Thom FAULDERS speaks on his recent option studios at the California College of the Arts (CCA), the technological proficiency of today’s students, searching for the places where architecture and technology or biotechnology meet, a new “flattening” or evenness of precedent, and much more.
*image by and courtesy the author. Overall projects view, “Non-Stop Architecture,” Advanced Studio, Spring 2012, California College of the Arts (CCA). Associate Professor Thom Faulders, instructor.
images, clockwise from top left: Michael CHANG, student presentation; overall projects view, “Non-Stop Architecture”; overall projects view; overall projects view. All work completed as part of “Non-Stop Architecture,” Advanced Studio, Spring 2012, California College of the Arts (CCA), San Francisco. Associate Professor Thom Faulders, instructor. All images by and courtesy the author.
suckerPUNCH: To start, could you tell us a little bit about the recent studios or seminars that you’ve taught at California College of the Arts (CCA)?
Thom FAULDERS: I teach option studios that are a mix of both grad and undergrad students. The past couple of years I’ve been running a studio that is, on the one hand, looking at high-rise typologies, but on the other, perhaps more importantly, is trying to crack this studio culture of spending so much time in and on the computer. We require students to show up with laptops, and that’s great; it’s amazing. But it’s also kind of humorous, because constantly I’m coming up to work with a student and to critique his or her work—and they might have some very large, complex building—and it’s the size of your fist twirling around on a little screen. The students say, “Well, what do you think?” And I’m like, “How the hell would I know!” There’s this kind of scale shift. So really, what I’ve been doing is trying to empirically understanding the work by building it at a fairly large scale—and it has been really interesting, and the students have gotten a lot out of it. So the most recent set of models—and they are models, not digitally fabricated installations—were about six feet tall and rather large. Pedagogically, it’s to climb into the work, both for the students and for faculty and critics, and to create this made artifact that also starts to present, represent, and investigate architectural space. So that’s what we’ve been up to.
sP: One question we’ve been asking everyone is if there’s certain baggage that students bring with them, either good or bad. That could mean influences from their past, from pop culture, or wherever. We’re curious, specific to making these large models, if there’s a certain resistance to or excitement about that, or how exactly the students take that project on.
TF: Building off of what I just said, the baggage that they bring is a laptop. And, of course, the amazing thing that they bring is a laptop. It’s both. For me, all tools matter. I’m not someone who wants to privilege one thing over the next, but in this era, where there’s so much technological proficiency to master in a short amount of time, I think students tend to spend more time working on-screen. And I think that starts to become a bit problematic when they are trying to investigate the spatial and phenomenal aspects which are so much about what we’re exploring. Is that baggage? I don’t know. I think that’s a good question, and one I’ll keep thinking about, especially on the first day of class.
sP: Do you see anything unique going on right now at CCA?
TF: You know, I was just reading in one of the San Francisco newspapers that there’s this migration of tech companies from Silicon Valley back into the city of San Francisco. So it’s an interesting question: Why is this? They’re moving because it’s a good business strategy, and the reason it’s a good business strategy is because San Francisco, like other large metropolitan areas, is a seat of culture—in this case, amazing diversity and so on. These companies, which should be considered more than simply tech companies per se, are really constructing how it is that we live in the world. So they’re cultural and they’re social—theirs are the tools that allow us to communicate, to work, or to do whatever. As these companies come back into the city, there’s this real pull to be back as a participant in a larger creative and political arena, not only off on some campus somewhere a bit isolated. I think this is where CCA is well poised at the moment, as an art, design, and writing school, to be a part of this production of new ideas. We’re always trying to understand what our role is, as a Bay Area school that’s involved with creative capital, in relation to these other capital centers, whether Silicon Valley, biotech, “greentech,” or whatever. That’s an ongoing discussion and experiment. This milieu is one of the things I find exciting about being at CCA. There’s this ethos of the “new” that’s a real moving target. It’s very nebulous, but it’s there, it’s real, and it’s interesting.
sP: Are there a lot of studios that end up taking on Silicon Valley, startups, and emerging technology? Or, is that something passing through the school already, just in terms of studio briefs?
TF: I would say yes. In terms of studio briefs, one is constantly looking at digital culture in the broadest sense. So there’s not only the problem of how we bring this to the students, but also the larger “How?” of where the school is positioning itself and the directions in which it continues. I think this is ongoing; I don’t think it’s something that has already come and gone, that has passed or tracked through. On the one hand, I think that in many ways an educational institution is a very different beast than a start-up, which is trying to move at the fast pace of business. On the other hand, they’re incredibly similar in that they share this start-up mentality and a Wild Wild West way of thinking. And so there are overlaps, but there are also vast differences. The flip side of this is if we were trying to be in that business, then perhaps the school starts to become some kind of tech-sector feeder school. I, for one, value the liberal arts education at a nonprofit institution and the role it plays culturally when surrounded by the energies of tech or biotech. I think it’s a voice that’s needed. So how do we sync up, but keep our distance?
sP: Are there any outside inspirations that you bring into your studios? Even outside of biotech, it seems that nature is underlying in the projects. In a way, you seem to contaminate the students with not just architecture, but with something else.
TF: I’ve also been teaching a seminar titled “Lifelike,” which is a focused, but in many ways broad examination of where architecture and technology or biotechnology meet. But these various influences, from the environment that I described, to me offer possibilities of architecture simply becoming more intelligent—whatever that may mean—and can lead in many diverse directions. What’s really exciting is when our environment simply becomes smarter and does more—and sometimes, what’s most interesting to me, does more with less. This is a form of adaptation and intelligence that I think is embodied in so much of the environmental and technological movements which surround us. And these are the types of influences that I like to bring into the studio.
sP: Are there certain precedents that you’re seeing pop up around CCA, ones which are somehow different than the usual suspects from the 20th-century canon? Or, are there certain precedents that CCA seems to always gravitate toward?
TF: In terms of precedents and what it is that we look at, at least through what I see in schools and through what is afforded by online accessibility, there’s a flattening of information, referring to a term coined by Thomas Friedman. I think there’s a lot of truth to that. This flattening, meaning an evenness to the instantaneous accessibility of projects from all over the world, projects done by both students and by people who have been in their careers for years, provides an instantaneous casserole of possibilities as we click onto our favorite Web site. It’s amazing. And I not only find the students are more sophisticated visually and formally through this access, but also that one can start talking about certain projects, architects, or movements and students are able to get onboard very quickly. Now it’s all there. But there’s also a kind of blandness that comes from this overload of stylistic information. Just this summer alone, I will have been in the Middle East, Europe, and Asia on three separate trips. When I travel and see things that look like everywhere else I’ve been, or just like where I live, there’s this unfortunate creep of homogenous “airportness.” It’s great that we’re a shared, global society, but I get more excited by the unique or by what might be anomalous to how I’d normally think about urban environments. And so this is a negotiation that, as an educator, I think about. It’s not a solution that I’m offering here, but simply an observation.
sP: Are there other differences you see from your own time in school, or even throughout your time teaching, in the conversations that are going on or the type of pedagogy you’re seeing?
TF: I went to grad school in the early ’90s, which was some time ago. And it was a very different time. When I went to school, we were lost in the possibility of thought—lost in a good way, meaning we were intellectually wandering. I wonder, today, if there’s a similar kind of intellectual wandering, but this time through the possibility of technology. And so there’s a difference. We weren’t necessarily using tools to guide new possibilities, but were looking at texts, histories, and so on. And I realize there’s a real danger of overgeneralizing here. But certainly, at least at the undergraduate level where there’s a plethora of new possibilities of technologies, these tools are where the openings are coming from, not necessarily from trying to intellectualize things as much. As opposed to the playground of the concept, it’s now the playground of the tool. I think today is thrilling and tomorrow will be even better. So there’s no nostalgia here and there’s no critique. If you ask me what the difference is, that’s simply how I see it.
sP: Are there certain tendencies that you see trending right now in academia which you’d like to see come into greater focus, or certain tendencies that you consider more of a weakness?
TF: Not so much. I don’t have a good answer for that. I’m an optimist, so I want my students to be optimists. In my seminars we spend a lot of time thinking and reading about future possibilities—based on certain types of data, research in other fields, and what have you. We’re basically asking: How do we move forward? That’s why I teach and that’s what I want my students to think about. And it’s tricky because students, of course, are in a way just trying to learn how to do architecture for the first time. And we’re also loading them up—while you’re doing this, let’s do it in a way that’s innovative. That, I think, is the role of education. I really believe in that. We have an amazing experimental potential there, so why would we not want to really pursue that? Cities and buildings aren’t made by others but are made by us, and so we can come to the table both as young architects, as institutions, and later, when working in the field. So I think it’s that energy which I like to bring to teaching.
sP: What are your thoughts on the relationship of your teaching to professional practice, to your own practice, or to the notion of professional practice in academia today?
TF: I guess there are two different thoughts there. I like to remind my students that the way I run studio at school is the same way I run studio at my practice—that there is experimentation, that there is inquiry, and that there are a hell of a lot of failures, screw-ups, and bad ideas which happen. And so school isn’t just a dress rehearsal for something that you’re just not going to do, but there is this ethos for thinking and experimentation which, for those who are interested and willing, can be taken into a form of practice. Whether that’s putting up buildings, writing software, or whatever, it can have that same spirit of inquiry. So that, to me, is my role as a teacher, both in education and in practice. I think, for me, there’s a nonlinear connection, meaning a kind of loop between the two—they inform each other in some ways.
There’s an economic pressure that’s very real right now, and will certainly continue to be for some time to come. So I feel more of a responsibility, especially the longer I teach, to contextualize why I believe it’s important, necessary, and even useful to spend time on highly speculative ideas. And to try to answer the question: How is this meaningful in this kind of economic climate? And it’s the same with sustainability and issues of environmental pressures. But if we’re not careful, we become simply problem solvers, and I don’t think any of us really want to live in that world. Sometimes when students walk me though their design studio projects and talk about all of the environmental concerns, it feels as if they’re describing an Excel data sheet of this piece of architecture. I would hope that architecture is embedded with a kind of art and humanity; otherwise, I think we’re lost. And I don’t know why those concerns need to be separated. In fact, I like to believe that by making certain things we do culturally meaningful, it will activate us to solve some of these other problems even more readily. If we’re bored with something, we’re not going to pay attention. And this, I think, has to do with some of the discipline’s largest problems. So let’s not be bored, let’s be energized. Architecture is not just simple data, but it’s bigger than that.