Experiments Against Buildings

Aaron Betsky, Department Coordinator

What is a Department of Environmental Design? During the 1960s, Environmental Design was a phrase meant to defuse the imperial overtones of architecture. It implied the dissolution of a formalist practice into technological criteria and process-driven modes of design. The result was a loss of historical memory and any method of creating an autonomous architecture. This might in and of itself not have been too bad, except that the alternative turned out to be a collection of abstract pseudoscientific activities that dissolved into a purposefully uncritical acceptance of contingency and accepted social structures, even when posing itself as an aid in empowerment.

The idea of dissolving traditional notions of the architectural profession is one that continues to interest us at Otis. It is, however, not only architecture that must try to escape from its role as an integral part of the propagation of the existing status quo. Interior Design, Landscape Design, Urban Planning, Set Design and Furniture or Industrial Design find themselves also owing their self-definition to the efficacy with which they produce efficient, uncritical design professionals. The Environmental Design Department at the Otis Art Institute proposes to create a course of study that gives students the tools they need to be critically aware of their environment, and then alter it.

The Department of Environmental Design was established live years ago, and its director, Fred Fisher, has been trying to extend and dissolve the notion of design as it is defined within each of the design disciplines into an interdisciplinary course of study ever since. His goal has been to train “design generalists” who can engage the “real world” with the critical eye of an artist. Traditional notions of architecture, however, have still tended to overwhelm such attempts at cross-disciplinary thinking. Moreover, at least half of the students in the small department see themselves as future architectural professionals.

This fall, the faculty has started to review the curriculum of the Department in order to come up with ways of breaking down the building as isolated object-oriented tendencies of the course. There is a still evolving plan that will expose students to all levels, scales and methods of design in a way that dissolves the barriers between such classifications in favor of a focus on different design methodologies. Process rears its ugly head again, but here as a focus on making, or, on how human beings extend themselves and make real their activities in a socialized space.

Students are asked to explore ways in which they can make themselves at home in the world by becoming aware of the socio-spatial qualities of their environment and of the act of mapping themselves into that world. They are asked to see tools and objects as mirrors that conflate themselves and their world. They are asked to engage in methods of analysis (such as “void sectioning”) that challenge traditional methods of composition based on the autonomy of the object. They are encouraged to see their activities as investigations, installations and interventions, rather than as the creation of programmed spaces. They are continually forced to confront the physical and social reality of their work through materials and methods of construction that are interwoven with historical discussions. The Department is in other words, moving away from the idea of a curriculum based around the production of buildings.

It remains to be seen how effective this evolving course of studies will be. The Department has the advantage of being part of an art school which encourages such ways of thinking, but the disadvantage of not offering students “salable” skills that can be immediately and efficiently applied. The Department is moreover small, and will need to grow substantially to be able to give itself the leeway to explore various alternatives. The Environmental Design Department at Otis is a continuing experiment with no results expected.

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