Why architectureshould matter

Viewpoint is a new feature of WSU Today where faculty, staff and grad student readers are invited to share their opinions about issues of importance and impact to WSU.
It should come as no surprise when I say that Pullman has no architecture. Yes, it has buildings — even new ones — but it has none that recognize that behind bricks and stone, glass and steel, there is not only the need to accommodate a function but the responsibility to advance a culture.

This is not the place to enter into a full discussion as to the differences between buildings and architecture. But let me say that while buildings aim to satisfy an immediate, often strictly commercial aim, the product of architecture is at once practical and symbolic, functional but also a challenge to its audience to think of its position in the world.

Linked together
This would not be a cause for concern if Pullman were not inextricably linked with WSU — an institution whose statements are riddled with mention of the global, the worldly, the diverse. WSU’s claims to “world-class” status, while true, ultimately ring hollow because the reality finds no match with those statements. World-class ambitions cannot be met with low-class ideas. High-class faculty will refuse to live in scattered and inconsequential buildings. 
For example, a quick drive along Grand Avenue shows little beyond gas stations and neglected farm buildings to grace what should be a proud piece of civic ground.

Suburban waste
The new housing stock in Pullman sadly represents the worst of the effects of a market economy; it has neither respect for art or the environment — or for that matter the fact that within a short walk there is an architecture school with graduates who have gone on to change the world.

Rather than taking clues from cities such as Portland and Seattle — whose architects and developers have joined forces to create a denser and more community friendly environment — Pullman developers have made more suburbs. These offensive McMansions, with garages looking onto the streets, use materials and planning that are highly wasteful and unsustainable.

Rather than building inward and promoting walking and bicycling, these suburbs force those who live in them to use their cars. And rather than building with materials that have a low-carbon footprint and reflect an inventive approach to scarcity, these same suburbs persist with a cookie-cutter mentality.

What faculty want
At the end of the day, world-class faculty do not seek a university because of better labs and equipment. A faculty member wants a place where he or she can gather and talk about ideas, walk and enjoy a discussion against a backdrop of an exciting physical environment. A worldly faculty member wants to be proud of his or her choice of place, not making apologies to those who visit and — more important, to those who come seeking faculty positions and for whose worldly talents the university may be desperately competing.

Unfortunately, the situation has reached a crisis level; I don’t think we can afford any more to rely on the lonely attribute that our place affords good fishing to appeal to and attract worldly faculty.

University must lead
The university also cannot rely on the town to resolve this problem; the town is too bogged down in trying to increase tax revenues to worry about the role of architecture in improving matters. The university must lead the way in not only improving its own grounds but in transforming the town.

We should start with reclaiming the hideous stretch on Grand, perhaps using the cause of student housing to do so. Other departments, or parts of departments, could later follow, especially those whose curricula could benefit from direct access with the town, including architecture.

And insofar as the housing stock is concerned, the university must at least engage in a serious debate with the developers, perhaps forging a public-private relationship with them.

Some examples
At least since the 1950s and 60s, universities across the country have looked to the immediate surrounding community as a way of gaining a competitive edge. The University of Chicago, for instance, realized that the blighted area surrounding its campus had kept many high-quality faculty away. To remedy the situation, the university purchased $30 million worth of land around its campus and worked with that community to beautify and make safe the area.

More recently, Marquette University in Milwaukee found itself with declining enrollment and faculty attrition due to a reputation for marginal grounds and a lifeless, unsafe surrounding context. In the course of a decade or two, the university embarked on an aggressive project to transform its grounds and forged an ambitious relationship with its surrounding neighborhood — including supporting functions that were not directly related to the university but were necessary to building a community.

Today Marquette is the envy of faculty and students. Since its transformation, it has raised admission standards and improved faculty retention.

Similar examples can be found elsewhere: Princeton University, N.J.; Trinity College, Hartford, Conn.; and Arizona State, for example. The ASU president recently stated that his university was “not going to [remain] a place …but a force” in the evolution of the Phoenix region.       

Fooling ourselves
Unless WSU acts on these issues soon, I am afraid that we will continue to fool ourselves about world-class achievements and talk about excellence that our physical surroundings just don’t support.

Ayad Rahmani is a registered architect, author and associate professor in the School of Architecture and Construction Management. He has been at WSU since 1996, teaching architectural design, theory and criticism.

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