In the run up to, and as part of‚ our education issue “School's Out”, uncube has interviewed a selection of key leading architecture educators. Hitoshi Abe is a world-renowned architect and teacher. In 2009 he initiated the International Architecture Education Summit (IAES). Through his experience of professional practice and teaching, in both Japan and USA‚ most recently his professorship at UCLA, he has been vocal in his criticism of the pressure for architectural education to become globally standardised. uncube caught up with him in Los Angeles...
What were your reasons for initiating the International Architecture Education Summit?
Over the last years I have been involved in architecture education in many ways and in many countries. Moving between Japan and the US‚ I realised how different the educational systems were and that even the understanding of what an architect is very different. A few years ago‚ education in Japan began to change. Whereas traditionally Japanese architectural education has always been very broad and open-minded – producing future architects‚ but also future engineers‚ or future contractors – there has been this push to move architectural education towards professionalisation and standardisation‚ solely to produce licensed architects. Yet only five percent of architecture students in Japan will become architects. I wondered why we had to change our education to be like the UK or USA.
I felt that educators didn’t have an opportunity to get together and talk about the changing field‚ so I arranged the IAES to create a counter-argument against the architecture of standardisation. We need to free up architecture; we don’t have to reproduce the same education everywhere.
What is driving standardisation?
Take the EU Erasmus programme‚ for example. Travel exchange creates great opportunities‚ but it also forces schools to conform‚ to offer the same things.
This urgency for global standardisation also comes from the profession itself: architecture firms are getting bigger and bigger‚ like oversized corporations. You have super-famous architects and then these big corporation-type architects and you don’t have much in between. I think there is a risk that this might suffocate the whole profession. A diversity of architects is what is needed. That is a really important role of education: countering the professional entity’s attempt to define the boundary of architecture in order to strengthen itself. Our role as an education institute is to question that‚ to break loose.
Is this what you have been trying to do at UCLA and with the establishment of the satellite cross-disciplinary practice programme Suprastudio?
Yes. When we started‚ we looked at the way architecture is talked about by architects or anybody involved in this business‚ and it all sounded so hopeless – especially after the recent recession – with articles about the lack of jobs and architecture being the most economically inefficient career to study. Architects have to pay more in‚ yet getting back that investment from your education takes longer than in any other business.
Then I started talking to companies in other areas of industry‚ like Toyota and Disney‚ and realised that their vision of architecture and urban design is more optimistic and full of hope: they see it as a way for them to pursue their own goals. Toyota‚ for instance‚ was developing a very energy-efficient self-driving car and they were thinking not about it as the car itself but about the system of the car‚ the entire ecology of the urban life. They didn’t have expertise and they wanted to work with an architect. Architecture from outside is seen as so much bigger than it is from inside.
I wanted to follow that idea in a course structure. Suprastudio is unusual for USA architectural education‚ where everything is usually segmented into quarters or semesters and has an accredited course framework that you have to follow.
It is much more like the German masterclass or Japanese laboratory system: more of a research than training platform. It’s like a hybrid of a European system and an American system. And last year Frank Gehry‚ Thom Mayne and Greg Lynn each led a studio for one year.
Why did you relocate to a new campus? How important is the physical space of an architecture school still?
The campus at UCLA is beautiful: green, blue sky and brick. But it was too tight, and we needed to find a new site. So we rented this space in Playa Vista‚ a big airplace hangar built originally by Howard Hughes to build engines for this crazy gigantic airplane. We moved the entire Suprastudio to this satellite campus – named IDEAS – quadrupled the number of the students‚ and brought in industry partners to work with us like Disney Imagineering‚ Toyota, Boeing‚ Bot&Dolly and Cirque de Soleil.
I am sure it is conceptually possible to be a completely virtual type of school‚ but we need a physical platform. There is direct contact with people and we also have the facility we need to play with – we have a gigantic robot – we can’t do that digitally. We now have this big warehouse and each time we need to create a classroom or gallery we just move a cheap partition. It is really messy but the place produces very interesting magic that influences the people there.
How do you see the changing wider context of practice, and its affect on being an architect?
When I talked to those companies about the importance of architecture I realised that it can’t be about one product independent from everything. It is actually about the ecology of different technologies‚ and the environments created by these technologies‚ like Toyota’s non-driver vehicle‚ or Apples’ ecology of products: it is not about one thing.
I talked to those in the movie industry who wanted somebody with an architecture background to produce a fake world of the future on the other side of the galaxy – to make the fake world realistic. I realised that architecture is the technology that unites other technologies – we are actually trained not to be specialists but to be generalists: to connect different things in order to create the whole environment – our education is still tuned to this and this benefits our ability to respond to all these requirements from different industries.
In the future do you see people studying architecture but then developing many more specialisations going off from this?
Yes. One future architect might never build anything‚ just produce tons of fake worlds for movies‚ or another might work only on small products‚ that are connected and combine to form a unique landscape of technology. And in between there will be an architect who produces beautiful buildings. People will choose all sorts of different forms. There might be different schools that focus on different architect types: one specialising on more traditional architect types‚ one on a more general education of architecture. I think schools should be more diverse with different goals.
So do students coming into your practice have a wide range of backgrounds?
No. We need traditionally trained students in my own practice!
– Rob Wilson
– Hitoshi Abe has a decade-long distinguished career as a leader in education. In 2007‚ he was appointed professor and chair of the UCLA Department of Architecture and Urban Design. In 2010‚ he was appointed Paul I. and Hisako Terasaki Chair in the Study of Contemporary Japan as well as Director of the UCLA Paul I. and Hisako Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies. Dr. Abe has maintained a schedule of lecturing and publishing‚ which place him among the leaders in his field.