Architectural Blatherations

Why Architecture Should Leave the University

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The Good Oil

Dr Garry wrote this originally for the inestimable online journal ArchVoices (16 August 2002), in response to a discussion on architectural internship, and suggestions that architecture schools should model themselves on medical schools.

Architects have nothing to learn from doctors

I'm not comfortable with the term internship (nor am I happy with the term profession, for that matter, but that's another story).

To start with, internship was borrowed from another occupation, medicine (during the 1960s, from what I can discover). It is not used outside of North America in the other great English-speaking nations; although the UK, Australia, and New Zealand have very similar systems of education, licensure, and registration.

To me the whole term is laden with implicit meanings that suppress any real debate before it even begins. Creating a word for what – to take my own case – Australian architecture graduates only vaguely think of as 'your first years in an office,' bundles a whole parcel of originally medical concepts into one term. Unwrapping all the subtle connotations, meanings, and expectations implicit in the notion of internship becomes quite difficult if you are used to thinking of them as the one wrapped-up package. I'm not talking of some fancy 'Deconstruction' of internship: just getting back to some basics that could do with a long-overdue examination.

Let's go back to the beginning. Why did American architectural educators (and those of many other university-based occupations, too) take the idea of internship from the medicos? The obvious reason is that internship is a Good Idea. Occupations can always learn from each other. But why should we think that architecture bears any resemblance to medicine in its educational needs?

If medicine were taught like architecture

If medicine was taught like architecture, first-year med students would spend most of the year describing exciting ideas about completely hypothetical surgical techniques to their tutors. Along the way they would reluctantly attend lectures about the human body and how to take someone's blood pressure. All this would be conveyed through slides. No-one would see a real body or apply a sphygmomanometer. One of the most popular subjects would be medical history. Aristotle's four humours would be studied at length. Students would write long essays about the significance of Roman medicine. They would discuss the enduring importance of Galen, probably throwing in some illustrations from one of the Renaissance editions of his works. One assignment would probably ask them to make a model of the human anatomy as Galen understood it. High grades would be awarded to the best models. A few of the students would fall in love with Galen's aesthetics, and seek to promote his ideas for the rest of their academic and professional lives.

I'm not discussing this because I feel that architectural education should be more like the medical. To the contrary: we should realise that they are different beasts. Architecture has little to learn from medicine. Many architects gaze lovingly at the medicos. The ostensible reason is to improve the architect's education, but really they yearn to steal some of the fame, kudos and wealth that they believe could only be theirs if they were more like doctors.

The eternal failure of the American architecture schools

American architects have been whining about the gross deficiencies of the schools since the Great Depression. One of the few useful accomplishments of the well-intentioned but pathetically irenic (no, not ironic) Boyer Report was to remind us that from 1929 to its own publication in 1996, American architects have constantly castigated the schools. The grievances have a glorious fixity to them: the schools are out of touch with the realities of daily life, they have no idea of what actually happens in practise, graduates are useless. And for each and every one of those seventy years, right down to the Boyer Report, the call is for a closer relationship between Academe and the occupation.

Seventy years of the same complaints. Seventy years? The schools have always had a very high penetration of practitioners into education. So if these same practitioners thought that the schools were bad in the Great Depression, they would have been able to correct the mess by, oh, say, 1950. Nup: same complaints. Okay, we'll give them some more time: assume that the schools are Not For Turning as Margaret Thatcher once said, and that practitioners and the professional bodies are rather shy little petals who don't like to move too fast to reform the education system they disparage so much. Move on to 1970. Any progress? No: same complaints. Move forward thirty years. Same complaints.

For all that time, practitioners, academics, and students have been trying to bang a very square peg into a very round role. Every few years they look at the peg, and they look at the hole, and in befuddlement lament Gosh darn, it has to fit. To me the answer is what we Aussies would call bleeding obvious. Architecture is ill-suited to be taught in modern universities. The occupation thinks that the schools exist in order to teach. To most universities, undergraduate education is only a sideline. It may award token prizes for Best Teacher, perhaps, but the performance indicators barely mention competent teaching. The universities demand research, funding, grants income, and--publication, publication, publication.

A Most Inspirational Teacher award will see your studio overflowing with students. Regularly pulling in fat research grants will see you a promotion. It is for this reason that the great architectural designers, many of whom are charismatic teachers, are happy to put in a few workshops or a semester at their favourite school, but wouldn't dream of doing the job full-time.

Leaving the universities

Look at the peg, look at the hole, and just accept they aren't meant for each other. Architecture should leave the universities. When it does that, the whole concept of 'internship' disappears.

This is not the completely mad idea it may at first seem. The United Kingdom lagged the United States by forty years in putting architecture into the universities. It would take a brave individual to say that the architecture of the British Isles suffered because of that. And equal bravado to assert that university education propelled the American spirit of the times just before and after 1900. My own examination of the great U.S. architects who flourished after the creation of university schools (say those working 1880 to 1920) turned up only 56% who had any sort of education (mainly in France, mind), let alone one at an American university architecture school. Which school did Wright graduate from? Or Burnham? Or any of the others? True, Sullivan attended MIT, but he left after a scant two years with a bitter taste in his mouth.

My argument is: no universities, no degrees. Just get the creds: the one thing the occupation has been crying about for a century.

Is that choking sound I hear the throat-clearing of the profession inflicted with the ancient curse of gaining that which it most longs for? We are not a mere trade, sir! What of the liberal values that the profession has so prided itself? Egad, sir, we cannot lose those! The occupation does not have to. Let its students spend a few years in a liberal arts course. But then move them into a purely vocational schooling.

To those of you wondering where 'architectural research' will then take place, I would answer that there is precious little of it to lose. The architecture schools are not famous for their publication history. Let the academics who wish to remain academics move to departments of arts, engineering or science. All easily accommodated.

Why it will never happen

There are living examples of non-university schools. From what I hear, the Boston Architectural College is one example and doing well. But these are remarkable exceptions. Of course, we won't return to this apprenticeship system that worked so well for architectural education in the Anglo-American world; in the USA until at least 1930, and in the UK until 1950. Everyone has a vested interest. Let's start with:

1) The students in North American architecture schools. Over 20,000 of them? No one seems to know. From 1965 to 1990 about 25% graduated with a masters in architecture. Thanks to a surge in credential inflation in the 1990s, about almost 40% now do so, and the proportion is rising (source: HEGIS). These people aren't going to be happy graduating with, say, a BA and then a Certificate in Architecture from a non-university school. Credential inflation is a fact of life, although one that North America seems more prone to than the other English-speaking nations (the legal profession is the most pathological example: JD indeed!). Schools such as the University of Hawaii have been trying to put in place a DArch for a decade or more, and seem like succeeding. With programs like that, we are not about to see a flight from the universities.

2) A surprisingly large number of practitioners do not actually have accredited degrees. A recent survey of firms by the California Architects Board, for example, showed that only one-third of respondents had an accredited professional degree in architecture. One-third! If this does not show the irrelevance of formal quals for practice, I don't know what does. But it is not in the occupation's interest to admit the fact. All those architects with bachelors and masters from respected universities would not be happy to see that their successors only had certificates from independent schools.

Of course, the occupation has always abrogated its duty when it comes to education. It likes to complain and whine about the schools, but it never puts its money where its mouth is. No, I'm wrong. The occupation will put forward concrete plans of action whenever it sees its own pocketbook threatened. CAD is the classic exemplar. In the decade or so when CAD was becoming the norm (say 1985-1995), all you heard from the review boards was a litany of complaints about how the schools weren't producing enough graduates in pick-your-favourite-CAD-program. Disingenuously concealing the hypocrisy that they were demanding of graduates, skills that the firm owners had no intention of acquiring themselves, they berated the schools for their own lack of foresight. Did their firms attempt to provide CAD skills to their employees? Good grief, no. Who, us? Pay for training? They simply demanded that the schools produce people with those skills.

The occupation just makes demands on the schools, without the least admission that it has some responsibility itself.

3) And finally, the academics, will not let architecture escape the university prison. For most, the prospect of leaving a comfortable university environment, with generous conditions, a real office instead of a Dilbertian cubicle, comparatively lax working hours, and--of course--a job for life, does not appeal. Many architectural academics use their professorial income to subsidise their wobbly practices. After all, their supposedly full-time professorial duties consume only a few hours a week for a few months a year. If I had their job, I'd sure be fighting to keep it!

Ignoring the real problems

Pilfering from irrelevant occupations diverts attention from the really serious issues in architectural education. So we debate internship. We debate whether we should have BArchs or MArchs. These are arguments about symbolic baubles. They divert attention from much more pressing, intractable, and important problems: where are the women? where are the minorities? where are the lower-class students? why do we create boundaries from building designers, interior designers, landscape architects, or a host of others? It is to ArchVoices' credit that it, at least, has raised some of these issues.