As part of this year’s research, the Almanac of Architecture and Design asked a recent graduate from Cornell University to contribute an essay from a student’s perspective of design education and the future of the profession.
The most common criticism leveled at the process of architectural education is that it does not adequately prepare students to be fully participating members in architectural practice. Students invariably do not gather all the skills necessary to create a work of architecture independently and must, therefore, endure a lengthy term of apprenticeship.
Conversely, people new to the profession are commonly dissatisfied with architecture as it is practiced and most often cite the lack of intellectual and creative stimulation in the office setting as the greatest challenge in adjusting to the working environment. Interns are frustrated by their inability to grasp the entirety of the process of making architecture and are confused about the apparent loss of concern for the creative process within the profession.
In order to elucidate the nature of this confusion it is necessary to better understand the purpose of the separation of the educational process and apprenticeship. The clearest characterization of the role of higher education in the development of an architect is that it instills a set of values that will later inform his or her attitudes in practice. Subsequently, during the period of apprenticeship there is an opportunity to gather necessary technical knowledge.
The ideals instilled in architecture schools combined with the technical knowledge to realize these ideals are the two components of successful architecture. Unfortunately, this distinction remains unclear to most students, who believe that they are gathering skills in the educational process, and to prospective employers, who are uncertain as to why interns do not know more.
Generally speaking, the values instilled in a student of architecture are the ability to recognize good design and, more importantly, to generate good design through a rigorous, logical process. In most schools this means dismantling preconceived attitudes about the built environment and reorienting the student toward a particular set of theoretical ideas and aesthetic parameters. This is logically the domain of higher education, traditionally the setting for the cultivation of intellectual pursuits rather than practical knowledge.
A well educated student of architecture will be able to explain the importance of maintaining clarity of a generative idea in any design. He or she will want to create a controlled process to develop the idea, in which all aspects of the design are derived from the inspirational source. The process is interpretive and is the mechanism through which the student learns to understand the built environment and the creative process.
From the perspective of the architectural profession, it is important for educational institutions to instill values, because it creates a community of professionals who share attitudes about the goals of architectural design. It also serves to exclude those who have not had the training that cultivates such attitudes, and is, therefore, a vehicle for social stratification in the building profession. Thus, it is not surprising that the more emphasis on theory and aesthetic control, the more prestigious the institution, and the more attractive its graduates.
Students emerge from these institutions with the expectation that they have gained valuable knowledge for their careers as architects. It is common for interns to view the set of design values and methods learned in school as a set of skills, rather than an overall orientation, and to want to put their knowledge to immediate use in the professional setting. The desire to contribute to the generation of design is logical considering that design values are the core of their educational program and often reflect the sum of what the intern has to offer an architectural project. Unfortunately for many intern architects, conceptual design is a relatively small part of the total building process and is usually controlled by more experienced architects. Interns are given tasks to allow them to gather the mundane skills in their apprenticeship that were not a part of their formal education.
Perhaps the greatest conflict with instilling values that focus intensively on design and the role of the designer is the lack of emphasis on the variety of roles in the profession. Schools put little stress on the importance of draftspeople to the production of a building and also ignore the need for the collaborative involvement of other types of architects such as project managers, code and technical specialists, and specifications writers.
Few schools, particularly prestigious institutions, will present such options for professional paths. It is not clear to everyone entering the profession that in many firms these roles are indeed separate tracks and the designer is only one of the players in a much a larger cast of characters.
Employers certainly use design education as an important criterion in the selection of junior architects but may only understand vaguely that their training has been about developing an orientation toward design and architectural ideas. Regardless of education, most interns are hired to do intense CAD drafting despite their design or intellectual potential. The tendency of architectural offices to exploit well educated junior designers as draftspeople is, in fact, encouraged by the idea of internship.
The requirements for licensing and the Intern Development Program (IDP), for instance, ensure that the majority of experience earned will not be in design but in the preparation of technical documents that provide the real instructions for building. Schematic design, which is what most students are learning to master in school, requires only 15 credits for IDP, while the category of construction documents requires 135.
Despite what seems to be a remarkable lack of communication between the educational process and the profession, students do continue to enter the profession and become successful licensed architects. The system produces professionals notwithstanding the apparent inefficiency in the use of young designers and the frustration and confusion of people new to the profession. In fact, the profession has a vested interest in being able to hire interns as cheap, unskilled labor while maintaining the illusion that architects are the intellectuals of the building trades, given their superior education and defining values.
For this reason, there is little pressure on the educational system to produce more highly skilled graduates. Eventually interns rise in the profession and are able to use the knowledge gained in their apprenticeships to create architecture. The real question is whether people entering the architectural profession do benefit from the values they learned in school. It may simply be misleading to teach students that architectural work is governed by a set of principles, principles which few people are able to fully implement.