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Lesson Plan #6: Teacher, Don't Teach Them Nonsense: Reforming Architecture's Broken Education

A curriculum overhaul alone cannot fix the problem; rather, the practice of architecture must first reform itself for any pedagogical reforms to make sense.

By Mathias Agbo, Jr.
November 14, 2019

Editor’s Note: This is the sixth in a series on the future of architectural education created and curated by Nikos A. Salingaros, Ph.D., Professor of Mathematics, winner of the 2019 Stockholm Culture Award for Architecture, and co-winner of the 2018 Clem Labine Traditional Building Award. See Lesson Plans #1 through #5 at the end of this feature.



Teacher, don’t teach me nonsense


The title of a mid-eighties Afrobeat song by Fela Anikulapo Kuti, Teacher, Don’t Teach Me Nonsense, aptly captures the sentiments of the recent open letter by British architecture students calling for a change in architecture curriculum. The call for reforms in architecture education isn’t new: like an exasperating ulcer, it has plagued the industry for eons. Over the last few years, I followed several discourses on this subject, but what makes the current tide more exigent is that the cause is now being championed by architecture students themselves.


The students are largely disillusioned with how contemporary architecture pedagogy has failed to acknowledge the significant role architecture plays in enabling the current global ecological breakdown and socio-political crisis our world is presently contending with. They are thus canvassing for an architecture curriculum that equips architecture students (future architects) with a more nuanced understanding of the connections between architecture and our environmental and social realities. In the weeks following the release of the open letter, many have further lent their voices to the discourse. Sadly, while there’s an overwhelming concord that there’s a problem with contemporary architecture pedagogy, there’s still no consensus on the diagnosis and prognosis of the malaise itself.


In a recent internet rant titled “13 Theses on the Crisis of Architectural Academia,” Patrik Schumacher severely criticized contemporary architecture education, which, in his opinion, is detached from the profession and also from societal realities and needs, as expressed in real client briefs. He further opined that architecture schools are presently operating like art schools, largely without a defined curriculum. He then accused architecture teachers of using the schools to promote their own isolated agendas. For Schumacher, an ideal architecture education would be one that enthrones a regime of parametricism as “... the discipline’s answer to the societal challenges and technological opportunities of our computationally empowered post-Fordist network society.”


Interestingly, not a few of Schumacher’s colleagues view him as emblematic of what is wrong with contemporary architecture practice; a reputation that has, by Schumacher’s own admission, earned him the label of a fascist. Schumacher was once the object of angry street protest in London after his infamous keynote address at the World Architecture Forum in Berlin in 2016, where he advocated for the abolition of social housing and the expropriation of public spaces for new real estate developments.


Nevertheless, Schumacher’s call for reforms in architecture pedagogy aligns with the thoughts of a majority of people within the industry, even as his understanding of the problem and the solution he proffers differ widely from many others. This scenario typifies the current ideological chasm between the various entities within the industry – and therein lies the real problem with architectural education.


Ideological debates and special interests


Consequently, it is impossible to speak to this very important issue of our dysfunctional architecture educational system without addressing the underlying interests and ideological biases that both define and underpin the perception of contemporary architecture education. The various contributing groups and subsets within the profession are all largely short-sighted by the liabilities of their respective interests. Yet, we must be careful not to allow this very important discourse degenerate into another ideological or stylistic debate as usual.


Presently, no other profession institutionalizes hero-worshipping like architecture: As a consequence, architecture schools are today only raising miniature Schumachers, Gehrys, and Calatravas; and upon graduation, these students will naturally seek employment at the studios of their “idols.” And that’s where their professional reorientation begins; as these young architects would then be molded solely in the “culture” of the practices they work for. As a rite of passage, they are often made to unlearn a good measure of what they were taught at design school by conforming to a new set of paradigms as defined by the principals of the practices where they have been employed. One is then tempted to ask: Of what use is a pedagogy whose basic tenets will be discarded right after school?


In desperation and angst at the status quo, a number of people have, at different times, advocated that we discard the current systems altogether, to create an alternative architecture education. A few experimental architecture programs have sprung up in the last decade. This doesn’t solve the problem, either, because a curriculum overhaul alone cannot fix the problem; rather, the practice of architecture must first reform itself for any pedagogical reforms to make sense.


Here in Africa, the peculiar problem with architecture education remains its contextually blind curriculum: Architecture students across the continent are mainly taught Western architectural histories, theories, and urbanism, and upon graduation are seldom able to relate this generic knowledge to the local African milieu in which they practice (I discussed this issue extensively last year). To a certain degree, this is also the reality for a good number of students across several climes around the world.


This is chiefly because the current architecture pedagogy in universities is largely indifferent to the peculiar nuances of its immediate surroundings and the various social and environmental issues arising therein. This reality is no doubt a pointer that it is time to do away with our current standardized architecture curriculum, and develop one that is bespoke enough to accommodate practical solutions to social and environmental problems in each locality it serves.


Solving the world’s political, economic, and environmental problems


Reading between the lines of the students’ letter, it is, more than anything else, a prescient call for reforming contemporary architecture practice. This is because, the issues architecture and the built environment respond to go beyond spatial needs or architecture itself. Hence, traditionalists, modernists, and every other group and sub-group must inexorably acknowledge the significance of developing architecture practices that speak directly to the needs of the wider society, rather than one that churns out new buildings and nothing else.


Beyond attaining the Vitruvian triad of stability, unity, and beauty, architecture must, more than anything else, meet the social needs of the societies it seeks to serve. It should, in its own way, address issues like climate change, widening social inequality, xenophobia, and several other everyday challenges that humanity is currently faced with.


Coincidentally, I wrote about this subject in 2017, advocating for the concept of social sustainability to become the fulcrum around which architecture pedagogy revolves – one where the core ethos and values of architecture charities like ASF/AFH (Architecture Sans Frontières/Architecture for Humanity) are incorporated into architecture and design pedagogy, making them inseparable from the profession rather than as “add-ons” or afterthoughts.


On a final note, I admonish the architecture community not to lose sight of the enormity of the noble duty of preparing students in advance for the dynamic future that awaits them in contemporary architecture practice. Therefore, the current debate should not be appropriated as a venue for reinforcing pre-existing ideological biases, but should offer architects the opportunity for honest introspection. After which they must aim to enthrone an architecture pedagogy and practice that unambiguously proffer solutions to the world’s political, economic, and environmental problems through architecture, rather than compound them with the same. Until architecture pedagogy and practice can solve these real life societal problems, we would only be teaching and practicing nonsense.



Mathias Agbo, Jr. is a designer and researcher who runs a small design-build consultancy in Abuja, Nigeria, and periodically writes on design and architecture. Find him on Twitter @Mathias_AgboJr. He is a co-author of the recently-published article “Architecture Programs Need a Change: Put People First—Not ‘Art’.”


See also:


Lesson Plan #5: Letter from an architect to the gurus [teachers] and chelas [disciples] of architecture

From India, Shirish Beri writes this special letter out of the restlessness that arises from a genuine concern for the present state of architectural education and profession, as well as that of our society.

By Shirish Beri


Lesson Plan #4: Response to Open Letter for Curriculum Change: A New, Biological Approach to Architecture
This response, in two parts, is from two instructors at the Boston Architectural College.
By Ann Sussman, RA, and A. Vernon Woodworth, FAIA


Lesson Plan #3: Beauty and Sustainability in Architectural Education
We were greatly heartened to see architecture students call for a curriculum change to address the social, political, and ecological challenges of our time, and we want to say something about how their proposals intersect with the work of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission.
By Nicholas Boys Smith and Roger Scruton


Lesson Plan #2: A Time of Change
The coming technological changes in architecture will impose a full deconstruction of the way we educate architects.
By Duo Dickinson


Lesson Plan #1 "Signs versus Symptoms": A Reply to the Open Letter from British Architecture Students Calling for Curriculum Change

Asking for radical reforms in architectural education, this courageous appeal could help this latest effort be taken seriously, and not simply dismissed, as previous cries for reform have been.

By Dr. Nikos A. Salingaros


(click on pictures to enlarge)

Nikos A. Salingaros

Sensitive architectural education with intellectual weight reflects adaptive architecture that evolved along with humanity itself.