Water Dreams

I woke up this morning with architectural curricular thoughts in my head. It started out by listening to the rain dropping off the eaves onto the decaying leaves outside my bedroom window. “Be fun to have a whole course about water… Architects don’t know enough about water… they think they know—about drainage and flashing and caulk and stuff—but we don’t get at the base issue, what water is and where it comes from and how it moves.”

And then I thought, well, you could have a series of courses, about all of the base elements that buildings experience. A course about water, and about wind, and about fire, and about earth. (And about politics, and about money, two other base elements that buildings must contend with.)

So each semester has one of those courses, that’s six semesters. Then we add the British architect Frank Duffy’s notion that any building is made up of component layers, and that each of those layers needs to be able to slide against one another rather than being firmly imbedded. His layers (he had four, to which two more were later added by the writer Stuart Brand) were Site, Structure, Skin, Services, Spaces and Stuff. Each of those change at different rates, accomplish different kinds of work. So there’s six parallel courses, the second course of each semester.

The third course of each semester would be about people and buildings. People as workers, as clients, as nurturers, as residents, as guests, as connoisseurs.

And the fourth course of each semester, what we’d call “general education” or “liberal studies,” would be about the core values we espouse for every life. A course about rigor, and a course about curiosity. A course about joy, and a course about generosity. A course about love, and a course about death.

So there’s six semesters. Each would have one course about the context of the world, one course about an aspect of physical places, one course about human roles within those places, and one course to help us dream. Semesters seven and eight would be independent, the guided senior thesis in which each student would pull this work together into their own unique narrative.

But alas, such a curriculum could never exist. Like many faculty jobs, a great deal about higher education is contingent rather than values-based. This curriculum could never successfully address transfer students, whether coming in or going out, without losing most of what made it singular. It wouldn’t be comfortably flexible enough to deal with single parents and workers trying to fit a couple of courses at a time into a hardscrabble job schedule. It wouldn’t be aimed at a knowable credential, or fluid enough to match the workforce needs of specific industries as they emerged or ebbed. It wouldn’t match disciplinary expectations, or accreditors standards. It wouldn’t gain the support of legislators and bureaucracies who see education merely as workforce development.

A truly unique college experience would require a singular, monastic devotion on the part of everyone involved, from president to trustees to teacher to student to nervous, fearful parent. And we’re all too contingent for that.