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1989 July: Whats wrong with architectural education? Almost everything

Peter Buchanan critiques the state of architectural education, claiming it is neither current or credible

Change of all sorts (for instance in financing and contract management, in technology and in proportion of work that is now fit-out or refurbishment rather than new-build) has been dramatically transforming much of the building industry and its procedures. Yet these and the corresponding changes being faced by and within the architectural profession are quite unrecognized by almost all architectural schools, no matter where. But, not only have curricula not been revised and extended accordingly, most schools now fail even to impart adequately such traditionally crucial skills as an understanding of construction.

And in design studio, the heart of any course, the confusion that changes within and outside the building industry have provoked in the architectural profession is further exacerbated because these changes are not being taken up as a challenge to be faced and mastered. Instead they are ignored as being compromising, even distasteful, in an idealistic flight into indulgent irrelevancy.  

In Britain, and in most other countries too, architectural education is based upon an increasingly irrelevant role model, that of the architect as an elite professional independent of and superior to the building industry and each architect, if not actually a principal in his own firm, at least a job runner and designer aspiring to genius. But the architect is being reduced to simply another member of the building team, and so of the industry by factors like the increasing complexity of the building industry and the resulting proliferation of all sorts of new skills and consultants, as well as new constructing systems in which the architect is often only one of a team selecting from subcontractor designed elements.

If professional airs were once only offensive, they are increasingly a liability, marginalizing the architect’s effectiveness. With the toppling of the architect from his pedestal of professionalism will also go the notion of the architect as universal all-rounder. Instead there will be many differing kinds of architects with differing interests, skills and responsibilities and degrees of specialization. Probably one very few of these will do much design.

Will the de-pedestalisation of the architect will also have to go the amateurish management that traditionally characterized most professions. Architectural practices, whatever else they are, are businesses, and efficient management, continuity of cash flow and meticulous accounting and forecasting of cash, profits and growth, have all become much more critical in the cut throat world of competitive fee tendering. Yet, though architectural students might be taught something about professional ethics and the finer points of liability, they learn nothing about managing a business- nor such vital skills as attracting and clinching commissions and dealing with staff, consultants and builders.

Also, the spectrum of work in which architects are involved is continuously broadening. A great deal of many’ practices’ workload is now refurbishment and restoration, yet few schools teach anything about traditional construction, let alone the problems ofassessing and altering such construction. Much otherwork is now in fitting out the shells of existing or new buildings. Such space-planning can be lucrative, if usually not deemed a really architectural orprestigious commission. It requires thorough research and analysis of the clients’ present and future work patterns to formulate a proper brief and precisely tailored design that can be very quickly implemented. All this requires a range of skills no school properly teaches. Indeed how many schools, if any, teach how briefs are formulated?

Instead of the difficult and self-effacing task of establishing real needs and appropriate programme, students tend to be encouraged to elaborate the most fanciful evenfarcical scenarios as impetus to design. And with the huge commissions architects now receive and the renewed concern with context and urbanity, it is surprising how few schools teach urban design-and of those that do, how narrow and particular is their approach and how much very relevant twentieth-century thinking on the subject they tend to ignore.

Nor despite widespread adoption of urban design guidelines (as almost a panacea in some places) are students taught how to devise and test guidelines that are coherent and effective as legal documents as well as prescriptions for built form. Massive increase in physical scale usually affects inversely the time-scale of building: high-interest fluid finance demands fast-track construction and high levels of flexibility for tenants. More than that, it also demands a new set of design, constructional and contract disciplines (such as pre-glazed factory assembled panels and scaffoldless site assembly): here are yet more areas about which most students and their teachers know nothing.

Collapse of Credibility

However dismaying may be architectural education’s tardiness in recognising new realities, what is probably even more distressing is the collapse of credibility of what were always agreed to be crucial areas of training: in construction and design. With end of year shows becoming progressively more trendy as social events, so studio projects on display have tended to be more subject to fashion-fit only as decoration for such events. Graphically elaborate, visually compelling if inscrutable, they are essentially ephemera. Though laboriously drawn, they are concerned with impact and immediacy, momentary thrills and mystery: they are not pared and precise communications about a quite other, potentially concrete and enduring reality offering far more various and enduring satisfactions.

Problems in the design studio generally start with the abandonment of carefully formulated briefs which are replaced by fancifully elaborated scenarios- a tactic that severs contact with any reality which is dismissed as too mundane and demeaning to stimulate students’ creativity and teachers’ attention (some of whom seem unable to master and keep up with that reality). Yet if done with sensitivity and skill, and with imagination fuelled by insight into reality rather than flight from it, the formulation of a convincingly apt narrative or conceptual image can be a potent design aid. Indeed something of this sort has always underpinned the best architecture.

But today, too many teachers accept any whimsical or fantastical scenario or fatuous idea as an equally valid spark for design (deeming the most ludicrous notions to be really original and imaginative). These teachers forbid any attempt to assess the relevance of such narratives as inhibiting to creativity. This attitude,justified as tolerance and respect for relativism and pluralism, is of course the cop out of the uncommitted-one of the commonest student complaints about their teachers.

As a result the architectural studio often resembles a kindergarten of uninhibited free expression-except that the finger-painted smudged pencil finish overlies hours ofpainstaking drafting and the wackiest schemes tend to be the most self-consciously trendy, if notdownright derivative. The emphasis on unshackled and uncriticalcreativity has led much student design far from the fundamental disciplines of architecture and into the realms of bad art. The celebrated creativity may alter the ego it issues from and those who feel they have liberated it, but it has nothing to do with humbleservice to a client.

Instead the scenarios and resulting design schemes are typically intended to provoke, to awaken and excite people into a new experience of the fresh or the familiar. As with so much contemporary art, the motivation is fundamentallypatronising to the viewer and user who, says theartist and architect, needs awakening and liberating. Yet it is the derided public that must ultimately have the creative resources of perception and imagination to provide the real content that the so-called creators are themselves incapable of supplying.

Scenario or Programme?

Ultimately the lack of content and real richness in such art and architecture stems from a lack of mastery of the medium and its intrinsic disciplines. A deep understanding of and engagement with these, and a constant honing of skills, are all necessary to the creation of works that are sufficiently densely considered yet suggestively terse to evoke real resonance in viewer/users.

Now that the scenario or concept largely usurps (or at least swamps) the brief as generator of design, the reciprocative disciplines of shaping programme and plan have been lost-and with them concern not just with function and aesthetic experience but also for social dynamics in all their many nuances. This is tragic. It is precisely in its exploration of the relationship of programme andplan and in the creation of a topology of social dynamics that lies the true heart of ModernArchitecture and its genuinely beneficent legacy to all future architectures.

Today it is rare to see from even prestigious practices a plan that is conceived and functions well in these terms. From students it is even more rare.Indeed many architects and teachers, and so of coursestudents, seem incapable of reading a plan properly. They cannot look at it and see in the mind’s eye (or feel in the gut) the choreographed flow of movement and how this presents people to, or hides them from, each other; nor the interactions elicited between adjacent and sometimes even distant activities; nor the way these vary through the day and are enhancedand frustrated in different ways by the building.

Without understanding such matters, people mistake a simple plan for a simplistic one and fail to understand the richness of restraint. Instead willfuland unresolved complexity is mistaken for invention and the plan degenerates into a gratuitous play of geometry or a flurry of wriggles and slashes-in other words mere graphics, not architecture. Confusinggraphics with architecture that must be judged as (potentially) constructed and experiential reality is a prime curse of architectural education today-and of architecture too.

Construction or detail?

Social dynamics are not the only discipline shaping the plan. Structure, services, construction are all crucial too, as are contextual pressures and climatic, formal and experiential considerations. But in many schools students do not learn how structure and services assert their own disciplines during design and how, if considered properly and early enough, they drop into place as organically integratedelements shaping space and form rather than intruding on them. Construction and detailing also tend to be taught most unsatisfactorily- particularly application in the studio. Typically parts of some design projects are selected to be blown up into working details. But this is just another shallow graphic exercise that essentially contradicts properarchitectural discipline. Each material and component selected and each detail developed should assert an influence throughout and be influenced by all other aspects of the design.

This is why skilled architects tend to think in construction and detail right from the earliest sketches and often prefer to finalise all details before starting layout drawings. The result is immediately discernible in the large number of conditions each detail serves, in an economy of cut components and special cases, and in a sense of disciplined ease in which everything has a measured place, emphasis and degree of elaboration. Knowledge of, and due respect for, the disciplines of structure, services andconstruction is not just a technical and economic matter but essential to aesthetic satisfactions and coherence. And all these cannot be taught by developing a few details in isolation-the whole must condition them.

Concerned with instantaneous graphic impact rather than long-term experiential gratification of real architecture, student projects tend to invert suchideals. Often, every truss and component is not only shaped without heed to the resolution of structuralforces and is supported at particularly problematic points of bearing, but also tends to be different in sizeand often enough in shape too. Such things can only be handcrafted-though students justify them to gullible teachers as being possible with state-of-the art computer-controlled laser cutting. At what costand to achieve what? A pronounced trend in AA projects is for designs that could only be built with tin-snips, hand beating and pop-riveting to achieve (depending on taste) either the most endearingly or irritatingly tatty aesthetic and inconveniently contorted and mean spaces-shanties for mad millionaires who wish to exhaust their funds in achieving suitable settings for the tramp-like existence to which they would then be condemned.


The cavalier approach of many young architects to structure has done weird things to their relationship with engineers that in time will profoundly effect the relative status of these professions. The more willful the architect’s approach to structure, the less the relationship to the engineer is one of equals. Instead, the engineer becomes a nursemaid, looking after the architect and getting his playthings built, with the engineer usually travestying his discipline while humouring the architect. These days before clinchinga commission, clients often seek the guarantee of an engineer of reputation that he wil l accept the role of nanny and can build whatever the architect-charge might propose. Badly-trained architects who do not understand the inherent disciplines of architecture ultimately degrade the whole profession.

Of course, the problems of architectural education generally and in the studio in particular, reflect the confusions, the lack of confidence and convincing direction, found in the profession today. But they also reflect the inadequacies and inexperience of many teachers-a considerable number of whom, especially the more influential ones, have built very little if anything at all. Though some may see it as unforgivable to say so, especially when architectural education is receiving the mostly misguided attentions of the Government, it seems that there are too many (mostly underfunded) schools and that there are not enough good teachers to staff them.

Nor can they all have the big city context and student numbers to stimulate students into exploring for themselves and learning from each other. In a building boom such as now, experienced architects have neither the time nor inclination to teach (in Britain that is-professions in some other countries accord a higher status to academe). This leaves the field to recent graduates or those who cannot or do not want to make it in practice. Inviting experienced architects and talented teachers from other schools to crits is not much help.

What students learn most from is not the final assessment of projects they too may be unsatisfied with, but watching how a talented designer at the board uses his or her pencil to open up a problem, to explore not just form but to intuit and analyse the various forces at work that need to be reorganized and resolved. How to think about and solve structure and detail are also best taught in this way. Pupillage once offered this essentially intimate experience. But now expedience and business pressures motivate practices too much; and they lack the experienced staff for pupillage to be a viable option today.

Studio work, then, must remain the essential core of architectural education: it needs radical reinforcement, not any sort of reduction as it is rumoured the UK government proposes. In the studio, students learn not just design, but with it how to integrate all the many disciplines of architecture. Inevitably this is a process that takes time to master. So too do the entwined processes of student maturation and the mastering of a design approachand vocabulary that is grounded, at least in largepart, in the patiently gleaned observation, experience and experiment of the student. Emphasising the importance of this patient process is probably ultimately the only way of rescuing studio work from mere graphic invention and vacuous verbal scenarios and speculation.

Another pressure to be resisted is for architectural schools to seek all their funding from the building industry just as art schools now must from the advertising industry. Though what is happening in the building industry must obviously heavily inf1uence what is taught in schools, it would be counterproductive for the industry to dictate terms. The almost certain result would be a training tightly tailored to the industry’s present needs. In a fastmoving field, this is a guarantee for obsolescence on graduation. The freedom to think independently, even exploring many potentially abortive avenues, remains fundamental to any education that really serves the future of both industry and student.

Mirroring the profession

Ultimately the confusions and failings of architectural education simply mirror those in the profession at large. The vigorous pluralism some applaud covers a desperate lack of any really convincing direction or even an understanding of what architecture really is and should be about. A profound process of stocktakingis desperately needed. Much useful thinking and theory in the culture at large could be very usefully brought to bear on this crisis. Unfortunately, professional bodies are not really interested in pursuing such a stocktaking. They wish to present a front of confidence and, besides business matters, are more interested in celebrating achieved fame than in questioning its basis.

Journals and criticism fare little better: they are mainly staffed and undertaken by people as untutored and inexperienced in architecture as are so many architectural teachers. Another responsibility, the continuing process of stocktaking, quite legitimately falls on the schools. Unfortunately academics are not usefully developing and applying theory in some synthesising and profoundly illuminating yet integrative projects that might be universal in the usefulness and satisfaction offered. Instead, theory tends to be used as a refuge of obfuscation,esotericism and one-up-manship in which teachers carve a safe haven in which to hide their inexperience and lack of real commitment to architecture and the welfare of mankind. This is perhaps the profoundest of all the failings of architectural education today and one from which stem so many of the others that afflict both schools and practice.

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