Architectural MOOC

Course: The Architectural Imagination
Length: 10 weeks, 3-5 hours/week
School/platform: Harvard/edX
Instructors: K. Michael Hays et al

Architecture is not just about the need for shelter or the need for a functional building. In some ways, it’s just what exceeds necessity that is architecture. And it’s the opening onto that excess that makes architecture fundamentally a human endeavor….
Architecture is one of the most complexly negotiated cultural practices there is. And a single instant involves all of the aesthetic, technological, economic, political issues of social production itself. And indeed, in some ways, architecture, as we’ll see, helps articulate history itself. These are all big claims. And we’ll need big ideas to address these claims. And we’ll also need very specific, concrete examples of architectural projects and events from history. Welcome to The Architectural Imagination, an online introduction to the history and theory of architecture.

Every so often, maybe once a decade, I look at a book on architecture to see if I still don’t get it. To me, architecture is about making sure the building doesn’t fall down, but I kept running into either technical explanations of perspective or grand statements about the historical impact of the arch that I can read but not understand. The above excerpt from the introductory lecture – architecture as “what exceeds necessity” – makes more sense than anything I’ve encountered so far. That isn’t to say I was able to go much further with it, but I got a sense of what is meant by the word, anyway, and why my prior conceptualization didn’t work.

I greatly enjoyed the breadth of scope presented: yes, there was some technical work on perspective (and it turned out to be completely understandable and very interesting in relation to some ideas about subject and object), and some of the more artistic concepts eluded me, but there was also history and philosophy and literature. It was quite marvelous.

I ended up taking it as a recreational mooc, partly because I was overloaded with other courses, and partly because, somewhere around Week 5, I just sort of lost the thread of what was happening. I did get back into the groove in the last three weeks, first through utopian cities, and then was greatly moved by the final week’s stunning examination of Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. The course was worth it for that lecture alone: the refusal of forgive and forget, the depth of the wound, the erasure of names, comparisons with the Prague and Mount of Olives burial sites. Another mooc that made me cry.

The course was divided into three modules of three to four weeks each: Form & History, The Technology Effect, and Representation & Context. A different major work was the focus for each week – Italian villas, the Pompidou Center in Paris, German factories, even Utopian city designs that were never built – with additional works brought in as supported the material. Although Dr. Hays did most of the lectures, several other instructors appeared for individual weeks.

The material was based on beautifully produced weekly lectures of about 30 to 40 minutes, broken up into five or six segments, with a substantial reading selection available via pdf for about half of the weeks. Exercises were varied: some required drawing, some were multiple-choice or identification questions about the lecture or reading, some were self-graded short essay questions ranging from outlining the presented material to applying concepts to a new project.

I didn’t really use the forums. It seemed to me there were a lot of more advanced students and I was intimidated and didn’t want to clutter things up, plus they were oddly formatted (I wish mooc designers would realize that pinning more than two or three threads is self-defeating). One comment went unnoticed, perhaps because of the forum setup, perhaps because it was too naïve for the rest of the class. This didn’t help with the intimidation factor, but that’s my problem.

I was quite proud of a couple of the written answers I gave. One asked for an analysis of perspective as seen in a medieval cathedral. The other: analyze the Behrens turbine factory according to Semper’s theoretic structure. I was surprised by my response to this. While the building itself seemed to me like any other factory, I had a great time creating a little story based on conceptual images for hearth, container, framework, and wrap. I also had rather a fun time with the Barcelona Pavilion; I’m sure I missed the mark entirely, but since I come from a land of narratives, I again came up with a story of the posts pushing themselves up from the ground and being restrained from overreaching. I was a bit shocked to be reminded of this in the last week with the Berlin monument: again, a sense of reaching up from the ground, but a far more somber, and important, sense and purpose.

However, I must admit most of my answers were mediocre at best. In the first week of the course, we were to give a sort of pre-course descriptive comparison of two buildings, paying attention to various general aspects: the relationship to the ground, the openings from inside to outside, that sort of thing. I wrote extensively about a very white building on a very green lawn, pegging it as some kind of high-tech research lab for genetic engineering or microcircuitry; it turned out, I discovered later, to be a world-famous house by Corbusier designed to provide a “democratic space” under the private space, and to allow great freedom of movement and vision. Could’ve fooled me. Did fool me.

Part of my problem is that I seem to be lacking any visual artistic sensibility. One building was described as having panes of glass “tilted slightly away from the base, tilted inward toward the building”; this gives “visual weight to the column” and “puts the glass plane on display as a plane.” At least, they tell me it does. Am I supposed to be able to sense that when I look at the pictures? Is this something that requires development, by looking at lots of buildings? If so, if it’s an acquired taste, doesn’t that make it artificial, something learned rather than a natural property, something about the physical structure that triggers brain activity in a certain way that means “weight”, in somewhat the same way that we know which end of an object is closer based on size differentials?

Yes, I really am this clueless, and it’s why I’m frustrated by every art-related course I take. I keep trying, though, and I’m grateful for courses like this one that let me see what is possible, even if I can’t join in.


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