Lisbon Mosteiro Jeronimos

Change the NAAB Conditions for Architectural Accreditation!

Putting a major problem facing us in its proper perspective, Architect magazine Editor in Chief Ned Cramer posits that “The future of architecture education is the future of civilization.” 

I wholeheartedly agree. 

According to Cramer, “The National Architectural Accrediting Board [NAAB] is currently undergoing review and revision of its Conditions for Accreditation and Procedures for Accreditation, two documents that establish the criteria for architecture education and the rules for school accreditation, respectively.” I hope that forward-thinking groups and individuals took advantage of this great opportunity to provide input. If they remain interested, they ought to act quickly, as the deadline to propose changes to the revised document is tomorrow. 

Cramer is optimistic for reform, “thanks to enlightened leadership at NAAB, the process is remarkably open and inclusive. Real change is possible.” He mentions two important efforts. One group of academics and practitioners met at the University of Oregon for the Reynold Symposium in October, and drew up their proposal for reform as The Portland Declaration. Another effort was undertaken by the AIA Committee for the Environment, which prepared its own detailed Comments in July. 

I wish to point out a parallel and simultaneous drive at reforming architectural education worldwide. With the publication of an “Open Letter to the Architectural Community: A Call for Curriculum Change,” students from several British architecture schools launched the Architecture Education Declares campaign in June. Asking for radical reforms in architectural education, these students wish to reorient the system so that it becomes more socially responsible. A group of my colleagues joined together to respond to this initiative, launching a global campaign to restructure architectural education (details below). 

Many of those who call for drastic reform have given up on architecture education as practiced by dominant architectural culture. In the face of what we see as continuing inertia, our solution is to go outside the system altogether. We’re enacting distinct educational programs to achieve this. One of those is the Building Beauty Program focusing on the work of architect and theorist Christopher Alexander (I am on the teaching faculty). If the NAAB helps to implement genuine reform, then there is a chance that students could still be able to get their hoped-for education within the system. 

Here are my own suggestions for educational reform sent to the NAAB. Recommended additions to the Program Criteria (PC), Section 4.1 of The National Architectural Accrediting Board 2020 Conditions for Accreditation “DRAFT 1”, September 9, 2019, are highlighted. 

PC.1 Career Paths—How the program helps students understand the path to becoming a licensed architect in the United States and the range of career opportunities available to them that utilize the discipline’s skills and knowledge. 

PC.2 Design—How the program promotes the role of design in shaping the built environment, and conveys the methods by which design integrates multiple factors, in different settings and scales of development. How the program recognizes the interaction of science with design, not only in the technical aspect, but for discovering how design affects people.

PC.2.5 Health effects of design—How the program provides an understanding of the latest scientific results on the way that spaces and surfaces affect the human body, and either generate or reduce stress. Long-term exposure to stress induced by built geometry degrades human health.

PC.3 Ecological Knowledge and Responsibility—How the program provides a holistic understanding of the dynamic between built and natural environments, enabling future architects to responsibly mitigate climate change by leveraging ecological, advanced building performance, adaptation, and resilience principles in their work and advocacy activities. 

PC.4 History and Theory—How the program prepares students to understand the histories and theories of architecture and urbanism, framed by broad social, cultural, economic, and political forces. Reversing the established practice of giving overwhelming emphasis to the Modern Movement as a prototype to follow for design today, the program presents historical and vernacular architectures as containing valuable tools for contemporary design, because of their superior sustainable properties.

PC.5 Innovation—How the program expands students’ understanding of the field and encourages exploration, risk-taking, and inventiveness. At the same time, how the program trains students in prioritizing human health over artistic innovations that could affect users’ health and wellbeing negatively.

PC.6 Leadership and Collaboration—How the program helps students understand approaches to leadership in multidisciplinary teams, diverse stakeholder constituents, and dynamic physical and social contexts, and learn how to apply effective collaboration skills to solve complex problems. 

PC.7 Learning and Teaching Culture—How the program fosters a positive and respectful environment that encourages optimism, respect, sharing, engagement, and innovation among the members of its faculty, student body, administration, staff, and the profession. 

PC.8 Social Equity and Inclusive Environments—How the program deepens students’ understanding of diverse cultural and social contexts and helps students translate that into built environments that support and include people who have different backgrounds, resources, and abilities. How the program balances iconic architecture in the wealthier nations with the genuine needs of low-cost housing and minimal infrastructure for the developing world.

Architecture faces existential questions, and it is worth bringing those to the attention of interested general readers. Efforts are also materializing independently of the NAAB reform. A group of concerned architectural educators and practitioners is writing a series of essays on the future of education and the profession, which I am curating for ArchNewsNow. To date, we have published six essays in a coordinated response, with my own essay opening the series; more are being prepared by distinguished international authors. The group also collaborated on a separate joint essay summarizing our ideas and key points, “Architecture Programs Need a Change: Put People First—Not ‘Art’”. 

There seems to be a convergence of interest in reforming architectural education globally. A conference in Pune, India, just took place to discuss the future of architecture education in that part of Asia. (I participated via live video.) U.S. educators should note that India has nearly 500 schools and colleges of architecture and up to 30,000 graduates per year. We are expecting the results of that symposium to be published in 2020 as The Pune Declaration

I have previously expressed my deep concerns not only with the “standard” postwar architectural curriculum, but especially with the methodology of teaching architecture. Those aspects of training can be traced directly to the unquestioned adoption of techniques from the Bauhaus school. Whether you like Bauhaus-style architecture or not, new revelations about the origins of the style and teaching methodology suggest that we should no longer rely on those typologies to train our future architects. Similar questions on the decreasing relevance of architectural education copied from the Western centers of power come from Latin America. 

Is architectural education in drastic need of reform? After experiencing over the years how recent graduates think and perform, I believe so. What they are programmed to do (and not do) after they have finished their studies is alarming. A number of professionals and observant persons believe that there is something deeply wrong with architecture education today, and that we should take action leading to its complete restructuring. Yet the specifics remain vague, whereas interested students and young architects wish to learn very specific knowledge that will make them not only better practitioners but better citizens of the planet.

Breaking the mold—where global architecture education is controlled by a handful of people in the wealthiest nations, sitting in the most prestigious institutions—will require a process that’s as inclusive as possible. We need to reassess the ability of present-day education to prepare architects in creating a human environment. While separate proposals vary in details, they share a fundamental humanity largely absent from what we teach students today. These converging forces will hopefully provide a catalyst for universal reform. 

Featured image: Lisbon Mosteiro Jeronimos. Photo by the author.


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