The University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture

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fall 2008

ARC 350R:
Practice Theory: Everyday Practice

Stephen Ross

"What does this have to do with architecture? My architecture?"

Can you tell me what is and isn't architecture?
Can you separate architecture from the so-called everyday, from everything else?
Can you tell me what is practice? What is theory?
Can you separate theory from practice?

Is architecture a walled city? Surrounded by imperious, non-porous borders?

Suppose that Architecture draws a circle around itself and proclaims--imperious Architecture!--that everything inside the circle is Architecture and that everything outside is not. From a great distance--from say, a picnic bench set up in the Sea of Tranquility--this circle appears to be a sharp, unambiguous demarcation; an impenetrable line of continuous length and no width. There is no mistaking what lies inside the circle, be it the Pazzi Chapel or Fallingwater, for what lies outside--the realm of bookkeepers, bumblebees, and subatomic particles.

As we approach more closely the line swells and blurs. What we have taken for a wall, inert and opaque, is now more accurately described as a zone several miles across, possessing a breathable atmosphere, and teeming with life.
--Ann Cline, A Hut of One's Own, 1998

In the course Practice Theory we will backpack across these borders and through these lands. We will inhabit each region while investigating their structures and ideas. We will explore these permeable borders, these 'liminal' borderlands, these so-called 'wastelands' of heterodoxy defined simultaneously by their proximity to architecture and their proximity to 'everything else.' We will look for evidence that the 'wasteland' is not such a wasteland after all. But instead a fertile estuary flowing back and forth across these territories and providing, imbuing, each with life.

Instead of the sublime and the beautiful, the near, the low, the common, was explored and poeticized. That which had been negligently trodden under foot by those who were harnessing and provisioning themselves for long journeys into far countries, is suddenly found to be richer than all foreign parts. The literature of the poor, the feelings of the child, the philosophy of the street, the meaning of household life, are the topics of the time. It is a great stride. It is a sign-is it not?-of new vigor when the extremities are made active, when currents of warm life run into the hands and the feet.
--Ralph Waldo Emerson, "The American Scholar"

We will immerse ourselves in these 'currents of warm life.' We will live for ourselves questions about whether architecture can be informed by this 'everything else;' the 'everyday.' We will live questions pertaining to whether the meaning and purpose and vitality of architecture can be enhanced by this 'everything else.' We will even consider the question: Can architecture already existing be found in this realm of 'everything else?' And perhaps most meaningfully, we will revive old questions (perhaps once asked long ago and unsatisfactorily answered; asked and then neglected, left unanswered, left an open question, a question lived): "Where does architecture come from?"

And on our way we will discover structures (sometimes called simple, naive, practical, vernacular, unselfconscious, humble). Here and there we will discover both ritualized and routine practices and structures. And from time to time we will discover creative acts: newness coming into the world. Not from architects but instead from everyday people responding to the circumstances of their everyday lives. Here and there while observing these ritual practices dedicated to various 'gods,' 'goods,' or 'good,' we will (over)hear the practitioners of construction, art, commerce, and consumption discuss beauty, satisfaction, freedom, transcendence, transgression, survival, ethics, meaning, and value. And sometimes to our surprise, we will find these voices to be our own.

In this class you are encouraged to lose your architecture in order to find your architecture. (Do you have experiences that are not architecture, yet also inform and even symbolize, and perhaps idealize, your architecture?)

If so, then this is a class designed for you. If so, then you are possibly asking such questions as: What are the limits of architecture? What ghosts and unborn entities inhabit its edges? Can/does architecture emerge from things and conditions not considered architecture? Or, is architecture 'placed' into ordinary existence from outside of it? It is assumed we can 'dwell' inside of architecture. What does it mean to dwell outside of it?

Both our mantra and modus operandi for addressing these questions will be "GET OUT NOW!" Pay attention to everything that abuts the rural road, the city street, the suburban boulevard. Walk. Stroll. Saunter. Ride a bike, coast along a lot. Camp. Have a picnic in a roadside park. Spend the afternoon in an 'ice house.' Explore. Get out now and stay out (long enough to forget programming.) Take in and record new surroundings. Enjoy the best-kept secret around--the ordinary, everyday landscape that rewards any explorer, that touches any explorer. Outside lies utterly ordinary space open to any casual explorer willing to find the extraordinary. Outside lies the reward of unprogrammed awareness. Outside away from things experts have already explained, the thoughtful person willing to look around carefully for a few minutes, to scrutinize things about which he or she knows very little, begins to be aware, to notice, to explore. And, almost always, that person starts to understand, and to see great cultural and social and economic and political patterns heretofore unnoticed by themselves and the so-called 'experts.' Exploring ordinary landscapes shakes then shatters walls that direct so much of our thinking. Risking the shattering of these walls is worth all the risks of going for a long, careful walk, for riding a bicycle down a different street, or through an alley; for seeing what others do not bother to photograph, for noticing what others do not realize. [This and following paragraph: see Stilgoe]

So go ahead, GET OUT NOW. Gain a new perspective on interstate gas service stations, electric wires, the rural mailbox, dirt tracks and foot paths through 'vacant' lots, even lawns and pigeons. Prowl alleys, abandoned railroad tracks, the forested fringe surrounding gated communities, retention ponds. Hang out at ATM machines, community mail box stations at apartment complexes--and find meaning in them all. Seeing the world around you, rather than floating through it like a robot, alerts the eye, jolts the brain--and challenges society by shining the light of authentic discovery and awareness upon seemingly mundane aspects of social interaction, technology, and the built environment. Explore and consider the 'margins of life:' the places we are used to ignoring or abhorring. Use these places as potentially essential material for understanding. Go to places where, because they don't fit/coincide with your programmed learning, everything seems out of sequence, unprogrammed, unnoticed by everyone but you. Open yourself to the possibility that discovering bits and pieces of peculiar, idiosyncratic importance in ordinary landscapes scrapes away the deep veneer of programmed learning that overlies and smothers the self-directed learning of childhood and early adolescence.

Open yourself to the possibility that we can learn as much about architecture from 'outside' of it as 'inside' it. Doubt for awhile what is and isn't architecture. Immerse yourself in the everyday: The quotidian, the normative, the familiar, the prosaic, the repetitive, the relentlessly ordinary, the anonymous, the authorless, the so-called insignificant, mundane, routine, minor, lesser; the under-privileged, the common, the incremental, subtle, tentative, persistent; the pervasive, the provisional, the humble, the taken-for-granted, the unsigned, the unnamed, the as-of-yet unbranded; the off-the-shelf, the straightforward, undefined, unrefined, uncategorized, non-prescriptive, un-didactic, not-yet-coopted. The vernacular, improvisational, concrete, real, .... And see if this is not a good place to find out about architecture (what it is, what it isn't, what it can be, become; how it can renew, revive, revivify, reenchant itself.) And see if this is not a good place to find out for yourself what you want to do! How you will design a practice; your own ontological livelihood. How you'll want to 'practice.' Breadth of alternative comparison is encouraged. You are encouraged to erase the lines between process and product in architecture; to see architecture as a 'gerund.'

This will be a critical speculation: We will 'claim' architecture by defining it dynamically. We will evolve our ideas of architecture by considering 'everything else.' We will evolve our ideas of practice by considering theory. And vice versa. Embracing the poetics and the politics of the everyday; the rich possibilities and the very real problematics of the everyday. A goal will be to reinvigorate 'the familiar': the near, the common, the under-foot; while critiquing the 'systematization' of everyday life. Once we embrace the value of the everyday, we will then take on the responsibility of asking ourselves: Can we as architects really get inside it? As architects, what knowledge do we have of the everyday? What right do we have to re-design other people's lives? Once we become 'trained' is it then too late for us to be not only directly receptive to the everyday, but also to ever expect to be 'of' its 'of-ness?' As architects working by practicing as architects do, are we forever, limited to only being 'about' not 'of' the everyday? When, as architects, we seek to enter into the everyday: do we only 'graze,' 'skim,' 'tour,' 'coopt?' Are we doomed to only 'extract value' away from the everyday. The answers are 'no.' But only if we transcend these real possibilities by critically embracing such caveats. And once accomplished, might we then start considering how we might practice? For instance, might we decide to become more like 'facilitators' than authoritative 'auteurs?' More rooted in 'place?' This is to also say: In the tradition of Lefebvre, Certeau, Bourdieu, Levi-Straus and others, we will look at the context of 'the everyday' as both a set of resource-laden potential influences for practice and as a field (context, venue, site) for practice. We will consider 'the everyday' as 'process, product, program, and client.' Or, put even another way, we'll wonder why people say such things as these:

Unique architecture is vulgar, commonplace architecture is beautiful!
-Customer review of an architecture book on "Amazon.com"

It is always good to remind ourselves that we mustn't take people for fools.
-Michel de Certeau

...everyone knows that architects are snooty aesthetes who wear funny glasses and pay no attention to how people actually live.
-Money magazine, January 1999

Topics and exercises will include:

  • You'll begin the semester by attempting to define 'architecture' and give an example. Then you'll be asked to define what isn't architecture, again with example. You'll do the same with 'everyday,' 'theory,' and 'practice.' From here we'll revel in all kinds of exercises. Such as:
  • Notice something commonplace and pervasive, insidious even, that you've never noticed before (or at least noticed long ago but then forgot.)
  • Go someplace very familiar and notice patterns you've not heretofore noticed. Ask yourself why you are now noticing patterns you previously did not, or even ignored.
  • Remember something once taken-for-granted that now no longer exists.
  • Consider/discover the existence and value of things which endure without permanence.
  • Present a building not designed by an architect and describe its value and meaning. Speculate into its value and meaning for architecture.
  • Find 'something insignificant' and present a description of it; find places, objects, buildings, people, acts, uses which embody the everyday in 'qualitative ways.'
  • Go to Home Depot with ten dollars and make something good/useful/beautiful/with 'life in it.'
  • Ask someone to 'hire you.' To pay you ten dollars for materials and then collaborate with you in designing and making something of value which they need. Ask yourself and others: "Who is architecture for?"
  • Gather a bunch of materials and a large group of people you don't know into the courtyard and 'improvise' the making of something with them.
  • Elaborate upon this question: Do you have experiences that are not architecture/architectural?
  • Explore emerging vernacular 'cultures,' 'anti-aesthetic' cultures (such as bmx-ers who frequent 'hills' on 9th. Street.) Observe their patterns, rituals, preferences, 'styles.' Speculate on the pros and cons of 'designing' for them. Consider what you might learn about what you do by observing what they do.
  • Ask contractors, builders, construction workers, lenders, appraisers, clients, users, about their opinions/experience with architecture and architects. Ask them what is and isn't .... With definitions.
  • You define 'client.' Read/write poetry. Follow a cat around. Watch 'situation' comedy.
  • And so on ....
  • All while scrutinizing anything you have come to ignore. And asking yourself, always asking yourself: "What does this have to do with architecture? My architecture?" Always open to seeing/experiencing/acknowledging more and more of the ground of being. Architecture's ground of being. Your ground of being.

    Always asking yourself: "What is architecture and where does it come from?" All while constantly tossing a salad with the following ingredients: architecture, everyday, practice, theory.