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Changing education for changing times

Martha Thorne

It is a challenging time for architectural education. Significant pressures such as globalization and the use of technology, along with serious societal challenges such as global warming or the rapid pace of urbanization affect both architecture education and the profession in profound ways. Architecture education for the 21st Century is a complex subject without a doubt. When I became directly involved in the academic realm about ten years ago, it was an especially difficult time for architecture. The economic recession had a stranglehold on architecture and construction, and contributed to an overall feeling of uncertainty. Technology allowed instantaneous communication with voice, text, and images with almost any part of the world, giving rise to a fear that, within time, historic, cultural and other differences would be ground away in favor of sameness through “globalization”. These factors (and others) had an impact on architecture education as well as on the profession. The soul searching around architecture education, in the light of the many influences upon and changes to the field (sometimes unexpected), has led in recent years to numerous international symposia, conferences, and meetings with articles and books being published on the subject. What became apparent from all these discussions is that no single model for architectural education has emerged. Moreover, there was little consensus beyond broad pronouncements of the challenges we face. This should not have been a surprise. Since the establishment of licensure or control of the profession over a hundred years ago, there have been ongoing discussions about what and how to teach architecture. Throughout recent decades, debate has raged about the nature, content, length, and skills that should be imparted within architectural education. Architecture education is being pushed to deal with pressures from without and within. Today, some of these pressures being exerted on the field of architecture are rapid urbanization, global warming, the rise of technology and globalization. From inside the field, we can see concerns over the connection between education and the profession as the latter, too, seeks to redefine itself. The traditional model of “real architect as designer” as the only valid role to which to aspire is being called into question, and we are recognizing the many roles that architects can and must fulfill. Distinguishing the architect as sole “author” behind the project is no longer valid. The debates about “starchitects” seem to have subsided in recent years. There is a shift towards employing more collaborative methods and recognizing team members. The road to change is not always a smooth one, especially in the field of gender equality. Matters of discrimination have come to the forefront, with efforts such as the “Me Too” movement in cinema and other fields. Architecture is not an exception. It is one of the professions that have a poor track record of women dropping out, not being able to attain positions of responsibility, and inequality in terms of compensation, among other forms of discrimination. Today, women are more organized and more vocal about inequalities in the profession. Therefore, with this dynamic panorama, are there any guiding principles upon which all can agree? Alternatively, at least, is there light at the end of the tunnel for architecture education? As we look at the debates surrounding architectural education, multiple themes are identified. Often two seemingly independent concepts are placed in juxtaposition to one another, such as technical training versus the artistic; academia versus praxis; experimentation or theoretical explorations versus preparation for professional practice; the hand versus the computer; and many other important issues about the structure of the profession and the role of the architect for 21st Century realities. My own opinion is that many of these dichotomous arguments are fictitious. They do, however, illuminate issues of concern. Instead of taking them at face value as opposing ideas, in reality, they often reflect a continuum. In light of multiple options (and confusion), it would be beneficial for schools to undertake self-study and then take a position. It is imperative for each school to make patently clear its line of inquiry, its goals for teaching and research, its methodology and the roles that it hopes that graduates will be able to fulfill upon graduation and during their professional careers. Increasing pluralism in architecture education is neither good nor bad. The potential lies in the fact that it can and should foster intellectual independence on the part of students, along with a critical, open mind and the ability to adapt to changing times. Many have thought that globalization will bring standardization to schools of architecture. Clearly, we see this is not the case. On the one hand, the flow of information, research, and travel have brought us closer together, but they have not led to the homogenization that some feared. The numbers of students studying abroad for the entire degree or parts of it (such as through the Erasmus program) is at an all-time high. More and more we see joint studios across the miles and other types of exchanges. These have not reduced or eliminated diversity across schools, quite the opposite. In many cases, cultural exchanges, and the flow of people and knowledge, have given rise to new methods and challenged old canons for teaching and learning. Architect and author Duo Dickinson has stated it very bluntly: “No profession has changed more than architecture. Forget about aesthetics, the delivery systems in building design are changing faster than academia can create a pedagogy to teach them. We need to address the basic fact that like law or medicine, the way our profession functions is changing, so the model of teaching will, by necessity, have to change”.1 It is worth keeping one eye on the profession as one also evaluates and proposes new ideas for education. With the onslaught of the computer in the 1990s, professional practices led the way with the use of computers. Also, it can be argued that thanks to practitioners such as Frank Gehry or Greg Lynn, computers made their way into the design studio. In contrast, today, we could argue that in some areas of technology schools are back in the forefront. Mass customization, construction experiments using robotics and augmented reality for design are but three areas where some schools are experimenting in serious ways. Technology will become an increasing force in society and therefore schools need to incorporate this reality, seamlessly, into education. Rather than simply state that technology is a “tool” replacing more mundane tasks that humans used to do, architecture schools should see the potential for pushing technology into new areas. If we are witnessing tech companies move into the field of city development, mobility and “smart buildings”, should we not be there in relevant positions? This will only happen if our students are empowered to understand, experiment with, and develop technologies for the built environment. It seems fair to contend that architecture education is facing more complex challenges as never before. When looking ahead, however, there seem to be several key aspects that will aid us in our attempts to move forward. Firstly, as stated above, schools must take a position and communicate this to current and future students. Promising everything but preparing students for nothing will not unleash the power of architecture to address any challenge, and will only leave our students to fend for themselves or revert to past models. Schools must not only communicate with internal stakeholders but should engage with the broader community about the roles and potentials of architecture to contribute to daily life. What better way to reinforce the idea that architecture is rooted to place, even as distant points on the globe become more connected, than by establishing connections, study and joint efforts with the local context of a school? The relationship with practice is even more complicated. Should we train students to go into practice, if so, what model of practice? Should architects become more entrepreneurial and approach their role more proactively rather than seeking conventional commissions through conventional channels? My own opinion is that we must educate students for the uncertain future and recognize that some old models have limited relevancy, especially when those models are rigid. Providing examples of new ways of conceiving the profession, giving students the tools to understand the business dimension of architecture and to operate in this context is necessary. UNStudio, for example, advocates for architects to become more involved in consultancy, especially after building up knowledge over the years about a specific building type. This sharing of knowledge is a way to add value to a process beyond just creating a design for a specific building in a specific place. New York-based SHoP Architects has moved into developing its spin-off companies including ShoP Construction in 2015 or Envelope, zoning code interpretation system that SHoP spun off as a separate company in 2016. Other models of practice, once called critical practice or alternative practice, have today become increasingly accepted and embraced. An example is Assemble, the “radical” multi-disciplinary collective working across architecture, design, and art that won the Turner Prize in 2015. Architecture education must not just mention these firms; they must be analyzed and seen as viable alternatives to historical methods of practice. Students are increasingly concerned with global warming and other environmental issues. Inside and outside the classroom they talk about (and sometimes demonstrate in favor of) making a difference. Architecture and the built environment are intimately linked. Therefore, societal concerns are also disciplinary concerns. Together with students we can focus on issues of sustainability, resilience and other pressing global problems and use the academy for research and action. There are numerous ways that architects, firms, and organizations are seeking to become engaged and effect positive changes in the environment. Schools have a responsibility to go beyond superficial “do-gooder” efforts that may look good on Instagram but contribute little to the discipline or to solving a real problem. Educational institutions are in a unique position to undertake research, using at times multi-disciplinary resources, take action and then evaluate the outcomes. It is possible to cite the example of architect Alejandro Aravena who, with students, researched housing policies and the effect on low-income communities in Chile while at Harvard. Delving into the concept of housing from a broader perspective including the political and economic contexts as well as the physical, led to the development of the “Half a House” approach. His firm has successfully realized more than 2,000 units as well as influenced housing policy. Architecture will continue to be a field that seeks to envision the future and propose alternative scenarios, keeping in mind the parameters of space-time contexts as well as the impacts that a particular action might cause. Having a holistic approach distinguishes us from other disciplines. This is the great strength of architecture and design. The questions then become: will schools challenge the traditional models of education and practice and participate in or lead the debate towards the future in a significant way? Will schools embrace technological change, global warming, rapid urbanization and other major societal concerns as a natural and necessary part of architecture education or instead, will they simply try to build an ivory tower?


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