arch studio via architectural review

Architectural Education Will Have to Change or Risk Becoming Irrelevant

Knowledge Is Good” was the banal inscription on the statue of Faber College founder, Emil Faber, in the movie, Animal House. The audience—especially students—responded with a mixture of groans and laughter. “Knowledge” may be the reason why universities were created, but it’s not the reason we have more than 20,000,000 college students. Of course, doctors, engineers, lawyers, even academics, need the tools of their trades and absent a guild system, there are any number of people that need the skills only training can provide.


But then there are those, thousands upon thousands, who pay money to be part of a perception, whether it’s of an image-conscious college or Trump University. For many seeking “the college experience,” branding and hype mean more than “knowledge”—and that may be where architecture school is heading unless things change.


Only 55% of those who attend higher education actually get a degree. Clearly there is not enough “knowledge” to be worth the time and money.  Costs are extreme, well over $20K/year on average, and often over $5OK annually (absent scholarships or grants).


No profession has changed more than architecture. Forget about aesthetics, the delivery systems in building design are changing faster than academia can create a pedagogy to teach them.


Despite the growing cost of education, the number of college students is rising. This is a change time, especially in fields where the technological revolution is radically changing how careers function. Education can be seen as a way to cope. No profession has changed more than architecture. Forget about aesthetics, the delivery systems in building design are changing faster than academia can create a pedagogy to teach them.


I am lucky enough to occasionally be a critic at Yale for design juries. I am also helping to create a new way of teaching architecture, The Building Beauty program, in Sorrento Italy, headed by Sergio Porta and Maggie Alexander. I mostly design and draw buildings. More importantly, I deal with the technological revolution with young employees and the BIM systems applied to our designs by our consultants every day. I have seen the sausage being made.


Of course the technologically literate can teach that software, but the impact of the new technology has consequences that are so new and revolutionary that their ultimate impact is unknowable (let alone teachable). So, like always, students fake it, have fun, and desperately defend their academic choice when it is as well branded as architecture is.


Architecture schools are still largely following the Ecole Des Beaux Arts model of design-uber-alles. The focus on drawing your project’s parti on the back of a charette is still the attitude steeped in all-nighters and architect imagery. Architecture offers up the possibility to be the artist who makes critically useful and visually impactful things.


We need to address the basic fact that like law or medicine, the way our profession functions is changing, so the model of teaching will, by necessity, have to change.,


In this challenging new world, academia seems to be trying to address the wholesale changes by leaping into realms of things like “architectural research,” “biological models” and new technologies. In his essay “Frontier Land: The Future of Architectural Education” for Architecture AU in Melbourne, Stanislav Roudavski advocates different models of future development of architectural education like “computational and physical examinations of a tree structure” or “rethinking the discipline through speculative and inclusive edge-of-control projects” as necessary to engender a place of “open-source prototyping.” Forgive me, but the changes in practicing architecture have virtually nothing to do with evolving “archispeak”. We need to address the basic fact that like law or medicine, the way our profession functions is changing, so the mode of teaching will, by necessity, have to change.


The advent of Artificial Intelligence is everywhere. The BIM revolution has and will minimize the number of humans needed to create building drawings. It makes sense that rather than keep the change at arms length from those who are in it, it is time to integrate architectural education with the process of making buildings. The legacy of the artist-architect studio may prove to be only a starting point of the new education, rather than a 3 or 5 year constant. If education needs to have building as it’s focus to adapt to new production methodologies, students will need more guild-like integration into practicing firms.


However architectural education changes, we have a stark failure of hype over substance to learn from: Trump University. That august paper-thin institution had the value of basing its curriculum on a brand. Architecture has a palpable “brand”, too—one that is marketed to students via archispeak, websites that focus on starchitects, and a fully formed marketing model of a fine-arts focused profession, in the Ecole Des Beaux Arts tradition.


The branding of architecture as fine arts first is as seductive and disingenuous as Michael Sexton creating Trump University in 2004. The “Get Rich Quick” model has always been a huckster’s best pitch when fleecing the rubes of their hard-earned cash. Selling the glitz of Donald J. Trump during an economic boom where he also had the number one rated TV show was easy. Until the economy crashed.


The idea of presenting experts to sell product is everywhere, but it’s especially productive when the product is as real as a building and the role models project glamour and cultural cache.The endless elephant parade of Trump Towers and the glitz of “The Apprentice” worked to generate thousands of students giving over as much as $35,000 to get an unaccredited higher education.


All schools benefit from the perception that what they are studying has cultural value. But this moment in architectural evolution is as extreme as the Great Recession, which revealed Trump Univercity’s feet of clay, because image is not value, even though it might temporarily create it.


Old school fine arts studio-based architectural education can validate the utility of humans, especially in the BIM-dominated building production world. But it’s just the start for those who want to build. This approach means going beyond the present presentation focus of studio-based learning, and spending more time learning to make buildings from those who are making them.


Trump University had “stars”—millionaires and media moguls—to motivate its students, not unlike the “starchitects” that are a natural focus of a fine arts studio system. While role models are important, if the way the economy is working radically changes, heroes of a bygone era have less to offer.


In a time of radical change in architectural technology, teaching based on imagery and the allure of their hero artists teaches little that has value beyond aesthetics. The explosive development of Artificial Intelligence is ripping apart the human basis for building design, and the profession, including its educational methods, need to change.


When the star system of Trump University failed, Trump had to pay out $25,000,000 in settlements to disgruntled ex-students, but he was elected president. Right now, the BIM revolution is easy to see as merely extending old-school Genius Artist-Architecture in the way Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin interns rendered his great work. BIM is far more than a vehicle for genius, it can shape the way buildings are designed unless we know how to control it. A deep understanding of building allows architects to control the robots, versus the other way around. Frank did not do that no matter how great his interns were. Whether we like it or not, architects will be in the thick of the technological revolution: our messy experience as it adapts to Artificial Intelligence should be part of the clean, white, safe zone of architectural education more often than ever taught by architects who build less and pose more.


Maybe it’s time to acknowledge that there are 70,000 jobs and there are over 200,000 humans with architecture degrees, and it takes fewer architects per building to describe them for construction. It seems clear that unless there is an explosive generation of new construction, technology will reduce the number of architects needed to help build buildings. Like Trump University, the appeal of interesting people doing exciting things is tangibly present in architecture, but it’s not enough to offer up new students with the long gone careers of twenty years ago. It’s a little like the glamour of celebrity without the value of insight that doomed Trump University.


Featured image via Architectural Review. 


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