Building Technology: ‘Steel as required’
It was during the 1940s and ’50s that the general mode of teaching building technology that would be prevalent in North American architecture schools for the next four decades was firmly established. The division of instruction in building technology into discrete courses such as structures, construction, and environmental systems arose in response to a variety of factors. Refined mathematical theories had been developed for structural analysis, new kinds of environmental devices like air-conditioning were suddenly ubiquitous, and the means and methods of construction had been further transformed by new materials, processes, and business arrangements. As the transition from a form of architectural training based on office apprenticeship to one institutionalized in a formal educational setting was completed, new kinds of learning that fit into semesters and course units had to be developed, even as the profession held onto its previous requirements for practical internships and the ACSA debated the role of professional work in education. The transition was in no way smooth. By the 1960s, in the view of Reyner Banham—an architectural historian trained as a mechanical engineer—architects remained stubbornly focused on structural, space-enclosing elements of buildings like walls, roofs, and windows, even as those very elements were being radically transformed, virtually beneath their pencils.
According to Banham, the opposite concerns of architects and engineers continued to echo the differing approaches of the École des Beaux-Arts and the École Polytechnique. But while Banham sought a belated reconciliation of these two approaches, technology itself was undergoing a further transformation. As the philosopher and critic Ivan Illich would argue, the concept of instrumentality and of increasingly powerful tools that had characterized machine-age technology came to an end sometime in the 1980s and was superseded by a new paradigm, that of the system. The latter was characterized by self-organization, feedback loops, and emergent behavior. The seeds of this transformation go back philosophically at least to the Scottish Enlightenment, but they began to permeate the sciences in the early twentieth century, and they were actively put to work during World War II in practical and theoretical projects. In the 1960s courses drawing on general systems theory and cybernetics began to appear in architecture schools, as they did in social science departments and schools of business. Christopher Alexander at Berkeley, Peter McCleary at the University of Pennsylvania, and Lionel March at Cambridge University delved into different aspects of this growing field. In 1967 Progressive Architecture published an article coining the term “performance design” in a report on the influence of systems analysis in the architecture schools, and cited 30 universities where it was being taught. Related courses on eco-systems and transportation networks were concurrently introduced into landscape and planning departments, transforming both disciplines. Building technology courses, however, remained stubbornly focused on their discrete technologies [until the mid-1990s] when the shift to systems thinking described by Illich was everywhere enabled by the expansion of affordable computational power.