In his classroom, Turner Brooks gives free rein to students’ imaginations
Describing the experience of learning in architect Turner Brooks’ classroom, one student said, “He engendered us with an appreciation for the strangeness, or even wonder, that lies behind even the simplest things in life. And in return, we always got the sense that he felt we had things to teach him, too.” Brooks, awarded the Sidonie Miskimin Clauss ’75 Prize for Teaching Excellence in the Humanities, says there are no lectures in his architecture courses; instead, he wanders around like a “mechanic,” helping students discover the tools to solve their own problems and “to find their own voice.” As they learn about the concept of space, students are given creative assignments that allow their own imaginations to take them into new expanses.
Courses: “Architecture 450a, Senior Studio” (for architecture majors) and “The Making of American Architecture” (freshman seminar)
What excites you about teaching Yale undergraduates?
First of all, of course, the students are incredibly brilliant. Their minds are so clear and fresh and unencumbered. They are ready to confront what I think of as the kind of “existential situation” of making architecture, where they really have to create something out of nothing. Essentially, I don’t give any lectures and there’s no explanation of how to do this. Instead, it’s every student working things out in his or her own very personal way. I am like a mechanic who runs around the studio tightening nuts and bolts and things like that. I do help them by finding precedents and tools with which to work.
The first project that I have given to students in the last few years is called the “Dominant Void,” and it’s a project where the space that’s defined must communicate as more potent, powerful, and palpable than whatever it is that defines it, which is a bit of a paradox, to be sure. It’s a little bit like the quest for the Holy Grail. There are a few Galahads who actually succeed. There are lots of sweating Lancelots and Gawains, struggling — and the results of their struggles are every bit as wonderful as the ones who are victorious. But with the few Galahads what you see is the amazing phenomena of the supposed emptiness of space becoming more powerful, tangible, and actually more “there” than whatever the actual physical thing that’s defining it.
This course is largely about understanding space, what makes space work that relates to the human body in a haptic way, as the body travels through it. I feel that space is underrepresented in the teaching of architecture, compared, say, to “form” and “surface” and “shape.” But space, in my estimation, is the most important concept in architecture. There are not even many words to describe it. I use the word “palpable” to describe how space isn’t empty: It is something. I had a friend who once said he loved the idea that if you removed the shell of his building, the space would still be there as a kind of entity in itself.
The “Dominant Void” has been the first project over the last several years, then we progress to projects that have a real client and a real site, so the friction between site and program begin to give the students more ingredients to inform their architectural thinking, bringing with them this knowledge of space from the first project.
What do your students teach you?
I think the students teach me about solving problems like I, theoretically, am teaching them to solve problems. It’s a very reciprocal experience. I am their leader but I feel I learn tons from the way they look at a situation and have an idea about how to tweak it and solve it.
What advice would you give to a Yale undergraduate about his or her time here?
I think it would be to take advantage the whole university. One of the great things about the architecture major here is that it is still part of the liberal arts scene. It’s not a professional school. So I advise that they go and take philosophy courses and history courses and just explore what they can’t do later on, because they are in this amazing place that has so many great teachers and different disciplines. I think that’s the spirit of the undergraduate major in architecture. Even with the mythic “all nighters” that the architecture school is famous for, students still mange to find the time to go take other courses in other fields or even do “double” majors. I think that is a huge advantage over some of the more professional undergraduate programs. In the end, the education of an architect comes from everywhere, so I think it is probably not so good to specialize too early.
I’ve met so many students later on who have not become architects and sort of worry when I ask them: What about the architecture major? And they say, “Oh, no, it taught me to solve problems.” So they don’t regret taking the architecture major. Somehow it’s something they are very happy to have majored in, even if they are not practicing architects. I love that fact, because sometimes I do feel architecture is a little bit arcane and far out there and nobody really understands us. So I think it’s good that we educate people who don’t become architects as well as those who do.
If there’s one thing you’d like your students to learn from you, what would that be?
I hope they learn to take risks and solve problems in original and creative ways.
I also hope they also have better appreciation and understanding of what space is, how to choreograph the space around a meaningful program, so that the body actually feels celebrated as it goes from one space to another space. I feel there are so many “empty spaces,” spaces that have no palpability, and it’s very hard to feel good in them. A lot of us have lost our sense of what a good space is.
I’m reminded of campus facilities I designed in New York State for children with autism spectrum disorder, for whom knowing where one is in space is almost a matter of life and death. These children would be very unhappy in, say, a shopping center, which is a chaotic nothingness of empty space. They need this kind of choreographed space where they can reconnoiter with where they’ve been and where they are going. The aspect of space as an important vehicle for moving from one area to another without feeling lost is a very important aspect of architecture.
What is one of your most memorable classroom experiences?
At the end of the “Dominant Void” project, the whole seventh-floor pit of the Art & Architecture Building is filled with these large objects that are celebrating the fullness of space. You walk amongst them, and it’s an amazing experience of these vibrating and palpitating forces all around you. I love that.
One of my many favorite moments of teaching was when one of my students said, “I love my ‘Dominant Void,’” in a very passionate way.
I enjoy the excitement that students have about their own creations. It’s really great the way they find their own voice, and I really encourage this. Everybody is pursuing their own imaginative thinking about the project, and so if there are 16 students there are 16 incredibly different projects, and that I find very exciting. I also love the “mess” of the studio. It’s unlike any other part of the school. There’s debris everywhere and out of the debris things are evolving and coming together in these wonderful creations. I find it very exhilarating.