…the primary skill obtained in architectural education is a critical eye, one that questions itself as well as the world around it. We become so accustomed to questioning architecture that we find it difficult to produce architecture.
It starts out so simple.
In the first days of our architectural education, we learn of Vitruvius’s De Architectura, one of the first published treatises on architecture. Early on, three words ring in our ears: “utilitas, firmitas, e venustas.” We want to make beautiful buildings, ones that are well constructed and serve their users well. We see architecture through the eyes of an outsider, in terms of form and function. But what begins so simply becomes muddled as we trudge through the murky waters of architectural education. “Commodity, firmness, and delight” are quickly replaced with “Eating oysters with boxing gloves, naked, on the nth floor.” Glitzy encyclopedias like S,M,L,XL replace De Architectura as our canonical text, and the graphic and linguistic bombardment unleashed by architectural education complicates the seemingly cut and dry world of Vitruvius. Technology gives free reign to the imagination, seducing us with ephemeral blobs and instant renderings that pay no heed to the constraints of commodity and firmness and redefine the criteria for delight. The art of building quickly disassociates itself from buildings, oriented more towards the publishing house than the construction site, and Bruce Mau becomes as much an architect as Rem Koolhaas. Academia stretches us to conceive of architecture differently than Vitruvius, differently than Koolhaas, and differently than current practicing architects. It is implicitly understood that form and function are not enough; we must be masters of consumerism, voyeurism, and global politics. Above all, the primary skill obtained in architectural education is a critical eye, one that questions itself as well as the world around it. We become so accustomed to questioning architecture that we find it difficult to produce architecture.
This is all well and good for those who go on to one of the growing number of alternative fields of architecture (publishing, graphic design, web design and the like), but those who proceed to architectural internship are shocked by the demands of practice: utilitas, firmitas, venustas. What was old is new again, and readapting to an abandoned ethos isn’t easy. Old heroes like Koolhaas are laughed at, not revered, and their work is dismissed with that poisonous label, “academic.” In the mind of many a professional, nothing could be worse than being doomed to another laughable 2,000 page tome filled with unbuilt, siteless, budgetless projects that could never be realized in the world in which we live. The rift between education and practice is not only sizeable, it instigates a combative attitude in both camps, camps that don’t understand each other and don’t want to understand each other. To be sure, academia deserves some of the blame for the stark difference between education and practice, but most firms exacerbate the difference by placing the graduate at a CAD station. Interestingly enough, CAD is the strongest link between education and practice. In school, we quickly learn of its facility and expediency. Why draw by hand? CAD allows for a rapid iteration processes, and we can translate a basic CAD drawing into a seductive three-dimensional rendering. It becomes second nature, but only as a necessary means to an end. Employers share our affinity for CAD’s facility and expediency, but the means becomes the end for the intern, and his first exposure to mentorship comes from CAD’s help menu. CAD single-handedly knocks the wind out of the internship process, intercepting the breath of fresh air of a new experience before it can reach the firm or the intern.
In last summer’s dry job market I was lucky enough to find such an internship. I was grateful just to have a job, regardless of where it was, but the internship wasn’t one that any self-respecting academic would choose. The bulk of the firm’s work was retail, mostly destined for big-box or mini-mall, the bane of academia’s existence. Like most internships, it was a CAD-laden experience, consisting of looking at the prototype of a retail store in one location and modifying it to be built across the country. The job was repetitive and mundane, and yet it still revealed the weaknesses of my education. For as little ingenuity as my work required, I was still slow to understand structural details and standard code issues. It was disconcerting to look down on the work I was doing, and yet feel inadequately prepared for it. I left the firm with a distaste for education, internship, and retail at large, and I entered graduate school perceiving that rift between education and practice to be larger than ever.
What I encountered in school was a unique studio, based in a small town forty miles from campus. The town had plans to build a cultural center that would be a draw to the entire region. The students were faced with the task of designing for two audiences. One was the community, people that would intuitively demand Vitruvius’ trinity of design. The other was the team of professors that would be scrutinizing the design for a critical stance. The project was challenging enough before we were given the site: an abandoned big-box that could have easily been designed by the firm I had just left. The professors held the building in contempt while the community embraced it as a cost effective means to realize their much-awaited civic building. The students were left to walk the tightrope between the two groups. It was a precarious position; we could never please either camp, but we felt a certain allegiance to both. I hadn’t realized what I had learned during my internship until it was staring back at me in the studio. The logic of designing the big-box cultural center didn’t have to be so different than the logic of designing the big-box drugstore. The students produced a compelling body of work, compelling because it walked that tightrope and then some. Compelling enough to fuel my research for current thesis work on big-box, adaptive reuse, and urbanism. The subconscious lessons learned from a disconcerting internship revealed themselves in the academic setting. Academic work became a reaction to these lessons, a friction between education and practice that generated something new.
The studio brought together education and practice for me, not as a transition from one to the other, but as two parts of the same thing. The discipline could benefit from such meldings of education and practice, treating the rift between as a generative activity. Sam Mockbee’s Rural Studio shows us the potential of community-based programs, where students are free to apply their fresh ideas, but have to think twice about the relevance of “Eating oysters with boxing gloves, naked, on the nth floor.” Community based studios should be a mandate, not a novelty. They use the students’ idealistic energies to serve the community instead of further removing themselves from it. They expose students to the people they will eventually be working for. They give students the opportunity to build their designs instead of rendering them. They do all this while allowing students to explore the academic issues that matter to them, and making them matter to the community.
Firms have a commensurate responsibility to the discipline and to the intern. Mentorship programs can not be reserved for elite firms or interns, and they are not an act of philanthropy; they benefit the design principal as much as they do the intern. Graduates leave school eager to change the world, an eagerness that is naïve but reinvigorating to a discipline that seeks the vanguard but always returns to the status quo. The discipline is always ripe for change, and the critical eye of the graduate is not only the most qualified agent for that change, but also the most readily available. While the idealism of academia will not function in practice, it is a precious gift to practice, a perpetual shot in the arm that should be harnessed before it is absorbed by wall sections and door schedules. When we are mentored by the CAD help menu, we lose sight of what brought us to architecture in the first place. A mandatory period of dual mentorship between design principals and interns would provide a forum for Vitruvius and Koolhaas. The principal would be reinvigorated and given a chance to think critically about his practice, and the intern would be exposed to the wisdom of experience and reminded that there is life after oysters and boxing gloves. After such a dual mentorship is established, the delegation of responsibility insures that both principal and intern are in control of this constant rebirth of the discipline.
The infusion of young professionals into the discipline is vital not only for the graduate, but for the discipline as well. The space between education and practice is a precarious space, a breaking point-the graduate belongs to neither academia nor practice. The transition isn’t a smooth one, nor should it be, but it should be a transition that fosters growth. The transition from architectural education to architectural practice is not about the intern adapting to the workforce, it’s about developing a dialogue between the two. There is room for Koolhaas just as there is room for Vitruvius. The important thing is to start that dialogue, and then to nurture it. Community involvement is the catalyst for this dialogue, dual mentorship strengthens it, and the delegation of responsibility sustains it. Without that dialogue, architecture stands still. This space between is where the discipline can grow. This space in between is the breeding ground for new architects and new architecture.
This essay earned second prize in the inaugural ArchVoices Essay Competition. To learn more about the competition and read all 157 entries, visit www.archvoices.org/competition.
Ponitz received his B.S.Arch at the University of Michigan. He is currently a M.Arch candidate.
Vitruvius. Ten Books on Architecture. Cambridge: Cambridge Press, 1999.
Koolhaas, Rem. Delirious New York. New York: Monacelli Press, 1978.