After my summer blog hiatus I return to the page as my next fleet of students arrive to begin their last year of graduate school. Thanks to the peculiarities of our academic calendar, my class will be both the first and final experiences of the term and the last collective experience they have as a class before Commencement. It’s a funny place for a professional practice course to occupy in the studio-centric world that is architectural education.
Those of you who are architects probably don’t remember Pro Practice as a high point of your schooling. Often taught by an “adjunct” faculty member (who works outside his or her teaching responsibilities and isn’t tenured, like yours truly) these courses are considered necessary medicine to get through the academic spanking machine that is an accredited, licensure-ready degree. War stories, dry recitations of AIA documents, balance sheets…as one of my students once asked (about another issue) “where’s the serendipity?” I have been preparing for the term with much the same question.
Our school will be evaluated this year by the Gods of Accreditation (the National Architectural Accreditation Board, or NAAB) and we’re busy making sure we’ve properly covered all the necessaries of the so-called Conditions, an exhaustive list of all the stuff we’re supposed to teach budding architects. The Conditions for my neighborhood of the curriculum (Practice) stipulate the following:
Architects need to manage, advocate, and act legally, ethically and critically for the good of the client, society and the public. This includes collaboration, business, and leadership skills. Student learning aspirations include:
- Knowing societal and professional responsibilities
- Comprehending the business of building
- Collaborating and negotiating with clients and consultants in the design process
So there are three big ideas here: a properly educated graduate must understand how the professional works with and affects society; understand the amorphous ecosystem of building and how we fit into it, and understand the business machinery that the architect deploys to get work done. A daunting task to be sure, and not just because we have to find a way to cram all this stuff into a curriculum already choc-a-block with theory, engineering, sustainability, computation, digital fabrication, and of course design studio. And notice the word “collaboration” is cleverly inserted into the equation as well.
Here’s how my syllabus purports to accomplish this daunting task, according to the course introduction:
The process by which an architectural design becomes a building requires the designer to control many variables beyond those purely aesthetic. While the practice of architecture was formally established in the United States in the late nineteenth century, the role and responsibilities of architects in the twenty-first century are rapidly evolving under the influence of broad building industry changes in sustainability, digital technology and integrated project delivery. Understanding architectural practice as the mechanism that realizes design--and project management as the leadership and control of the means that make projects happen--is as central to the successful design of a building as its form and character. Effective practitioners master both design and practice issues to assure their designs reach fruition in the varied contexts of profession, practice and the individual project.
But here’s the problem (or at least one of them). At the risk of a strained comparison, there are certain similarities in the production of buildings, the creation of software and the education of architects, the three realms that occupy my professional life. Each involves speculation about a future state, an assertion about how to prepare for that state, and a hope that all the intervening preparation will reach proper fruition many years later. From initial desire to certificate of occupancy, a choice to translate a work process into digital code that is a production-strength piece of software, or from freshman year to licensure—all of these sequences take many years. I worked on more than one project in my practice career that took more than a decade to complete. Autodesk made the Revit acquisition in 2002 and only now is BIM reaching the mainstream. NCARB just published a study that suggested that more that 50% of architects reach first licensure at age 32 (!), fourteen years after your average freshman starts out. And the average number of years between graduation and licensure is creeping up accordingly; folks who got licenses in 2010 took seven years after graduation to get there. These are long timelines that we’re talking about here.
So those of my students in the Class of 2013 who choose this route (which we assume is why they have invested so much blood and treasure in an architecture degree) can expect to have a license and truly “manage, advocate, and act legally, ethically and critically” sometime around 2020. And I guess that means I know exactly what they will be facing, and how they might best be prepared to do so. I wish…
But I do find myself wondering if the centroid of architectural education needs re-centering a bit, even if we can’t predict with perfect fidelity what the world of practice might look seven or so years from now when my students get licensed and are certified as “minimally competent” practitioners. Surely the essential skills of design (which they spend the majority of their calories honing) will be a basic platform for their careers, but what about the other stuff? Maybe there’s no time in architecture school to teach business skills, negotiation strategies, proper presentation techniques, clear writing, or even the basics of how to collaborate or lead teams. But I would note that across our campus at the School of Business, our future clients-in-training spend 50% of their two-year MBA curriculum (a year shorter than our program) learning these same skills. Is there any doubt why these relationships are so asymettrical? Perhaps the design studio becomes a fulcrum from which some of these ideas might emanate, rather than having them increasingly “shoe-horned” into the curricular suburbs of professional practice.
In a New York Times piece this weekend, Michael Graves argues that the demise of hand drawing, inflicted upon thecurrent generation by slavish devotion to the computer, is a root cause of the deterioration of our profession. As you might expect, I disagree with his logic, not about means but rather ends. Like the collection of necessary skills demanded by the Conditions, drawing is another instrument, just like the computer. But unlike the pencil, technology is changing both the means of representation in architecture and the relationship of the architect to the very process of building. I suspect that it is neither pencil nor BIM missing from the equation, but rather the ability to deploy both in the complex, collaborative, negotiated, measured and value-driven future of design and construction. Somehow, we have to teach that.