In a 1967 report published in Eye: Magazine of the Yale Arts Association, Charles Moore, chairman of the department of architecture at Yale University’s School of Art and Architecture (A&A), spoke to a “marked shift” then taking place.
Students and faculty have now become involved to an unprecedented extent, in real problems in all their complexity with a concern for social issues and more concern for its form and less concern for the shape of objects in it. To an increasing extent, design solutions are expected to come at least partly from interaction with the user rather than from the imposition of an architect’s formal preconceptions. With the development of these concerns comes of course an interest in new tools which are likely to make design more responsive to the complex needs of the world around us.
Moore identified two new streams of architectural research and teaching within the school related to this shift: on the one hand, the rising fascination with the computer and techniques it facilitated and, on the other hand, a series of initiatives directed towards poverty in America, projects then focused on Appalachia, New Haven, and Harlem. This nexus of computerization and “a concern for social issues” was then informing vanguard practices within architecture, giving rise to research—along with objects, systems, and spaces—affiliated, knowingly or otherwise, with the complex and multifaceted regulatory apparatus emerging to govern the built environment and populations within it.
While frequently situated as a radical or avant-garde departure from traditional formal and aesthetic concerns in architecture, the late-sixties engagement with information technologies and computerization as well as the rise of the “user” as an object of social scientific knowledge—all under the rubric of “responsiveness”—can also be read as symptomatic of the discipline’s functionalist response to a period of rapid technological transformation and of tumultuous social change, for which it was indeed seeking new tools. In what follows I want to trace some instances from the late 1960s wherein the ambivalence of such “responsive” architectural strategies—resonating between attempts to forge departures from a dominant matrix of power and inscribing architecture more firmly within it—came to the fore at the A&A: at a moment when architects are again engaging the unstable forces of technological and material change while seeking new modes of social engagement, understanding the complex dynamics at work during this earlier period seems to warrant critical attention. Shifting fluidly and at times indistinctly between forging participatory environments and testing social and environmental control mechanisms, these ambiguous experiments remind us of the complicated and politically charged milieu within which architecture necessarily operates and to which it contributes. If these dynamics were evident elsewhere, Yale during the remarkable period under Moore offers a particularly cogent case study of the difficulties of negotiating this milieu, and of the need to take responsibility for one’s position within such a shifting matrix.
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