Is Apprenticeship the Way That Architectural Education Stays Relevant?
When I received a letter in 1987 from Raj Saksena, the founding dean of the School of Architecture at Roger Williams College (now University), I was flattered and surprised. I had graduated a decade earlier from Cornell with a BArch. Even though I had written two books, won an Architectural Record House Award, and was a new partner with Louis Mackall, I did not have a master’s degree, and I had never taught. But Raj was not shy. He wanted me to teach design more than two hours away from my office. I had just hung up my cleats as an assistant high school football coach and had not yet become a parent, so there was a window.
And that window was not just personal. It is common to have practicing architects become adjunct faculty, teaching one course a semester. Adjuncts offer a professional perspective no academic can replicate, and this is true for all professional degrees, whether it’s doctors, lawyers, engineers, or architects.
But in 1987, I had the time and hubris, and I agreed to teach design; then I did a seminar on writing in architecture. Raj asked if I could stay on, but my life was changing. Even though I had installed a “car phone” (remember those?), my wife and I were trying to have a child, I was knee-deep into my next book, and also contemplating creating my own office. Twenty-plus hours a week teaching and commuting was not possible.
Teaching was a deeply rewarding experience, because it forced me to define a design process and do it through the eyes of students with little or no knowledge or experience, a valuable exchange for all involved.
And yet teaching was a deeply rewarding experience, because it forced me to define a design process and do it through the eyes of students with little or no knowledge or experience, a valuable exchange for all involved. Still I was only a dozen years older than they were, and back then the way architects produced drawings was the same in my education as it was in theirs. I enjoyed working with the other professors in the classic studio model of desk crits, hang-ups, presentations. But my passion was building, and the local school, Yale, was not hiring teachers without master’s degrees. So I taught for three semesters at Roger Williams and returned to practice.
Until Yale called.
After our first child was born, Kent Bloomer—who ran the undergraduate, nonprofessional degree architecture program there, and had seen me at a review—asked if I could fill in for an absent professor. It was 20 minutes away from my office. Of course I would. The students were extremely articulate and thoughtful, and the TA’s from the graduate school were also smart, engaged students that benefitted from my experience as well.
The next 30 years saw five more books, two sons, 1,000 design commissions, an office of a half-dozen people, and many talks, design juries—professional and academic—but no real thoughts of teaching. Until I got a call from Maggie Moore Alexander, wife of Christopher Alexander. Architect Susan Ingham of Seattle had seen an article that I had written on Common Edge, and Maggie asked if I wanted to give a talk at the new program in architectural education, Building Beauty, in Italy. “Why not more?” I suggested. So we created the HOME Competition.
Given the enthusiasm for this effort, I contacted the University of Hartford’s architecture program to see if the school would be interested in participating. The new dean, Jim Fuller, agreed to meet, and he loved the idea. After a year he suggested I teach at UHart, an hour from home, for a seminar, one day a week. It has been two semesters of another great experience, now made better in the Zoom era, where guest lecturing is easy and engaging for all concerned, perhaps the only positive reality to come out of sequestration.
It is clear to me that my 30-year absence from teaching (beyond being a guest critic) has revealed many changes. There are more professors who teach as adjuncts, but do not earn a living building. There are now more ways to reach more students and lecturers from all over the world. The extreme cost of an architectural education remains, but has meant that scholarships are necessary, which translates into less money for the school. And yet the demand for degrees has remained constant. According to the NCARB, 2019 architecture enrollment was the highest in six years.
Contemplating the future more than a decade ago, David Celanto wrote in the Harvard Design Magazine that the coming change “involves nothing more than the abandonment of thousands of years of precedent.”
The last 30 years of exploding technologies in rendering, engineering, and construction have erased the confident status quo of 1987. No one today believes that school can fully prepare students for what architecture will become in 10 years. Contemplating the future more than a decade ago, David Celanto wrote in Harvard Design Magazine that the coming change “involves nothing more than the abandonment of thousands of years of precedent.” Indeed, I think the differences that I have observed between 1987 Roger Williams College and 2021 Building Beauty will seem quaint in just a few short years. Architects are sitting at the edge of an A.I. revolution that will transform everything. In teaching at four different venues over the past 35 years, I know that the students have not fundamentally changed, nor has the passion of those dedicated to academic architecture. What has changed, and will completely explode, is how buildings will be made. If that’s true, then education has to change.
Perhaps architects will use A.I. to once again take on the mantle of Master Builder, rather than serve as the uneasy center of a quilt of consultants who may one day be replaced by technology. This evolution might well end the last century’s fine arts architecture pedagogy of education. If so, then our education must reflect these fluid shifts. While the understanding of history, design, and theory remains crucial, the design studio may become less important to a student’s education. Instead, the apprentice model of direct professional integration may be the best way education can remain relevant in a world where change happens too quickly to be taught.
Featured image via the University of Michigan.