2017 vlock house via yale architecture schoo. haylie_chan_hero-852x479

Architectural Education is Changing: Let’s Hope the Profession Can Keep Up

In his recent essay, Duo Dickinson conflates the American higher education system, Trump University, and current architectural education, accusing architecture schools of fraud and suggesting that educators confuse art, branding, and hero worship with proper professional training. He declares that today’s students are educated without regard to anything important to practice or the profession, channeling the desires of many anxious, older architects worried—but not quite sure what to do—about the changing nature of practice.


As an older architect and an educator, I think the discussion would benefit from some facts on the ground in areas that seem to be of the greatest concern to  Dickinson, so here goes:


TECHNOLOGY: Almost every school’s graduates are facile in a wide range of digital tools, including BIM, a far larger array of weapons than they find arriving in their first office. Advanced modeling, energy analysis, visualization and rendering, and design scripting, are table stakes for most programs. Like many schools, at Yale, a variety of digital fabrication tools, from robots to 3D printers and CNC-driven devices, have been part of the curriculum for almost two decades. An alternative to the anxiety about graduates’ lack of relevant experience and skills would be to rely on digitally savvy employees to advance practices themselves. In previous posts Dickinson has criticized technologies like BIM, and in this piece, he admits that BIM is “applied to (his) designs by consultants,” suggesting he’s outsourcing rather than using technology. Perhaps this is because he’s decided that “the BIM revolution is easy to see as merely extending old-school Genius Artist-Architecture,” a claim otherwise left unexplained. Eighty-percent of US architects are using BIM these days, and if all those firms feel the tools are extending their “genius” via their BIM-capable staff, that might just be a good thing.


PROJECT DELIVERY AND PRACTICE: Dickinson alleges “the delivery systems in building design are changing faster than academia can create a pedagogy to teach them,” but schools focus on these questions. In my classroom, our students study delivery model typologies—including advanced approaches like IPD and PPP—and know how to use them. At Harvard, a former campus VP for Facilities teaches an entire course that examines project delivery evolution. My advanced spring seminar interrogates the business models of the profession and applies design principles to create new structures for practice. Renee Cheng at the University of Minnesota teaches a class called “Practice Stories” where students research, analyze and document key challenges of professional practice with firms who are experiencing them. This real-world classroom experience yields a generation of graduates who can connect their understanding of design and technology with the transforming role of the architect.


CONSTRUCTION: Dickinson complains that “it is time to integrate architectural education with the process of making buildings.” Many schools—Auburn, the University of Texas and Yale, to name a few—build as a central part of their curriculum, and have done so for decades. At Yale, in our Jim Vlock First Year Building Project, the studio-based learning and building technology training is far from a “presentation focus.” This past year’s studio created two new houses for a local homeless services organization, with construction scheduled to begin in May and finish in late September. When the site wasn’t available until late July, a group of neophyte architecture students used their digital and technical skills to prefabricate the buildings in a campus workshop in three months, moved the work to the site and still made the deadline with a superb solution named by the Wall Street Journal as one of 2017’s most important. They learned design, technology, fabrication, project delivery, even project politics, simultaneously. This is hardly “faking it and having fun” but rather real-world learning with real-world results.


DESIGN: What’s the right way to train an architect to design? In the interest of full disclosure, I teach professional practice, not studio, and in my (required) course our students learn ethics, contracts, professionalism, fees, risk analysis, scheduling and other technical questions while speculating on the future of the profession. At the same time, they study design in studio courses taught by interesting, competent, and, yes, often world-famous architects, every one of whom practices and builds. These experiences combine as design training, focused on complementary aspects of professional training: what architects do, why they do it, and how it is done. That some studio training privileges the cultural importance of architecture writ large is not a disadvantage but rather a strength that teaches our students that they should aspire to more than just solving problems, or, worse, becoming competent employees in an office. To do otherwise dumbs down architecture from a profession to a technical guild and diminishes our status, influence and payment.


Comparing architectural education today with Trump University or Animal House is not just glib, it’s destructive. Today’s students are far savvier consumers than when Dickinson and I were in school, a time when there was no digital technology, no sustainability, no theory (to speak of), very little architectural history, and all the tools in the workshop were completely analog. Yet somehow architecture remains one of the most competitive programs taught in today’s schools, and demand for graduates far outstrips supply. To allege that these people are being duped into a fraudulent education belies economic logic while potentially driving talented candidates from the field and thence from practice. I presume Dickinson doesn’t intend either result.


Finally, if the future of the profession is “unknowable,” it’s illogical to suggest that students aren’t being trained to address it. Today’s digitally enabled, research-oriented, intellectually curious designers are equipped to deploy that knowledge in that uncertain future. Practitioners who demand that the schools produce “little architects” ready to function perfectly in current practices won’t be prepared for their own practices to survive in the future, and this attitude does nothing to advance a profession for that time that Dickinson accurately portrays as likely to be transformed by artificial intelligence, robotics and big data. What better way to anticipate that future than to be ready to design it?


Featured image: 2017 Jim Vlock Building Project, Yale School of Architecture; photograph by Haylie Chan and Zelig Fok.


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