PP and Aldo van Eyck discuss “Summer Place” projects with first year students  - 1968 (photo A. Gitalis)

I came to Toronto in 1967 fifteen years after first graduating from the AA School in London and seven years after Harvard GSD. I began a career in teaching in the UK to supplement a practice—eventually teaching became a full-time enthusiasm, first at the local Art College, then the AA, then Harvard. Harvard was followed by Columbia where, with Ray Lifchez, I was able to reform the first year studio programme. The work Ray and I did in Columbia persuaded John Andrews, then Chairman of Architecture at U of T, to invite me to move North. His carrot was the chance to design a new curriculum for the five-year undergraduate B.Arch. programme.

With John’s encouragement and extraordinary support from many colleagues—faculty and visitors (who came from Canada, the US and Europe)—we introduced the “New Programme.” It drew on many sources and influences—from the AA’s progressive post-war period (itself influenced by the English progressive schools like A. S. Neill’s “Summerhill”), Aldo van Eyck’s eloquent contributions to architectural debate, Ivan Illich’s “Deschooling Society” and my own experience teaching design studios. Primarily it shifted emphasis to the studio by introducing year-long “Core Problems” within which dependent courses were concentrated into “workshops” or crash courses (as they are in commerce and the military) based on the idea that learning is motivated by need-to-know.

Their themes, the first year Introductory Problems—Institutions, Historical Case Studies, Photo Essay and Support, Fill, Action—and the subsequent Core Problems—Summer Place, Oasis, Resort and Settlement, Education with their component parts—Summer Assignments, Manifestoes, Photo Montage, Historical Precedents, Structures Workshops, Design Details, and, inevitably, the Reviews and Evaluations—all are evocative still (resonating as the names of battlefields do to many more than those who fought on them). Supplementing the core problems as “electives” were the more conventional academic courses which could be chosen either to extend “workshop” topics or to take advantage of courses available beyond the Faculty.

Making the studio the focus of the programme caused us to rethink the space we had on the upper floors of 230 College. Jeff Stinson invented a “kit of parts” with which each year could refigure its allotted area by constructing meeting spaces, lofts and workplaces. (This burst of annual building owed much to the extraordinary MIT studios spaces of that time and to the convenience of the Carpenter Center studios.) Each year the constructions were revamped to suit new habits; eventually they were cleared away as the “seminar imperative” declined into individualism—much to the satisfaction of the fire department for whom encroachments into taped-out fire lanes were a perpetual problem. (No doubt the constructions were less “elegant” than new-style renovations required.)

Attempting to reduce the competitive spirit that was part of the ethos of traditional programmes, “juries” in which faculty talked to mute students were replaced with “reviews” in the manner of a seminar. Guided by a chairperson, eight or so students from all years described their projects and the ideas they represented each and, in turn, would be the focus of comparative discussion. Notes were kept (and later formed the basis of end-of-term assessments). A first year student could comment on a fifth year student’s project as well as, more obviously, a fifth year student might comment on a first year project. This was the spirit that informed the Department Council and its committees—admissions, curriculum and appointments, for example. It was one of the few within the University that had parity representation of faculty and students.

It was perhaps in the years to come that students chose (or were persuaded) to give up parity in the Department’s affairs that greatly surprised me albeit in the surprising times that swiftly came upon the place in the late ‘70s. I believed that “school” could be a more convivial place (I take the word from Illich) than it had been in my experience. (And all too quickly would be so again!) “School” is a difficult concept and it is particularly difficult in less-than-scientific fields where opinion, rather than fact, appears to be the common currency. A teacher may have more experience to draw upon than a student but, unfortunately experience guarantees only what is already understood. Understanding may be helpful in an exploration undertaken through comparative analysis—my experience suggests this while yours may suggest that. (In teaching mode, I tried to remember that, almost without exception, students danced better than I ever have—though, I also reminded myself, I was no slouch with slides!)

As the programme began to revert to a traditional organisation, I took great pleasure being offered “gigs” in less familiar venues—sanctuaries from the turmoil that was engaging 230 College Street. For several years New College hosted a design course than enabled architecture students to work with non-architecture students on projects, both individually or cooperatively, designing and making things (usually in rooms not very well equipped as studios—studios are a privilege). Later University College sponsored a lecture course on “design” again for non-architecture students. These programmes confirmed the sad polarisation that exists between the architectural profession and society (where exposure to “design” comes as little more than speedy endorsements in the “lifestyle” or “fashion” sections of the weekend papers).

Finding sanctuary further afield, the School at Washington University in St Louis, was particularly rewarding. There I was able to work with groups of students, both graduate and undergraduate, who, for one semester or so, would risk experimenting with a “process” of design that did not emphasise a finished product over the ways of getting there. It lead to the development of models that evolved through the manipulation of unlikely materials—mesh which allowed a “see-through” appreciation of relationships between the assembled pieces, mostly “found,” that represented much of the stuff we inevitably import into buildings. The models tended to be rather messy (bringing disdain upon them by those with professional standards); they changed quickly, evolving in response to talk about them and the experiences they represented. With such models it was possible to evoke many contributing elements: plumbing, heating, and mechanical equipment (usually unplaced in traditional student projects) could be represented just as structure could. My last studios in Toronto, given under the defusing concept of “option studios,” were derived from these experiences. For me, despite having no context within the curriculum, they were pleasurable in as much as they were relatively convivial experiences shared by a small group of people who agreed to give something a try—for the risk of trying it and foregoing the assurance of working within the protocols that end with a recognisable, and winning, product.

I like to think the New Programme encouraged students to think for themselves and extend the range of their abilities. It evolved over ten years or so until times changed (the late ‘60s became the late ‘70s) and new “isms” found their quarries.

Toronto, 2010