This week’s issue of ArchVoices is a reprint of an article that appeared in Progressive Architecture magazine eight years ago this September about what was then the state of architecture education. Most of today’s first-year architecture students were in fifth grade when the article was written. Hopefully, as much has changed for us collectively as we have each changed individually. We encourage you to read the entire article for yourself to see what sounds familiar, and what sounds, like, so 1995. |
One thing that has changed is the tone of debate. The current round is noticeably more collaborative, compared to the former discussions that were split between educators and practitioners pointing fingers and calling names. We hope that phrases like, “outright disgust”, “education is terrible”, and “these people are unable to contribute meaningfully”, do, in fact, sound outdated. If so, that itself is a significant step forward.
In October, the National Architectural Accrediting Board (NAAB) will convene its triennial Validation Conference to collaboratively and publicly discuss, debate, and refine the formal requirements of architectural education. To the extent that we want our profession to move away from the dichotomy of education and practice–and towards a genuine combination of reflection and action–the Validation Conference will continue to be one of the most important opportunities for dialogue and progress. And, ideally, this year’s Validation Conference will enhance the experiences of first-year students throughout their years to come.
The Schools: How They’re Failing the Profession (and What We Can Do About It)
By Michael J. Crosbie
Ask any architect what he or she thinks of the quality of architectural education in this country, and the chances are excellent that you will get a prickly report. Practitioners are expressing disappointment, if not outright disgust, about how well students are trained for the profession. From their point of view, new graduates are virtually useless in practice, even as interns. While no one expects graduates to detail expertly or manage a project their first day on the job, practitioners observe that many grads have little awareness or appreciation of these skills, among scores of others important for the creation of architecture. Many architects now take it for granted that they will have to train them to be valuable employees, or they refuse to hire new grads altogether.
“Their education for general practice is terrible,” related an architect in Miami, who recently responded to a survey on architectural education by architect Fred Stitt in his newsletter, Guidelines. “We hesitate to employ graduates because of the training time it takes.” In this architect’s experience, the products of the Ivy League schools “are the worst.” An architect in Cincinnati observed that students “are not trained as potential leaders in their chosen field.” In San Jose, an architect opined that “through no fault of their own, these people are unable to contribute meaningfully at any stage of a project’s development.” Another architect in Pennsylvania believed that most graduates are “hard-working, intelligent, and talented, but terribly abused by the system of education.”
Before you toss off these quotes as nothing more than cranky complaints from a few moss-backed pencil-pushers who care only about the bottom line, consider some other evidence. When P/A surveyed its readers in 1989 on architectural education, 81 percent of those who responded concurred that architecture schools do not adequately prepare students for practice (P/A, Feb. 1989, p. 15). “If 80 percent or more of the graduates of medical schools reported profound dissatisfaction with major aspects of their education,” says Stitt, “one might expect it would be a national scandal.” Even faculty and students realize that something is wrong. In the P/A survey, 75 percent of the respondents who identified themselves as faculty and students agreed that education for the world of practice was inadequate.
Recent studies of architectural education have come to similar conclusions about the academy and its disengagement from the world of practice. Last year, the National Institute for Architectural Education released a report that laid out the problem succinctly: “There is serious dissatisfaction in architecture over the widening gap between theoretical and practical knowledge and the conflicting objectives of academic preparation and professional practice. Practitioners complain that recently graduated architects are not well prepared to function in today’s office environment. New intern architects are said to lack skills as well as a sensibility to the real world environment of professional practice. Educators complain that architectural offices are so immersed in the pragmatics of practice that they do not grasp the connection between architecture and cultural evolution, connections that could increase architecture’s influence as a creative force in society.”
Send in the Feds
A disturbing assessment of the state of architectural education was just published by the National Academy of Sciences’ National Research Council. The study, “Education of Architects and Engineers for Careers in Facility Design and Construction, arose from the perception of many federal construction officials that recent graduates in architecture and engineering lack sufficient training for careers in facility design and construction. Based on their experience in dealing with young architects, “Both in their own organizations and in private firms that design government buildings, these officials have observed that recent graduates are unfamiliar with practical problems of design and construction.”
Because the study was also motivated by the concerns of owners, contractors, and other design professionals about the education of architects, the report considered “the needs of the entire design and construction community, not just federal agencies.” Conducted by a committee of architects, engineers, and educators, the study investigated allegations of unpreparedness among graduates of engineering and architectural programs, specifically in the following areas: design, construction, technology, teamwork, business, economics, management, the liberal arts, and communication skills.
The report concludes that most architectural graduates possess a good understanding of the design process and broad design concepts, but lack knowledge of the practical and technical aspects of construction, such as designing to a budget. They leave school without a good understanding of the role of technology, and with little comprehension of business, economics, and management, which adversely affects their ability to serve their clients or to understand the concerns of their employers. The responsibility for this deficiency extends to the organizations that accredit these programs.
The study committee recommends that federal agencies consider measures such as to search out graduates of schools with curricula that match the needs of the clients and to conduct their own tests for candidate competence. Most alarming, they suggest that the government depart from the practice of hiring only from professional-level architecture programs: “Recruit from schools of construction and from schools of technology, many of which have good curricula that focus on applied knowledge.”
It is one thing for the profession to air its concerns over the quality of education. But when the largest single client for architectural services in the country detects a problem, commissions its own inquiry, and is advised not to hire graduates from architecture schools, it is time for us to sit up and pay serious attention.
The Great Divide
Separating the world of practice from the world of architectural education, the firm from the academy, the practitioner from the professor, is a gulf that has existed in this country for many years and has numerous causes. As Princeton sociologist Robert Gutman has pointed out, the rift opened when the education of the architect moved from the atelier–where would-be architects apprenticed in a firm and studied under a practicing professional–and entered the university. The idea was to simulate the atelier in the design studio, where students studied under architects who split their time between teaching and practice.
But the university operates under its own value system and set of rules, which are often at odds with the values and needs of the profession. In a recent article published in Practices, Gutman writes that once professional schools–architecture as well as medicine, law, or journalism–become appendages of the university, they are “forced to accommodate themselves to the values and procedures that dominate the traditional disciplines: natural science, mathematics, the social sciences, and the humanities. More and more professional school faculties, to maintain their self-respect and to acquire status in the university system, are led to imitate the norms of these other fields, in terms of intellectual rigor, theoretical consistency, publication records, and critical attitude. Professional practice is defined as irrelevant; anyone who practices too strenuously or too successfully is suspect in the academic culture.”
Gutman and others I interviewed for this article believe that the schools are drifting further away from the world of practice as the university now exerts increasing pressure: more faculty need a Ph.D. to attain tenure and to enhance the university’s standing; more of the school’s resources are channeled into research and into capturing grants to improve the standing of the school within the university. More emphasis is placed on theoretical speculation divorced from any notion of how architects and architecture exist outside of the academy. The focus is on architecture as a discipline, rather than as a profession. This raises the ethical question as to whether schools that attract students by virtue of their status as accredited, professional-degree programs should emphasize the discipline over the profession.
“For the proponents of the disciplinary approach,” observes Robert Beckley, architecture dean at the University of Michigan, “architecture is a language, with its own vocabulary, grammar, syntax, and history. It is pure and can be taught independent of political and social context. Architecture is timeless. Beckley notes that while this improves the chances that the architecture school will be taken seriously by others in the university, “Many members of the profession see this trend as counterproductive to the advancement of the profession. They see academic research as garbled nonsense, communicated in a language that can only be understood by scholars and researchers.”
Meanwhile, the profession is moving in the opposite direction. Greater competition for jobs, lower fees, impossible deadlines, downsized staffs, and professional liability are just some of the forces that are making the practice of architecture more demanding. Practitioners have to be highly inventive merely to survive, thus they are experimenting with new forms of practice, new partnerships, new project delivery methods, and are trying to push the boundaries of their professional services. “Practice” is not as easily defined as it was five or ten years ago, so it is much harder to educate future architects about it. In fact, the architecture school in the university setting is traditionally so slow to adapt to change, and its professors are, for the most part, so divorced from what’s going on in practice, that it is hard to imagine a worse setting for educating students about architecture as a profession. “Universities are dinosaurs:” says Beckley. “They operate on the notion that you can take someone out of society, educate them, and then put them back and expect them to be useful.”
The deficiencies in what the graduates know about practice and how useful they are as employees are magnified by the crunch under which their employers now labor. With narrower profit margins architects seek employees who are cost-efficient the first day on the job. Many claim they simply don’t have the time or the money to train recent graduates. Others resent the schools’ assumption that the practitioners will pick up the slack in the students’ education.
It’s not that graduates should be expected to know how to detail a cavity wall upon graduation. But they should have a working comprehension of drawing conventions, of the importance of such details in the completion of a successful design, and of the myriad demands on the profession. “Students used to have an understanding of architecture’s graphic language,” says Brooklyn architect Laurie Maurer, a former NAAB board member who has participated in more than a dozen accreditation visits around the country. “But now they don’t know what they’re drawing.”
Maurer observes that with the introduction of CAD, architecture has become far less labor-intensive and the traditional entry-level positions for graduates to learn the ropes of drawing and practice are fewer. “There’s no longer a need for people to hatch brick,” says Maurer. “We used to have the opportunity to spend some time working out the details, and now there isn’t that opportunity. Those jobs are disappearing.”
Because of the very structure of the realms of the academy and of practice, and the value systems under which they operate, it seems impossible to bring them closer together. But it is possible to mitigate the gap between them, and to ease the transition from one to the other, by making students more aware of what they might find after graduation. In fact, it is this general lack of awareness of how their education fits into the larger picture of practice that seems to trouble students most. Many report that they have little understanding as to how the courses they are exposed to relate to each other, or why the course content is important. “The schools spew out graduates who don’t have any idea what they are going to be asked to do,” observes Jon Gurney, a recent graduate who wrote his master’s thesis on how the profession is changing. He believes that architectural education performs a disservice if it doesn’t open the student’s eyes to what to expect. Raising students’ awareness can take a number of forms–everything from making sure they understand the profession they are entering and helping them to make informed career choices to increasing their contact with the world of practice.
Tell the Truth
Universities exist to seek out the truth and to impart it to their students, right? Well, not always. It’s not fair to say that architecture schools deliberately mislead their students about the profession, but they don’t tell the whole truth, either. One professor at an Ivy League school told me that he has witnessed faculty meetings where the idea of being more up-front with the students about the profession and its problems is routinely squashed. “They don’t want to muddy the waters. It might upset the students.”
Architecture schools are not typically awash with research grant money, nor do their alumni tend to be high earners providing the schools with generous endowments. Because architecture schools derive most of their income from enrollment, they are not eager to scare off the customers. “Education is a business existing primarily for the benefit of the administrators and the faculty,” is the view of Sam Harris, a Philadelphia architect who has taught at a number of elite institutions on the East Coast. Harris says that schools are mainly interested in what they can sell, not what happens to students after they graduate, “and the product that they sell is the myth of the architect as the professional, respectable, responsible artist. There is a perception of glamour, and the school trades on that. This is at the expense of the view of the architect as servant, or technical consultant, or everything else we do.”
Is it any wonder the grads are bewildered when they get out? Don’t the schools have an ethical responsibility, after collecting tuition and fees approaching six figures, to level with their customers?
“Schools are responsible to tell the truth to students about the profession and about how the world works,” says Cynthia Weese, architecture dean at Washington University. “In many cases schools are still applying past fixed mythologies that do not seem to fit contemporary fluid realities. Many still teach design as a separate endeavor. Instead, design should be seen more inclusively as a creative synthesis of aesthetic, ethical, social, and technical concerns. Many studios deal almost solely with the individual, while the complexities of contemporary practice require collaborative team work.”
Another way schools can be truthful is to make students aware of the wide range of opportunities in architectural practice. Management consultant Peter Piven of the Coxe Group has offered a course at the University of Pennsylvania and at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute that broadens the horizons of his students. “In the guise of practice seminars we talk about career planning, with the objective of helping the student to make informed decisions about their own careers,” explains Piven. There are discussions of different kinds of practice, field visits to offices representative of a range of approaches, and student reports on how practices differ. “The final paper requires them to lay out a career path, so that they can think about what their next step is,” Piven says.
Students should also be honest with their schools. If they feel that they’re not getting the whole picture, they should suggest ways to improve their education. According to Fred Stitt, who heads the alternative San Francisco Institute of Architecture, his program gets some of its best suggestions for new courses, lectures, and exhibits from students.
Broaden and Deepen the Coop Experience
Work/study or cooperative education programs topped the list of suggestions that our readers offered in response to our fax-back page on how they would improve architectural education. A number of architects related to us that some of their best employees have been graduates of coop programs. Several schools have these programs, and their track records are generally good. Students combine work in an office with study, usually on an alternating basis per semester, which is the way the University of Cincinnati, the granddaddy of architectural coop programs, does it. Students can also work in construction, interior design, or other alternative practices. Rice University’s Preceptorship program requires that students work in an office for nine months after their fourth year, and then return for a final year of study.
Because coop programs exist under the current NAAB accreditation guidelines, there is no reason why every school in the country shouldn’t have one. “It gives students a taste for what the profession is like,” says John Casbarian, who heads Rice’s Preceptorship program. “It gives them more self-confidence, the ability to put things together, the opportunity to reflect on their education and to direct it. They realize the balance between theory and practice. They come back to the program more focused.” Because they stay for twice as long as students in other coop programs, Casbarian believes that they are greater assets to the firm because they don’t leave just as they get up to speed. Preceptorship contacts can also turn into job offers later on. Casbarian is wary, however, of the possibility for exploitation. He reports that in the last few years some high-profile design firms have been less eager to take Rice students, whom they must pay. “They say, ‘We don’t pay other people who work here. Why should we pay the students?'”
The deficiency in most coop programs is that they fail to build on the student’s experience in the world of practice. “The connections between what they do in school and in practice could be made more explicit,” says director Gordon Simmons of Cincinnati’s coop program. This school has even greater potential for making those links through its Center for the Study of the Practice of Architecture. As in the Rice program, Cincinnati students write reports on their coop experiences. In later practice seminars they share their experiences with other students. “The school has to help the students to reflect upon the issues that they see in practice,” says Dana Cuff, who has written extensively about the profession. “We should be challenging people to think more broadly about architecture and have vision about what they are doing, to be able to critique and take a critical view of what they do. Over the long run, the profession is its own engine for evolution and renewal.” Indeed, such reflection underlines the fact that practice is worthy of theoretical speculation.
Short of a coop program, a school can broaden the student’s awareness of practice in other ways. Practitioners should be more involved in the schools, and there are alternatives to having them as faculty. Mentorships, for example, can link students to practitioners. Compared to traditional apprenticeship programs, says John Gaunt, architecture dean at the University of Kansas, “a mentorship program would be more palatable and less intrusive to the educator, and less time-demanding for the practitioner, while accomplishing the requisite school/practice connection for the student.” Gaunt suggests that even in a small office, an architect could take two or three students under his or her wing, discussing the firm’s management and business philosophy, in two visits per semester, with no more than 20 to 30 hours per year. While Gaunt admits that this is not a revolutionary idea, “it is noteworthy that relatively few schools provide professional mentors to all students, while the connection to the realities of practice is the basis of professional demands for educational reform.”
Mentorship programs could also get a boost from continuing education requirements, if practitioners could swap time spent with students for credit. This would require a dual flow of information between students and practitioners, such as that seen in an office-based design studio undertaken at the University of Minnesota. Students teamed up with the Minneapolis firm of Hammel Green & Abrahamson, which specializes in school design. “The students, faculty, and architects evaluated 25 years of the firm’s work from a functional and theoretical viewpoint,” explains Minnesota architecture dean Harrison Fraker. Then the students worked on a current HGA school project. “The firm brought its knowledge base into the school for critical appraisal,” says Fraker, “It was a shared experience for both.”
The Teaching Office
Bringing the education of architects closer to the realm of practice suggests that an entirely new model, such as the teaching office, might be the best solution of all. Robert Gutman believes that the current quandary in architectural education can’t be resolved any other way. The teaching hospital in medical education provides a model. “One reason why medical education is effective,” observes Gutman, “is that it is largely conducted away from the university, in institutions run by physicians, namely the hospital.” Gutman’s idea of combining practice and education has similarities to the British system of architectural education, where students study for three years, spend a year in practice, study for two more years, spend another year in practice, and then can sit for the licensing exam. In the U.S., programs have appended practices for teaching purposes, such as the now-defunct Urban Innovations Group at UCLA, and a host of community design centers at schools around the country during the 1960s and ’70s, some of which still exist.
This solution, however, will work only if there is plenty of work for every architecture student, and if one accepts a rather static notion of practice. As is true with the coop experience, the economy of large firms can accommodate students better than that of small firms. Even if small firms are paid by the university to take on students, will enough work be available in a small practice? And what qualifies as “practice?” Would experience in construction be permissible? Or working for a developer, or a government agency, or a nonprofit organization, or in furniture design, or in the film industry–just to name a few of the options available to architects? Would this requirement hem in the possibilities of practice?
Transforming the Academy
While bridges between the realms of school and practice strengthen the student’s understanding of the profession, they may also help in changing the values of the university. Ernest Boyer, with the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in Princeton, is now completing a study on architectural education and its connections to practice, to be released next year. Boyer sees an important role for architecture schools in helping to transform the university. According to Boyer and others in the education field, institutions of higher learning are now moving away from the model of the ivory tower, and toward what has been described as the “engaged university.”
“The idea is that higher learning has a mission that goes beyond research,” explains Boyer. “There’s a resurgence in the scholarship of applied knowledge, and outreach from the university to the community, relating theory to practice. Good theory is based on good practice. I feel that this trend is powerful and will persist.”
Boyer believes that the architecture school, with an emphasis on architecture as a social art, is poised to help lead the way for other university disciplines. In so doing, it may also mend the rift between education and practice.
Reprinted from the September 1995 issue of Progressive Architecture, Vol. 76, No. 9, pages 47-51, 94, 96.