MANUEL GRAÇA DIAS learning architecture - teaching (PART I)

João Caria Lopes (JCL): We are delighted to start this series of interviews with the Architect, Professor and a great promoter of Architecture, Manuel Graça Dias. I would like to begin by saying that you were one of the teachers, if not the teacher, who most influenced me in University. I also know that you had a teacher, I think even before University, who greatly influenced you...

 

 

Manuel Graça Dias (Mgd): I had some teachers who influenced me a lot. In the Architecture course, in the former School of Fine Arts [ESBAL], there might have been two: the Sculptor Lagoa Henriques, who later taught here at DA/UAL, and Professor Manuel Vicente, who also lectures here to the second year.
In high school I had a very interesting, very strong, very striking teacher, the Painter António Quadros, who went to Mozambique, where I was then, and was our drawing teacher, in the 1st term of the former second year of high school (now the sixth grade). The presence of António Quadros in class was, for me, very revealing, very important,
The first time he gave us classes, he told us to draw an animal that did not exist, “with seven arms and seven legs, a crocodile tail, an elephant head, and three giraffe necks”, whatever we wanted. As he was describing this, I was already drawing frenetically.
I had with me a few sheets with frames painstakingly made at home, as it was more or less mandatory – something that was very hard to do, it smudged everything, and I had to repeat this a dozen times before getting a decent frame – and he said – “What is this sheet, why did you spend time doing this?” – He turned the paper over, sat down and began to fiddle with the brushes in three bits of paint: “So, what do you want, green?”. He began mixing blue with yellow and asked me if I liked that “green”. Then he began to paint a little. “Don’t you like it? Do you want it darker? Go over there and make it darker. Do you want brown? Mix red”. I was fascinated with that chemical, with the possibility of making a colour immediately, of being in charge of a tone. It was very exciting; I made my drawing, filled the entire sheet as he recommended, with a fantastic animal, extremely complex, full of colours.
I handed in the work convinced I would have another Sufficient. When he handed back my work I was very proud because I had a Very Good! The encouragement he gave us was enormous and from that moment on I was a huge fan of those classes; I took in every word he said.  

Lagoa Henriques was our teacher in the first year in ESBAL, of Statue Design. It was immediately a fantastic discovery. Everyone was there with charcoal sticks, a fixative to apply at the end, a lot of bread crumbs as erasers, “smudgers”, made of felt in the shape of a pencil to rub and would take all the fun out of charcoal, the trace of our lines.
There we were, with all those tricks and Lagoa Henriques entered and immediately started screaming! He saw some people with bread crumbs: “What is that? Is it for the pigeons? Give me that!” He threw all the bread out the window, “I don’t want any bread crumbs!”
The first exercise was to observe and register a chair. He put the chair on a plinth and asked us to draw it from our visual point of view. I was very happy because I had achieved a very credible image of the chair…the paper was huge, it was a size A2, or larger, drawing paper, as it should be, stuck with thumb tags on the clipboard. I had drawn the chair with about ten centimetres in height, in the middle of the sheet, perfectly. I was very happy drawing, when Lagoa Henriques looked at it and told me: “Look here” – I thought he was going to praise me, but he took the charcoal, drew a small rectangle around the chair, a rectangle containing the chair in the middle of the whole paper -, “Listen, is your paper this size? Why did you draw as if the paper were just this? Draw in proportion to the paper!” he yelled; on the second day I loved those classes, Lagoa Henriques and his methods. I understood that what we should do was to experiment, more than repeat what we already knew, and that he was totally receptive to new situations.
He proposed we drew – very amazing at the time – tree branches that he picked on his way or something else that he would find in the trash – a strange machine, for example. Other times, those plaster busts that were in the former School for the Fine Arts, which were a reproduction of classical statues. He intended a more modern look. If you created a big black square in the background to highlight the piece, he would immediately appreciate it: “Ok, that’s it! Lets continue!”. At a certain point, I left the charcoal behind and started drawing with a pen; I took watercolours, crayons, I tried other materials, I would use the China ink directly as if it was a pen, and he was always encouraging and cheering! Those classes were very intensive!

Finally, Manuel Vicente arrived, the only one, from the teachers of Architecture, who was interesting. He was also very little canonical, very unorthodox. We only had classes with him for a short time and were really amazing! I think he lectured two subjects, Theory of Architectural Design – something invented at the time    [1976], which later ended -, and Project.
We were there talking for four hours, around a table. Everyday we had a theme. He never projected an image, we never saw an image! The themes were books, texts, movies, ideas. Things we did not know, nor had an idea they existed, especially in Architecture. He would talk about the Architecture he had seen, the places he had visited, what he had thought in those visits, and would talk about Louis Khan, when he had studied with Khan, Robert Venturi, Denise Scott-Brown, Luis Barragan, Aldo Rossi – going to Gallaratese and being baffled when under a simple expansion joint -, he made us talk, asked us where we lived, what architectural experiences we had had, which cities we had been to, where we had gone, where we hadn’t gone. It was fascinating.
He brought us the magazine L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui dedicated to Portugal, the issue that came out in 1976   [(# 185). Paris: Maio], and we were fascinated. There were his works, of Siza, of Távora, of Byrne, de Hestnes Ferreira, of a number of people. Of course, Álvaro Siza was the only one we knew (or thought we knew); we were so ignorant, we didn’t know anything.
Manuel Vicente’s classes, for me, were always reconciling with what I was expecting, in Architecture, but had not been provided! He would tell us to see things – “Cova do Vapôr” (Steamer’s Cove), for example -, observe, take photographs. Then slides would be projected in class and we would comment on them. It was very, very exciting! But the classes were more than this; they were about many things, about Art, about Architecture, and also about life, about the passionate relationship between life and Architecture. For all of this, I owe him a lot.

Filipa Ramalhete (FR): These experiences that influenced you happened in a very different context in which the country lives in today, and so they were teachers a little bit outsiders of that gray country with very conservative and castration teaching and very academic. Are you able to pass on this type of approach to your students nowadays? The irreverence that those teachers expected the students to have?

 

 

Mgd: I think that assumption is still valid, at least. The teaching in high schools is quite conventional. I’m not saying it is better or worse than the one I had. Probably, in some aspects it is even better (I hope…), but in general, it still is very conventional. It is still a non thinking teaching method that does not allow people to reflect and enjoy reflection, largely based on memorizing – in learning techniques and formulas. It’s a bit like those Highway Code tests. To have a driving licence, everyone has to take a Highway Code exam, right? And the engineers, or instructors, who provide training in that so called technique – that convey this knowledge that is condensed in a book of twenty or thirty pages –, teach “tricks” to solve the tests! And in high school it is the same way. Kids come to University with that spirit. They are not keen on thinking, or reflecting, and not keen on understanding on their own. They want their work done for them, they want formulas. “I had that in High school, but it was last year, and I don’t remember!” is a recurring phrase, which sums up this frustration of most people relating to knowledge.

I think there is always a possible subversion: to realize that it is much more interesting if we discover things, if the tools are given to us to do so. Basically, that’s what happened with these teachers I mentioned. They gave me tools for me to find things, and then on my own. At that time, I wouldn’t have understood, but today I am sure that was what happened. That field is still wide open. I think that our job as teachers is to see which is the best way to give each one, as much as possible (and in this School, which is not a Schoolfor the masses, that is somehow easier), the necessary tools to reach knowledge, itself, and then from there, develop, make, propose, invent, discover one’s self, and their own capabilities and limitations.

FR: For some years now, you have experience in the big School (public), and in the small School (private). Are there any main differences, at this moment? In this challenge of teaching Architecture, the type of exercises, and the answers the students give?
 


Mgd: The difference lays not so much on the fact that there are a greater or lesser number of students, but in situations far more perverse. It lays on the fact that in public Schools there are, in general, students who come from wealthier families, who have a more qualified cultural level. And even though today that isn’t so clear – as it was some time ago -, it’s perverse, because, contrary to what one might be led to think, in private Schools there are, most often, the students from more modest backgrounds, who never had good grades, nor enough encouragement to study, that would motivate and allow them to enter in the public system. Those who have that social stigma are, in most cases, the worst students and end high school with the worse grades.
I’m very critical about the education in high schools nowadays, and I would say that, following our recent conversation, those students who enter in public schools are probably much more stuck, with “mannerisms” of a “good student” and a “doer”. Being a “good student” and a “doer” does not mean a thing, because that status is achieved when you are not very creative and when you do not question the “knowhow” that the mainstream values. On the other hand, students from private schools, since they are not recruited among the “best”, could be a little wilder, less “regimented”, and less predictable; but it is not quite like this; none of this is completely true, even if there was a chance.
I do not see major differences; the only thing I sometimes realize is that there are students a bit more structured in the Public School System, with ideas well in place, capable of reading a book and understanding it quicker. They are capable of getting a question and developing it, even if they have a “well-behaved manner”, and not a creative personality, willing to move forward. It is always necessary to fight, to finish with the “repetition boxes”, with the “well-behaved manner”, so adored by families and put them in confrontation with the world!

JCL: And what about job opportunities for those students, do you think there is a difference between studying in a Public or a Private University?
 



Mgd: I do not know how my fellow architects view this matter. At this moment, everyone is in trouble. For a few years now, the market is more saturated, but I never considered this when looking at those students who would ask me for an internship or to collaborate with us. I never considered the origin of the course. I teach in two of the best Schools in the country, in Porto, at FAUP, and in Lisbon, here at DA/UAL, and I know that there are great students, very interested, but there are also weaker students and with less vocation. The Schools, however good they may be, do not fail candidates, except in extreme cases. The good schools will try to keep up with the students, will try for them to be better than when they arrived, with more freedom, for them to know more, for them to be more curious, to be more informed, better educated, but if there are “stone hard” cases the School won’t be able to change them radically. So, I never pay attention to the school origin, even though I think there are some Schools (Private or Public) better than others, and probably their students might have, throughout the course, contact with more interesting situations, more creative. But, frankly, I think it is like when someone asks which elementary school we attended. There are always things to learn, and a young architect, we are all aware of that, is nothing until he starts working, until he spends two or three years in a studio. Only with a few years of work can make him into a good collaborator, or a good architect, or whatever. The role of Architecture Schools is to familiarize future architects with the area of knowledge that they chosen, to open their horizons, offer new experiences, show them that the world is much more complex than the flat idea that the dominant culture intends; it is not so much preparing “professionals” that may become efficient in the “workplace”. That would be an economist view of teaching; I share a more “humanist” point of view.

FR: In essence, the Universities of today have the responsibility to provide students with critical skills, which is something they do not learn in high school…

Mgd: Of course. Neither the high schools nor the media are very helpful. And the whole environment is very programmed to a given standard of living. Probably, now, things will change, with all these economical problems that we are facing. But, for many years, we lived in, above all, a kind of ease. A “whatever”. There was money – there seemed to be money -, the world was good, was cute, it was all great fun; you did not have to think much. When you watch a movie you do not have to think much, you eat popcorn and drink coca-cola, and everything is a party (a party in the worst sense of the word, I like parties…). It’s not even a party; it’s to pass the time. It’s an expression that I hate: “hobby”. Passing the time is for those people who are waiting to die: they have to spend time. “What are you doing? I’m doing a hobby”.
A person who likes Architecture, or any other profession, that likes the chosen profession or the field of studies, does not need to “pass the time”. Everything should be interesting enough to be interested the whole time. That idea of “pass the time”, of having hobbies, of always having on headphones, listening to music ,a kind of  empty life, is greatly encouraged, because deep down it guarantees gentle citizens. These are people who do not create problems for the “machine”, to the “super-structure”. Everything runs smoothly with citizens like this. It is very respectful, everyone wants to have a house, a family, a car, everyone wants to learn how to drive, and they make the Highway Code exams just as the teachers told them! Everything is very polite and very gentle.
It is part of any educational institution, whether Public or Private University, whether Elementary, or Secondary, to disrupt a little. No one gets hurts! It is really messing people from the inside. Of giving them only one certainty: things do not have a single point of view. Getting them to create this vision; because there is a great tendency to think that everything we have is more or less stable, is acquired. And I’m not even talking about the social and economic issues; I’m talking about the culture itself. In the knowledge itself. All stable, all easy. And people are not prepared to doubt, to have doubts, to ask, to question themselves, to question their lives, to question the social and the culture. I think that any education institution should go through this; it has to place the idea of doubt.
I really like to make allusions to the students’ clothing, the parallel may be forced at times, but it works. Most of them do not care to walk around “foolishly” dressed, with knee-boots and, at the same time, showing their kidneys, for example. And when those conversations are “well-behaved”, reproducing what they hear at home or on TV, I say, “Look, if you want to go to the functional world, do you think your clothing functions? Are your feet cold but not your kidneys? Something just doesn’t seem right! Aren’t you dressed this way because you like it? Because you want? There must be a form of expression you chose and that exceeds, by far, the strictly utilitarian look. Think about it, and see the implication that may contribute to other fields of knowledge!”. Or, “do you like to wear old, used, warn out, torn pants, but then say that the city is very ugly, very dirty and that policy makers should be arrested because they do not send people to paint the buildings?… I mean, they make small talk about the city, but like to walk around with “worn” clothes! Try to understand why you like old jeans; is it because new jeans don’t seem to have so much history, so much time? Probably, there will be a certain charm in obsolescence, a certain patina!” there are always many ways to stimulate them, to help them think in another way. I don’t want them to think like me; I do not care how they should think! I just don’t want them to think as everyone else!