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  • Writer's picturePeter VanderPoel

Life Raft Refloated

Every year, the Philosophy Club at the University of Montevallo in Alabama holds the Life Raft Debate. Audience members are asked to imagine there has been a nuclear war, and the survivors (the audience) were setting sail to rebuild society from the ground up. Professors, each representing their particular field of study, make their to claim the last seat by explaining why his or her discipline is the one, indispensable, area of study that the new civilization will need to flourish.

The reason they have a debate is because Montevallo has no School of Architecture.

Civilization is a holistic construct where the life raft seats (and western cultures) are mostly filled with individuals trained in specific skills. The critical piece often overlooked is the knowledge of how it all goes together.

The rationale behind the value of architects goes beyond the knowledge of building; it has to do with a particular way of thinking and what makes that curriculum unique on most campuses.

Vitruvius, writing in the 1st century AD, had noted that architects need to know a little bit about everything. This was echoed by Matthew Frederick, several thousand years later in his 2007 book 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School, when noted, “architects need to know a little bit about everything, engineers need to know everything about one thing.”

Modern, western, society is hamstrung by the addiction to ‘vertical’ knowledge. We use the ditty, “Jack of all trades, master of none”, as a taunt leveled at someone who has a broad range of general skills rather than a deep knowledge of a specialized area.

The education of architects, although a professional degree, is more a foundational program that teaches future architects how to think horizontally; understanding the value of each component as it contributes to the whole.

Other programs on campus use a similar methodology, but only one has such practical demands. Fine Arts, theater, Dance, Literature, may use the similar pedagogy, but they are not   burdened with the demands of physics, environment, government, energy, etc. It is the rare art form that has to answer to pragmatic demands-this makes Architecture the Queen of the Arts. We are not experts at any of these, but we need to understand and guide the response to them. An orchestral conductor is not necessarily a top solo performer on all the instruments under her baton, she has to understand how they all go together.

In his Notre Dame de Paris, more commonly known as The Hunchback of Notre Dame Victor Hugo reminds us that architecture used to be the primary signpost of a civilization, what a culture would use to order its values and express itself to the greater world (until the advent of the printing press) Architecture acts as the marshal of the various arts and along with religion and the labor of the community announces, in stone, “this is what is important to us”.

Years ago, a study had been commissioned to determine how long it took to learn what was needed to be an architect. I haven’t been able to find the study, but 22 years sticks in my head and comports with my experience. There are so many topics that need to be considered in even a small project: zoning, building codes, structure, mechanical, electrical,  plumbing, civil engineering, energy use, programmatic accommodation, finishes, furniture, etc. -literally thousands of decisions to be made.

More than a few times, students would pull me aside to confess that they’re weren’t sure they wanted to be an architect. I would explain to them that what they are learning is not solely how to design and construct a building but, rather, a particular way of thinking.

I would also tell my students that everyone working on the job site knows more than I do about what they’re doing. My job is to understand how it all goes together; to coax the various pieces towards a coherent whole.

Most of grade school and many professional degrees are focused on deductive logic, being able to analyze and discard irrelevant information, whether a disease diagnosis or a legal argument, to arrive at the single, correct answer; it is the bedrock of Western civilization and Sherlock Holmes stories.

Design thinking or abductive reasoning moves away from the problem to search outside of the domain for solutions.

Art Galleries, auto repair shops, theaters, biology labs, photography studios  are all potential workshops for metaphors, ideas and parallels in the design world.

The abductive methodology is maddeningly squishy and often seems counter-productive. I imagine this is also why it is so often discarded as a invalid approach, but many original, ground-breaking ideas are often hidden in other avenues of experience.

Mistakes resulted in great leaps forward are legion: penicillin, microwave ovens, slinkies, chocolate chip cookies. These mistakes had the good fortune to fall on a mind that was prepared to see the value and application for what other might toss away.

As the story goes, Archimedes had been tasked to find out if the goldsmith who made a crown had pocketed some of the gold and mixed in some silver to make it the same weight as the original. Archimedes was not allow to destroy the crown. It was when Archimedes slipped into a  bathtub that he witnessed the change in the water level and realized that was the the solution; the crown with silver replaced could weigh the same as the gold provided, but, because of the different densities of the material, it wouldn’t have the same volume! This could be tested by measuring how much water it displaced!Why didn’t Archimedes's Spa Director think of that? He saw the water levels rise hundreds of times a day. It was because Archimedes’s mind was prepared to receive this seemingly unrelated information and bring it to bear on the problem at hand.

Imagine how much sadder the world would be without chocolate chip cookies. Thank God for abductive thinkers.


“The devil fetch ye, ye ragamuffin rapscallions; ye are all asleep. Stop snoring, ye sleepers and pull, Pull, will ye? pull, can’t ye? Pull won’t ye? Why in the name of gudgeons and ginger-cakes don’t ye pull? - pull and break something! pull, and start your eyes out” Stubb’s exhortations to his whaleboat crew - Moby Dick by Herman Melville

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