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Architectural Education at the Crossroads?
Educators Duo Dickinson and Phil Bernstein look in opposite directions when assessing architecture school quality - but the next architecture school transformation may emerge from where no one is looking.
By Norman Weinstein
February 1, 2018
The lively sequence of perspectives about the current state of American architectural education written by two seasoned educators, Duo Dickinson (“Architectural Education Will Have to Change or Risk Becoming Irrelevant”) and Phil Bernstein (“Architectural Education is Changing: Let’s Hope the Profession Can Keep Up”) should be studied even by those of us not employed as architectural educators. The reason is this: They represent opposing viewpoints about the future of the architectural profession. Don’t believe for a minute that their writing reflects being especially attuned to the issues facing their students today. The voices of their students are strangely nowhere evident in their polemic.
Bernstein teaches “today’s students,” whoever they are in that cloudy windy generalization. Dickinson mentions in even a sloppier generalization “students,” and seems to be more acutely aware of former student travails at the Potemkin campus of the late Trump University than any currently identified students in the Building Beauty program at UniSOB [Universita' degli Studi Suor Orsola Benincasa] in Naples, Italy. I’m not doubting that they care for their students as much as I'm suggesting their position papers about architectural education would be more helpful to the future of the profession if at least a few actual student voices were cited.
After all, students are on "the front line" of education and are the next generation of professionals. While their program evaluations aren't infallible, they do reflect what they are actually experiencing as receivers of programmed knowledge. If many architectural schools are as awful as Dickinson claims, what is he doing with his students in Naples to reverse that unhappy situation? Do his students respond appreciatively to his teaching? I'd like to hear what they say. If Bernstein's Yale students feel they're receiving a stellar education, I would assume they've memorably conveyed that satisfaction to him. Let's hear the specifics of student responses. Otherwise we're playing "opinion volleyball" with the talking heads less than fairly objective. Faculty can have all kinds of self-serving reasons not to accurately assess what their school is doing. If they perceive architecture schools as blighted but teach in one, they can puff themselves up as a grand reformer. If they think architecture schools are generally just fine, they can enjoy feeling like they're a contributor to a successful prestigious enterprise, downplaying the seriousness of student critiques of institutional failure.
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Whether one is as upbeat about architectural education as Bernstein, or as dour as Dickinson, they both demonstrate keen awareness of how new technologies are pressuring professionals in practice and academia to radically alter old habits of thinking. Perhaps Dickinson envisions some future utopia or dystopia where artificial intelligence (AI) programmed architecturally replaces much of human architectural intelligence? Perhaps Bernstein has generous faith that Yale-educated architects, “digitally-savvy employees,” will rarely suffer unemployment jitters?
I find both of their future visions about architecture school graduates dubious. Anyone who thinks AI will trump (forgive my pun) human intelligence in this profession should immediately translate a recent non- English architectural article with a technological slant into English using the awe-inspiring “Google Translate.” It is one of several poster children for those digital dreamers hoping that AI (which is at the core of Google Translate) will soon replace our terribly flawed human intelligence. Funny how my translator friends have less unemployment anxiety than any young architect I know looking for their first job in an established practice.
While at least Dickinson acknowledges the ugly fraction consisting of “70,000 architectural jobs for 200,000 humans with architecture degrees,” both he and Bernstein ignore a far more cogent statistic found in the 2017 report “Occupational Outlook Handbook: Architects” by the Bureau of Labor Statistics division of the U.S. Department of Labor, which projects occupational growth patterns for various professions from 2016 to a decade forward. The experts estimate that the architectural profession will grow only 4% in the next decade, a growth rate labeled as “very slow”; they also assess that the growth of architectural jobs would be "slower than average” – not a sunny forecast. Whether fewer job opportunities will reflect the triumph of AI over human intelligence, the impact of continued outsourcing, or other X factors remains to be seen. But it would be comforting to believe that architectural educators are alert to both current unemployment rates for their graduates, and are developing new educational opportunities for their incoming students.
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Is that what we seeing happening? Do new courses on robotics prepare students to enter a world of bright employment possibilities? The most “digitally-savvy employee” I ever met in an architecture office didn’t have a degree from an architecture school. Can you guess my next sentence? He didn’t even have a college degree from any accredited school anywhere. So technically, I’m not discussing a “real” architect? Or am I?
You want to be educated to be a leader in Bernstein’s “BIM Revolution?” My college-untrained guy in an architecture office, a properly manned (pardon the sexism) office filled with properly educated and licensed architects, was the BIM revolutionary making architecture possible. If I wanted to romanticize him just for fun, I would put him (albeit undeservingly) in the following group that includes the majority of architects I have dedicated my hours to appreciate. They include:
Frank Lloyd Wright
Mies van der Rohr
I’m grateful to ArchDaily.com for posting this list – my personal list of architectural titans has long included all but Fuller. Does the emergent digital age of architecture mean that the age of the architectural autodidact as leader and major innovative knowledge-source is dead? Couldn’t an argument to the contrary be equally feasible? My friend, the academically-uneducated and unlicensed BIM master, was held in awe by another friend who graduated with Honors in Architecture from Cal Poly, a not undistinguished school from which to attain a graduate degree in Architecture.
I bet you’ve encountered Tech Support people in some profitable high-tech corporations who also never sullied the halls of academia – but who really know their digital world efficiently, masterfully, even elegantly. Too bad someone never taught them how paying off graduate school loans for a decade or more builds resilient character.
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Let’s bring this story to some resolution. The BIM genius I knew had one great flaw, in my estimation: He had the aesthetic awareness of a door knob. Art wasn’t his thing – nor was the history of art and architecture. Funny thing about AI: It, too, exhibits the aesthetic sensibility of a doorknob. Funny thing about BIM: It can’t demonstrate artistic sensibility in full flower the way its user can.
So you would think that to prepare their students for the future, architecture schools would be ramping up extraordinary new ways to teach architecture as art and craft. Maybe this is what Bernstein means by “they [students] study design in studio courses taught by interesting, competent, and, yes, world-famous architects, each of whom practices and builds.” But what do those terms imply about any educator’s ability to connect with the current generation of students? Are Bernstein's fellow professors experimenting relentlessly with new teaching methodologies, utilizing both low- and high-tech tools to inspire students to think for themselves in new directions? Are there many profs seriously committed to learning architecture from their own students? If not, why not? The fact that an educator visits and critically evaluates a community building project carried out by his/her students doesn't necessarily imply an authentic educational dialogue between teacher and student.
Regardless of a school's reputation, this kind of learning happening in a democratic dialogue co-created by students and faculty I've never seen in any architecture school. I believe that this kind of dialogue would change for the better all of architectural education. Just imagine a future where, in addition to a faculty crit of student work, students could have the opportunity for a rigorous crit of faculty pedagogy and critique of recent faculty architectural projects? I'm tinkering with the possibility that the best architecture school of the future requires, if not students as faculty-in-training, at least educators who are off the beaten trail, even to the degree in which they are outside of the normal boundaries of the profession.
Here's my choice for such an offbeat architecture school educator. It is someone who wasn't on the ArchDaily.com list of great architects who didn't graduate architecture school: Simon Rodia. Our distinguished “Professor” of Watts Towers, that monumental tribute to architectural intelligence embodying recycling and upcycling before any professor anywhere knew what the words implied. Do you think any architecture school would have let him teach a design course on a regular basis? His English was gruffly uneducated. His professional demeanor worse. Don’t you want to pity him for never having been fortunate enough to go to architectural school to study “ethics, contracts, professionalism, fees, risk analysis, scheduling, and other technical problems”?
In no manner am I calling into question the extraordinary value of courses taught by Bernstein that conventionally, conservatively define the commonly accepted knowledge of professionalism licensed architects must know and students must learn. Bernstein's professional practice course includes the aforementioned "ethics, contracts, fees, risk analysis, and scheduling," for example. Also, Dickinson's teaching in a building program at an Italian university deserves our thanks and praise. But why not supplement these worthy courses with regularly scheduled courses taught by highly competent and imaginatively daring non-professionals and non-academics? They, too, can possess invaluable insights about what thinking and working architecturally is about. Why not hire them as faculty in spite of their absence of degrees, licenses, and international fame? Bring on board the Simon Rodias of the 21st century! And let them teach subjects that architecture schools currently should be offering, but aren't.
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Once upon a time long ago, the Yale School of Architecture offered courses in Architectural Humanities. The courses may have been a crazy quilt of literary theory, philosophy from the pre-Socratics to Derrida, poetics, ethnographic field studies, art history, cognitive psychology, maybe Ruskin or some other cranky Man or Madame of Letters, and what have you. Humanities courses at any level of instruction are messy assemblages given the label of “multidisciplinary” or “transdisciplinary” because academic administrators don’t know how to pigeonhole them. Somewhere along the line a dean, or an administrative bean-counter, decided that such courses were a charming “frill” and hardly essential for brave new architects in a brave new world.
I’ve written this essay because I think that such courses are needed more than ever – lest students think of themselves as architectural technicians rather than architectural artists/artisans. And while I concede that Dickinson and Bernstein know far more about the nuts and bolts of teaching in an architecture school than I ever will, I stand by my knowledge of all types of students (and non-students who unofficially “audited” my classes), drawn from decades of teaching arts and humanities in universities. That included teaching a weekend course comprised of 16 hours of instruction covering the past and present of Canadian architecture. Not one student had ever studied architecture in or outside of school previously. But they seemed to value learning about architecture from an educated outsider. Some future architect might emerge from that class. If not, perhaps some future client looking for an architect. A potential welcome outcome in either case.
Maybe there is a paradox at the heart of debates about what educating future architects should be like. I am proposing what sounds preposterous at first: maybe the profession of architecture needs more than ever to tap the extraordinary architectural gifts of the “unofficial” and unschooled architectural communicators of our time? Neither Dickinson nor Bernstein is looking in that direction. Join me in looking at what they aren’t.
Norman Weinstein is the author of “Words That Build” – an exclusive 21-part ArchNewsNow.com series about writing as a keystone of a successful architectural practice. He's authored several books of poetry and books about music and literature. Weinstein is currently learning weaving in order to deepen his understanding of architecture, music, and poetry. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More by Weinstein:
An exclusive 21-part series that focuses on the overlooked foundations of architecture: oral and written communication.
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