Rethinking Architectural Education


The Big Rethink Part 9: Rethinking Architectural Education

Detached from the ferment of epochal change, the groves of academe are failing to engage with current critical realities

Apart from pleading for blunt and long overdue critical comment about various architects − some starchitects are nominated repeatedly, you can easily guess who − the most common request in the private emails received in response to these essays is to discuss architectural education. This too is a subject provoking strong opinions, though with rather less consensus. The unease, and often dismay, felt about architectural education is unsurprising and has been long festering. A primary theme of these essays is that we are in the throes of massive epochal change that must profoundly impact architecture.

Hence the urgent necessity for The Big Rethink to which these essays are a tiny contribution. Yet to visit many architectural schools is to enter a time warp where the ‘anything goes’ postmodern relativism of the 1980s persists, and tutors and lecturers pursue their own interests regardless of any larger relevance. Indeed, it almost seems that the more overwhelmingly urgent the looming crises provoked by systemic collapse of interdependent aspects of our global civilisation, the more frivolous the pursuits of academe. Even sustainability is reduced to a much too narrow, peripheral subject added on to the curriculum rather than forming the core of a radically restructured education.

But quite apart from not preparing students for the very different future in which they will practise, schools are struggling to keep up with changes that are already transforming architecture. These include the proliferation of ever more materials and new modes of manufacture, assembly and construction management, as well as new software bringing novel modes of analysis to such things as structural stresses, ambient conditions (light levels, air movement and wind pressure, temperature, humidity and so on) and even movement patterns of pedestrians and vehicles (as with Space Syntax).

This complexity puts demands on architects at the leading-edge of practice that are increasingly beyond the capacity of any individual. Hence architects collaborate with a widening array of consultants in multidisciplinary design teams in which even the architect component is made up of individuals of differing expertise. In contemporary parlance ‘we have moved from the age of genius to scenius’. Yet architectural education is still geared to producing the solitary genius, rather than today’s collaborator − although admittedly such teams might still benefit from the genius-type for guidance and final judgements.

Often after lecturing at an architectural school and showing the computer modelling and analysis informing some contemporary design, as well as the techniques used to coordinate construction and so on, professors privately admit despair at the impossibility of finding the skilled people to teach such things, let alone be available for students to consult with. Yet a few of the schools dismissed as ‘provincial’ by those who see themselves as the metropolitan elite, reputedly give a good and more or less up to date technical grounding. Even in one or two of the elite metropolitan schools, it is possible to get excellent technical tuition and call on first class consultants for guidance during development of student projects − that is, if the student is so inclined and the unit master permits it. Confusingly, there is at least one ‘elite’ school whose graduates are much in demand by practices when recruiting, despite weak technical training, simply for the work ethos inculcated.


The four quadrants of Integral theory’s All Quadrant All Level (AQAL) diagram

If practitioners moan about students unprepared for practice, a complaint consistently voiced by students, teachers and some practitioners is about the grip on architectural education of postmodern relativism, although that is usually not the terminology used. As explained in earlier essays, postmodernism initially brought great benefits. Its criticisms of modern architecture, such as for its contextual insensitivity, brought the new maturity found in the best contemporary buildings.

Even postmodern theory was initially useful in broadening discourse and drawing attention to the semiotic dimensions of architecture. And what has become its excessive relativism was initiated by validating previously repressed voices, such as those of women and the colonised. The multiplicity of perspectives this alerted us to are important in breaking the grip of modernity’s too narrow certainties, so facilitating epochal change. But like modernity, postmodernity has hung on too long and the benefits it brought are now outweighed by its toxic downsides


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