11.10.2009

a festival of prefixes

Discipline. Context is everything in that word. As a personal trait it’s a virtue; as a verb it’s sobering. Architecture is a discipline and its practice takes discipline. It also needs other disciplines. No discipline is an island.


I’ve been in a disciplinary frame of mind for a while now, sparked by two weeks of student midterm reviews and a day trip to Philadelphia. Students in both the architecture and landscape architecture programs at WAAC—we are bi-disciplinary—learn two kinds of discipline in the short time we have them. In our overtly existential environment self-discipline is fundamental to mastering one’s discipline. With equal measures of freedom and responsibility, our students learn (or should learn) that they are responsible for their own choices about what to do and how to do it. We don’t chase them, take role, or impose requirements and serial deadlines. To be a professional, to have mastered the discipline, requires mastering, disciplining, yourself. It’s all much easier to say than to do and we the faculty aren’t always the exemplars we’d like to be. For example, my own self-imposed schedule to post 500 words on this blog has begun to wane in recent weeks, as my disciplined readers know...if they exist. Mea culpa.


Of course, even as we are coaching our students to master the territory of their chosen discipline we’re engaged in a parallel effort at interdiscipinarity. My own studio is probably 60% landscape students; my studio partner landscape architect Jon Fitch and I share custody of the whole gang and bring our own disciplinary perspectives to bear on both landscape and architecture projects. The WAAC is an inter-kind of place. With students and faculty from schools all over the world, and mid-career grad students mixing it up with 4th year undergrads, we’re not only interdisciplinary, but international, and inter-generational…and interesting.


In Philadelphia I visited Philadelphia University, where one of my former students, Rob Fleming, aka “EcoMan,” is directing a new graduate program in sustainability that is truly interdisciplinary. It’s a mash up of students from almost any background, immersed in a gregarious studio culture. Rob sees this as something beyond interdisciplinary; he calls it transdisciplinary. That great word invention got us talking about the veritable festival of prefixes (prefices?) for the word "disciplinary" as we all try to get our silo-busting metaphors just so. Inter...cross...multi...meta-disciplinary? Uber-disciplinary? Infra-disciplinary? Exo-disciplinary? Nano-disciplinary? Oh wait...e-disciplinary!


“Interdisciplinary, ” the old stand-by, is still viable for my teaching environment. We’re teaching specific disciplines, architecture and landscape architecture, but we’re simultaneously probing the space between them--that’s the “inter-” part. It’s also, of course, the interesting part as our students look for the literal and conceptual cracks just outside their attention. I suppose there’s a bit of cross-disciplinary activity as well from the instructional perspective. I trespass into the landscape student’s space and Jon does the same in the architect’s space, each of us hauling our disciplinary knowledge across the border with us.


But Rob’s term, "transdisciplinary", has a nice ring to it. More expansive than “interdisciplinary” and more evocative of crossing than “cross-disciplinary”, “transdisciplinary” feels constantly active. And, it looks just fine without a hyphen. But transdisciplinary still assumes a structure of disciplines over and through which one navigates, and as Rob describes what he is trying to accomplish with his sustainability student polymaths it gets difficult to determine exactly what discipline they’re in. They do some design, but may not be designers. They need to understand the planning process, but may not be planners. They need to know the difference between capital costs and operating costs, but may not be financiers. The sustainability problematic challenges the whole assumption of discipline specificity. It’s not a set of silos, it’s the whole farm. It’s a post-disciplinary problem in need of some post-disciplinarians.


Post-disciplinary: you heard it here first. My late friend Doug Michels, whose life was itself a work of conceptual art, used to joke that he was going to get a © tattooed at the corner of his mouth so that everything he said was copyrighted. I won’t go that far, but you did hear it here first. Now, use it in your own sentence.

1 comment:

Professor Fleming said...

enjoyed reading the blog posting and thanks for the mentioning things here in Philadelphia. I've tried out the post-disciplinary phrase a few times to great effect. i think you've got something here. you get a TM symbol added for effect. i think McDonough trademarked waste = food, so why not you? anyway, we are knee deep in greenbuild here in Arizona, so i'll keep it short...

keep up the writing, its great!