Have you ever tried to produce something intentionally wrong or faulty? Architect, academic, and teacher Curtis Roth dreams of truly bad ideas that have the capacity to question the seemingly good things — such as architecture in general and teaching architecture specifically. Because it’s only when you produce something really bad that you might be able to understand what »good« means. Welcome to the University of Bad Ideas.
It all started with a bad idea. Somewhere outside of Venice, sometime in 2014, with a competition deadline for a curatorial concept looming and nothing but bad ideas on hand. We decided something about lemons into lemonade, or at least that awful thoughts must be a peculiar specialty of ours. A rare kind of expertise we could convert into more useful forms of capital, like, for example: a well-paying job curating an international triennial. So instead of an exhibition as-such, we proposed The University of Bad Ideas, an experimental college specializing only in those forms of intellection too weak to be entertained under the highly-policed guidelines of more sophisticated institutions.
A Sloppy House
But then again, maybe starting this text in the middle of the story was a bad idea, some amateurish application of a literary technique entirely unsuited for an architect whose skill in writing is only bad at best. Better to start at the start, as in:
With respect to this blog’s title, I’m generally sure that teaching architecture, as an art, is a bad idea. An affair weighed-down by the need to constantly imagine some kind of phantom audience for our own arcane aesthetic feuding — a century-old system of education ill-suited for preparing graduates to intelligently organize toilets in something like a real world. That said, teaching architecture (as an art) pays my rent, which makes me something like a professional purveyor of bad ideas and, at times, even a connoisseur. And the simple fact that I’m not the only architecture professor secretly entertaining the doubt that what I teach has much instrumental value for the practical labors my students will eventually be paid for has long been a calling card for something like the disciplinary autonomy of architecture itself. A posture situating the academy as a productively insulated space of speculation, unhinged from the pressures of more pragmatic economies elsewhere.
But as heroic as we collectively imagine our well-mannered uselessness to be, in the end, this form of a bad idea is only the quintessential conceptual act performed by any self-respecting avant-garde (i.e. upsetting established canons through the willful substitution of bad for good: porcelain urinals replacing marble figures, black squares standing-in for pictorial virtuosity, or blank white walls erasing articulated architectural surfaces, etc.). In other words, the bad idea’s ability to dismantle our best conventions, only to become canonized as a new regime of good ideas seems to be some sort of recurring structure of exchange through which architecture’s status quo continually renews its claim towards value.
»But still I occasionally find myself dreaming of something like a truly bad idea, not the fashionably useless formalisms that make up my own financial bread and butter, but another sort of bad idea altogether, a bad idea with the capacity to make visible that ubiquitous metaphysics that seems to underwrite any academic institution in the first place, that is: the presumption that the academy itself is an unquestionably good thing.« Curtis Roth
But still I occasionally find myself dreaming of something like a truly bad idea, not the fashionably useless formalisms that make up my own financial bread and butter, but another sort of bad idea altogether, a bad idea with the capacity to make visible that ubiquitous metaphysics that seems to underwrite any academic institution in the first place, that is: the presumption that the academy itself is an unquestionably good thing. While we may bicker over which forms of knowledge constitute best practices, the formats of research and teaching we rely on are implicitly structured by the discipline of architecture’s ontological assurance that architecture in general, and teaching architecture specifically, are good ideas. So if what gets researched, taught and ultimately practiced is determined by discourse’s demand for good ideas, my interest in bad ideas lies in the suspicion that the role these implicit values play in our own pedagogies might best be interrogated through the willful attempt to articulate what might constitute a bad architectural idea, or perhaps more accurately: a bad architectural idea today.
A Poor Cube
So when my collaborators at OfficeUS and I proposed to formulate an experimental university for the 2016 Oslo Architecture Triennial — a temporary academy devoted towards researching what might constitute a bad architectural idea in the contemporary moment — our interest was less in some avant-garde anti-fashionable cultivation of difference, than in a naive attempt to interrogate the most basic ethical assumptions we rely on in order to articulate why we believe that teaching architecture is a meaningful vocation.
We imagined a university organized around an annual open competition, one in which potential collaborators could propose research units devoted towards those topics that best escape conventional models of good pedagogical practice (i.e. a workshop on procrastination as a design method, or a seminar on arbitrary aesthetics). Each of the selected research units would be given total autonomy to develop an experimental pedagogical model best suited for the bad ideas at hand. At the conclusion of every three month semester, we imagined that a conference consisting of the entire university and a group of invited experts in bad ideas might be convened to adjudicate the results. Any bad ideas that had failed (that is: that had proven themselves to hold the potential to become good ideas) would be expelled from the university, where they might find a more hospitable home in other more well-meaning academies; any ideas that continued to strike us as legitimately bad ideas would continue on into the following semester to be undone by a new class of students.
»And while most architectural competition losses are quickly forgotten, I still return to the hope that one day I might be capable of constructing a truly bad architectural idea, so as to better understand why I believe that what I do for a living is a good pursuit.« Curtis Roth
In the end, our competition entry suffered the predictable fate of a curatorial proposal offering to deliver only the worst ideas imaginable. And while most architectural competition losses are quickly forgotten, I still return to the hope that one day I might be capable of constructing a truly bad architectural idea, so as to better understand why I believe that what I do for a living is a good pursuit.
In my own pedagogical practices this has led to an enduring interest in constructing scenarios that probe the underlying values of a design studio course or an architectural seminar. Staging situations that sit uncomfortably with the accepted norms of these educational formats. Assignments have included everything from writing an intentionally uninteresting term paper to calibrating the specific techniques of building a sloppy architectural model. While the assignments, and their fruitfulness has been varied, the pursuit is ultimately motivated by an attempt to entertain and confront the doubt that I have that teaching architecture (as an art) is a good idea to begin with.