Potteries Thinkbelt – Education, Architecture and a Way Foward

Perhaps one of Cedric Price’s most important, and most overlooked designs is his Potteries Thinkbelt proposal for North Staffordshire, England.  Academic antipathy towards this particular project is probably largely premised on the fact that the design itself represents a significant challenge to traditional educational practices, and the buildings, regions and infrastructures that support them.  Professional antipathy towards this project comes from the fact that, on the one hand, Price does not provide formal responses to complex social functions, but rather infrastructural ones, and, on the other hand, that he emphasizes the social aspect of architectural design, something that few architects are willing to either accept or acknowledge, largely because of the negative connotations of “social engineering” frequently attributed to consciously socially centered design strategies.

The Potteries Thinkbelt is unprecedented, in Price’s overall oeuvre, for its scale – it is a regional proposal designed in a way that adapts existing industrial infrastructure for the purposes of creating a vast, craft/trade-based educational facility.  Like many of the cities of America’s “Rust Belt,” the Potteries region of North Staffordshire represented a depressed economic zone, littered with the detritus of a previous era’s industrial opulence.  It incorporated a vast ceramics industrial field fueled by nearby coal mines, all of which were closed by the 1960s as new emissions regulations made the traditional economies of the region impracticable.

Similar to Price’s earlier Fun Palace, the Potteries Thinkbelt was designed as an undetermined, flexible infrastructure of vast scale, capable of accommodating any number of emergent programs, defined by emerging educational needs.  The focus of the university was projective – Price was not interested in creating an educational setting in which people learned established fields, but rather one in which new fields of enquiry were created to address the new needs of a dynamic global market place.  Thus, his critique of traditional educational establishments was two-pronged.  On the one hand, he critiqued them for creating “gentlemen” who, in the words of one of his sympathizers, “could misquote Horace, but were incapable of maintaining their own vehicles,” on the other hand, he critiqued traditional universities for their retrospective gaze; a gaze that he felt ill-equipped graduates for addressing contemporary needs.

Finally, Price also critiqued the established university system for its overtly classist orientation, which made going to university a sign of privilege, emphasized by the anti-utilitarian orientation of the universities themselves.  As a sign of privilege, a university education was also (in the terms of Thornstein Veblan), a method of conspicuous consumption, tied to notions of the leisured class, who could not be bothered with dirtying their hands with pragmatic fields of enquiry.  Naturally, Price’s critique is focused on the form of education prevalent in England in the 1960s – the time at which the Potteries was designed.

However, this does not necessarily mean that Price’s critique is neither apt, nor relevant for today, or that his Potteries deserves the arguably complicit silence on behalf of educators and architects that it currently earns.  Throughout the months of May and June, as universities across America have held their commencements, there have been a number of commencement speeches that have essentially argued the same thing.  To paraphrase:  “To the graduating class of 2011, you have worked hard, and earned the degrees with which you will walk away today; but times are tough; in all probability, you will be unable to find the positions that you want, and for which you have ostensibly trained, with intent; you will have to sacrifice, compromise and make-due until the economy gets better, if it gets better.  Many of you will fail, but with persistence and perseverance, the degrees that you’ve all earned will prove an asset in the long run.”

While this assessment is at least superficially sincere and realistic, it also belies a number of subcutaneous issues.  In the first place, there is little reason for optimistic projection – the economy is still contracting in certain sectors, and where there is growth, this growth is not occurring fast enough to accommodate most of today’s graduates.  This is compounded by the fact that these graduates are facing incredible competition, not only from their peers, but also from large numbers of unemployed professionals, who also have degrees and who have at least some experience on their resumes, as well as an aging population of professionals who are deferring retirement for more propitious times.  In addition to this, many graduates who do find work can expect to be hired into vulnerable entry-level positions, for which they are over-educated, untrained and will be underpaid.  For students unfortunate enough to come from the lower, lower-middle and solidly middle-classes, and who have relied on loans to complete an education that they hoped would provide some economic mobility, the income that they earn may be inadequate to cover the combined costs of living and loan repayment (which can be the monthly equivalent of rent, in some cases, and of a mortgage in others).

This assessment applies equally to the liberal arts as it does to the “pure” sciences.  Conversely, the one amenity that differs from the social environment with which Price was dealing in the 1960s – the existence of trade colleges – does not, necessarily, provide much advantage to the graduates of these colleges, or technical schools.  While the cost of education may be significantly lower, in certain cases, degrees from these colleges are not generally competitive when leveraged against those from larger, better established universities.  With more students from these universities applying to jobs that they might have overlooked under better economic conditions, chances are that what positions there are will be filled by students graduating from these universities, not from local technical schools.

The overall situation is one in which the cost of education is too high, while the benefits of higher education are no longer as clearly apparent as they once were.  Unfortunately, companies have become conditioned to look for a college degree on applications, even when a high-school diploma will do just as well; a secretary, or administrative assistant, does not need an English degree from Yale to fulfill the requirements of his/her position; and taking this kind of position will probably put him/her at a short-term economic disadvantage.  Meanwhile, the high-school graduate has an increasingly limited field of potential jobs from which to pull.  To make things worse, the United States is loosing ground as a research and development nation competing on a global scale; its lack of innovation is tied to its social inertia; its unwillingness to look at things like green design as an opportunity to define new footholds in emerging global markets, means that the country’s infatuation with business-as-usual strategies based on antiquated technologies (and tied to mythical upper-tax-bracket relief as a stimulus for economic growth) is negatively affecting the country’s economic competitiveness and growth, and the jobs that this kind of economic expansion would create.

The result of this is that contemporary American systems of higher education, corporate employment, research and development, energy sourcing and expenditure and manufacturing all need to be addressed in innovative and imaginative ways, which imply radical recalibrations in all of these sectors.  Since many of the underlying issues effecting these sectors are both social and political in nature, many architects, urban planners and designers find these topics outside of their general fields of influence.  The ability of architects, in particular, to address these issues in innovative and challenging ways is further compromised by the educational standards that apply to this particular field.  Today, students of architecture must complete a Masters Degree at an accredited university (a minimum of 6 years of study), before completing 5,600 Intern Development Hours, which qualify them to take a rigorous (and expensive) series of exams.  Only after passing all of the exams, can an architect be licensed.

This is all governed by a number of private, quasi-governmental agencies, like NCARB, the NAAB and the AIA, that, on the one hand, hold limited, direct, regulative capabilities, while, on the other hand, maintaining incredible influence on how government agencies regulate the field.  The redundancies of this system are readily apparent, and the system itself is a hybrid, combining traditional university education with an older apprenticeship model; regulated through a system of examination that ensures that practicing architects are appropriately knowledgeable in their chosen field of practice.  However, the subtle lines of demarcation between these phases of architectural “education,” reveal some of the inherent problems with contemporary educational practices outlined above.

University-based architectural education focuses largely on the theoretical concerns of the field, while IDP (the interning portion of the educational process) focuses on developing core practical intelligence, and the examinations ensure that licensed architects understand (well enough) the legal requirements to which the profession is held.  The system of checks and balances, however, continues beyond the licensing portion of an architectural education, and embraces a number of professions on which the architect ultimately relies for the construction of a building, including contractors (and subcontractors), HVAC professionals, electricians, structural engineers and plumbers, all of which are assigned ultimate responsibility for potential failures in the design by the numerous and complicated contracts devised by the AIA to protect architects.

The net consequences of this system are that, by the time a Masters graduate in architecture becomes a licensed architect, he or she has become fully imbedded in and frequently complicit with existing systems of architectural education and practice.  This ultimately limits his/her willingness and/or ability to challenge these systems in meaningful ways, assuming that his/her goal was to add to the discourse of architecture through meaningful design strategies that extend beyond the economic benefits of being an architect, and/or the cache that comes with the title.  In other words, having paid the exorbitant dues associated with becoming a practicing architect, having invested in the current educational and contractual model of architectural education, it is less likely that emerging architects will be willing to challenge the system through which they have recently gone, especially when doing so might mean more competition in an already stagnating field.  The same might be said of most other professionals, holding degrees in higher education.

This said, the title frequently applied to, and adopted by Price, of “anti-architect” is perhaps more apt in contemporary America than it was when it was first attributed to him in England in the 1960s.  However, Price’s work remains a significant touchstone for radical architecture, and has inspired architects like Archigram (and by extension, Sir Peter Cook and Mike Webb), Richard Rogers, Renzo Piano, Norman Foster, Rem Koolhaas and Bernard Tschumi.  In light of this, Price’s work, especially his Potteries Thinkbelt, deserves a second, or even tertiary, review, for its inherent worth as a socially conscious attempt to address concerns with which we are still conflicted, if not as an entrance point to challenging orthodox interpretations pertaining to both the training and production of architects today.

Stripped down, Price’s Potteries Thinkbelt represents an innovative approach to adaptive reuse, especially as it pertains to the ailing, weathered, and crumbling edifices and infrastructure of the old industrial era.  It implies a radical rethinking of the relationship between structure and infrastructure, between pleasure and learning and between productive play and the production of practical knowledge; it places architecture firmly within the hands of the people who engage it, in a way that enables them beyond the aesthetic plateau on which architecture is currently perched.  Furthermore, while this article is focused on Price’s innovative approach to both architecture and education, this need not result in a series of Potteries projects, transforming steel mills and grain elevators across America’s heartland into centers of practical knowledge, but rather, it implies that these sites can be reused and redesigned in ways that enable people, that do not treat people as dumb, or ubiquitous users, but as human beings who are curious, engaged and capable, given the proper environment, and the opportunity to explore and express their unique interests.

In the end, the Potteries represent a unique beginning; the possibility for interpretations, reinventions and exploration, conditions of being that their underdetermined program invites as an alternative to simple answers to complex questions; they represent a way of embracing complexity as a design strategy, that needs not be dumbed-down to the level of quasi-interesting forms that ultimately loose their aesthetic appeal through familiarity, and changing stylistic paradigms.  It represents a thoughtful approach to the large social issues confronting us today; a way out, a way forward, in a world over-infatuated with endings and easements, boundaries and borders; focused on limitations rather than possibilities; focused on closure rather than invitations, or truly open systems of innovation and investigation, that lead to innumerable potential alternatives, a new Atlantis, a new world.

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