Peer review colloquium at the TU Delft

Back in the days when I was a student of architecture at the TU Delft, the way practicing architects and design educators look at architectural history and theory already struck me as a bit odd. Now that I have joined the ‘opposite camp’, where architectural history is an independent field of enquiry, that impression has only consolidated itself. It was once again confirmed during a Peer Review Colloquium that I attended in June this year,[1] hosted by the faculty of Architecture, TU Delft , where I was the only graduate student who was not – at least not fully – trained as an architect and affiliated with a design institute. The reason why the department recently decided to invite external graduates to these meetings probably had something to do with an interesting – and, I imagine, to the department somewhat troubling – pattern I observed throughout the event: graduate students trained by design institutes tend to look at research in a programmatic way. In presentation after presentation, my fellow graduates received the feedback that they should avoid the pitfall of gathering ‘evidence’ to sustain some pre-cooked personal view of things, and start looking objectively at their material instead.

Reflecting on this a bit, I started wondering if this approach has something to do with the way design students are trained, and the way history and theory are offered to them. From my own, quite summary experiences with the Delft programme, what I remember above all is the intensity of it. Architecture students’ days are packed with a variety of activities: most of them quite hands-on, and in some way subservient to the design process. In this labour-intensive schedule, history and theory are added as an afterthought: in my days the first was compressed into four or five chronologically organised lecture courses, each concluded with a multiple choice (!) exam on David Watkin’s History of Western Architecture, while the second was condensed into a single course of lectures, concluded by an open book essay exam. Granted, that was in the Bachelor, some ten years ago. But observing friends and acquaintances in the current Master’s track, even after continuous alterations to the programme nothing much seems to have changed. Architecture students in the Netherlands are not sufficiently trained in critical reflection on anything other than actual designs, and are certainly not taught how to deal with textual sources, let alone textual sources from before the 20th century.

Searching for ways to fill this gap, they seem to have found a useful role model in the preferred way of communication of the so-called ‘star architects’, heavily leaning on postmodernist theory. In addition, there is the Italian fascination with hermetic speak, also quite influential, and – I can imagine – contagious if your research project focuses on an author who uses it prolifically. Still, why are design students not taught to critically reflect on the musings of these architectural prophets, instead of adopting their frame of reference as their own? That would prepare those who aspire to a PhD degree in architecture much better for their task.

Of course, in a design institute such as the Delft faculty of Architecture, that would also diminish the amount of time allocated to the actual design process, which still is –and should be – the core of the programme. Moreover, it would require a different kind of staff: no longer teachers who were themselves trained as architects, and who themselves adopted the frame of reference of fashionable authors, but specialists from the field of cultural history. Until that time, it is indeed a good idea to bring graduate students at design institutes in touch with the world of graduate students otherwise affiliated: it might get an interesting exchange of ideas and approaches going.

[1] See the full program here; and the problem statement I prepared for it here .


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