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Nuccio Ordine, “La entrevista póstuma de George Steiner: `Me faltó valor para crear”, published in El País, 5 February 2020: “It’s better to fail in an attempt to create than to have some success in the role of “parasite”, as I like to call the critic who lives with his back to literature. Of course, critics (I have emphasised this several times) sometimes also have a very important function”.

 

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Ibidem,La entrevista póstuma de George Steiner”

Professors, Parasites and Architects

Louis Kahn teaching © kahnkormanhouse

The recent death of George Steiner, and the obligatory look back over his prolific intellectual career, once again reminds us of the ambivalent role played by teachers and critics vis-à-vis that of creators. As a distinguished professor at some of the world’s most prestigious universities, including Oxford, Cambridge and Geneva, Steiner’s labelling of his teaching role as “parasitic” was always a cause of controversy among his peers.1

Notwithstanding the worthiness of his profession, considering himself a creator meant belonging to a group that had usurped a designation to which the history of literature granted it no right. However erudite and privileged the position he occupied, the truly important role was not that of the commentator but that of the writer, the inventor of stories, lives and characters. For Steiner, the critic and the professor were simply vehicles of transmission, occupations that, while beautiful and necessary, were really just intermediary elements in the building of the true chain of knowledge linking those seeking information and those who claimed to possess it.

Today, Steiner’s death reminds us just how relevant that debate is, especially if we consider the role teaching plays in architecture.

The way the university professor’s role has changed over the last twenty years has shaken that noble, time-honoured occupation to its very foundations. In a world where the dividing line between true knowledge and mere information has become so blurred that the two are now indistinguishable, and where both things seem to be within the reach of everyone, no university has the right to proclaim itself their custodian. The way students can now access different channels of learning in an interconnected world questions even the way Steiner himself taught throughout his career. Architecture students in half of the world’s countries now study in ways radically different from how their own teachers studied, using programmes and tools far more complex than those used in the past. And they go to class in search of intellectual support – a guide or even a little inspiration that will help them cope with the chaos of the world they see before them.

But while students no longer see their teacher as a mere dispenser of knowledge, the university itself increasingly expects him/her to act as manager, researcher, consultant and even academic advisor. This model of university education, with full-time professors involved in a thousand and one tasks in addition to their teaching duties is today typical in the English-speaking world, but now it seems also to have extended to architectural training in Spain. And architecture teachers are finding it increasingly difficult to evolve professionally. The process of presenting tenders for new jobs has become so bogged down with new requirements that the activities of architect and teacher of architecture are now, unfortunately, incompatible. Fifty years ago, the names of the most prestigious architects coincided with those of the most respected teachers of architecture, but now the tiny overlap between the two spheres of activity emphatically and stridently illustrates the abyss which separates them. And the situation seems to be irreversible. The old debate over whether it is possible to be both a good architect and a good teacher has now given way to a new question. In view of the increasing demands being made in the academic world, should the highest academic posts automatically be occupied by the best practising architects, for that reason alone? The direction currently being taken by universities makes that more difficult still – and will presumably continue to do so.

And yet Steiner’s incisive remarks still echo, posthumously, in the air: “The distance between those who create literature and those who comment on it is enormous: an ontological distance, a distance of being. My university colleagues never forgave me for supporting these theses; many barons, and some strictly academic critical circles refused to accept my mocking their presumption that they were, sometimes, more important than the authors they were talking about…”.2


Text translated by Andrew V. Taylor
Notas de página
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Nuccio Ordine, “La entrevista póstuma de George Steiner: `Me faltó valor para crear”, published in El País, 5 February 2020: “It’s better to fail in an attempt to create than to have some success in the role of “parasite”, as I like to call the critic who lives with his back to literature. Of course, critics (I have emphasised this several times) sometimes also have a very important function”.

 

2

Ibidem,La entrevista póstuma de George Steiner”

Autor:
Arquitecto y docente; hace convivir la divulgación y enseñanza de la arquitectura, el trabajo en su oficina y el blog 'Múltiples estrategias de arquitectura'.

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