The Catholic University of America

Class of 2017 Convocation Address
“Many Small Disciplines One Big Universe”
Randall Ott, dean of the School of Architecture and Planning
Upper Church, Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
Sept. 11, 2013


  Randall Ott
  Randall Ott

I appreciate the chance to speak to you today . . . it’s an honor to address our incoming class and have a chance to offer a few remarks on some of what may lay ahead for you.

It’s exciting to enter a university setting . . .
—the joining of a great and diverse community of learning, growth, and faith
—the opportunities for engagement with service, athletics, and outreach
—for involvement and our rapidly changing and evolving neighborhood, which is reinventing itself before our very eyes
—and, most significantly for my talk today, opportunities to learn the craft of becoming a leader in society.

I’ll admit I was wondering for a while what a ‘specialist’ like me — an architectural academic — could tell a general group of incoming students like yourselves. Architects are not exactly a main-line segment of the job market . . . overall we are about as large a working group as licensed veterinarians. Birthing a building — like birthing a calf out in the barn — is not a daily activity in most typical people’s lives.

What’s more, then, only after I had already agreed to speak, did they tell me that I would have to talk without pictures — no drop down screen available here at the front of the Shrine. For an architect, that’s daunting, next to hopeless . . . What’s a lecture without pictures, and a lot of them? . . . If I could flash a few .jpgs of the great cathedrals up here on a screen, I’d have no trouble consuming the time allotted and a lot more . . .

I wondered what I could offer — for instance, I considered a talk on “roof leaks I have known and loved” . . . but I decided against it . . . too technical in nature, and, again, pictures are much better than words when talking about ‘dry rot’ running rampant and out of control in an attic and making a whole house sick . . . saying it isn’t quite like seeing it in action with one’s own eyes . . .

Incidentally, that probably is precisely the kind of talk that would bring in a crowd of general citizens at the National Building Museum down on the Mall, and draw some ‘lay people’ into a discourse on the strange cult of architecture and design . . .

Then, one possible subject came to me that my own discipline could comment upon –– one leading to my title today, “Many Small Disciplines — One Big Universe.” Over the past few decades, incoming waves of specialization have again and again hit all areas of human endeavor. These waves seem never to abate, just continue to rise. Conceptually it’s been like transitioning in one century from the Ancient Greeks’ understanding of the world as composed of four fundamental elements to seeing the universe fracture up into the atomic periodic chart with over a hundred components, only then to see the basic, controlling structure of protons, neutrons, and electrons on which that chart is based subdivide again and again into quarks, leptons, gluons, photons, neutrinos, muons, ‘W’ and ‘Z’ particles, and then, of course, the elusive Higgs-Boson particle (which if we ever did encounter would probably bring the universe to its end or something). More esoteric and exotic particles, certainly, are in the offing . . .

Evidence of fracturing into tiny and intense specializations in the professions is obvious — for example, in medicine. Try to find a ‘general practitioner’ today in our current medical marketplace. The number of specialties being developed is beyond belief. The complexity of modern medicine drives this, and of course gives us great benefits through precisely that specialization. No single person in medicine today can possibly know the entirety of what treatments could be applied. It is enough of a challenge to keep up with the huge developments in a small area of such a diverse terrain.

Nonetheless, despite this incessant drive toward fragmentation, I’m sure we would all agree that there is a necessity for our somehow keeping an eye on the whole of what society does — the whole of what we seek to create as a society. In a landscape of endless ‘Balkanization’ within disciplines, who will keep their eye on coordinating and articulating the broad experience of belonging to and understanding a human community as a whole? Whose eye will be on the universe, rather than on these attractively precise, defined, and specialized disciplines? I take it for granted that we still care about that whole, and that we might even as citizens still care about that the most, yet it becomes increasingly unclear how any of us can achieve that overview . . . and how we could actualize anything about it even if we felt we had it . . .

Class of 2017 Convocation  

Just a second ago, I mentioned veterinarians — not a large group. They have splintered into many specialists — there are oncologists for pets, cancer specialists . . . There are probably veterinarians today who specialize in helping out if your pet snake gets stuck in its skin while it’s trying to molt . . .

Here is something that my own discipline has struggled with mightily over the past few decades:
Architects do have to stand between “two poles” of effort.

A couple words about what the so-called ‘design disciplines’ have faced recently:

We used to have architects who designed the building. And of course contractors who put it up, with the architect standing over their shoulders. And, depending on the size of the work, a consulting engineer. Recently as the 1950’s, that’s what the landscape looked like. When I entered in high school, that still was largely the model, and I wanted to get involved in it — preferably as someone looking over someone else’s shoulder rather than getting sunburnt myself out on job site. (I had an uncle who was a contractor, I worked for him, and I consequently know sunburn well.) So, that was the plan. Back then, you could say you were an architect, and, generally, that meant something ‘in-and-for-itself’ as a recognizable category of human activity.

Engineering moved toward greater specialization. Your engineer became your ‘civil engineer,’ with the follow-on specialties of mechanical engineering, structural engineering, and so forth. Today, on anything larger than a house, that list of possible engineering consultants would be more than a dozen in length. The cost estimating of ever more complex buildings became more challenging; a whole new field of ‘construction management’ became necessary — someone forming a dedicated interface between contractor and client . . . and with that went by the wayside the idea of the architect standing over anyone’s shoulder. Property developers and real estate consultants emerged on the leading edge of the project. The very idea of today coming to an architect for advice on which property to purchase to erect a facility upon has become a strange one. We have specialists for that. Architecture, traditionally understood, itself hived off many other disciplines. Now there are interior designers, furniture specialists, landscape architects, LEED professionals (sustainability), energy consultants, code consultants, egress consultants, ‘core’ consultants (that’s handling the inner mass of elevators and firestairs), computer systems consultants, skin architects, high-style ‘design’ architects (the Frank Gehry’s), architects of record (who do the actual construction documents) . . . the list would go on a lot longer.

And before you even get to beginning to think about doing a building, there now are the city and regional planners, the urban designers, and others who stand at the very start of the process. We’ve recently at our school begun offering tracks in those rapidly evolving disciplines.

The back end has gotten its share of attention recently — we just took steps to add a degree track in ‘facilities management’ — how you maintain and care for a building once you’ve built it — once it’s birthed and out there on site. It’s often said that we as architects are better obstetricians than pediatricians. When the building is done we tell the client, “you’re on your own now” (and then we run away before the roof leaks start. Just because we are architects, doesn’t mean we are dumb . . .) But now there is a specialty amongst those other professionals, the lawyers, who go after us; they have developed, recently, a specialization in construction litigation.

Finally that gap of managing the building is being addressed with yet another entire degree track. There currently are two or three competing accreditation agencies trying to grab the brass ring and become ‘the’ accreditors just for facilities management degrees, as we have recently learned.

I could go on, but you probably get the point. Over the past six to eight years we have developed four concentrations just in our core architecture degree . . . four of them.

We do it for marketing . . . all parents and most students want it see that. . .

Our little solar house for the National Solar Decathlon that we are building up on the hill in front of the Crough Center is evidence of this trend toward hyper-specialization. Three local universities had to get together to lead the charge to realize that 750 square-foot entry in the competition (an object about the scale of a basic one-bedroom condo unit). CUA, with about 70 percent of the project, is handing the architecture and sustainability aspects, our partners across town are doing the rest. GW is handling the interiors, civil engineering, and landscape architecture aspects, which amount to about 25 percent of the effort, and American University is handling the remaining 5 percent — the communications strategy — basically our branding, website, image aspects — our ‘story,’ if you will, about gifting the home upon the end of the competition to a ‘wounded warrior’ from the Iraq War.

Total value of the object as built — roughly $350,000 (most of it gifted to our team in materials and construction help — alumni, suppliers, and supporters have been incredibly generous). Total professional ‘consultancy’ time put into it — if you actually added up the hours of specialized expertise poured into that little house in an effort to make it a net-zero construction — about $500,000. Of course very little of that was actually charged to the effort (most of it was accounting practices for tax write-offs), but it gives a sense of the scale and diversity of expertise out there and necessary today. Literally a hundred professionals, in addition to all of our students and faculty, were necessary to realize a house of that type. Crazy when you think about it, but no surprise really given today’s trends. The effort to build this little house is the very expression of multidisciplinary needs . . .

Imagine the team necessary for a skyscraper.

  Class of 2017 Convocation

Having said all that, it is also very obvious that no one encounters a building as a series of fragmentary interventions. Our citizens encounter and judge the quality of a building as an integral whole . . . they see it as an entity. Same could be said for urban designs and cities. Peoples’ experience of the built environment does not mimic our intense methods of specialization. Paradoxically, we strive to make a whole out of an array of dozens upon dozens of tiny, particularized professional viewpoints. We need them, surely, but we don’t need nor desire for the end result to been perceived and recognized that way. So, back to my title today, out of all these specialized disciplines, who is watching out for the overall universe resulting from the effort?

. . . . and does the public still really care enough to really worry about it?

This issue has traumatized our design professions. We had, once upon a time, as architects particularly, the desire to be the “Renaissance person” who has that overview, who really stood for the entirety, who could see all aspects of the task and insure their proper coordination and hierarchy and create that whole. Architects had the dream of being the orchestra conductor — the person who perhaps does not know any one instrument to perfection, but knows the aggregate sound necessary from the whole array of instruments and knows how to forge it into unity. That person knows that the score ultimately must be made into one performance for the audience as a whole, and not into 100 competing performances, however great each small bit might be. The great architects of the Renaissance spoke and theorized of architecture as ‘frozen music’ — that holism was one of our great desires for our built works. It goes back at least as far back as Imhotep and the pyramids.

For us, these waves of specialization have been hard to swallow. We wanted to be that conductor, which is one reason we were later than most professions to step into the forceful and inevitable flow of modern specialization. Yet how many jobs today are there for that ‘uber-conductor,’ that great overseer of the whole work.

Architects still today think of what we do as ultimately immensely broad — we tell our own students that we make the stage on which humanity lives out its societal life . . . an immensely wide task, really. But one that’s not realistic, frankly, for any one professional to handle today any longer. If it takes 100 consultants to do a house well, such ‘overview’ is going to be in short supply. It is gradually becoming harder and harder to justify training a "generalist" architect, which has obvious implications for how cohesive (or non-cohesive) of a built environment we are going to be making in the future.

So, do we accept a visual environment of detailed effectiveness on one level, yet complete chaos in perception on another?

Same applies to most disciplines. Citizens do not encounter the world as the fragments we approach it in academically, or professionally . . .

I’ll admit it is ironic for someone involved at a school like architecture and planning to be worrying about the modus of ‘generalism’ given that our school’s building, the Crough Center, is notorious for being a silo unto itself — as the place on campus where students enter and never emerge again for four years . . .

What to do about this ‘problem’ of specialization at the expense of the universal?

I have no absolute answer. I do think that this very tension will be the predominant task your generation will face. Those of us sitting up here on the platform today will not be the ones who live to see it addressed, much less resolved. Society only now is only beginning to see its full implications. This trend will simply go onward, and it will be up to those of your vintage to speak to the issue and find some sort of method toward an answer. I could say I suspect it will be one of the quintessentially ‘21st century problems’ in that huge history book written occasionally about all of the centuries . . .

I do have one thought, though, on this issue — one faint suggestion for you. It relates to my interest in being at a university — the very same intriguing community which you now have agreed to join and will spend the next few short years exploring. The nature or character of the university itself comments profoundly on this issue of rampant specialization within the context of a whole. It is a great place to contemplate exactly this quandary. Perhaps it is the best place . . . which is one reason why I enjoy the university setting and have made it a career.

The ‘general’ university itself is a good model or microcosm, if you will, of this very process or tension between the specialized and the universal.

A broadly-based, full-service, multidisciplinary university with dozens of fields of study— and you’re at one of those kinds of universities right now — models the process of an increasing diversity of assigned tasks even as it somehow struggles to still remain a representation of the larger entity we call society. It claims to remain encompassing — even as it offers dozens upon dozens, maybe hundreds, of various and specific degree tracks.

It’s not the only mode that collegiate education follows — some institutions remain very much dedicated to generalist education in a ‘purer’ and more totalizing sense for each individual student —think of purely four-year ‘liberal arts’ colleges that stress wide breadth of study for everyone, with core curriculums that may consume half of more of the course slots, and so forth. That is one view of ‘generalism’ in academia for sure, and I mean no criticism of it, but it is not the experience I am talking about here. Such curricula stress that each student should internalize and become ‘the holism of society’ and should themselves be able to take the entirety of that microcosm into themselves and represent its actions in a thorough, experienced fashion. Again, laudable, but not what I am talking about and not where I see the trends increasingly heading.

CUA is rather different than that. CUA, for a university that is not large, offers a bewildering array of possible specialized career tracks, and you shortly enough will have to begin to sort through those if you have not already. I would say we are very diversified for our scale, with many specialized schools, many Ph.D. programs, many very diverse avenues of exploration . . . yet still forming in aggregate something of a ‘model of the whole,’ of the entirety of the offerings to be had in larger society. We model in miniature the force of specialization operating in society . . . at a scale where one has a chance to see and grasp its methods of operation and see something of the entire landscape. Universities exhibit this starkly through their constant drive toward “multidisciplinary activity.”

Having generated all these specialties, now we realize nothing relates — no one can talk to each other, we do not even share a common language.

Departments evolve committees on how to be multidisciplinary — how to talk to each other . . . How to communicate across disciplinary boundaries. Academies are full of this stuff. It is a modeling of the very tension I am discussing here.

To press the point, maybe one reason that university-bred undergraduates have great success in larger society is that they have had a four-year course in these precise complexities before ever entering society in their selected career track . . .

We always assume that the success of our students is an artifact of the detailed information and skills of analysis delivered in the courses we teach. It is an entirely different way to think of it though, and humbling for anyone teaching a specific course, to suggest that success from a university education comes from enduring and mastering the four-year system of varying demands of specialization within the context of a diverse whole (the university itself) that really leads to success beyond the university. The information conveyed in detail in coursework or in any specific curriculum is still important, surely, but this view means that the most critical aspect is the level of thought and self-reflection that you apply to how the various courses and experiences you have relate — not in what each individual course might have to offer in specialized expertise. Needless to say, this is rarely discussed openly and directly with students at a university. There are not a lot of courses offered in how to use that particular aspect of the university well, even though it may be the most important part of being at a university.

To bring this to a head, I would say that the highest achievement of a ‘true’ university education is (using a well-worn sports metaphor) to give students the chance to learn about the need to both dive deep and skate.

That is what I think someone ready for the 21st century has to be able to do. Both are essential. You cannot be a player in contemporary times without some real, detailed knowledge of the force of specialization and how it operates — you have to have experienced that for yourself. Yet you also cannot succeed without some sense for what the skill of overview offers, a sense of how complex the total landscape has becom,e and how it has to be considered as a cohesive terrain. I think these dual skills will become increasingly a necessity in order to succeed at the highest possible level. These are the two necessary poles of activity for the 21st century.

Having said that universities never speak of this directly, I can say that CUA certainly has done so in the effort five or six years ago to launch the First Year Experience program. If you are a traditional entering freshmen, you are already involved in that as I speak. Its intent, as I see it, is to directly address exactly this issue. I think it was a profound and necessary step in terms of undergraduate education here, and very much supported it, for all the reasons I have just articulated. I won’t detail any of its specifics, as others can speak to that better than me. I respect it as principle. It is not an arbitrary action.

One of a dean’s roles is to meet with students in various conditions of struggle — especially freshmen . . . inevitably they are in deep trouble in their distribution courses and want my direct intercession in their plight. They invariably say:
“Randy, Randy, waive me out, waive me out!! These philosophy professors are serious business! They want me to actually think!! I only want to draw for a living!”

At the outset, I mentioned how the university helps make leaders. One thing I know at that moment, in that meeting with that freshmen, is that I am not dealing with a young person who has real aspiration to be a leader in the 21st century. They do not get it; they sense nothing of the issue I am speaking on today. They are happily oblivious. That does not mean they will not contribute . . . only that someone else will have to coordinate and organize their contribution. No harm in that, just that this freshmen should know what they can and cannot do for society and we should be honest with them about that fact . . .

In any case, I won’t waive them . . . they have to get through that experience of learning to skate laterally, or they won’t get our degree, no matter how great their architectural projects might be.

This realization is particularly relevant for freshmen, as you right now are taking courses across the widest realm that you probably will do in any year in college, not to mention the much more specialized stuff that awaits in graduate school.

Dive deep yet learn to skate laterally. I cannot say it enough.

A couple years ago, a quite successful alumnus visited me, just to chat about the school and the profession. He runs a sizable firm of nearly 30 people down on K-Street — he is the very picture of architectural success on any level you could want. He said it was a dream of his to go back to the university for a semester, just hunker down and get involved with some serious devoted study for once. I asked him what that semester’s course of study would be for him. I naively assumed that he would want to look into advanced professional coursework — say in computers or theory. Remarkably he said it would have nothing to do with architecture — he wanted to go back and do just distribution requirements. He said it would be a dream to just curl up with some of the wonderful texts that professors in ‘other’ courses (meaning those outside of architecture) had tried to get him interested in several decades ago, when he just wasn’t willing. Now as his firm has grown and as his client list has matured, he has met people who have that capacity for lateral vision in addition to real expertise. It would be a dream, he said, to just devote himself to that effort again. He hungered for it; he admitted that he never got it and now realizes that fact. I think his desires were a commentary on exactly the issue I am speaking of here.

Grasp that rather unique quality of the university while you are still a freshmen — grasp its active modeling of that tension, so you have the greatest chance to see and utilize its aspects in your short years here, and, just as importantly, take that principle of the university with you in your intents when you leave here. Stay connected at least peripherally to radically different areas and endeavors as you move out into a career — it is very easy to get completely wrapped up in a corporate ‘mono-culture’ in the specialized professions.

To be a leader in the 21st century you need both of those skills . . .

Thank you for your kind attention.