>>Humanity and the Architect

post date: May 4, 2016
cat: news


José Duarte’s interview in Pontos de Vista magazine, about Humanity and the Architect – in Portuguese, translated below:


Education and formation: through the lens of a professor

Humanity and the architect

“First of all, I want students to become sensitive to the problems that humanity is facing today, trying with them to find out how architects, planners, and designers can contribute to solving these problems,” says José Pinto Duarte, professor at The Pennsylvania State University, in an interview to the Pontos de Vista magazine. Learn more by the voice of one who knows.

“Ethics is the glue that sticks all the other principles together. Without strong ethics everything disintegrates, it is impossible to cooperate, but also to compete.”

After the Faculty of Architecture of the Technical University of Lisbon, you are now leading a research center at The Pennsylvania State University. How would you describe this moment in your career?

This is a different time that shares similarities to earlier times. I was initially included in a short list of candidates for the position by the university search committee and ended up being the successful bidder, I believe, because of my past experience and the future vision I presented. It might be worth mentioning a few details about the position, which is Chair in Design Innovation and Director of the Stuckeman Center for Design Computing (SCDC). SCDC is one of the research centers of the School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, which includes urban design and graphic design, and is part of the College of Arts and Architecture. The position and the center were created by an endowment donated by a school’s alumnus with the specific mission to promote innovation and economic and social development through research in new technologies applied to architecture and landscape architecture. I believe that my contract was due to my experience in research and teaching in the area, first acquired at MIT, here in the US, and then applied at the University of Lisbon, in Portugal, which was guided by a particular philosophy that translated into research results with economic impact. This philosophy includes several principles.

One of them is the inclusion of new technologies early in the formation of architects, urban planners, and designers, along with traditional technologies. This permits future professionals to acquire an ability to select and use the most appropriate technology for each design problem, allowing them to develop innovative solutions, in which innovation is, sometimes, in the selection of traditional techniques, as paradoxical as it may seem. This approach does not pre-exclude anyone from a possible solution, thereby promoting social inclusion. For example, the proposed solution can use traditional technologies such as earth construction, but the utilization of new design technologies can enable new uses of such a technology and create jobs in innovative and traditional areas, simultaneously. The result can be a rich and diverse productive fabric in terms of sophistication, but also in terms of adaptation to changes in the economic environment, avoiding major disruptions.

Another principle is the assumption of knowledge as a whole. That is, the division into scientific fields resulting from increased knowledge and consequent specialization is artificial, and it may be useful and even necessary in resource management, but it is harmful in addressing problems that require integrated solutions. For this reason, such a division should be counterbalanced, by promoting the training of professionals with diverse knowledge and the integration of different professionals in shared situations and spaces. For example, in the university curriculum, there should be a range of elective theoretical courses that enable training professionals with slightly different backgrounds, with some overlap with professionals from other areas, and able to communicate with them. Similarly, there must be practical courses with the participation of students from different area organized into multidisciplinary teams to address complex problems. I remember a project I participated which included students and professors of medicine, architecture and engineering. The goal was to develop a mathematical and geometric model of the dynamic behavior of the spine to rehearse solutions before surgery with the introduction of prosthetics in spinal patients. The physicians provided the results of magnetic resonance imaging of the patient, with which the architects created a 3D geometric model of the body; in turn, the engineers used this model to study the static and dynamic behavior of the spinal structure while rehearsing prosthetic solutions in various materials, until finding the most suitable; this result that was then provided to doctors.

A third principle is to demystify the idea that each professional can only do exactly what s/he was trained for, being a failure when unable, as the opposite may be desirable. Taking the previous example, an architect and an engineer do not have to work on the design of buildings and can work on problems that on a concrete level seem very different, but on abstract and even philosophical level may be similar. The human body is our first house in the world and as such is subject to the same laws of gravity. Seeing reality through this prism allows one to maximize the contribution to society and the sense of personal fulfillment.

The fourth principle is related to collaboration. Emphasis should be on cooperation, not on competition. It is by collaborating that we can find appropriate solutions to the problems that affect us. If the only thing we do is to compete, we will never have the opportunity to find such solutions. Collaboration should exist within each institution, but also among different institutions. Collaboration reduces stress and allows one to optimize resources.

The fifth principle concerns intersections between educational and research institutions and the society in which they operate. It must be the reading of reality that feeds education and research, in order to ensure that institutions form professionals suitable to the needs of society, able to be a part of and contribute to it. This makes it easier for research results funded by public or private funds to be translated into social benefits. This does not mean that institutions should undertake only applied research. Basic research is absolutely necessary, although social benefits may not be immediate. It is thanks to the laws of gravity discovered by Newton in the eighteenth century that today we can build the boldest buildings in unlikely locations.

The last principle that I would like to stress is ethics. Ethics is the glue that sticks all the other principles together. Without strong ethics everything disintegrates, it is impossible to cooperate, but also to compete. For example, a company that gets a prominent place in the productive fabric of a country by evading taxes will have a hard time to competing internationally. Tax evasion means lack of cooperation, as it consists in the use of resources for which we do not contribute. We cannot compete because we do not add value to products but artificially lower production costs by not paying taxes. As in business, ethics is fundamental in institutions dedicated to research.

Returning to your question, these are the principles that I applied in my work in Portugal and I want to apply here. I see this moment in my career as an opportunity to deepen them in a country that apparently has more resources than Portugal, although this difference does not necessarily translate into an advantage. Our mission as researchers is to work with the existing resources, which are a part of the reality where we operate.

I think one of the biggest challenges in my new position is to build a cohesive research team from existing elements but also new elements that may be hired. The American society places a strong emphasis on individualism, but fortunately universities are governed by a high sense of ethics, which allows one to overcome the downsides of the previous feature.

The global world brought changes in the labor market, filtering in prepared professionals and strengthening their individualism. Is entrance or re-entrance in the market getting increasingly demanding?

The answer to this question is linked to what I said earlier about multidisciplinarity, collaboration and reality. It is essential to train diversified and flexible professionals, who are able to work with professionals from other areas and to apply the knowledge acquired to other realities. These professionals should remain open to personal growth, learning how to operate new techniques and work in new realities. Collaboration is essential, reaching out to seek help and to assist. This also means that society must be attentive to reality, which includes a core of people with less training in certain areas; it is necessary to take this into account when tackling problems. For example, designing for a region using construction techniques that use the local workforce is a smart solution. This may mean to use local techniques, but also to introduce new ones that can be sustainable in the future, that may be assimilated and incorporated in the local community. Social exclusion must be avoided at all costs as it is not sustainable, leading to disruptions that negatively affect all, both included and excluded. We must work in both directions: on the one hand, perceive reality, the valences of the existing labor force for designing new realities and, on the other hand, the labor force must remain open to learn. The architect must think about the use of local building solutions, but local workers should be available to learn new construction techniques.

In a particularly difficult moment for Portuguese architects, many of them emigrate due to the lack of opportunities. Is it essential concerted action of public and private organizations to support a common goal?

Emigration does not have to be seen as something absolutely negative, but as a transient feature that allows society to adapt. Borders are an artificial construct. We must face the world as our true home. It is difficult for a society in a given region, coinciding with a country or not, to be in constant growth. Therefore, there are movements of people towards regions with a more vibrant economy at a given time, but migration target regions change. This is not to say that we should not make an effort to ensure a strong economy everywhere. Of course we should. Not the least because if there are major economic differences, the situation is not sustainable. There is now a very large migratory flow towards few countries. Sometimes, these countries follow a policy where competition forces are superior to collaboration forces. This makes no sense. For example, Southern European countries were under enormous external pressure (with this I do not deny the existence negative internal forces that weakened them), which destroyed employment and overloaded Northern countries, the target of the resulting migration. How long can Northern countries endure such a situation without rupture? What investments are necessary to prevent or repair it? It would have been least costly to make concerted efforts to ensure employment in Southern countries. Most likely, such an investment would have been more effective too. Notice that even from the environmental point of view, the current situation makes no sense; some countries become overpopulated and other depopulated.

Returning to the issue of emigration, accepting that it is not possible to avoid it completely, it has advantages. This is particularly true in the case of architecture. Emigration permits cultural dissemination of a certain way of making architecture. It also allows those who are temporarily absent to learn new realities and bring this experience back with them, thereby enriching the local lexicon of processes and solutions. It allows us to establish ties between the countries of origin and destination of migration, which can translate later into cultural and economic exchange. Returning to the idea that ​​borders are artificial, today’s technology already allows people to live in one country and work in or for another. Technology can make separations less dramatic as it allows people to remain emotionally connected, although physically absent.

In a country with the continental dimensions of the United States, very often people move from one state to another due to work, but as borders are not rigid, internal migration dos not assume the dramatic contours it acquires in Europe and it has long been considered natural due to economic cycles. As borders become blurred the same will happen in Europe. Unfortunately today, with the resurgence of nationalisms, they seem to be more pronounced, but I believe this is a temporary phenomenon. Anyway, I stress that policies should avoid large economic imbalances.

Considering that at the moment you are in direct contact with American education in architecture, what differences would you point out relatively to the Portuguese education system in this area?

I think we need to examine the issue at two levels.

The first level is university education in general. In the United States, college education as long been flexible, due to curricula based on a system of credits, which enables the training of professionals with slightly different characteristics and promotes mobility. For example, it is rather common for students to get an undergraduate degree from a school and a graduate degree from another. It was this flexible system that was sought in Europe with the Reformation of Bologna, but the practical results are still scarce. Much has changed in form but little in content. For example, higher education was divided between a 3-year bachelor’s degree and a 2-year master’s degree, but then integrated master’s degrees were created, which are in practice identical to the old 5-year degrees. This was due to the need of some professional associations to ensure that some courses would continue to be subsidized during the five years of training, but in practice it reduced flexibility and mobility and is fundamentally unfair since some courses are subsidized and others not. It is a remnant of the Estado Novo corporatism. Architecture is among the areas that have an integrated master’s program. There has been, however, some progress and things will continue to evolve over time.

The second level is architectural education. This is very similar in the two countries at various levels. First, the formation of architects is based on design studios, courses in which students design a building or an urban plan of increasing complexity over the years. There are, however, some differences. In the United States within each level, instructors of different cohorts can provide students with problems of a different nature and in Portugal there is a tendency for the problem to be the same. Then there is a tendency for education to be more theoretical in Portugal and more practical in the US. For example, it is common for students to build functional prototypes of their design proposals, such as the partial model of a facade system, which is rarer in Portugal. Then there are differences related to the prevailing building systems in each country. In Portugal, it is cheaper to use concrete and in the US steel or wood. There are also differences in the languages of form, reflecting other cultural differences. However, I would say that there are many similarities between the two countries: because there was a trend for architecture to be homogenized with the modern movement, which only recently is being countered with an increased awareness to meet regional differences in terms of climate, natural resources, culture, and so on; and because both countries fall into the sphere of Western culture. If I wanted to point out another difference I would say that perhaps the United States is more open to technological innovation and Portugal to formal innovation.

As a professional, which will be your line of action to transmit knowledge to students, whether in Portugal or in the US?

First of all, I want students to become sensitive to the problems that humanity is facing today, trying with them to find out how architects, planners, and designers can contribute to solving these problems,

My action will be geared towards the application of the principles enunciated above. First of all, I want students to become sensitive to the problems that humanity is facing today, trying with them to find out how architects, planners, and designers can contribute to solving these problems. These problems include asymmetric population growth, increasing urbanization, climate change, rising sea levels, the scarcity of natural resources, such as drinking water and food. There are also problems of a more political and cultural nature, such as asymmetries in human and economic development, migrations, and consumerism, to name a few. Then I want students to be aware of the need to make a correct reading of the context where they are working and attend to local specificities. As any architect knows, the goal of any built work is to host people while performing certain tasks in a given location. One needs to understand people, perceive the cultural roots of their tasks, and study the site in depth to maximize the satisfaction of needs and minimize the use of resources. In my case particular case, as director of the SCDC, the mission is to study how new technologies can assist in achieving these goals. I believe that the university environment of The Pennsylvania State University is conducive to this end, since there is a great culture of interdisciplinarity and innovation. Penn State is one of the American universities classified as Research 1, meaning that it is at the forefront of research. For example it is one of the universities that develop more research for the US Department of Defense. It will be interesting to study how technology developed for military purposes can be used for peaceful endeavors, in particular, for the construction of more sustainable buildings and cities, with less environmental impact, thereby helping to find answers to the problems that affect humanity.

According to the latest data, Portugal has a youth unemployment rate that exceeds 30%. Although high, it is decreasing. Do you believe that youth has been one of the national priorities?

I think that in one way or another youth has been present in the basket of concerns. I also think the youth problems are not solved by addressing them only as youth problems. These problems are a result of problems at other levels. There is high youth unemployment because society and the economy cannot create new jobs, so it is not possible to absorb new entrants into the labor market. The problem can be solved by creating new jobs. Young people have the disadvantage of experience but have the advantage of more up-to-date training. It is important to create an entrepreneurial spirit in young people, so that they not only seek employment but can also create it. This entrepreneurial spirit is absolutely necessary and should exist not only in young people, as the older ones can also be entrepreneurs. There are, however, “traditions” in Portuguese society that cause barriers to this mechanism. The promotion of ideas and people should be based on merit. Only then can we ensure that good ideas and the most prepared people can thrive and thus help all the others.