Matas Šiupšinskas: You have been working at the Kaunas Faculty of Vilnius Academy of Arts for fifteen years1. Here, in Lithuania, we have a few schools, which train architects, and all of them are different, at least judging by their students’ works, analysed subjects and approaches. What are the reasons of such differences?
Linas Tuleikis: The greatest difference of the Kaunas Faculty of Vilnius Academy of Arts from all other architecture schools is its size – the Faculty is small and this determines many things. For example, a small school means its relationships resemble those of some kind of family. Differently from the relationships of a guild, relations of production, such family relations allow concentrating on formation of students’ attitudes, not just mechanical training for the craft. On the other hand, my experience is very one-sided, I spent fifteen years teaching at the small school, but all this time I really liked this model, where an architect’s education takes place in the context of the family relationship. I feel rather privileged, as I never had to work in a huge institution, even if it would be huge just in terms of the Lithuanian scale.
It seems to me that in our profession a close relationship is the most suitable, and the manner of my teaching is such that I need a close personal contact in order to present knowledge. For me, it would be difficult to teach knowing that a person of still unformed worldview takes from my teaching just some aspects, which are acceptable to him/ her. If this is the case, I would think I mislead a young person. It is important to give a full amount of knowledge, and for this you have to develop a quite close relationship and find time for a personal discussion with a student. Of course, he/ she still selects information, but I am responsible for the presentation of a fairly exhaustive narrative, so he/ she could make an authentic impression on our profession, on its challenges, and make the correct choices. It is important to me that a student could make his/her choices being informed as much as possible.
Is such a relationship with a student an exclusive feature of the Kaunas Faculty?
I think it is a feature of a small school. You have time to talk about architecture from all perspectives in such a school, not just as it is designated in some official curriculum. Let us say, according to the curriculum, students have to design a building of a specific function in a certain environment. You, as a teacher, have to introduce them to the context step by step, to define a relation between an object and its context, then its relation to function and then the creative, artistic issues that emerge out of all of this. But as a teacher in the small school, you do not just this. When you have a close contact with your student, you can talk absolutely about everything related. Thus sometimes you can see that those young people, who have experienced only formal education, get surprised by your approach, as you talk about quite personal things, draw a quite sharp emotional line. While speaking in this way, you can continuously ask him/ her, do not let him/her relax. I am prone to asking many questions, and, after I hear his/ her position, which does not satisfy me, I tell him/her my own position, try to use reasoning. Sometimes I succeed, but sometimes—fail, but in any case I get some feedback. Both sides can learn from each other.
The question of values accompanies the entire teaching process. This happens with small exceptions, when from time to time you need to get into the details about small architectural ploys, which have to be undertaken in order to achieve your goals faster. But while talking about architecture you first of all have to raise questions on the morality of an architect. The main question concerns the position of a student as an author, is it moral? This seems to me very important, I believe in this. It does not mean that I claim to take up a role of a self-righteous or moralizing person. I don’t want to say I make no mistakes, but I try to view architecture through the prism of morality. It is important for me to tell a student that while designing, an architect takes part in a common agreement with a city, society and has to have a clearly expressed value position. Moral weakness of some people is one of the biggest problems faced by the Lithuanian architecture.
In general, morality is important in architecture. The period of noise goes by and the time of silence comes, when people start appreciating silence. Some time ago, the approach that architecture must create intrigue and change in the city was prevailing, but today it seems a planner just has to form a background development. Cities full of changes become restless, no pauses are left. Today, we can have excellent architecture, which is invisible, and such a house can be of great value. And, again, it is important to maintain morality in respect to society, to a human being, architect’s morality in respect to his/ her community, the Earth, nature. Such are the contemporary trends.
Does such encouragement of moral responsibility gain enough attention in discussions about the mission of university education, in general? For example, discussions around such issues as how to train a specialist of great demand on the labour market or a specialist with excellent skills. It seems natural that the university, first of all, has to teach the basics of design. Of course, I exaggerate a little bit, but isn’t it too much to demand moral education form architecture studies? Maybe an architect has just to serve his/ her clients?
Of course, if introduced into the curriculum, this requirement may sound a little bit odd. As if the goal is some divinity or moral education. It is not. But, at the same time, the subject does not contradict the curricula, as in the teaching process we share all kinds of knowledge and opinions. A moral aspect seems important to me personally, but a student learns from a number of teachers. There is quite a variety of subjects to be covered during all these years at the university, for a strong architect to grow. Architects find it difficult to analyse social aspects, it seems there is no place, no time for this, but you have to make continuous efforts to discuss them with your students.
It would be stupid to set apart the study curriculum and the formation of a personality. The curriculum subjects are like a framework that enables the teachers not to lose track of the main goal and keep them from an inclination to train ‘priests’ in architecture studies. Without any doubt, students have to be offered a certain package of knowledge and certain “real-life” professional situations have to be presented to them, and by overcoming them they obtain knowledge.
The spine is essential for a human being, regardless that maybe the brain is much more important, but it does not exist up in the air, it exists in a human body. On the other hand, to let a student graduate from the university with only his/ her ‘body’ being formed means he/ she will be an architect, who, although knows how to design, but does not know when and for what reason to design, how much to draw and when he/she has to refuse doing this. The latter things are also very important, and I would say, even more important than just learning how to design. Unfortunately, I think, this area of education is abandoned, and many practicing architects need to go back to school and learn these important things. I mean the architects, who can use their skills excellently as a tool, they know how to make a substance. But using the same resources one can produce a good substance and also very bad substance, which can cause huge damage. For a professional architect, it is essential to feel this thin line. So, in order he/ she could get this in school, a student has to be informed on certain moral issues, form a firm spine, clear attitudes, social sensitivity.
There is a common saying that in order to achieve high quality architecture, it is important to educate society, a client, but I focus more on architects. I would like to see such an ideal situation, where all architects have a really responsible approach to their role. Then the society, even having unfriendly attitude, would start listening to our words. I believe many situations, in which the slow-witted society is blamed, take place because we, architects, conform to our sensual desires, perverted expectations of society. Our clients often want just a substance, “meat” of the building, and this is the result of our own conformism, submission, and, in very many cases, miscommunication.
For education of a conscious architect, the personality of a teacher is very important; an excellent study curriculum is needed to obtain a firm professional spine, but is that all? Students in different schools work differently, they have different interpersonal relationships, they communicate differently: in some schools they work more individually, in others – in teams. How important is a possibility for students to learn from each other, how important is the study environment?
Very important. At least for architects, but very likely for other professions, too. The study environment, I mean not physical environment, but rather surrounding people, psychological comfort, trust, partnership, cooperation with colleague architects, even with students of other study programmes is essential for an architecture student. Even while designing, we have an aim to form such an environment, our best works have to lead to such relationships. In the beginning I started with a teacher, but if we place a good teacher in bad environment… such a teacher, who gives a lot of attention and his heart to his students, sooner or later, he will get tired of struggling like some Don Quixote. Even looking from a young student’s perspective, such an example is demoralising, because he/ she sees the teacher, who tries to change something, but the entire system is disturbing, the environment is unfriendly. Such a student has two options: to listen to this teacher and end up in exactly the same position after graduation, or to adjust to the system and work within it. A student may compensate other shortfalls of studies, such as imperfect curriculum, by additional reading, taking part at different workshops and conferences, social activities, but it is very difficult to compensate the lack of a strong community. A university in general has to make efforts to not only nurture its academic community, the teachers, but also form a sound attitude towards a student, the environment suitable to him/ her, because the student is the central point in this process. I was shocked to hear about a case in some other Baltic State, where a teacher eschewed sharing knowledge with his students, because he assumed they could become his competitors in a few years. Such an absolutely nonsensical approach leads to corrupt relations…
M. Š.: But what happens when the university environment is oriented only towards the student, a certain comfort zone without any challenges is created, no competition, no pressure for self-perfection? Rather high requirements must be presented to a person, who wants to grow…
Having mentioned comfort, I have not had in mind some hothouse environment. It does not mean that students cannot be presented with difficult tasks, which may bring them on their knees at first, but in the long run helps to grow. A student has to get his/ her challenges, in order to get in touch with a real professional problem, be preoccupied with looking for a solution, so that when he/ she overcomes this problem, he/ she can experience that feeling, which cannot be compared to any hothouse environment. In the long run, comfort means a possibility to improve, share one’s own discoveries, disappointments, meetings and departures, joy, when all difficulties are gone, and the feeling of unity when we have experienced and shared many extraordinary things altogether. This is what I mean by comfort. Of course, challenges are essential for personal perfection.
Challenges, constructive criticism are important throughout the entire professional career, but in the current academic system, a student is in part a source of financing for his/ her alma mater, as the school is dependent on the number of students, which enables to retain teachers, etc. How can such sound environment be created for a student, who, in a sense, is an asset for the university and it does not want to lose him/ her?
Lately just the opposite environment have been being formed. We are the masters of all kinds of imitation, as the main purpose has become to ensure a prosperous future and we are ready to imitate illusionary success, although we actually fail to achieve it. If you do something, you face certain risks, but the system wants to do everything without any risk. Only working “on paper”, not doing anything, but picturing the reality better, hypertrophying and boasting in all kinds of reports require no risk. The mechanisms of such imitational work have been launched already and work in full capacity.
Is this related to the amount of students? The public discourse is full of opinions that too many architects are being trained in Lithuania. In such case, one can question if there are too many compromises. Are only the best students admitted to universities indeed?
I’m not too dogmatic in this regard. Of course, it is easier to work with a person, who is used to hard work, but I believe, many people, who so far have failed to do their best, to make efforts, can be awaken and helped along. The fact that not only the best students come to universities is not the worst. Much worse is the case when unwilling persons come, come by accident or urged by their parents. The fact that a person was a poor student in the secondary school or was incapable at the beginning is not so important. Because, if you work appropriately with him/ her, you can make a difference and a young person will start changing. If you help him/ her and if he/ she has some energy, such a student can change a lot. Even if after the graduation he/ she sees that architecture is not for him/ her, but if, with the help of you as a teacher, such student finds his/ her own way, the studies can be considered successful.
So, in other words, instead of accepting good students into the university, it is more important that good students graduate…
Exactly. I’m glad about the transformation towards the five-year architecture studies. I believe it is a return of the responsibility of liberal professions towards society, when no longer specialists and half-specialists exist. Here you shouldn’t forget that I have the experience of working in a small school, where a teacher can allow himself to have almost family relationships with the students.
So, you want to say that such a relationship is impossible in a bigger school?
It is impossible. If you know everyone at least by sight in our school, this can never be the same compared to knowing one fifth or one hundredth of all students. A student’s opportunity to know personally his/her teacher is a huge privilege. In big schools abroad, nobody can imagine such conditions, where a student can meet the teacher any time, does not have to wait in a que, can come to talk, whenever he/ she wants to or has a question.
Such a situation has prevailed so far, but the school has undergone many changes recently. What is awaiting it in the future?
I am scared, when I think about it. Because the situation is such—after getting a higher position a single man can solve the fate of the entire faculty or department, based on his personal ambitions only. Today, pragmatic things, thinking only about oneself, one’s own place within the structure, how to make such a place comfortable for oneself, start to dominate. This resulted in the situation that today our faculty has no single first-year student in architecture. Of course, there is no one answer to the question why this has happened. All architecture schools in Lithuania have a decreasing number of students, but in our specific case this has been determined by the reorganization, founding of new units, which either naturally has withdrawn students from our studies, or such was the goal. I have in mind a few reorganizations recently made in our faculty.
It is hardly possible to form a community, when there are no students left. So, what have been the aims of the said reorganizations, what have been the priorities? If one strand is being suppressed on purpose, perhaps there are attempts to consolidate another one that is more promising?
Your questions are quite logical, because this is how it should be. But if we look retrospectively, some thirty years back, we can understand that universities now work according to an absolutely different model. One man’s desire to make his own business touches a lot of people, departments and students. Some of the Faculty employees found it hard to survive the transformation from the rather predictable socialist lifestyle to the more active, capitalist, therefore they feel uncertain, afraid of undertaking any activities, which are associated with unsafety. Taking advantage of such a situation, decisions can be made, which are accepted without any resistance. It is like chasing after the train, which departed already. You come to discuss about the train, but you know that the train has left a long time ago, so there is no point in this discussion.
People, who do this, are politicians in their essence, so their working methods are different, they are plotting behind the scene, going and talking to everyone and telling everyone, what that person is expecting to hear. Whereas officially they present quite weird arguments or do not bother to explain in detail. Let us say, an institution has a body, the approval of which is required for implementation of the reform. The reasoning introducing the future plans at such a meeting can be simply funny, for example, “believe me, this is just what we need, we’re going to be much better, this is very important to us and thus has to be done.”
You just want to say that the academic environment becomes an arena for political lobbying?
Of course. Some people take part in the parliamentary elections, for example, and have the professor’s title next to their name2, but it is not a scientific degree, just an academic position. Like a smith, for example. Such titles, however, add to such person’s status. I believe, there are similar cases in each school. Usually, there is a man, who doesn’t feel in the right place, a man (or a woman), who does not love students, does not love this job. He or she has few professional skills, so uses other skills thus realizing himself/ herself. Such a person makes every effort to create an appropriate, comfortable environment for own activities. If in addition to this, such a person has big ambitions, seeks to gain influence, he/ she acts even more aggressively. In schools, where the team of teachers is strong and cannot tolerate this, such a person is identified quite soon and his/ her career is over. But in the artists’ environment, the situation is special, because the academy for its teaching staff is the only, although small, guarantee of stability, therefore they are afraid of expressing their resistance to such political deeds.
We talk about the political goals of a single person, but the entire institution can also have such goals. Maybe, not necessarily political, but, for instance, the school might represent a certain ideology. Is it still possible? Here we can remember the schools of Strelka or Bauhaus…
For me, it is difficult to say, because I’m not related to politics. I believe, if you take part in such relations, you lose part of your morality, sacrifice education. An educational institution should not have any goals beyond those of teaching a young person of life experiences, or otherwise it’s just a question of time, when it becomes a scary ideological instrument.
By training a person for life experiences, the university has to answer the question, what is this life, for which it prepares its students. And this is quite an important ideological choice.
Yes, if we narrow the situation in this way. A university needs a direction, so that it can become its signature, but only singular direction leads to the training of an army. Even the Bauhaus, in its own time, was the training ground for soldiers of a very clear, very modern ideology. By doing this, a student is deprived of a possibility to think freely, disagree and make decisions. The situation you are talking about was typical for the 20th century, but talking of the 21st century, we talk about the coexistence of very different ideas, very different ways of thinking in a single room.
So, to conclude, what are the requirements for a good school of architecture today?
Such a school has to ensure a long-term comfort environment for a student. This is an environment with sufficient noise to stir the student’s imagination, and sufficient silence, so that he/ she can generate thoughts. It is essential that every student could be their own personality and could see similar personalities around, that every student knew when he/ she has to fight for his/ her personality and when he/ she has to refuse something for the common goal and act in tune with other personalities. Does a school need an ideology? I seriously doubt it.
1 This conversation was held in Kaunas, March 2016. In a few months after the interview (on 29th of June, 2016), Linas Tuleikis submitted a request to resign from his position at the Kaunas Faculty of Vilnius Academy of Arts. On 3rd of July, 2016, he presented via social media a chronology of events, which had brought him to the decision to resign, where he indicated the examination review of architecture students held on the 12th of May as the commencement date of the events. (Editor’s note)