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Great American Cities That Teach Architecture

Recently I visited Pittsburgh for a fascinating hand-drawing conference at Carnegie Mellon’s superb school of architecture, which to my knowledge is not among the top 10 in U.S. News and World Report. I wonder why? The curriculum is cutting-edge, the faculty world-renowned, and the students well-grounded and talented. More people of color are in the design community at CMU than at Princeton, SCI-Arc, or Harvard. 

In addition to which, I note this: Pittsburgh is one of the best U.S. cities for studying not just computers and robotics, but also architecture and urban design. What makes a city a good place to learn about buildings, parks, and urbanism? A few things are essential:


A distinctive ecology and sense of place.

Contributions to the history of architecture and urbanism over an extended period.

A fine architecture school and university campus.

A healthy, diverse economy.

A multicultural population.

A world-renowned park system.


There are several obvious candidates for any top 10 list of these kinds of cities in America: New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles are foremost. But I believe there are a half-dozen other urban centers that ought to be considered if you are thinking about architecture, either as a young professional or as a student. Let’s consider these six cities and their distinctive characteristics.


Yes, the Bills lost four Super Bowls and the city is hardly the economic powerhouse it used to be, but New York’s second city is still an architectural wonderland. The state SUNY campus is a solid example of modernist planning and design, and the architecture programs there continue to produce professionals with technical skills. Several of the nation’s largest AEC firms have headquarters there. There is ample evidence of a high-tech comeback, and civic pride could not be higher, despite lake effect snowstorms and low property values in many neighborhoods. You can’t do better for true masterworks from America’s greats: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Martin House has been lovingly restored; Frederick Law Olmsted’s park system is magnificent; Louis Sullivan’s Guaranty Building crowns the downtown; and the Carrère & Hastings fountain opposite its façade anchors a great civic plaza. There isn’t a city with more characteristics of the country’s proud dominance of 20th century trade, industrial might, economic leadership, and technical innovation than this center of rail and water transportation. 


Thomas Jefferson established the first great state university here and designed a campus that is a museum of architecture in itself. Though Campbell Hall is hardly a suitable neighbor of the Lawn, the University of Virginia architecture school has continued to offer excellent education despite its modest size. The town has grown recently and now has a more varied economic base that extends the university’s reach internationally. A public university with private endowments, it can attract top intellectual, artistic, and scientific talent. Moreover, the renowned Vicenza Summer Program founded by architecture professor Mario di Valmarana gives students and faculty the opportunity to study in Italy and encounter the work of Andrea Palladio, history’s greatest architect, firsthand. Monticello is a few miles away, and Washington, D.C., close enough for field trips. Both architectural history and preservation remain strong components of the design curricula.



The leading 20th century example of sprawl development is also a great city for architecture buffs, with its boutique collection of buildings by modern masters including Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, James Stirling, Cesar Pelli, Philip Johnson, Renzo Piano, Stanley Tigerman, Ricardo Bofil, Steven Holl, José Rafael Moneo, and Allan Greenberg. The R.A. Cram–designed Rice Campus remains one of the most beautiful in the country, and its architecture school vies with the University of Houston for influence in the life of the city. Alas, the Rice Design Alliance is no more, but the design community is still tight-knit and vibrant. The park system, anchored by Hermann Park near the medical center, is wonderful and provides a respite for the hot, humid climate. Many residential neighborhoods, such as River Oaks and Shadyside, are full of magnificent examples of American domestic architecture from the last century. Even the Astrodome, threatened recently with demolition, remains to remind us of the Space Race and midcentury optimism about the future.

New Orleans

The delta city is one of the first to be formally planned—by French engineers—during the 17th century. Its creole population and faubourgs created the template for a melting pot not equaled in all of North America. Tulane University has had a renowned architecture school that continues to lead the world in coastal city sustainability research and architectural conservation. Jackson Square and Vieux Carré are still vibrant, and the Garden District dazzles with elegant streets and residences. Every neighborhood is full of eateries, parks, and cultural draws. Despite the ravages of Katrina, the city has maintained its music and art culture as well as its tourist mojo. Mardi Gras parades aren’t the only parties that students can join while studying there.


The Iron City came back from a near collapse in the 1980s to become a high-tech and educational mecca. It has two great universities and a number of smaller colleges, so students love the vibe. The famous three-rivers location and topography are spectacular; each neighborhood is like a play by August Wilson. The University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning (Charles Klauder, 1932) is a central element in one of the greatest public spaces in America, surrounded as it is by the Heinz Memorial Chapel, the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Auditorium, Carnegie Institute museums, and many fine university buildings. Take a class to sketch there and you have a panoply of great architectural styles and lessons about urbanism. The CMU campus is the work of two great American architects: Henry Hornbostel (1867–1961) and Michael Dennis. The Hornbostel campus plan and architecture building are too little known but brilliant, and Dennis’ master plan from the 1990s was an equally masterful continuation of the spatial and urbanistic features of the original, with courtyards, campus greens, multilevel plazas, and varied massing. And the icing on the cake is H.H. Richardson’s jail-and-courthouse complex downtown. 


William Oglethorpe’s multi-square city plan is perhaps the best in America for integrating public and private spaces with parks. The barrier islands and distinct African American culture offer rich opportunities for both leisure and education. When the Savannah College of Art and Design began to occupy disused historic buildings during the 1990s, the city changed dramatically. Today, architecture and historic preservation are well-regarded departments among many that give artistic young people a wide choice of careers. There are also many new museums that interpret the long history of commerce, shipping, art, and architecture in the lowlands. The relatively small and walkable central areas are perfect for outdoor sketching, seminars, and impromptu teaching and learning. Despite its areas of poverty, the city is prospering and drawing new residents from across the nation. Moreover, SCAD works with many local community groups to bolster civic pride and achievement.

Not every architect or academic will agree with my choices, but I think I’ve made a solid case for each city. No one truly learns about the built environment from PowerPoint lectures and online presentations. Though the pandemic cooped us up for a couple of years, there is plenty to attract students when a campus is surrounded by memorable, lively outdoor places. I have taught in Philadelphia, New York, Houston, Newark, and D.C. during my career as a full-time academic. Each was an exemplar of good design—if you knew where to look.

Featured image via Wikimedia Commons. 


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