Are architectural graduates entering an ever-narrowing and non-essential profession that has loosened its authority over the education and training of its future practitioners?

Are architectural graduates entering an ever-narrowing and non-essential profession that has loosened its authority over the education and training of its future practitioners? The present path to registration and certification is not growing or strengthening the profession; nor is it keeping pace with needs of public health, safety and welfare. Perhaps this is because architects themselves have successively drawn further and further away from their responsibility to guide and maintain educational requirements to assure architecture remains valuable within American culture.


Our body of knowledge is dynamic and constantly changing: it pervades all human knowledge. It is everywhere human habitation exists, shaped globally by socio-cultural values, environmental dynamics, new technology, economics, and public policy.

How should we pass it on? A viable profession defines its domains and organizes standards of practice, then creates mechanisms for maintenance and delivery of knowledge pertinent to competent practice. New domains have emerged through practice and higher education, but “the profession” has not recognized nor advocated new professional standing of such domains. The status quo must change. My sense (and the observations of others) signals an urgent need for reassessment of the entire structure and organization of this profession.

A part of the 2001 NCARB Architecture Practice Analysis Study focused upon “Practice Trends in Architecture.” Focus groups of practitioners, educators, and “trendspotters” worked from the classic definition of the architect as being “project centered,” primarily in the domain of building design and construction. The study found trends in striking contrast to the history of the profession. Some trends, predictions and observations:

“Tremendous change is coming.”Students are coming out of architecture schools with more and varied abilities; they see work differently than the profession sees it, and their skill sets are often beyond what is available to them in professional practice.” Will these talents be lost forever to the profession? At present no more than 50 percent of the graduates are seeking registration.

“Clients and the marketplace are demanding more accountability.” Clients want one entity to be responsible; new project delivery methods favor the diverse, large, corporate practice; projects are becoming larger, faster and more durable — with smaller margins for budget variables. Some architects have successfully placed economic value upon the degree of responsibility a client demands. Will architects, especially in medium-sized and small firms, be willing and able to accept such accountability?

“It’s all about the project.” The notion that all that architects do is limited to project work is killing the profession.

“Internal staff training needs: Some firms are spending as much as 5 percent of gross
revenues on internal education programs.”
(Almost all the corporate firms have installed their own “Universities.”) Why have the existing offerings and mechanisms for continuing education not satisfied?

“Alliances with clients and dissimilar firms.” Is this trend the result of limited public position of the architect? How often does the architect build alliances from a lead position?

“More firms recognize the need for entrepreneurship and profitability.” Are additional profits resulting in increased entry-level pay scales?

“Globalization is a major trend.” It brings mobility, cross-culture relationships, technology transfer and pressure for 24-hour production across multiple time zones. Are the results enhancing or weakening the diversity and sustainability of communities and cultures?

“Computerization is finally affecting how people design.”Pervasive use of computer technology in schools and advances in integrated, real-time graphics and information systems have eliminated much hand drawing. Are curricula being organized to take full advantage of the information age tools?

In their 1996 publication, “Building Community,” the late Ernest Boyer and his colleague Lee Mitgang commented on the state of the architectural profession: “ We found a profession whose faith in its own future has been shaken. What seems missing, we believe, is a sense of common purpose connecting the practice of architecture to the consequential issues of society. And that same sense of unease permeates architecture education as well.”

Recent Design Futures Council forums and the DesignIntelligence survey of architectural firms on the status of architectural education (2001) reported that 90 percent of new graduate hires have notable deficiencies in skills related to “building/structural knowledge” and 78 percent have notable deficiencies in skills related to “oral and written communication.”

The NCARB “Architecture Practice Analysis” also reported on the skills and knowledges required by architects in present and future practice. While the independent study identified 86 knowledges and skills (k/s) required for competent practice, there was significant disagreement between practitioners and educators as to the most appropriate setting (architecture schools, internship, or post-licensure practice) for acquiring the relevant knowledge/skills. Both groups agreed that 23 of the k/s should be acquired in school, 29 of the k/s in internship and 34 of the k/s are best acquired after licensure in responsible practice settings.

To examine changes to a continuum of professional education, it is important to understand the history of our body of knowledge and the making of the profession.

From the beginning we must acknowledge that our Euro-centric heritage of Greco-Roman aesthetics established an indelible pattern of knowledge and values for the American architectural profession.

1819 – The Ecole des Beaux Arts was established in Paris as a formal training/education program for young architects.

1850s – H.H. Richardson and other Americans attended the Ecole des Beaux Arts, and returned to establish architectural practices with formal in-office studio/schools for architects’ training.

1857 – The invention of the Otis Elevator, releasing human enterprise from the ground, signals the beginning of the architects’ embrace of industrial technology. The elevator gave the architect entry to urban development to influence city landscapes beyond the patronage of the wealthy, the arts and religion.

1865 – The first university-based architectural curriculum was established at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with the assistance of H.H. Richardson.

1871 – The Chicago Fire made a nation painfully aware of the need to protect our communities from disasters which might result from the buildings which we make and occupy. Municipal building codes and fire protection methods and materials in construction results.

1893 – The Colombian Exposition (Chicago) was the first major public exhibition of the new tools and inventions of the Industrial Revolution. For the first time architects project a full-scale display of powerful new images of America’s new future; the images result from a dramatic ideological battle between neo-classicist architects and those searching for an authentic cultural expression. (Louis Sullivan was relegated to the back lot of the exposition, with a minor commission for the Transportation Pavilion.)

1916 – New York zoning ordinances respond to growing density and a mix of noxious industrial land uses/living environments. The zoning concept set design standards for natural light and building setbacks to enhance urban street life and dictate distinct zones of land use. The location, characteristics of buildings, use of materials and design standards were now removed from the hands and minds of architects. Zoning gives rise to a new
profession — planning.

1934– New images of speed and style were projected by the industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss; the application of design and style to automobile manufacture gives rise to a new field, industrial design.
1936– Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacres City accommodates the new freedom and speed of human mobility provided by the personal automobile. This vision is a powerful blessing for urban sprawl.

1939– The New York World’s Fair and the Futurama, sponsored by Shell Oil and General Motors, projected seductive images of new cities with thruways and high-speed automobile infrastructures. Traffic engineers would henceforth dominate city design.

1946– A much-publicized exhibit of Toledo Tomorrow by Norman Bel Geddes (an industrial designer/planner) gave quality-of-life credibility to suburban low-density sprawl, while designating vertical and intensified non-residential uses of urban land at the city center.

1947– Levittown, created by a single builder/developer, demonstrates the potential for massive, site-production of speculative housing to meet post-war demand. Architect-designed residences became the exception.

1956– Congress passes The U.S. Interstate Highway Act, justified by national defense concerns (and with major support from the oil/automotive industries).

1960s– The public housing project, Pruitt Igo, is demolished in St. Louis. The project had received an award from the AIA; its ruin symbolizes the loss of architects’ credibility as problem solvers in the urban social domain.

1969– The Apollo Space Program provides the first full view of Earth from outer space and the first public awareness of the planet as a living, interconnected system; and the potential for harm from human intervention. Architects in the U.S. have been slow to adopt environmental principles into the mainstream of their body of knowledge.

1986– The AIA revises its standard form of “The Architect’s Contract. “A single word change — from supervision to observation — removed the architect’s responsibility to supervise construction. It opens the building process to construction managers and others outside the traditional profession.

9/11/01 – The impact of the attacks on the World Trade Center is as yet unclear, other than an initial rush toward defensive, bunker-style thinking for protection from such future events. There is more realization that America is a more heterogeneous culture than our beginnings.

So is there a body of knowledge in the profession?

Surely, as evidenced by all the above. Each event brought new knowledge and created the need for new skills; but there is currently little agreement upon focus, scope, content, or ownership. Perhaps of greater consequence is that standards for competent training and practice are not organized to keep pace with an evolving profession. Some conflicts are:

  • The National Architectural Accrediting Board projects one version through its Criteria and Procedures for accreditation. The C&P, however, outlines performance standards, not prescriptive requirements for content of curricula.

  • The Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture zealously defends every school’s right to determine independent content and methods for teaching professional curricula.

  • The National Council of Architectural Registration Boards prescribes a uniform, but changing, content through its ARE examinations, for only building projects. But its own recent studies and parallel studies by state examining boards define a much broader need for skills and knowledges to insure competent professional practice.

The AIA, for many reasons (volunteer organization, support of diversity in education, diversity of interests of its members in scope, content, and economic interests of practice, etc.) has not attempted, even through its mandatory continuing education program, to define a precise body of knowledge.

The UNESCO/UIA Education Charter indicates the rest of the professional world has developed a more enlightened view of the architect’s role than we in the United States are permitting ourselves. It proclaims:
“We, the architects, concerned by the future development of architecture in a fast-changing world, believe that everything influencing the way in which the built environment is made, used, furnished, landscaped and maintained belongs to the domain of the architects. We, being responsible for the improvement of the education of future architects to enable them to work for a sustainable development in every cultural heritage, declare:
“The vision of the future world, cultivated in architectural schools, should include the following goals: a decent quality of life for all and technical application which respects social, cultural, and aesthetic needs; an ecologically balanced and sustainable development of the built environment; an architecture which is valued and the property and responsibility of everyone.”

The public gives professions the right to control education and standards for entry and practice. So how do the other classic professions of Law and Medicine differ in their attention to the body of knowledge and continuing education? Both derive from perceived “essential” human values (personal health and protection of property and human rights).

Architecture, on the other hand, has persisted in its attempt to sell a non-essential commodity, “design,” that is albeit acknowledged to be a powerful cultural ingredient.
The standard of care and requirements for competency-based practice are more tightly controlled (especially in medicine) through prescribed curricula, standardized internships, examinations, certifications, required continuing education and some re-examinations. The Future of the Profession What defines architecture? Has the definition since the industrial revolution narrowed to a point of ineffectiveness? When and how should education for competent practice be organized? Does pre-professional education begin at an appropriate age and does post-professional education continue in any uniform way? Has education, in its quest for social and cultural relevance, led qualified candidates away from the profession? We must decide who should be responsible for education. When architects turned professional training over to higher education did it sacrifice all control and influence to a third party with inherently different values and reward systems? Is it possible for architects to regain control of its education? And who should maintain professional practice standards? The following could focus the body of knowledge in Architecture for practices on the “consequential issues of society.”

New definitions of the profession based upon global and cultural essential definitions, e.g., the UIA Charter.

Architecture must assert its responsibility for education, ethics, practice standards and protection of the public welfare. Redefine the award and the criteria for the title “architect.” Make schools more responsible for the acquisition of a core body of knowledge. Redefine the professional knowledge path into a seamless system that includes pre-professional, professional, internship and continuing education. Have states establish a system of separate certifications, depending upon the definition of independent practice(s) to be pursued.

My personal, and admittedly incomplete, definition of knowledge and skills required for the title “architect” would include:

Design – encompassing real and virtual aesthetics; synthesis; analysis; implementation planning; and holistic, independent and team-based outcomes evaluations for objects of human use, buildings, landscapes, places, and organizations and processes

Sustainability Domains – environmental; socio-cultural; technology; economics; and public policy

Leadership – (in ideas, organizations and communities) including verbal, graphic and written communications; planning (ideas to implementation); and management of limited natural and human-created resources

Practice Skills

  • Modeling and image making (virtual objects, spaces, places)

  • Digital, electronic and communications technology

  • Management systems/business practices;

  • Group dynamics, team building, and decision theories;

  • Community and futures visioning/facilitation;

  • Understanding and interpretation of diverse cultures; international development and finance;

  • Public policy, regulations and governance;

  • Materials and systems content, manufacture, and sustainable applications;
    Ecological and environmental assessment;

  • A life-long commitment to continuing professional development

We must broaden accessibility to the field. While all registration candidates should have an accredited degree, alternative paths for gaining experience should be accepted. Examination, and the title, should be administered upon graduation. We must encourage mentoring and strengthen national and international reciprocity.

Maintaining competency in the profession requires continuing education in approved programs for renewal of certificates to practice with instruction delivered by practitioners, academics, and specialists.

Graduate/research institutions could maintain active information on fluctuating standards of care in practice and the need for adaptation in certification/continuing education.

How to assure an ESSENTIAL profession is passed on to future generations?

If we do not break from our extreme conservatism and fear of legalistic threats, the profession will be relegated to a few design/stylist specialists and production companies for buildings. The majority of graduates of the so-called schools of architecture will take employment with non-professional, but comprehensive, responsible organizations that see environmental and human sustainability as their mission.

I believe all five existing collateral organizations must contribute to future change, but NCARB holds the key to new thinking and collaborative engagement. Definitive structural change will not occur without state regulatory bodies taking a lead role. Nor can they occur efficiently and effectively without the support and active engagement of the local professional communities such as the AIA chapters.

The Western Region of NCARB is well positioned – by reason of urban and environmental conditions, by reason of the breadth of programs and quality of the schools of architecture within the region, and by reason of a history of architects’ engagement with public policies – to lead a revolution for change. Now is the time. Is it possible?

This writing was adapted from an address Steward gave this spring at the Western Conference of Architectural Registration Boards in Portland, Oregon.