Is success the same thing as money? Is a good career one that impresses people you meet in airports? Is good design something beautiful? Is something beautiful because it is pleasing to the eye, or to the mind?

The gap between architectural education and architectural practice is huge.

An essay about this gap is a dissertation about a void.

But then that’s what architects excel at—thinking about the negative. Thinking about space.

For the potential architect, school forms his or her initial impression of the field and only later is he or she truly exposed to the depth and breadth of the field. In the beginning, the student chooses a school, and there they receive more than just an education. The architecture school leaves the student with a residue&#151an agenda and philosophy resulting from his or her interaction with the school’s pedagogy. This attitude is further affected by the student’s values and the way he or she defines some key terms.

Is success the same thing as money? Is a good career one that impresses people you meet in airports? Is good design something beautiful? Is something beautiful because it is pleasing to the eye, or to the mind?

A program heavy on theory, fine arts and ideals certainly won’t suit all tastes. At these schools, the void—the realm of the theoretical—is considered a good thing, and the students are constantly placed face-to-face with it. Critics give open-ended problems, and encourage students to move into areas as yet unexplored by the academy or the profession and learn what can be done with these spaces. Alternately, in other more technically-oriented programs this void can be seen as a commodity to be packaged and sold, not explored. All these aspects are valid and are necessary for the architecture profession, as any one space can be all these things at the same time.

It is however important that some of us in practice dedicate ourselves to the study of the void. The profession needs those who research the gap between what can happen in theory and what can happen in practice. We need to continue to explore the space where architecture could go, whether or not it ever does. An architecture program at a school such as Cornell helps the student to gain an awareness of this gap and of the challenges that face architecture today. The emphasis on individual thought, analysis, and innovation teaches students to look at the everyday assumptions in architecture and culture in general, and see where there are opportunities for adjustment.

The critical thinking and problem-solving skills acquired at a theory-oriented school will help students become architects who can tackle the problem of the void. They will be more prepared to guide architecture’s response to the changes taking place in our culture, economic system, and technology. They will approach the challenges of sustainable growth and green building as well as housing our increasing population. They will be able to critically adjust their thinking to accommodate these problems and not try to use the same old methods to solve the very problems that resulted from that method.

These schools however, are often criticized for not preparing their graduates to be instantly functioning members of the architecture office. These academic programs do not explicitly teach construction drawings, construction details, and building code. It is commonly remarked that a curriculum of idealistic design and theory is useless and misleading to the young student of architecture. This statement is false and potentially damaging to the industry as a whole.

If architecture as a profession no longer recognizes the value of ideals such as “good design,” responsible design, esthetics and the importance of meaningful architecture, then where will we be? Even today it seems as though the plethora of other trades are doing much of what the architect has done and is capable of doing. Structural engineers are designing much of the physical support for the building, mechanical engineers are designing the HVAC systems, planners and developers are deciding what should be built where, and of course contractors are actually constructing the body of the building.

In an age where science and technology are increasingly complex, it is right that our buildings are taking advantage of these innovations. In a time where the ventilation and climate control of our interior environment requires a lot of energy, money, and space, the result is a building that acts as living lung and a functioning piece of mechanics. These ideas are largely unexplored by the designing mind of the architect and could potentially provide a new arena for the talents of the architect. The more that architects decide to relinquish these and other aspects of the design process to others, further removing themselves from the realm of design, the more design becomes a banal experience. When buildings designed by architects do not offer anything more than a simple shed, it becomes no wonder that clients, owners, and builders see the architect as a dispensable part of the process of creating a new building.

Architects educated in analysis and theory bring a wider perspective to the building process. They are likened to artists. And like contemporary art, the focus has been taken from imitation and the production of likenesses to making something new. The goal for artists and architects has shifted toward creating something that contributes; something that advances the knowledge and pleasure of civilization. Architecture is something that represents a civilization. It is possibly the most visible manifestation of the values of a particular culture.

As our culture changes, who will continue to adapt our spaces to these changes? A league of draftsmen educated in framing details and lightning-fast use of computer applications but without any ability to see where things fit in the larger picture? Are they likely to theorize a way for architecture to continue to be meaningful? What about a way to get architecture’s audience to appreciate the value of design?

So, while it may be true that graduates of a more abstract and conceptual program are not ready to sit down and draft window sash details, it is better to have someone who brings a new perspective to the profession. The act of teaching the thinking graduate how to detail buildings becomes an opportunity for both the experienced architect and the graduate to learn something. New opportunities for design and growth come out of the juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated ideas, something that schools teach well. In an age where architects are slowly losing control over pieces of the design process, our thinking graduates will be an aid to theorizing a new direction for architecture.

If the average person only spends one hour outdoors a day, then we are spending the other 23 in an environment designed by people. Should these spaces be mediocre and merely provide shelter? Or could they enrich the physical, emotional, spiritual, and intellectual lives of their occupants? It is true that the audience for architecture is not aware what the architect can bring to them. Those in academia should work to educate those in practice about what they bring to the profession, just as those in practice should work to educate clients about what architecture can do for them. With a larger and more engaged patronage, architecture could begin to realize more of the things it has dreamed of. Things that undoubtedly reside in the void between theory and practice.

Joy Knoblauch graduated from Cornell University in May with a Theory of Architecture concentration. The essay was solicited for a student’s perspective of design education and the future of the profession, by the editors of the Almanac of Architecture & Design, (the fourth edition scheduled for December release). Knoblauch is now living in San Francisco where she continues to explore the potential for architecture. She can be reached at