12 Ways to Reform Architectural Education
This essay is an excerpt from the final chapter of Draw in Order to See: A cognitive history of architectural design, which outlines recommendations for reforming architectural education and practice. It uses the theory of embodied cognition—the science behind how our brains take in the built environment—to underscore the need for designers to reject the alienating legacy of Enlightenment rationalism that has pushed architects away from artisanal literacy since the industrial revolution. Although some of these practices and methods are already employed by individual educators and included in some curricula, they are neither widespread nor (more important) mandated in NCARB standards.
- Go back to the hand-drawn sketch as the fundamental medium and tool for creating architecture. Hand drawing is a must, not only for practicing architects (many of whom have never stopped doing it), but for the most technologically oriented students. The daily or weekly practice of drawing strengthens neural networks and engages cognitive faculties at many levels, just as playing scales and other keyboard exercises keeps musicians sharp. Students should sketch from the very beginning of their education and be required to use sketches to document and develop their visual ideas.
- Make every effort to see new places and to visit outstanding buildings, landscapes, and urban ensembles as often as possible. Rather than only using a camera or a cellphone, record experiences in a sketchbook via images with words attached. Travel abroad as often as is practicable, to extend the breadth of direct experience with the spaces and places that have inspired predecessors through the centuries. Architecture programs can learn valuable lessons from Notre Dame, which requires all of its third-year students to study in Rome.
- Make architectural history a requirement in all design programs, and avoid the pitfall of presenting only modern architecture. Beginning these courses in the 18th or 19th century is as inexcusable today as failing to present non-Western buildings, cultures, and artifacts. It is also useful to teach young architects the proportional and grammatical systems associated with classical architecture, Chinese traditional architecture, and other non-Western systems, which may soon prove to be linked to schemata in the brain.
- Require students to engage with building users as soon as possible in their studio experiences. Many schools now offer classes that allow students to build small projects for clients needing pro bono services. The Yale Building Project is the one of most famous of these, but most schools now bring studios to the public and engage in solving “real” problems for those in need. Drawings are limited in their capacity to inform students about space and materiality. Only by experiencing the construction of buildings can they grasp the fundamental tectonic qualities of their art.
- Maintain regular contact with tradespeople, artisans, and makers of building components and materials. The modern continuing education system in the U.S. provides many opportunities for such contact, but longer workshops with master artisans are always more meaningful than distance education or online courses. At the university level, maintain workshops in the architecture program or in allied engineering and material science departments, and make certain that all students are exposed to their projects and processes.
- Balance linguistic and theoretical dialogue with purely visual and haptic means of presenting architectural ideas. The field has drifted too far into modes of thinking that pull the curtain over the visual brain, literally preventing designers from engaging with the essential qualities of environments, spaces, and type forms. Though all architects must understand the power of physical forms to convey symbolic meaning, focusing mainly on semantic knowledge has led us away from the core concerns of our discipline.
- Integrate analog and digital tools in the design studio, as Pixar does in its film production. No designer can afford to throw away powerful computers and software when they improve accuracy and productivity in so many areas. However, there is no reason why much basic design cannot be done with traditional drawings and models, nor is it necessary to ignore low-tech and artisanal processes when considering how to make buildings more beautiful and durable.1
- Avoid all forms of virtual representations of designed environments until the presentation stage of design. Research suggests that these “worlds” distort and misconstrue the nature of the spaces and forms they are meant to convey. As software engineers develop more accurate means of representing buildings and natural environments, adopt these means cautiously. Tablets have not yet matched the flexibility and expressive capacity of paints, inks, pencils, and charcoal on paper.
- Employ digital drafting platforms as adjuncts to hand drawing, using these tools the same way architects used hardline drawings during the 19th and 20th centuries: as means of accurately conveying construction plans, sections, elevations, and details. Avoid “smart” software such as Revit, which layers and attaches proprietary products to the design process before creative decisions can be objectively rendered.
- In the academy, employ research professors in areas of bona fide applicability to the task of building. Demand evidence-based, peer-reviewed research products. Remove such nonprofessional faculty from the studio and employ only practicing architects at all levels of design instruction.
- Teach basic drawing with constant reference to the most recent research in cognitive science and visual perception. Engage with direct experience as well as with mnemonic models and schemata, and use references from well-known visual artists and artworks.
- Emphasize the collaborative nature of design as a discipline, and foster collaboration in the studio curriculum rather than emphasizing individual “innovation” as a criterion for architecture. Encourage students to work in teams and provide opportunities to do so, despite the difficulty of assessing individual contributions during the grading process.
These simple measures, even if implemented first on a small scale in design communities or individual schools, will provide positive proof of the benefits of a design practice based upon embodied cognition rather than purportedly rational or conceptual thinking. The results will be immediately evident in more beautiful, commodious, and healthy environments.
Featured image: Carlo Scarpa working on the design of the Banca Popolare di Verona, with his associates, Arrigo Rudi and Renato Scarazzai. Photo courtesy of George Dodds.