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Architectural Education: A Time for Reckoning.
by Leaford L. Blevins, Ph.D., Architect

I have worked as an architect in private practice for these last 25 years. My professional experience has included periods in small and large firms, jobs as a draftsman, project architect, manager, and as principal of one of the largest firms in the nation. My completed work includes projects of many different sizes and types, and in various locations, around the world. I have been very lucky. It has not been easy. During this period of practice, I’ve had occasion to work for short periods as a municipal building official, military engineering officer, and part time instructor of various subjects. In this life, I have worked with many architects and engineers, capable and not so, talented and not so, young and “seasoned”. While I have obtained this seasoning, I have sadly watched too many of my fellow architects become trapped in an endless economic struggle for survival.

For the entire period of my practice, the profession seems to have been under assault from many varied quarters. Various justifications are advanced for not employing architects in the first instance on far too many different types of projects. Many of the people who are planning small personal works are put off by the payment of a fee for what is “free” when they visit their local contractor, or home builder. While at the same time, many owners of large and complex projects are “put off” by the lack of basic construction know how they see demonstrated in some of the architects they meet. In fact, the American architect’s notorious lack of budget control has spawned a growth industry in the field of Project Management. In some countries, esteem and respect for the role for the profession has dipped so low that even the need for the registration of architects has been questioned, on account that “architects don’t really do anything critically important requiring licensure”. I believe the profession is in need of critical help in many ways and that a major rethinking of our role in society and in the construction industry. I further believe that this change needs to start with a radical change in the basic education required for people entering the profession. The mode of instruction and the basic information taught has been critically outpaced by changes in industry. We have experienced a major trend toward specialization and technology. The amount of knowledge and information that is used in the practice of architecture has expanded tremendously in the last three decades.

All the while, architectural education seems to continue to focus on a design philosophy, paying little attention to the explosion in complexity of functional criteria, costs, increasingly intricate codes and standards, rapid advancements in construction technology and architectural product production technology, team and development management, etc. All of which must form the stock and trade of most of the architects who survive, much less prosper in the late twentieth century.

Our schools should be the vanguard of our great professional family. The schools seem to mirror a family that is now, to a great degree, quite dysfunctional. Schools coax would be architects into a prolonged and costly educational experience, then proceed to educate these same young people for many non existent jobs. Our professional schools focus on a range of design skills, even though a relative few people ever design anything again in the same setting. Our schools of architecture, now, as thirty years ago, resemble large “vacation bible schools” filled with bits of cardboard and splashes of paint. In some advanced cases, the 3D CADD lab has taken the place of the model shop. It doesn’t really matter, the end effect is the same, with the focus on the creation of an object of relative “juried” beauty, rather than on the development of a rational design process; or, even more importantly, on an understanding of the technologies that are available. Great skill mastered in the manipulation of cardboard, pencils, or pixel vectors is of little real market value. As testimony to the failure of the schools to properly equip their graduates, the number of people who graduate and actually progress to registration is pitifully low. Yet, the dance goes on.

There should be a fit between the types of jobs that actually exist, and the skills transmitted in our architectural schools. In great measure, there is none of this match. Certainly, time passes and things do change, but there is now at least a three decade long history of many more architectural graduates than there are places for them to become productive within the profession. Are our professional schools expecting a wave of change that has not happened, or are they just ignoring the reality of the situation their students will face. I have been told that this does not matter. That, in fact, an education in architecture is a good well rounded education regardless of its supposed professional tilt. This may or may not be true, but I doubt that informed consumers of education would make such a choice if it were posed in this way.

Our profession has experienced many different forms of relative decline. Our professional schools are, and have been, the genesis of many of these. To be sure, there are records at each school of architecture that reflect the general number of students who have graduated and who are able to find employment; however, employment of a general nature is not what a professional architectural education is about. It is supposed to train people to become professional architects, or at least, when asked, that is the assumption of many students when they commit to their five to six years, or more, of “professional” education. It is, too often, a long, very expensive, and too cruel joke.

A decade ago, in corporate America, industry could, and would, take a bright graduate individual and train that person in the areas of expertise and job skills they needed to master in order to function within that organization. No more. It is expected that the new employee appear on the job with a reasonable level of skill and expertise. If not, someone charged with a staffing responsibility has made an employment selection decision that is wrong. If any training is provided at all in this setting, it is usually not technical but managerial or motivational in nature, or directed at a specific skill needed for a specific task. The survival pressure to be fully “billable” makes training a reward, or a self funded effort between periods of employment, not an company benefit for the young architectural graduate. At the same time, as design organizations get bigger and even more consolidated, there is often greater and greater distance between the older, more experienced architects within the company and the new people entering the profession. In days past, the profession put great stock in the concept of apprenticeship, recently recast as internship. Within larger and more complex organizations this is a much more difficult way to achieve the needed training. The result of this can be the permanent placement of a young architect in a low paid position that involves technical skill (CADD operation) rather than a well rounded exposure to the various aspects of professional practice. As a method of monitoring the after school training of young architects prior to registration to see that they got the “right” sort of education, internship fails to prepare many graduates for the exam. As a mentoring program, it has the capability of helping to rectify some of these “range of experience” problems. It also signals the recognition of the problem of appropriate technical training by the profession. We seem to have developed a system where the schools don’t focus on a great many of the needed professional skills and the former reliance on apprenticeship cannot be counted on to do the supplemental training job that is needed.

What have other areas of the design professions done to cope with these profound changes in our industry. Engineers have coped by creating more and more sub-specialties within each basic engineering discipline. Their undergraduate and graduate education schemes follow these general outlines. Architects, on the other hand, seem to have simply tried to broaden their view by critically limiting its depth of focus. On the job self education within the subspecialty encourages the specialist engineer to become ever more specialized within his area of expertise, and because of the trend toward specialization, more employable. This creates a lateral organizational structure, ever and ever larger as time passes. Peer education can work in this setting if there are enough peers, and they are willing and able to engage in the process. Architects, in contrast, have production based , or skill and talent based divisions of labor when they are part of an organizational scheme, of any size. Some architects manage, some design, some produce, some inspect, some write specifications, some perform code analysis, and so on. This form of division is further dependent on the type of building that the firm specializes in creating. Architectural graduate education schemes do not follow this division, and undergraduate education is, with minor exceptions, a one size fits all experience. Very few graduate architects who do enter the architectural workforce, in my experience, are actually engaged in design. If a young architect enters a busy successful specialized firm, his chances of getting the rounding he needs to do well on the professional examinations he must pass later for registration is subject to grave doubt.

Architectural design has become more and more regulated. The skill of the designer is very much dependent on his ability to work within limits of all types. His understanding of the Building and Planning Codes and their interaction is often one of the keys to being a good design provider. The same is true of the interaction of various fire and life safety codes, building budgets and construction schedules. It is a complex world and the modern practice of architecture reflects that complexity. This aspect of design does not get a great deal of attention in undergraduate education. The training and experience needed to navigate through these complexities is clearly intended to happen in the “after formal” education period. Very often it doesn’t.

Architectural education needs a new direction. Or, at the very least a new focus. As a start, there needs to be a recognition that not everyone designs, and that there is nothing wrong or distasteful about that fact. Almost one half the total time in college today in architectural schools coast to coast, border to border, and beyond, is spent in design studio. This is the way it has been for many years, and this is the way it is in many schools of architecture today. This weighting is way beyond the relative importance of this aspect of practice in the future lives of most graduates. Please don’t misunderstand, I firmly believe that some architects should understand and be able to perform the design function. The issue is the time spent teaching this skill and its relative importance weighed against talent and exposure. There must be a focus on finding new and improved means of teaching design skills that does not require such an extended exposure in order to free time in the curriculum for many of the other aspects of modern architectural practice. In connection with this same issue it is important to recognize that many architects in the “real” world have very responsible positions in government, industry, and commerce which do not require design practice. These people are practicing architecture. There is a need for people with an understanding of all the aspects of practice, even in the large architectural firms of our time, who do not design anything personally on a daily basis.

An architectural education needs to place value on the other aspects of practice. Because of the emphasis by time spent on design in school, there is a sense in the graduate that this is “the” important aspect of practice. Unless they see themselves engaged in this activity they don’t believe they are “doing architecture”. In a small practice, the kind of involvement that is needed to “feel good” in this situation is possible. In many of the available work settings it is not. Consolidation and specialization are trends that work against this sort of involvement. Young people generally don’t have the skill to be specialists, and large design organizations rely on a structured system of project development that would not likely involve entry level persons very much, if at all, in the process.

Architectural education needs to prepare young people to enter the workforce, and to be proud of their role in the ongoing work of the society. The strategy ought to be one of identifying the skills that are actually needed in the marketplace, then responding to those needs through the design of educational programs that will meet the needs of the student when they enter the workforce. The emphasis that is placed on the design curriculum works against this objective. A great deal of time is spent learning drawing and presentation techniques that may never be used again. Certainly, for the relative few who do enter private practice, these skills are highly valuable. Very few really do enter and continue to practice in this way.

No doubt, every professional educational system has to have a base. In medicine and law this base is founded in a good general education in the sciences or in the humanities. This general exposure is followed by graduate training first of a general nature and becoming ever more specific as the education and training proceeds. The base for architectural training has been developed as a separate curriculum , in many schools as a “special” curriculum. Entry to the law and medical professions are strictly limited by very restrictive undergraduate performance requirements and entry tests. There is not an end oversupply problem because entry to the profession is seriously restricted. If you graduate from medical school, and finish your subsequent training, you will get an opportunity to practice your learned skills, with little doubt. Entry to the professional law and medical schools is “delayed” four years beyond the decision point for entry to an undergraduate professional architectural school. By delaying the decision point, the options available to the student to match his education to market forces is also enhanced. By requiring a firm educational base on entering these professional schools higher levels of performance can be expected and achieved. Many decisions in America’s corporate world are based on the concept of matching risk and reward. Entry to an architectural school may soon represent to great a commitment risk at too early a time for too little in the way of ultimate reward. The risk reward evaluation would not support a decision to enter the profession. To further exacerbate the problem there is little turning back once in the architectural education system. Though architects may believe their base education is equal to a BA or a BS, many graduate schools don’t share that belief. Another undergraduate degree is often the requirement to change direction.

When the architectural graduate gets his degree, he is faced with another type of problem. He must secure the needed experience to qualify, on his own merit, for examination. This secondary education is not part of the collegiate educational experience. This system is regulated to the extent that he must produce the proof himself of the experience and the people who administered it must certify to its delivery. In the United States this secondary experience training, or internship, is a four year equivalent period. This is a “hit and miss” proposition at best. In addition, during this period, he, or she, must work in a setting that will qualify for the type of experience he needs. I’ve heard it referred to as “indentured servitude”. It is typically a period of very low pay and poor working conditions at the outset of the “professional” experience. But this is only the situation for the people “lucky” enough to get a job in an employment setting that will allow them to get qualifying experience. For many it is the end of the plan to become an Architect. Looking at the whole system from this point in my career, it all looks like a system that was designed to insure a large flow of low paid people into the ranks of the professional firms, and at the same time, control access to actual practice, by attrition alone.

If the graduate architect finishes the internship period and is then admitted to take the architectural examination, his historic chances of passing are in the 50% range. Imagine the numbers if you were to count those people who don’t make it through the internship period. If he does not pass this comprehensive test, he has to deal himself with the personal feeling of failure. A decision to change direction is seen just as clearly in the same dim light, because the stated objective at the outset of the undergraduate education was registration and professional practice.

Viewed with the “seasoned perspective” I now have, I am convinced that this is a very wasteful, mean, and even essentially dishonest, education system that must and should be radically changed. To me, how is really more of an issue to debate than whether. To start, I believe that undergraduate architectural education should be totally abandoned in favor of only graduate level training. Just as in law and in medicine, I believe entry to this graduate level training should be restrictive, trying to match the needs of the marketplace as closely as possible to the kind of education being offered. There should be an opportunity for professional training in project management. Property development and business planning should be a major optional path to a professional degree. There needs to be a recognition that the successful practice of architecture may, or may not, involve any design activity, and that recognition of the reality of the profession needs to be reflected in the laws of registration, yielding multiple areas of specialty registration in the various aspects of an expanded notion of professional practice. Clearly, all engineers are not cut from the same “PE” cloth, all architects are not either. There should be multiple graduate training tracts. One would produce a designer, one a businessman, one a project manager, and so on, all architects. Yes, this would be complex and radical path to a more appropriate education, and a virtual complete abandonment of the existing system. Serious discussion of radical change is required if architecture, a great profession, is to again experience a period of individual practitioner prosperity and growth, rather than a continued assault, and, I am convinced, an eventual decline into total irrelevance.

Leaford L. Blevins, Ph.D., Architect
3-291, 1F Pogwang-dong, Yongsan-Ku,
Seoul, ROK, 140-220

e-mail: guitella@isucao.fadu.uba.ar

Web Architecture Magazine, Issue 04, January-February 1997. All rights reserved