Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Shaky Tripod

From the inception of American architectural education, our discipline has always been an unstable hybrid. William Ware, the founder of MIT's program, observed in 1866, after studying architectural education in Europe, that: "the French courses of study are mainly artistic, and the German scientific, and the English practical." His program, one of the first in the nation, would represent an attempt at synthesis.

Today this uneasy balance of art, science, and practice is in more danger of collapsing than ever.

We've ceded speculation to designers from other disciplines, the best work about the future relationship between technology, design, and culture at large is now coming from the fields of product design and industrial design. Within architecture, the production of novel form is now almost instantly commodified in the global marketplaces, going wherever labor is cheap and politics are autocratic. We've lost the majority of the everyday built environment to dullness and risk-averse bad planning. Meanwhile, with the exception of too few responsible firms engaged in mentorship, we have a professional culture that privileges technical skill and low wages over critical thinking. And we have an academic culture that looks for hard, measurable, machine readable metrics to decide if education is taking place or not.

University cultures, now focused on quantitative assessment over narrative in annual reports, are asking how many faculty are licensed architects, and how many graduating students are going on to licensure, meanwhile our professional organizations are re-entering the academy in several ways. NAAB intends to merge with ACSA, and NCARB wants to retool curriculum so that students receive licensure upon graduation. This is against the backdrop of a university academic culture that's getting hollowed out from within, as administration expands while teachers are asked to do more with less. Never mind time for research and speculation about the future, the academy must produce students that serve the profession now, because offices want affordable labor in the seats at 9am Monday, and they'd best be proficient in the latest version of Revit.

What can American architectural education offer back to these challenges? We can re-emphasize the historical mandate of the M. Arch degree: sustained critique, sustained speculation, in parallel with practice, scholarship and service, as a complement to the profession-oriented pedagogy of the B. Arch, and the deep dive methodology of the PhD. We can advocate for a return to an attitude towards the study and practice of architecture that places it back alongside the liberal arts and the fine arts. 

The most useful things that architectural education can offer students in regards to professional practice are being buried under a futile race to keep up with software. If we teach practical skills, then let us focus on methodology over technique, the "why" over the "what." The proliferation of job descriptions designated "X Architect", where "X" is "Software", "Experience", or "User Interface", shows that other disciplines are hungry for the rigorous systems-level design methodologies that architectural education offers. And if one of the things we do best is speculation about the future, then let us serve practice by speculating with our students about the future of practice. This way, they will be able to anticipate, not the new plugins for parametric modeling that come out next week, but the new paradigms that will change how the built environment is made over the next decade. 

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