest could not be explained by concern for the continuity of architectural education either; a few days after the fire, tents and an empty administration building temporarily compensated for the lost educational spaces and no one paid attention anymore. It wasn’t much of a sensation or a good human interest story either. A high-rise on fire is always exiting, but no one was killed or even injured. The main concern was about...its content. There was some talk about the loss of personal belongings, drawings, models and student work (the possible loss of the very fine library was hardly mentioned), but first and foremost journalists worried about the faculty’s collection of chairs, in particular some unique Rietveld chairs.

For the public, the loss was made conceivable in terms of concrete cultural value: a Rietveld chair is a real piece of history and at auction would command a healthy sum. That immediately generates the cry, ‘What a shame! What a loss!’. That’s concrete.

The professional press (magazines, websites) ran obituaries, recalled sweet memories and sung the praises of what had been a great educational environment, no doubt, and that was it. For the public the loss was about what the building contained, for the alumni and professionals what had happened there.

In fact, most involved didn’t shed a tear and some secretly or even openly applauded the opportunity to create something new. They thought it finally the chance to correct the autistic, inward character of this building, to remedy its isolation, to replace its ugliness. It was finally a chance to provide ample space for the faculty’s steadily growing population (currently over 3,000 students, while the Van den Broek en Bakema building dating from 1970 had been designed for some 850 students; and finally it constituted a chance to reconsider the essence, organization and expression of a 21st-century Faculty of Architecture. Actually one might call the short circuit in a coffee area on the 6th floor, where the fire started, a blessing in disguise.

It was ironic that an informal, supplementary function like a coffee corner ‘brought the house down’, but the exact nature of that irony only became apparent a bit later. Three weeks after the fire, multidisciplinary student teams formulated initial ideas (‘visions’) for the new building in a competition design workshop. It was a warm-up exercise for the upcoming real competition and for the students, a chance to become directly involved in their own school’s future. What is the architectural school of the future? Which qualities are most important?

As the starting shot of the two-day workshop, Professor Fons Verheijen provided four points of particular interest: the urban setting (which should be more urban and less isolated), the functional design (which must be based on studio training and thus remain unchanged), architecture’s future orientation (expression) and, inescapably, sustainability. The jury reduced this list to three criteria for its purposes: sustainability, learning environment and architectonic articulation. All this well-intentioned guidance did not, however, distract the students from their own core values. They actually had just a single theme in their heads: social interaction. For that was the essence of their training: the informal exchanges between students and with their teachers as they had taken place chiefly in the halls and corridors of the burned down building.The new design should add an emphasis on interaction with the city and society, to be sure, but that possibility for exchange, that informal working climate, had been a rock-hard quality of the old building.

It must be really very nice for an architect to have one’s building understood and appreciated as intended. One can only look back with envy and a bit of wonder at a period in which even the specifications for an architecture building – architecture for architecture – brought with it no particular problems of architecture itself. An architecture museum or architecture building these days is inevitably first and foremost a statement about architecture. The Delft architecture building was primarily a good building within a certain developmental line of modern architecture. The Faculty of Architecture building Van den Broek en Bakema built was the result of a program, a belief, and bureau experience which grew over the course of decades - as such certainly a tenet – but it was not (well, hardly) a demonstration of ‘architectureness’. That innocence, if we can call it that, has become virtually impossible. The third point of the workshop jury, ‘architectonic expression’, emphasizes this once again.

It is thus all the more remarkable that the student proposals shifted focus from architectonic meaning and expression to architectonic function, from product to process. That shift offers new options to approach architecture’s content, assignment and method. Naturally there is need for a building to provide space for teaching architecture and the other architecture-related departments (urbanism, real estate and building technology). According to Francine Houben (Mecanoo), responsible for Delft Technical University’s urban architecture plan, the new ‘architecture’ must be organized horizontally. Yet before we come to the dimensions and arrangement of the premises we should perhaps briefly discuss the domain of architectural design, as a kind of second overture to the competition. What is architectural training about? What skills and experiences must it offer students? If we are to take content management as presented in this issue of Volume seriously as the disciplinary core, then this has consequences for the kind of research and social embeddedness that training requires. No iconic establishment, but a much more nomadic institution. No ‘Faculty of Architecture’, but ‘faculties for architecture’, the theme of the Dutch pavilion at the Venice Biennale this year.The call for an actualization of architectural training, for the inclusion of other kinds of practices, is strong enough among the onrushing generation of architects. They have a renewed interest in the organization of involvement, use and performance. Perhaps the new architecture is a cross between a terrace, a factory workshop, a recording studio and a multimedia center; this faculty ‘new style’ will take place much more outside the walls of traditional institutes. It’s exciting to imagine what kind of architecture it will need...

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
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