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Learning to Practice

The Future of Architectural Education in America

Learning to Practice
By Coren Sharples -

In the opening lines of Experience and Education, John Dewey posits that “mankind is given to formulating its beliefs in terms of ‘Either-Ors’,” and while this statement can be applied broadly to many situations, it is of particular interest in reference to the education of architects and indeed to the profession, as it exists in America today. We are a profession divided, classified as either designers or executors, thinkers or makers, academicians or practitioners. These labels not only weaken us as individuals, but also curtail our ability to act with common purpose and lessen the authority of our collective voice. SHoP Architects was founded, in large part, to be a “Both-And” entity bridging these divides. As we enter our third decade of addressing these issues in practice, we find ourselves increasingly drawn to also examine the means and methods of education that deliver aspiring young architects into our professional community.

In the medieval guilds of Europe, apprentices and journeymen trained under master masons, and exchanged labor for education and experience. This system evolved in both Europe and later in America, where up until the mid 1800s architects acquired knowledge through some mode of training in the building trades, and the appellation “architect” referred loosely to a master builder who had acquired the skills and status to independently undertake building commissions.

The contemporary system of university education began in the mid to late 1800s with the establishment of the école des Beaux-Arts in France, and the Berliner Bauakademie and Polytechnische Hochschule in Germany. These influences were felt in America, which created its own schools of architecture, first at the Polytechnic College of Pennsylvania, and shortly thereafter at both Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The divisions we experience today as a profession were apparent in some form from the outset – from the cultural divide between the French attitude towards architecture as a form of fine art, the German view of architecture as an extension of engineering, math and science, to the animosity between master builders who labeled themselves as architects and those who earned the title through university training but who did not necessarily have experience with building.

In the ensuing century plus, there have been attempts to reconcile or combine these approaches into more holistic forms of teaching and practice. One of the best-known examples of this, of course, is the Bauhaus, with its mission to unite art and industry. The Bauhaus built upon the tradition of the Kunstgewerbeschule, vocational schools of arts and crafts that were already well established in Germany at the time of its founding, and was also influenced in its pedagogy by the beliefs of both John Ruskin and William Morris as advanced in the English Arts and Crafts movement, especially the foundations in workshop practice that emphasized a knowledge of materials and craft as an essential basis of design.

The Bauhaus brought together the hands on, “learning by doing” methodology of apprenticeships (each department was headed by a both a Master of Form and a Master of Work, providing instruction in a workshop setting) with a structured curriculum and the award of a diploma that provided the accepted credentials of a university education. While they held opposing views on the use of modern technology (Morris and Ruskin rejected machine production as inhumane, the Bauhaus school welcomed it as a democratizing and transformational influence), both the Bauhaus and the Arts and Crafts movements emphasized collaboration and community, and belief in a social as well as practical mission of design.

Black Mountain College in North Carolina, founded in 1933 and explicitly modeled on John Dewey’s principles of progressive education and pragmatism, also adopted the workshop model and, with the simultaneous closing of the Bauhaus, some of its faculty including Josef and Anni Albers. Though short-lived, Black Mountain had great impact in the world of art and architecture (other notable faculty included Richard Buckminster Fuller, John Cage, Merce Cunningham and Willem de Kooning. Harry Seidler, a leading proponent of modern architecture in Australia studied painting there under Josef Albers). Collaboration and social responsibility were at the core of the school’s ideology.

The pedagogy of these schools and movements, which fused art and technology, instruction in a workshop setting that encouraged hands-on investigation and learning by doing, combined with social and humanistic values, all share principles in common with the emerging practice of design thinking which emphasizes empathy, iteration and experimentation. The Hasso-Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford (aka the d.school), is one of the major proponents of design thinking and describes a five step model: Empathize, Define the Problem, Ideate, Prototype, Test. Design thinking is an evolving concept but is generally understood to include creative, multi-disciplinary approaches to problem solving in the real world – in other words, it looks a lot like what we strive for architectural practice to be; human-centered, community-engaged, process-based, and innovative.

Architectural education has evolved in a world that is growing exponentially more complex and specialized, and with an expanding definition and mandate on professional practice. In 1996 Boyer and Mitgang proposed in their report “Building Community: A New Future for Architecture Education and Practice”, that the profession owes a duty to advocate for underserved communities, both local and global, by addressing real-world problems such as homelessness, urban decay and climate change. They advocated for a stronger partnership between schools and the profession, and for an architecture curriculum better integrated across disciplines.

Attempts by architecture schools to move towards greater integration between theory and practice, combined with a mission of social responsibility, have taken on various forms including design-build studios, cooperative study and coursework focused on building technology and environmental design.

The University of Maryland’s Comprehensive Studio (today known as the Integrated Design Studio) was created in 1991 to integrate conceptual and technical aspects of design and to act as a bridge between the theory and practice of architecture. In the studio, students are advised by a multi-disciplinary team on the integration of building systems into the design project. Yale’s Center for Ecosystems + Architecture, headed by Anna Dyson, is an academic collaboration between the schools of Architecture, Environment, Medicine, Nursing, Public Health, Engineering and Applied Sciences (see the photos and their descriptions below on multi-disciplinary partnerships).

SHoP founder Bill Sharples is a graduate of Penn State’s Architectural Engineering program, where he did a co-op year with George Hyman Construction Company in Washington DC, going on to work there as a field and structural engineer prior to returning to school to study architecture. SHoP has participated in several co-op programs including the Rice Preceptorship for many years. These programs offer students paid opportunities to learn by doing in professional practice settings.

The ideal of the “citizen architect” is exemplified in the work of the Rural Studio at Auburn University. Founded in 1992 by Samuel Mockabee and Dennis Ruth, this design-build program combines hands-on learning by doing with the social mission of care for the community, with a focus on quality affordable housing. The Design Workshop at Parsons School of Design, founded in 1996, works with nonprofit organizations to meet community-based needs. After Hurricane Katrina, SHoP worked with students from the Design Workshop on a community center complex in DeLisle, Mississippi, which was completely devastated by the storm. As part of SHoP’s larger project, the students designed and constructed an information center and laundromat they named “InfoWash”. The project gave the students an opportunity to better understand and appreciate what it takes to bring a design idea into reality and formed a bond with the community while doing so.

Today, almost 25 years after the Boyer report and given the overwhelming environmental and social challenges currently facing our communities, we are finally forced to confront the glaring lack of diversity within the profession. How can we engage with people and communities, with true understanding and empathy; how can we build consensus with open dialogue and mutual trust, if those people and communities are not equally represented within our ranks? While not the only barrier to entry, the high cost of education today is one of the most significant challenges that architecture schools face in enrolling and graduating a more diverse student body, and this in turn limits the diversity of the candidate pool available to architecture firms as entry-level hires.

The replacement of training through apprenticeships with instruction in studio not only gave rise to the division between academic and practical modes of learning, but this was also the grounds from which architecture emerged in America as an elite profession, limited to those who could afford university study and travel abroad. In fact, one of the driving forces behind formal training in architecture was the desire to elevate the status of architects and draw a distinction between architects and builders. While in theory more equitable, under todays’ system, education, training, and debt is fractured between many entities, (lenders, universities, employer-practitioners and students), none with real accountability to the other – except that of students to their lenders.

Our country faces a mounting crisis of student loan debt, not limited to architecture, but especially acute within fields such as ours that require advanced degrees and regulation by examination to practice. While those with a college degree still command higher wages than those without, college is no longer a path to building wealth for those who cannot afford to pay tuition up front. In fact, the trend is now towards an erosion of wealth over multiple generations as families take on student loan debt to put their young adult children or other relatives through school. Student loan programs, well-intended to level the playing field, have led to runaway tuition inflation (two to three times the national average since the 1990s) and the debt has disproportionately impacted families of color and first-generation college attendees.

This crisis is leading to renewed interest in the apprenticeship model. There is justifiable concern that apprenticeships as an alternate to college would create a double standard – those with technical training versus those with critical thinking skills. However, the current system is perpetuating and deepening an existing double standard – those with and without debt. The latter have greater opportunities and freedom of choice in their careers and the type of work they pursue. The former may carry the burden well into their mature years, unable to purchase homes, start families, or plan for a secure retirement. This must be taken into consideration in thinking about how to create a more equitable path to practice.

Other industries and professions are coming to this conclusion and taking matters into their own hands. In California (which does not require a college degree to sit for the bar exam) Esquire Apprentice is helping low-income women of color prepare to become attorneys. PricewaterhouseCoopers offers various apprenticeship programs in accounting and finance that prepare for professional qualification in lieu of college, and Google’s recently announced $100 million Career Certificates Fund provides low-cost training for jobs in the tech industry.

In this landscape, and in the absence of any foreseeable large-scale solution forthcoming from government or institutions of higher learning in the near future, what is the responsibility of the profession, and what role can we play in educating future generations and making that education affordable to students from all walks of life? How do we maintain a healthy balance between the well-rounded knowledge base of a liberal arts education and the cultural and technical mastery of our craft? If the goal is the education, not the degree, is there a more humane and accessible alternative to the current system, and if so, what role or responsibility does the profession have in designing that new path?

The apprenticeship model for architects in America is challenging, for several reasons beyond the potential for a double-standard and the stigma around vocational training and career limitations that could pose. There are questions around how to ensure quality and variety of experience, standardization, portability of credentials, and how to incentivize firms to risk the cost of training and mentoring when there is no guarantee that apprentices will stay with the firm once they have gained marketable skills. In fact, the healthiest model would require participants to obtain experience at multiple firms – the opposite of America’s best-known example of apprenticeship at Taliesin, which encouraged a cult-like following of disciples to Frank Lloyd Wright.

In theory, there is already a structure in place to regulate the educational development of intern architects, and some states do provide a path to licensure based only on experience with little or no college education required. However, this is probably not a model that will work at-scale. A more realistic approach might be based on a widely expanded co-op model, with more students learning by doing – while being paid – supplemented by liberal arts and other instruction better provided in classrooms.
That hands-on learning could take place in the building trades as well as in architecture and engineering offices, opening additional points of entry to practice and the opportunity for students to earn income while gaining a more robust understanding of the art and craft of building. This would also encourage closer collaboration between educators and practicing professionals.

Technology is also creating platforms that bridge some of the entrenched boundaries between design and construction. Innovations like model-based delivery and augmented visualization can help us collaborate and manage risk more effectively between owner, architect and builder. A move toward manufactured buildings and assemblies is creating exciting new opportunities to address challenges of quality affordable housing, climate change and slavery in the supply chain. Students are eager to participate and to directly apply their learning to solving these problems. Surely the Bauhaus would have embraced these new tools.

The education of an architect is an ongoing process that does not end with the completion of school, internship, licensure, or achievement of success. It entails more than continuing education credits that check the boxes for professional accreditation. Practicing professionals have developed and tested methodologies for teaching and mentoring within their own organizations and communities. Educators have created innovative, progressive programs that often tackle problems difficult to address within the constraints of practice. We learn by doing every day in our own work. Now is the time to act collectively, with empathy, to share our best practices and lessons learned, and put our capacity for creative problem solving to the test with this very real-world challenge.


Learning by Doing – Examples in Practice

Experimentation – The Innovation Lab at Benchmark School

 Laboratorio didattico innovativo presso la Benchmark School, creato in collaborazione con SHoP

Diversity comes in many forms, including diversity of learning styles. Two of SHoP’s founders, Bill and Chris Sharples, were diagnosed with dyslexia as children and attended Benchmark School in the 1970s. They credit the school with “teaching us how to teach ourselves”. While Benchmark’s specific learning strategies have evolved over time, they have always been grounded in a constructivist philosophy. SHoP Architects worked with Benchmark to develop a makerspace facility that allows students the chance to “test their skills through project-based learning. Through real-world problems and creative, open-ended challenges, students learn the fundamentals of design thinking, digital literacy, and the four C’s – critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, and communication skills”. This workshop style alternative to classroom instruction helps neurally-diverse learners “develop into confident and strategic learners, thinkers and problem solvers who take responsibility for their own outcomes”. The architecture of the space itself was conceived as a teaching tool, exhibiting many of the processes that the students would experiment with in the facility. Interior elements were fabricated in SHoP’s prototyping lab, and installed on site by the design team, who also advised on the specification of software and equipment and conducted workshops with the students to help kick off the new program.


Multi-Disciplinary Partnerships

Lavori in corso al laboratorio di SHoP a Brooklyn Sviluppo di una parete verde modulare “attiva”, chiamata Fresh Air Building Systems (FABS)

SHoP has collaborated with numerous industry partners on endeavors ranging from software to solar products. One longstanding relationship has been with researchers now at Yale’s Center for Ecosystems + Architecture. These scientists and educators work with organizations, governments, industry and practicing professionals to develop solutions to the most pressing environmental issues facing communities around the world. We are currently working with a group of these researchers to develop and test a modular active green wall (aka FABS for Fresh Air Building Systems) designed to improve indoor air quality and gather data for further development in the process. The group had successfully implemented an earlier built-in installation, and wanted to explore the idea of a modular, portable version in the next iteration. The goals were to develop a repeatable unit for remediating air quality, resolve technical constraints to make the unit compact using available components, and identify lighting solutions that were adequate to both workplace and plants. The prototype was fabricated and assembled at SHoP’s facility in Brooklyn, using cassettes produced by Windsor Fiberglass, and was then brought to our office to begin testing and gathering data that will provide a feedback loop for future improvement of the system.


Self-Guided Study – SHoP U

 Una sessione in corso dell’iniziativa SHoP U tenuta dai collaboratori dello studio. Gli studenti stanno imparando come saldare una scheda madre

SHoP U is a staff-led initiative that over the years has conducted courses on a wide range of topics, from mixology to investigations into applications for new and innovative materials. In 2019, as part of one of these courses, a group consisting of individuals from our model building, prototyping and testing, and design team staff conducted workshops in electronics design and fabrication. This investigation was initially prompted to solve a specific problem – the limitations on lighting architectural models posed by pre-kitted LED lighting packages – and the desire to overcome this limitation by expanding our capabilities to customize these packages. This quickly evolved into working on sensors for the FABS green wall (see paragraph on Multi-Disciplinary Partnerships) and thinking about how to bridge the gap between acquisition and visualization of data. “Students” learned to assemble basic environmental sensors, upload code, and collect and visualize data in a 3D immersive environment. This group is now working on ways to implement their new knowledge, to collect, analyze and communicate information on indoor air quality as we begin to return to the office post-covid.


Ideation, Prototyping and Testing

Flotsam & Jetsam, padiglione stampato in 3D per DesignMiami/, USA, 2016 Processo di stampa della struttura cellulare presso la sede di Branch Technology © Spirit of Space

Two installation projects undertaken around the same time provided SHoP with very different opportunities for materials investigation.

Our 2016 pavilion for Design Miami/, dubbed Flotsam & Jetsam, celebrated that city’s reputation for the avant-garde. The two structures were entirely 3D printed, one by Branch Technology, utilizing a free-form polymer latticework reminiscent of organic cellular structure to optimize strength with minimal material usage, and the other by Oak Ridge National Laboratories, using a sustainably harvested, fully biodegradable bamboo print medium. Our design team collaborated with engineers from Thorton Tomasetti to analyze the structure, considered at the time to be among the largest forms ever to be 3D printed. Due to site and schedule constraints, it was critical that the pavilions could be quickly and easily installed and removed by “unskilled labor” (i.e., the design team!). The perfect connection detail turned out to be zip-ties.

A second pavilion was completed in 2017 for the Milano Design Week in Milan. At the time we were exploring the use of terracotta as a building façade and wanted to learn more about its properties and how we could use this traditional material in a non-traditional manner. Terracotta also seemed especially well suited to the proposed location in a secluded historic courtyard. Wave/Cave, as it became known, was a topographic structure composed of unglazed terracotta extrusions, CNC-cut into 797 individual profiles. To economize on the relatively high cost of die production, we decided to use only one shape, with a fluted surface and webbed cross-section. When the extrusion is cut at different angles, a complex variety of geometric profiles are revealed. The design team experienced a steep learning curve in working with our partner/fabricators at NBK Keramik – they essentially had to learn how to communicate in a new way with the cutting machines – but wound up devising a fully automated system of documentation whereby the fabrication tickets were generated in real-time as the model was developed. Many lessons learned from this exploration were put to immediate use on other projects and processes in the office. The structure was engineered by Arup and assembled using a concealed system of connectors developed and installed by Metalsigma Tunesi.



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