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Why Teaching Architecture Is Difficult

Teaching architecture is as difficult as building it. If architecture were solely a fine art, then the rarified air of pure aesthetics, detached from the corporeal world and the realities of construction, would be a joyous exercise in ideology. If architecture were just a technology, then science, formulas, and material specifications would be a regimen transcribed from a rigid set of facts and rules. If architecture were simply a cultural pursuit, a sociological phenomenon, then a history of demographic, economic, and philosophical movements could be easily assembled.

The difficulty in educating people on “the mother of the arts” often means that many architects resort to teaching what they do. Rather than explore the variety of architectural realities, this aesthetic and creative shortcut makes for easier instruction. Understanding more than one architectural faith, and describing those different perspectives, is much harder than dismissing all but your own. 

This is true of any art. My son attended a rigorous musical conservatory, and his French horn professor spent four years insisting that there was but one way to play: his way. A professor’s perspective can be a great way to learn, and imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but diversity is a better teacher. I was in architecture school in the 1970s, a decade that saw the questioning of the dominant paradigm of Modernism. It was a time of PoMo, as well as the next generation of Midcentury Modernism, Christopher Alexander’s writings, even Design Morphology. That meant that the faculty had a multitude of views on how to make architecture, and we learned from that.

Why not teach multiple perspectives, explaining the values of each? An open mind does not have the allure of messianic orthodoxy, with its easily defendable “right” and “wrong” ways. The open, inclusive approach in education is harder, because this approach in design is harder, too: it responds to more questions; history, ornament, vernacular aesthetics, and popular culture exist; communities and memories are part of every building, and they can’t be ignored, despite the desire to be “new.” If an aesthetic outcome is the generating motivation for a design, that loop of justification precludes learning from the process, beyond the idiosyncrasy of the designer. It’s more difficult to deal with those motivations than to pander to a “style,” or to simply teach others what you do. The polymorphic approach takes more time, is messy, and often is harder to judge.

Education is not indoctrination. The profession gives every graduate an open book of career perspectives. But what you do needs to address why you’re doing it.


School can reveal your motivations without compelling outcomes that adhere to an aesthetic. This tradition of aesthetic propaganda in fine arts education remains in thrall to outcomes, but it forces motivations (sometimes retroactively) that justify those outcomes.

 The confusion of philosophy and fact is not limited to aesthetics. Teaching a religion is why we have seminaries, but teaching “religion” is why we have universities. Sets of facts are used to support political agendas, philosophical conclusions, and spiritual devotions—without looking beyond selected truths to the broader perspective only education can provide.

 In my firm, at least one of the seven people we employ is an intern, which means the firm actively educates them and sacrifices income in order to expose them to the innumerable complexities of creating buildings. But teaching at a school is different from mentoring in an office.

 Because it is time-consuming and low-paying (just like the profession), the decision to teach architecture while engaged in practice was not easy. That commitment forced me to evaluate why I do what I do, and what it means. But if I wanted to be part of the mission of making more than what is necessary, then I had to find the time. That meant working seven days a week for the semester. Why would I do that?

 The University of Hartford’s architecture program is an open forum of thought, not a kitchen cooking a favored cuisine. I decided that the school was a place where teaching design is understanding how the act of creation can be translated into education, not by defining aesthetically correct creations. I can challenge the students—and myself—to define the “whys” of creation over the “whats” of outcomes. As an adjunct, I know the lessons of being an architect from 40 years of experience, but I do not teach the “Means & Methods” or a “Profession of Architecture” course. I try to convey thinking that leverages a way to make buildings by cross-referencing how I do things with the other ways of making architecture. 

In the perpetual chaos of architectural practice—getting the jobs, building the things, receiving the recognition, meeting the payroll—it is easy to lose sight of the “why.” Students in the laboratory of education should at least start there. Rather than worship outcomes, I open up the motivations each student has by challenging them not to define what they’re doing, but why they’re doing it.

 Education may provide answers, but it should begin with questions, no matter the field of study. Think about what this approach means to the students. It might be time to question the motivations of architecture schools, rather than to laud—or, just as often, demean—the outcomes of their graduates.

Featured image: A University of Hartford 2nd year student in the Department of Architecture presents “Cave of Adventure.” Photo by the author. 


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