Architectural Blatherations

How the Architecture Schools Tame their Students

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The Good Oil

On this page we present a very extensive critique of architectural education, extracted from Dr Garry's The Favored Circle. It's full of jargon (habitus, inculcation, social capital, etc) that you will have to pull out of the book. Read at your own risk!

How the architecture schools make their students love them

It is clear that in architecture the procedures and processes of design are not at all objectified—as the dismal failure of the Design Methods movement attests—and that architecture, unlike medicine or engineering or even law, requires not only knowing something as being something: we colloquially call this quality of being 'genius'.

Architectural education is intended to inculcate a certain form of habitus and provide a form of a generalised embodied cultural capital, a 'cultivated' disposition. Of course a young architecture graduate must know how to draw, of course they must understand building codes, the rudiments of structural analysis, the principles of construction, but right from the moment they sit down at the drawing board of their first office to the day they retire the smoothness or difficulty of their career will be mediated by their habitus acting through their cultural capital.

Habitus multiplies educational capital. Those with the right habitus and capital, those with the feel of the game, will find doors open more readily, their peers and superiors come to respect them more easily, clients look more favourably.

In earlier times educators not only readily acknowledged but positively gloried in the fact that architectural education was a cultivated education. Writing to those parents sending their sons to board in Paris to attend his revitalised Academy of Architecture in the late 1700s, Jacques-François Blondel, reassured them that he would provide for:

fencing, music and dancing; exercises to which particular attention is paid, since they should form part of the education of all well-born persons who devote themselves to architecture, and who are destined to live in the best society.

Or, as the AIA Committee on Education so clearly put it in 1906, An architect is a man of culture, learning and refinement, and the purpose of architectural education was the breeding of gentlemen of refinement. Again, the American Academy at Rome strove to select fellows among those only who will be recognised as gentlemen by instinct and breeding. A century later here is Robert Stern, Dean of the school of architecture at Yale, writing to his alumni in 2004, in the same exquisite terms:

Students were entertained by Sir Michael and Lady Patricia, who is also a partner in the Hopkins firm, both at their weekend house at Snape Maltings and in their landmark steel and glass house in London.… This kind of direct experience – teacher-to-student, building-to-practice and building-to-place – is the standard we aspire to for all.

Objectified cultural capital in the form of educational diplomas is only marginally useful in producing cultivated individuals, who are attempting in reality to acquire an embodied form of capital. Architecture schools devalue intellectual capital compared to embodied cultural capital, for intellectual capital is simply not essential to achieve success.

Favouring the favoured

By disguising what is actually a social process of selection that favours the privileged, with one that appears to be a purely meritocratic academic one favouring nothing but native talent, the architectural education system works to preserve the existing social structure.

Its success in so doing is often obscured by the fact that some individuals from the lower strata of society do make it through architecture school. Almost anyone could quote examples. Indeed, there are just enough such exceptions to make us believe that the system really is fair. Their prime function is precisely that of making the education system appear meritocratic when it is not.

The architectural education system achieves it results in several ways:

The self-elimination of the disadvantaged

People try to achieve what they think is possible. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds—those of low economic and cultural capital—self-select themselves out of the system by simply saying to themselves that they have no chance of success. One may see the effect operating within the university system, as students distribute themselves amongst the various faculties on the basis of their current economic and cultural capital, according to their perceptions of how successful they will be in increasing those capitals.

Data in any form for the United States is very rare: we only have one study thirty years old, which ranked disciplines by the proportion of the senior year from the highest socio-economic class. Law, medicine and the humanities attracted the most privileged students (about 70% of the year), while the physical sciences, education and engineering attracted the least (about 45%). Unfortunately, the data does not list architecture separately, although the ranking is surprisingly close to the University of Sydney, an ocean and thirty years away.

Differences between classes manifest themselves most not in differential rates of passing university courses, but of entering them.

Consecrating privilege by ignoring it

The higher education system as a whole has the essential function of conserving and preserving the culture of society, of passing it down from generation to generation. It is clear that it does not transmit the totality of society's culture. It transmits only those portions which those who run the system consider worthy of transmission, the culture of the dominant, euphemised as 'liberal education'. There are continual debates, of varying vehemence, about just what should be transmitted, but these are internal struggles between intellectuals and academics, none of whom doubt that there are some things (English, architecture) which should be taught in higher education and others (automobile repair, hairdressing) which should not. No-one thinks that everything is worthy of a degree.

By teaching and transmitting just one culture, that of the dominant classes, and by defining excellence and achievement in terms of that culture, the education system of necessity favours those who have already been inculcated with it from birth, those for whom this culture is as natural, familiar and easy as walking. By assuming students are broadly homogeneous—for no-one believes they are exactly alike—institutions of higher learning privilege the privileged, simply by ignoring their privilege. By referring simply to 'students' it is possible to forget that the experience of university life affects different students differently.

Entering university is very different for the student for whom university was expected as a natural career path, who has many family members with degrees, who lived with stories of their parents' college days all their life; than for the student who has heard of college life at third-hand, who hardly knows what to expect.

What a gulf must have existed at the École des Beaux Arts between those from architectural families and those not when An architect's son [in choosing an atelier] would listen to his father's advice following the latter's personal inclination, inquiries or past loyalties? And how must those students in the contemporary U.S. school who could not afford the cost have felt when, being praised for her design in a jury session, another student was told that I had demonstrated an understanding of Roman urban planning, and clearly had spent time in Europe… ?

One should also remember that students can have the same practices without experiencing them as the same. To say that the architect's daughter and the unskilled labourer's son are both keen photographers conceals the fact that with this same practice the former prepares herself for her chosen profession by carefully photographing interesting buildings, while the latter memorialises a personal history— birthdays, weddings, graduations, the important moments in the life of family and friends.

The professor brings his boat

It is in this light that one can interpret an incident at Dr Garry's own school at Sydney some years ago. A new professor, an eminent and successful architect on the national scene, wanted to start the academic year with a celebration, an event, one which would be both entertaining and instructive. The event was a day-long series of talks and exercises for the entire student body, physically and metaphorically centred around his firm's eighteen-foot skiff which he had assembled in the School's courtyard. His intention was to use the skiff as an example of excellence in design, of the highest craftsmanship, of subtlety and beauty of form, yet perfectly functional, as this sort of yacht is widely used for amateur racing.

The differential symbolic effect this had on the students was unintended. Sailing on the harbour is one of the favourite pursuits of Sydney's elites, amongst whom must be counted the better-off of the city's architects. Many architecture firms have their own boats, the favourite of which is the eighteen-foot skiff. For many years there has been an annual architectural racing competition, and participation in that event is a sign that one's firm has made it. Almost all those students from privileged backgrounds would have had sailing experience, and many of their families would have owned such a skiff. To them, sailing was a perfectly everyday pastime, and the professor's use of the boat as an exemplar of design was an implicit affirmation of the quality of that recreation, a comforting confirmation of the match between their cultural capital and that required for the profession.

To those students from lower-middle class backgrounds the skiff was a novelty which made them uneasy. In a manner more potent and effective than mere words could have done, the cultural capital of architecture was identified with unknown experiences, and their own lack of familiarity and ease with yachting labelled them as less prepared, less familiar with that culture, and less acceptable as would-be entrants to the profession.

And how natural must it have been for the young Yalies, enjoying these uppwer-class delights (as described by Robert Stern back in 2004):

Alan Plattus led his students on a trip to the Ruhr valley in Germany… In the spring semester, Zaha Hadid brought her studio to Beijing, China to meet with Soho China developers and to visit the site for new villas. … Frank Gehry's studio travelled to Los Angeles and Lisbon, Portugal.

Accepting the ideology of giftedness

Success of course depends on having some sort of talent and skill in the occupation of choice. In different degrees in different fields, success also depends on the ease with which one can acquire the culture offered to one in the education system. Those with a habitus that pre-disposes them to play the game they have chosen to enter, and to love to play that game, will do better than those without.

Those students from cultured families, especially from families with heavy investments in artistic or architectural cultural capital, come to school with a habitus ready made for reception of the peculiar education that is architecture. Such students appear to be naturally gifted, but this natural gift is—as well as being a talent—also the feel for the game which their habitus provides them, a "naturally natural naturality" that impresses all who see it as a natural ease, grace, style and confidence. Those who say they are "born to be architects" truly are, but not in the way that the speakers intend.

The notion that one is born with natural talents completely independent of the privilege of being privileged by one's social class, is the ideology of giftedness, and in no field is this belief more strongly held than in art and architecture. No one confident of their own giftedness can accept the unpalatable idea that their giftedness owes as much to the unchosen determination of their own social milieu as to their own undetermined choosing, as Bourdieu puts it.

If this ideology were true, then one would expect to find some sort of commonality to the psychologies of creative artists or architects and, conversely, no commonality to their social origins.

Precisely the opposite is the case. The lack of a common psychology in architecture students has quite defeated the many attempts of researchers to devise selection procedures superior to the hodge-podge now operating in the world's schools. If the analysis presented here is correct, then they should really be looking for students from families with high cultural capital.

Like these two, other researchers have been reluctant to acknowledge the implications of their own findings, politely declining to look behind the individual to the symbolic wealth sustaining him or her. The psychologist Donald MacKinnon, in his famous psychological studies of architects fifty years ago, found that almost without exception, all his most creative architects came from families with high cultural capital, but was not interested in pursuing this most obvious of indicators.

Schools ignore their inculcation function

Educators talk about how students are socialised into 'architectural culture', usually in disparaging tones, as though it were some incidental side-effect, or easily rectified by simply not teaching students certain things. The process of inculcation is no mere epiphenomenon, but an integral part of architectural education. This process operates at a much deeper level than is implied in the notion of a hidden curriculum. One cannot manifest cultivation by knowing, but by being. All the subtle signs of cultivation which are what makes it cultivation—accent, manners, deportment, bearing, dress, attitudes, tastes, dispositions—cannot be obtained at second-hand. They must be slowly absorbed from those who are already cultivated. Its importance lies precisely in the fact that it cannot be picked up easily. If it were readily obtained, by simply reading a few books, or attending a few lectures, it would not have the value it does. Its acquisition is essentially a matter of directly experiencing it, of soaking up all the many small things which comprise it. Nor can its content be enumerated.

No book can tell you that it consists of x, y or z. This sort of cultural capital exists in the tacit, unsaid qualities of individuals. As Alberti said:

… there is no one even slightly imbued with letters who does not in his leisure conceive the hope that he will soon become a great orator, even if he has only seen the face of eloquence at a distance. But, when he realises that mastery of this art involves more difficulty than he drowsily thought, he strives toward this goal by reading every available book, as if we could acquire our style from books alone, rather than by our own intense efforts.

A more recent statement in almost exactly the same terms can be found in this one by Paul Cret, who wrote in 1934 of his school at the University of Pennsylvania:

All education in Fine Arts… has for its main object the development of the artist's personality. A consequence is that such a result can be accomplished only through personal effort and not through a perusal of textbooks.

The cultivated habitus

This is the crux of the matter: the cultivated habitus cannot be acquired through laboured study. That is the way of the pedant, the plodder. One must have not only the right culture, but the right relationship to that culture, and that relationship depends on how the culture was acquired. The dominant definition of the right way to acquire culture is by direct experience, upon actually being there. Does not every architecture student aspire one day to make the Grand Tour, the leisured journey, the pilgrimage, to actually see and experience the sacred sites of architecture?

As a means of producing a specific, cultivated, habitus, architectural culture can only be inculcated in a certain way. Bourdieu distinguishes between a scholastic and a charismatic mode of inculcation. The scholastic mode is what we normally recognise as pedagogy, the formal and explicit teaching of formal and explicit knowledge and skills. The charismatic mode is the informal and implicit method of inculcation which is, the only possible means of transferring embodied cultural capital. The former is intended to produce knowing, the latter being. Hence the strong identification between work and person, so common in architectural design, which this anecdote illustrates:

One day a professor approached for a mid-project desk crit and pointed to the model I had constructed.… 'Is this you?' he asked. Hoping to build a casual rapport with this rather stern young teacher, I responded jokingly, pointing to myself, 'No, no this is me', then to the model, 'This is my model.' 'No! he replied firmly, putting his hand on my model, 'This is you and this is shit!'. It was an incredible high when the unity between self and work brought us praise, but quite devastating when our efforts were insulted.

Lecture courses play only a small part in this process, and then only some courses. Subject areas in architecture are strongly stratified, with design by far the most honoured. If we were to construct a hierarchy of curricular prestige it would correspond more or less to the degree to which the subject can utilise the student's cultural capital. Thus design, history and theory would be at the top, and environmental science, structures and building services at the bottom.

When students protest that courses are not relevant, quite often they are simply protesting against courses whose examination prevents them from displaying their cultivation. The hierarchy of curricular prestige corresponds more or less to the social hierarchy of students, those with most cultural capital doing best in the most prestigious subjects, and hence attempts to overturn the former meet with resistance from the student body.

The loudest objections will come from the most cultivated within the student body. They believe most strongly in the ideology of giftedness, and most strongly in their own gift, judging themselves indulgently at every point. So they will dismiss a low mark in a design project by blaming the marker's inability to perceive their gift and its manifestation in their design. Such a rationalisation is possible in design studio, an area renowned for contentious assessment, but impossible in the cut-and-dried world of structures or mathematics. The privileged therefore treat with contempt those areas they consider mundane, those in which flair is irrelevant.

Importance of the studio

The design studio is the site par excellence for the operation of a charismatic mode of inculcation. It is no happy accident that the studio system has been at the very heart of architectural education throughout its entire history. The studio system is essential for socialising students with a cultivated habitus.

As the architectural academic Kathryn Anthony pointed out, the studio is a very peculiar form of education. In conventional university education, students sit in anonymous lectures for a few hours a week, work alone and receive little input from other students or academics, who must be actively sought for assistance. Examination is in the form of written documents, and conducted in private. Design students are surrounded by their peers for many hours a week, often relying on them for assistance. The studio-master will actively seek them out to provide criticism, and examination is public and by oral presentation.

The student can neither present nor the teacher assess embodied capital by the usual university means of lecture and written examination. Taste and cultivation cannot possibly be determined by multiple-choice questions and the such like. Only face-to-face contact and immediate, personal experience can do that; allowing the examiner to distinguish by all the subtle signs of body language, dress, demeanour, poise and linguistic fluency the suitability of the examined.

The point is worth re-iterating: if taste and cultivation were capable of objectification they would not have the value they do. Difficulty in acquisition and assessment in person of the person are essential and defining characteristics. No doubt this explains the riots that broke out in the old École when the government tried to make the École's own lecture courses compulsory. The government backed down soon enough, and the architecture students happily resumed their old practices of ignoring lectures for the ateliers.

By saturating students with the objects of architectural culture; by presenting them with role models, living examples of embodied cultural capital (hence the insistence on the importance of having practising architects as teachers); by displaying in all the slight ways of manner, dress and taste that one is becoming what one wishes to be, the student absorbs that cultural capital in the only possible way, by presenting to the studio-master's gaze their whole social being.

The ever-present dangers of contamination are minimised by socially isolating students from peers in other disciplines and even from family. This—which is actually a form of internment—produces a socially and mentally homogeneous set of individuals whose homogeneity reinforces the socialisation process and the closure of social capital, limiting the chances of misalliances and laying the foundations for future patterns of cooperation later in career.

Insisting that all their staff {faculty} have a professional degree in architecture, the schools also intellectually isolate their students. Within the schools this isolation is exacerbated by denigrating lecture courses, and failing to set reading, except for those purely architectural influences the studio-master wishes students to absorb.

The studio system favours the cultivated habitus

One can succeed more easily if one is already half-way successful. The design studio, by relying so much on the presentation of the self to those who will assess the self, favours those who come to architecture already knowing some of the strategies of the game of culture. The natural grace, the feel of the game, which those from cultured—and especially architectural—families possess makes them far better prepared to cope with the peculiarities of the language of design.

It is obvious that talent in design is necessary for success in design. It is less obvious that talent in talking about design is also required. The studio system requires students to spend a great deal of time talking about their design, talking to other students, talking to professors at desk crits, and, of course, talking at jury presentations. Students from cultured families have already acquired the basic dispositions required to further their symbolic mastery of architectural language. They already know how to talk and manipulate culture, and most important, they already have a visceral feel for the nature of the game they are playing.

This may also explain the never-ending calls for "integration", by which is generally meant moving everything into the studio, thus transforming performance in the most objectified areas of architecture (construction, structures, etc), where possession of symbolic capital counts least, into assessments of social being, so denying those with the wrong sort of cultural capital even the least chance of asserting their competence in some area of architecture.

The schools favour those who favour them

All processes of enculturation must accomplish two things: first, successfully enculturate; second, remove those who will not be enculturated. The result is to produce individuals who want to play their game of choice (whether it be architecture or law or engineering or whatever), to take pleasure in the game, to believe in the innate rightness of the game, and to believe that hardships endured now are but necessary steps on the path to election hereafter.

The enculturation process is most clearly seen operating in the change of dress and manner which students undergo through their long time in school. This is no mere transition from adolescence to adulthood. Students become more alike in dress, taste, and deportment: they become more homogeneous.

Within the educational system students are kept in a more or less tame state, varying from place to place, time to time and discipline to discipline. In those disciplines in which authority is lodged outside the individual (such as the physical sciences or engineering), where criteria of excellence have been incorporated into objects, techniques or instruments which can, it is thought, speak for themselves, the enculturation process need no more than point to these externalities for legitimation to quiet the fractious. In those areas, such as architecture, where excellence is embodied in individuals, the system adopts other means to convince all of the worth of the game, and to make students love to play the game.

The means used in architectural education to enforce this state of docile acceptance is by keeping students in a permanent state of insecure expectation. In the old École des Beaux Arts a particularly effective means of doing so was to allow students an indefinite period to complete their studies. Whatever other virtues it may have had, this held out to all the possibility that success may come next year if not this, if only a little more work were done, if only the game were played a little better. Financial, legal, and institutional pressures have removed this mechanism from most places, although it is still in use at non-university elite schools.

Ensuring docility

Today there are three ways to ensure docility.

The first is by the control of students' time. Design studio may represent some 70% of their credit-hours, but it consumes 90% of their time. The number of nights without sleep becomes a currency of great symbolic worth, a currency of devotion, whereby they demonstrate to the studio- master that they are coming to love the game.

The second is with the use of vague, allusive and elusive language in the design studio, which requires students to struggle to wring meaning, to worry about whether they have understood, to frantically hope they will please.

The third is by encouraging intense competition between individuals. The notion of competition—between individuals, between schools, between firms—is one of the enduring values of architecture. At the École, competition was lauded as a virtue in itself, and progress was by success in competition.

Kathryn Anthony has documented in detail the necessities which competition forces on students: the sleepless nights, stress and anxiety. Such competition creates a whole symbolic market whereby students can show their dedication to the game. By atomising the student body the studio system obliges students to play a serious game seriously, to realise that they play the game against others, and to devote their energies to the playing rather than to questioning. The disciplines, ordeals and vexations of studio competition—most especially in those competitions where there can only be one winner, as in the world of practice—demand from students a specific acquiescence and in particular a special form of acceptance. By constantly competing for approbation and for approval, students can display to their teachers their desire for and acceptance of the game of architecture.

Longevity of the studio system

The singular opportunities that the studio system provides the architecture student for receiving and displaying a habitus must explain its longevity in architectural education. It is much the same as it was almost two hundred years ago when the École des Beaux Arts was founded. Prior to the foundation of the state French engineering school, the École Polytechnique, both architecture and engineering had been taught by practitioners to small groups of students. If some theoretical instruction was needed, it was provided by a professor or a senior student on an ad hoc basis. The primary teaching site was the atelier, with formal lecturing quiet separate and marginal to the main process.

In the opening years of the nineteenth century the founders of the École Polytechnique devised a new method of pedagogy. The Polytechnique introduced the idea of having academics teach general theoretical subjects such as mathematics and mechanics for several years before introducing students to specialist knowledge in one or other of the branches of engineering. The school also introduced the now standard pedagogical technique of the lecture to a large number of students. Interspersed with the lectures were laboratories taken by subgroups of the whole working under a tutor.

These techniques have become standard in the world's universities for many disciplines. One of the interesting aspects of architectural education is that it retains at its heart the rather older methods which the Polytechnique abandoned, but which were preserved by the École des Beaux Arts and passed down to modern American schools. One still hears the terminology of Paris from two hundred years ago—esquisse, charrette, jury. The other Anglophone nations have been less beguiled, but even so they maintain the studio system as the unquestioned heart of architectural education.