How to Survive Teaching an Architecture Course: A Guide for Non-Architectural Art Historians


Guest Author: Elizabeth Berkowitz

There comes a time in every young, adjunct professor’s life when one is called upon to teach a course abutting, but generally outside of one’s area of expertise. In my experience, that course was Modern Architecture. With an academic focus on Modern painting, I confronted not only the difficulties of teaching outside of one’s area of specialization, but also the inherent mismatch between architectural works and the standard, image-comparison, art history lecture.

Even with non-architectural media, an instructor operates at a deficit. The work of art or performance inevitably loses some of its immediacy or “present-ness” when reduced to PowerPoint slides. When teaching sculptural works, one often includes extended descriptions of the experience interacting with the object as a means to compensate for the object-in-the-round’s reduction to a flat, one-sided screen image. One asks: How did the sculptor accommodate the viewer’s movement? Was it meant to be seen from all sides? How does the sculpture interact with its surrounding space? When discussing performance, an event in time, one explains how the fetishized fragments of the event—photographs, recordings, pieces used in the work itself—are insufficient records of the original experience. Thus, one teaches performance works through descriptions which attempt to recreate the original event in the students’ minds. Even paintings are not immune to the effects of object-to-image depletion. For example, understanding (most) paintings requires the adoption of the fallacy that a three dimensional “thing” of a painting is actually a two-dimensional surface “image,” and the beauty of PowerPoint allows us to further distort any authentic grasp of the canvas itself. In the PowerPoint presentation, a Pollock can be “shrunk” to the size of a Dix print, or a Dix print enlarged to compete with the breadth of a Pollock. On every level, there is a degree of imprecision or lack involved in teaching art through image alone. However, while for painting, sculpture, or performance, one teaches with a 30 – 50% handicap, for architectural works, the handicap is at least 90%.


Architectural works tap into a complex network of experience. Buildings are made to be walked through, around, in. Thus, the viewer’s presence and multi-sensory experience—absent from an image on screen—are essential to complete the architectural work. The physical components of buildings are equally diverse, and impossible to be contained within a jpeg record. One must account for the properties and aesthetic effects of building materials (steel, stone, wood, terra cotta), the numerous documents dictating spatial organization (plans, blueprints, floor plans, side views, sketches), and the ultimate interaction among these materials to create the unified, finished product (i.e, the combination of rusticated brick with a more finished façade). And then, finally, you have the “image” on the projector screen—the iconic jpeg. As a representation of one particular part of the building taken from one particular perspective, the jpeg metonymically signals the diverse experience of the whole architectural unit, neatly reduced to a few, glowing pixels. With this in mind, how can one teach works which, far more than traditional artistic media, cannot be captured by image alone? Furthermore, how can one grapple with architecture’s irreducibility to image if one’s area of expertise, and therefore “teaching-comfort-zone,” focuses on images?


Here are tips and strategies I developed in response to both of these problems:

How to Survive Teaching an Architecture Course: A Guide for Non-Architectural Art Historians:

  • Use survey books to pinpoint essential works, and direct the flow of your course. A survey book is an excellent jumping off point for an upper level undergraduate course. Particularly for areas in which I was less familiar, the survey gave me a quick run-down of the “greatest hits,” ensuring that I included such works in my lessons, and allowing me to target subsequent research to those architects and buildings already deemed “essential-to-know.”

After receiving wonderful suggestions from my colleagues, I settled on Marvin Trachtenberg and Isabelle Hyman’s Architecture: From Prehistory to Post-Modernismas a guidepost. The criteria which dictated my ultimate selection was the fact that this textbook adhered to the schema which defined “Modern Architecture” or “Modern Art” as post-Enlightenment. This time bracket for “Modern Art” can be found, for example, in H.H. Arnason’s History of Modern Arta text used in my institution’s Modern Art Survey courses. My hope was that, by beginning from the Enlightenment, my course could operate parallel to the students’ current approach to the “Modern” period.

  • Figure out the overlap between your area of specialization, and the course you are assigned to teach. Chances are, you have encountered architectural works while exhausting the literature in your area of specialization. Grab on to those familiar sites, couched within your familiar field, and use that (comforting and comfortable) context to shape your course.

For example, my interests lie with pre-World War II European Avant-Gardes, specifically works responding to the devastation of World War I. It was therefore natural (and logical for a Modern Architecture course) to dedicate a course to the Bauhaus, and use the narrative of pre-WWI’s “the promise of technology” vs. post-WWI’s “the betrayal of technology” as a contextual thread, weaving its way from the nineteenth-century into the present.

  • Broaden and challenge the criteria of the field. I chose to interpret “architecture” beyond built structures, incorporating “built spaces” as well as “fantasy architecture”. In many ways, adopting an expanded definition of what constitutes “architecture” utilized my own, (relatively) fresh-faced encounter with this field to shape my course. Questioning “what is architecture?” “what are the limits of what we consider ‘architecture’ rather than ‘art’?” allowed me to address works which played to my research strengths. For example, I have a lecture on “The Avant-Garde Transformation of Space,” discussing the Merzbau of Kurt Schwitters; the Brücke studio of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner; and the exhibition installations of El Lissitzky. In addition, to capitalize on my interests in popular culture’s intersection with “high art,” I have two courses dedicated to World’s Fairs—both the nineteenth-century highlights, as well as the twentieth-century versions in New York. Several courses dedicated to “Fantasy Architecture,” never-executed architectural programs, transformed architectural works into the comfort of images—images, such as those by Piranesi and Bruno Taut, which played with the Romantic and Modernist Utopian drives of each period.
  • Your weakness is also your greatest strength. Your encounter with many of these works is often just as virginal as your students’ encounter. This is a unique opportunity to, in some ways, see the course as your students will see it—if you find interest and excitement in the discovery of certain buildings, themes, or biographical stories, your students may be just as interested or excited. Let your enthusiasm, wonder, or curiosity dictate the themes of each lesson, and you may find that your students will respond in kind. For example, in researching the Gilded Age architecture of Richard Morris Hunt, I was struck by the bizarre historical pastiche of his Newport homes. My perception of “strangeness” became an organizing principle of this lecture, and provoked a fascinating discussion among my students.
  • Know your limits. Architecture is, of course, more than a collection of materials, and more than aesthetics. It involves by necessity highly skilled engineers, builders, and individuals with a solid understanding of physics. This is where my skillset as an art historian arrived at a roadblock—no matter how prepared I may be for each lecture, there is a limit as to how much of the technical background I can, or should, attempt to incorporate into my course. Therefore, I decided against including technical aspects, beyond those necessary to explain aesthetic choices, and chose to focus instead on the components of architecture—history, design, biography—which align with my training.

How to Accommodate the Instructional Deficit Inherent to Teaching Architectural Works Through Images:

  • Use the deficit as an opening for discussion. If, from the get-go, you set the terms for your students regarding the course’s limitations—that the concept that “space” cannot be accessed through an “image”—you establish a set of talking points which crop up again and again as you teach the material. “How do you move through the building?” and “From which vantage point was the jpeg photograph taken?” become commonplace questions which lead to further discussion. In addition, an acknowledgement of the limitations of teaching architecture through images can dictate writing assignments. In lieu of traditional image-comparison essays—a format which, for my class, is reserved for quizzes—I had my students compare the space of our classroom (how you move through the space, its contents, the amount of light, etc.) to any other room of their choosing. Such an assignment ultimately strengthens visual analysis skills, while training students to consider the complexities of evaluating a physical and sensory encounter with an architectural work. The inclusion of primary source texts on your syllabus similarly helps acknowledge and address the difficulties of teaching architecture. Not only does the addition of primary source texts provide a “voice”, immediate context, and opportunity to develop textual analytic skills in relation to the structures, but such texts further underscore the multi-faceted experience of architectural space. A building, comprised of physical parts as well as the visitor’s bodily encounter, is also defined through the intention and spirit of the architect—the experience the architect desired for the work.
  • Technology is your friend. Between YouTube building tours and online databases, the internet and its multi-media products are essential to provide a virtual experience with far-away sites, and slightly close the gap between image and space. My favorite resources are through the Columbia University Art History Media Department. Mapping Gothic France and Real? Virtual have proven to be invaluable to my course.
  • Make use of your surroundings. My institution’s campus is in itself an architectural monument. By incorporating campus tours, and walking through the actual buildings, the concept of actually experiencing architectural space—as well as the lack inherent to notbeing able to experience such spaces—becomes vividly apparent. Think outside the box—is there a construction project on campus? Can you have the foreman give a (safe) tour of the construction, so students can see the “bones” of a building? Experiences help both you and your students overcome the limitations of architecture-as-image.

Ultimately, when faced with the prospect of teaching an “alien” course—fear not! Make like Rosie the Riveter and assert that you, too, truly can do this, and you will grow as a scholar in the process.


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