Back in December I visited the Xul Solar Museum in Buenos Aires, a stunning building designed by the renowned Argentinian artist. The Cubist and Surrealist influences visible in his work can be explained by his extensive time spent in Europe during the twentieth century. As well as producing hundreds of drawings, etchings and paintings, Solar designed new languages, alternative rules to the game of chess and a unique system of musical notation.
Walking around the museum you can't help but be overwhelmed by the volume and quality of the work exhibited. Solar was also famed for his visions of utopian cities for the future that floated above the clouds. Walking around the museum I was struck by what I now believe to be the crucial difference between artists and architects. While artists can remove themselves from reality, ignore constraints and disregard inconvenient truths, the architect's output is ultimately answerable to the constraints of the physical world.
Though it is true that many artists work for commissions, they are constrained only by a client's brief and their own ambition. Whether we like it or not, architects are accountable to many more factors. Not just the agendas of those paying the bill, but also those who construct, certify and use our buildings.
Challenging lines are being drawn for architects as the profession becomes increasingly dispensable to its clients. My concern is that while studying, too many architecture students are compelled to search for the big answers to the big problems of society, packaged within the same utopian rhetoric indulged by artists such as Xul Solar.
Architects spend entire careers searching for utopia, but no solution can be universal and timeless because cities, cultures and communities are fluid, living entities. The big answers of yesterday will not answer the big questions of today. Moreover, answers cannot be discovered by removing real-world constraints from the education system. We must always be searching for new ways to contribute to the complex world beyond the walls of our institutions.
I understand the need to develop student's creativity, but during my own training I felt obliged to approximate in areas beyond my capability. For example, not once during my final degree project was I asked to discuss the town planning constraints for a colossal exhibition building in Morden Park, South London. Great architecture comes about as a result of sustained specialisation and strong relationships with clients, suppliers and consultants. The practice of architecture is an intricate web that requires skills currently untaught in architecture schools.
Like artists, architects want their work to be appreciated. There is a systemic yearning for critical acclaim and respect from fellow professionals but this does not pay the bills or guarantee longevity. The architecture education system needs to better analyse the industry it serves so as to prepare its next generation of architects for the challenges they will face.