A Higher Education

Originally published in , November 2008

Standing, as I have for my entire career, with one foot in architectural education and one foot in practice, I am often a target for professional colleagues wanting to take potshots at academia.

“Why can’t you teach them to draw?”

“Every architecture student should be required to take at least four or five courses in the business school.”

“These kids need to be taught how to put a building together—not just to make pretty pictures.”

I have heard it all, and although I have great respect for these colleagues, I am genuinely dismayed at how little they seem to know about what really goes on in architecture schools today. Many of them seem stuck in the era of their own architectural education.

The 60-somethings think there isn’t enough emphasis on design and technical skills. There is too much “talkitecture,” they say—which is probably a valid criticism of the architectural education they received in the 1960s. The 50-somethings criticize an overemphasis on formalism in architecture schools where the well-rendered façade is the sine qua non. That probably reflects more their personal experience in the 1970s than it does design studios today. Forty-somethings question a concentration on abstract imagery, architectural language, and esoteric intellectualism. They think students should be grounded in making real buildings for real people to inhabit. Thirty-somethings are concerned about the worship of shape-making and novelty in architecture schools. They feel that students are too enamored of sexy computer models and have no idea how to really put a building together.

Although I believe that academia has a responsibility to be experimental and to constantly seek new territory, I am critical of the rapid “changing of the gods” that has occurred over the past decades in architectural education. Ours is a very broad field, in which it is easy to get sucked into one or a few aspects and lose sight of the big picture. Focusing students too tightly on a narrow set of issues, or indoctrinating them in a very specific architectural language, seems wrong-headed and irresponsible. It has certainly been a downfall of architectural education in the recent past.

It was heartbreaking in the early 1990s to see graduates of top architectural programs trotting around their portfolios with beautifully stippled Prismacolor drawings of façades filled with elaborate historicist allusions, then finding the work laughably out-of-date only a few years after school. It is similarly disillusioning to see the “globs and blobs” portfolios of a decade ago looking kind of sad and silly now.

I sincerely believe, however, that architectural education today is headed in a more durable direction—one more beneficial for students and more productive for our discipline as a whole. There seems to be a constantly increasing number of schools that view architecture as an inherently complex, multifaceted field, and believe architectural education should reflect just that. These schools are more pluralistic and less singular intellectually than their counterparts of the past few decades. There is more diversity of thought and less party line.

This conclusion comes in part from my long-standing experience as a faculty member at the School of Architecture at the University of Texas at Austin, as a former dean who has participated in endless meetings of architectural educators and administrators, and as someone who frequently lectures and serves on juries in a wide variety of academic programs. But it also comes, in particular, from intensive visits that I have made as an advisor–evaluator for five architecture programs over the past two years. These were not the “check-the-box” inquisitions sponsored by NCARB for accreditation purposes, but were sincere efforts whereby each program independently solicited counsel from educators and professionals as to how they might improve themselves. The five institutions—the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT); Tulane University; the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV); Louisiana State University (LSU); and the University of Michigan—are very diverse in terms of financial capacity, ranking, and geography. They constitute a pretty good representation of architectural education in the United States, public and private.

Each two- or three-day visit involved presentations; informal discussions with students, faculty, and staff; and dialogue with provosts or presidents of the universities. I was impressed in every case by the frankness of the conversations and the genuine desire for improvement.

What I took away from these experiences was a reassurance that architectural education in this country is rich and thriving in a wide variety of contexts. It turns out that many students can do hand drawings and physical models (which I knew very well from my own institution), and they can also represent architectural environments in an amazing variety of other media that is more sophisticated and communicative than at any other time in the history of our discipline.

They may not be taking too many courses in the business school, but they may well be participating in the Urban Land Institute’s Gerald D. Hines Student Urban Design Competition, where they work on a team to solve a difficult urban problem in a way that makes economic sense and produces a healthy urban environment. Their school will very likely offer design/build opportunities where they can learn intimately “how to put a building together.” They might be involved in one of the 20 Solar Decathlon teams that will construct, stick by stick (or SIP panel by SIP panel), a 1,000-square-foot sustainable house that will be rigorously tested in front of thousands of spectators on the Mall in Washington, D.C.

Many programs have sophisticated community design centers like the one at LSU, where every undergraduate spends at least one semester working with clients in neighborhoods that desperately need architectural services but cannot afford professional help. Other programs, including studios at MIT, concentrate on plugging into similar authentic design situations abroad, in China, Turkey, and elsewhere. Students who participate gain personal exposure to the challenges of global architectural practice as well as to environmental problems beyond the ones we face in the United States.

Rich, mature architecture programs have a host of strengths. They offer excellent history and theory courses as well as a rigorous technical curriculum. Their faculties experiment with rapid prototyping as an alternative production means, but also construct retrofit projects with saws and measuring tapes in their own buildings. From breadth comes cross-fertilization: The education on offer is not a one-liner indoctrination, likely to become obsolete.

The human products of these comprehensive programs are extremely impressive. One graduate student at UNLV was heavily involved in research with a faculty member involving sophisticated modeling of energy performance in buildings; he also helped teach thermal fundamentals to beginning undergraduates. At the same time, he was producing design work that was beautiful, sophisticated, and immaculately detailed. Likewise, MIT undergraduates in a studio on multifamily housing were remarkably capable of synthesizing urban design concerns with a sensitivity to individual residents’ needs.

There are, of course, those who cling to the notion of a school of like minds preaching a clear, distilled doctrine to be absorbed unquestioningly by impressionable young students. They point, often, to the Bauhaus as the ideal example of the well-crafted curriculum taught brilliantly by a cohesive faculty. If they could just repeat that pattern, they feel they would reach the apex of architectural education.

As it turns out, the Bauhaus was anything but that kind of singular, cohesive environment. In its most fertile era, it offered diverse points of view on a wide range of architectural topics. While Johannes Itten and Wassily Kandinsky were helping students get in touch with a mystical, spiritualist side of design, Walter Gropius was helping them understand the power of mass production. While Theo van Doesburg was emphasizing the beauties of rationalist geometry, Ludwig Hilberseimer was encouraging an efficient, nonhierarchical social fabric for the city.

I would encourage professionals to become engaged in an architecture school and discover the changes that have occurred in the past decade. Sitting on a jury or two, or going to a reunion, probably won’t do the trick. It might require becoming a really active mentor to a student, learning as much from him or her as you teach. It might involve taking on interns and asking them about life outside the office. Or teaching a design studio as an adjunct faculty member.

Breadth is not an easy thing to see at a glance. More and more, though, it is the strength of American architectural education.

Thinking about Life as an Architect
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Originally published in , November 2008

  • jodibart

    Larry Speck rules!