New Blueprint for Architecture

October 19, 2009

Many architecture students spend more nights pulling all-nighters than not, surviving on caffeine and a desire to create a design that will earn a professor’s nod of approval. They all but live in their studios, setting up air mattresses, storing snacks and keeping a spare toothbrush alongside X-Acto knives and mechanical pencils.

Brett Roeth wasn’t one of them. While an undergraduate studying architecture at Miami University of Ohio, he rarely stayed up all night. He balanced his major with classes in sociology and urban planning. He was active in student organizations, eventually becoming the president of one for architecture students.

“There’s no requirement to pull all-nighters, to stay up long nights in studio, to work yourself to death,” he said. “A lot of people think that’s what’s needed to do well. It’s reinforced by the perception that architecture as a major requires a lot of hard work and a lot of unhealthy work habits.”

A few undergraduate architecture programs across the country are working to change the perception and the reality. Some are cutting degree requirements or introducing new interdisciplinary efforts, while others are spreading project-intensive courses over more semesters or launching new career services initiatives.

Yale University’s architecture major is about to experience a shakeup aimed at giving students a broader liberal arts education and better spacing out project-intensive courses.

Bimal Mendis, an assistant dean of Yale’s School of Architecture and director of undergraduate studies, said the program “must not forget that it resides within the more liberal framework of learning of Yale College and needs to stay true to that tradition.”

In a series of changes that begin with juniors entering the major in the fall of 2010, the program has cut one course from the total required to complete the major. Students had been required to take both a studio course and “The Analytic Model,” a course with many drawing and model-making assignments, during the fall of their junior year. “The way it felt to many students,” Mendis said, “was as if they were taking two studio classes at once. It was too much for them.”

With the new requirements, “The Analytic Model” has been shifted to sophomore year, Mendis said, making room in the junior year for a two-semester sequence of survey courses on architectural history. Students “were falling short in their understanding of the built environment and the buildings in it and they knew it – they wanted a greater grounding in the structures and movements of the past.”

The faculty at Georgia Tech’s College of Architecture have just begun a review of the pre-professional B.S. undergraduate curriculum. Their emphasis is on “connecting what we’re doing here with what’s happening out in the world and what’s happening in other colleges within the institute,” said Sabir Khan, an associate dean who oversees the undergraduate program. “We’re trying to create an integrated understanding of the designed, built and lived environment.”

At the core of the faculty’s curricular revisions is the goal of “pre-wiring someone for interdisciplinary and crossdisciplinary ways of thinking and working,” introducing offerings on the green technology, entrepreneurship and problems around the world that can be solved, in part, by architectural design. “There are a hell of a lot of emerging issues that we can’t simply respond to by cobbling together a couple lectures in a course or adding a new class even,” he said. “We didn’t want to simply add more toys onto the Christmas tree, we want to redesign it.”

A steering committee led by the college’s dean, Alan Balfour, is reconsidering the program – as well as the B.S. degrees the college offers in building construction and industrial design -- more broadly, evaluating job placement data, holding alumni focus groups and considering new ways to incrementally change all three programs.

“The change will involve, where appropriate, studios and course- and field- work [shifting] between programs,” Balfour wrote in a September letter to alumni and donors. “We will also seek opportunities of developing joint projects with programs in other colleges. This will mean better access for our students to experience problem solving in engineering and the sciences …. [W]e have no intention to eliminate any of our three undergraduate programs; in fact, the intent is to advance the offerings in each to make our graduates the best prepared and most ambitious in their chosen fields.”

Tom Fisher, president of the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ACSA) and dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, said the changes at Yale and Georgia Tech reflect “a trend toward allowing students more flexibility in their studies, a chance to focus on their areas of interest.”

Students, he added, are driving the change. “They’ve grown up in the Internet age and are open to all kinds of knowledge. They want to connect things, move more laterally across disciplines.”

Reforming ‘Studio Culture’

Some of the shifts happening in architecture schools reflect longstanding concerns about the way students work toward their degrees.

Since soon after the 2000 death of an architecture student who fell asleep behind the wheel while driving home after an all-nighter in studio, the American Institute of Architecture Students (AIAS) has been working to put an end to the myths of what an architecture studio ought to be.

Among those myths, as listed in the 2002 report “The Redesign of Studio Culture”: “Architectural education should require personal and physical sacrifice;” “The best students are those who spend the most hours in studio;” “It is possible to learn about complex social and cultural issues while spending the majority of time sitting at a studio desk.”

The report called on architecture programs to create in their studios a culture of optimism, respect, sharing, engagement and innovation. In all, fewer all-nighters, more time spent observing the world outside studio, kinder faculty evaluations, and less pleasure taken from X-Acto knife scars and marathon work sessions.

By one measure, said Roeth, who graduated from college in the spring of 2009 and is now serving a one-year term as vice president of the AIAS, that report succeeded. In 2004, the National Architectural Accrediting Board (NAAB) began requiring institutions to draft a statement on studio culture as a requirement for accreditation.

Faculty and students, though, have been slow to adapt. “A lot of people are set in their ways and still perceive an architecture degree as this intense thing that must come with lots of sacrifice,” Roeth said. “Some schools are either not meeting the requirement for accreditation – or might not need to since they’re unaccredited anyway – or have created a policy only at a very superficial level.”

He added that he’s encountered students from several institutions who had no idea that their work was supposed to be guided by a studio culture policy. “It’s hard for a student who notices there’s no policy or who sees the policy clearly being violated,” he said. “Students can’t just walk up to their professors and tell them they’re doing something wrong.”

AIAS has issued two more reports on studio culture, one in 2004 and the other in 2008.

The changes to Georgia Tech’s undergraduate program “are not designed to ease workload,” said Matt Nagel, a spokesman, though there is already a studio culture policy in place there.

Lee Gray, interim director of the School of Architecture at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, said his institution focuses on maintaining “a healthy studio culture ... that’s conducive to creative work.”

The school’s studio culture policy, last updated in August, calls on students to get “a reasonable amount of sleep every night,” to exercise regularly and to participate in the life of the university beyond the architecture school. In all, as Gray put it, “people don’t have to give up their whole lives to become an architecture student or, eventually, an architect.”

“The standard joke of students living in their architecture building,” he added, “I like to think it doesn’t happen here.”

What Kind of Degree?

The desire for interdisciplinarity has revived a longstanding debate over what kinds of undergraduate degrees should be offered in architecture. “Some students,” ACSA's Fisher said, “want to learn design thinking but may apply it in business, law, construction, something else. Others may want to become architects. Our degree offerings should reflect these differences.”

Yale’s program, for instance, does not yield students a professional degree. Instead, they earn a B.A. in architecture. The University of Minnesota, Fisher’s institution, offers a B.A., a bachelor of design in architecture and a pre-professional B.S. The NAAB accredits 56 institutions across the country as professional programs that can award students the bachelor of architecture degree, which enables students to become certified architects without additional degrees.

The University of North Carolina Charlotte’s School of Architecture offers a B.A. in architecture and a B.Arch. Students pursuing these degrees take an almost identical core of classes during the first three years and don’t have to decide which degree they’re pursuing until the fall of the third year. The liberal arts degree takes four years to complete, while the professional one takes five.

Gray, the school’s interim director, said that offering the two degrees is an effort to at once “offer a liberal arts education in architecture to some students and a professional degrees to others.”

The B.Arch. program and the school’s professional graduate program are making a concerted effort to advance “the long, long conversation about how to most effectively link architecture education with architecture practice,” Gray said. “We’re preparing students to work in the professional world that exists now and to be prepared for the future of the profession.”

The biggest change to the school, he said, is the introduction and increasing ubiquity of 3D modeling machines and printers, parametric and animation software, and other new technologies. “These are the realities of the professional world. Our students must be masters of these tools.”

Cornell University’s top-rated B.Arch. program is up for reaccreditation next spring, but faces the challenge of a deteriorating physical plant that was already problematic to the NAAB a decade ago.

Some renovations have been done to existing buildings along the way but the College of Architecture, Art and Planning’s primary effort to upgrade is the construction of Milstein Hall. Construction finally began in May after 10 years, four architects and university-wide faculty debates. Dagmar Richter, chair of the architecture department, said the building will “help us to innovate in ways we don’t yet know, to learn and teach in a fully contemporary way.”

Shifts are already underway, Richter said, “to make the education a lot more related to professional practice.” After taking the college’s core set of classes, students will be able to spend a semester in New York City taking courses, working at internships and “networking with alumni who are very active in practice there,” she said. “We’re making a much more conscious effort to connect us to the world and the world to us.”

But a heavy workload is an expectation of Cornell’s program that is unlikely to change. “We’re aware of the pressures, so we’re looking at new ways to prepare our students for professional practice,” Richter said. “That doesn’t mean asking less of them.”

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