Why Did I Go to School?

It's something I think a lot of architecture students hear quite often as the ascend through the ranks of their B.Arch/M.Arch - "You're going to have to start all over again once you graduate".  While in school, this is almost laughable after the countless hours in studio and endless courses focusing on different programs and building systems.  What more could one have to learn to become this so-called architect?  The answer to that question is simple; everything.  You still have everything to learn once you graduate.  Actually the content you establish while in school only primes you to begin to accept the content you'll receive the first days in a real studio.

It's hard to keep on the proper "curve" for architecture.  You'd need an internship after your second year of school and to work on every single phase of a project during your last three years of internship/school experience.  This would probably grant you enough experience when you graduate to have some gravity to sit for an exam or two.  In truth, many of us didn't have the opportunity to take unpaid internships or they simply weren't available.  Firms - especially in a post-recession world - needed people who could produce not ones who needed to be taught.  That left many with little to no experience upon graduating.  The only things these students had were excellent presentation skills and a portfolio full of well put together imagery that is as deep as the page it's on.  If architecture school truly doesn't fully prime us for a career in the field, why even go?  What makes it worth the trip besides learning new ways of thinking and the ability to produce content for a firm.  A firm won't want you if you don't know how a building is assembled right?

An argument for school

I'd like to once again preface an article by taking multiple positions at once, much like a well-assembled research document.  I fully believe that without architecture school I would be nowhere near the type of person I am today.  I am ever-grateful for the experiences I had, the connections I made and the content I learned.  It shifted me from a strictly left-brain approach to an overdose of right-brain usage which has since culminated to a fair combination of each.  I believe school taught me the ability to switch between different trains of thought while at the same time ensuring I was doing something completely different and innovative that was well-presented and "pretty".  I would never take school away from my life nor would I think I'd actually be able to be in the position I am now without the experiences and things I learned from my time in school.  

This being said, I've been in the field for a year now and have experienced what the real life is really like, and it is oh so different from the Utopian ideals I drafted up (by hand, mind you) in college.

An argument against school

This is really the heart of what I wanted to speak about in this entry.  Proposing an alternate system to the academic commencement of young architects.  While I've said that I don't think I could have ever made the choice to follow this career path without school, I see now there are extreme differences between the pedagogy of the field and its actual implementation. The best way to describe it is an absolute and complete disconnect from one another, school creates a disillusion of what students will actually be doing as an 'architect'. 

In school, theory, architectural concepts, technical innovation and artistic talents run rampant.  If you fail to produce a design that doesn't function and isn't pretty, you may as well pack up your studio trunk and prepare to fill it with business books instead.  While a portion of this remains true in practice, there are so many different things than just the few that are taken into consideration in school.  I'll go ahead and list a few of them below.

Properly documenting a design

Understanding the relationships between architect, contractors and subcontractors, and client

Learning the IBC

Learning how to properly detail commonly-used items

Understanding the difference between a PA, PM and PD

Understanding the daily roles of each of the above

Construction Administration (enough said)

Revit (once again, enough said)

General construction and buildability

Project phasing and overall process of getting a project out of the ground

These ten items I've listed above are (in my own experiences) issues which I have faced the most difficulty either  understanding or coming to terms with my first year in the field.  While some of these items are more pertinent than others, they are all only brushed upon during those arduous professional management or technical classes.  Not to mention that most of the time, students couldn't be bothered with these additional classes because they were so concerned about their studio projects. 

This brings another great point up on the whole pedagogical process of architecture school.  Studio professors make it a point to emphasize the importance of their class over any other.  Sure, you may have a 'D' in your writing class, but who's ever going to need to write in this field - er, wait I forgot one:


...writing is possibly the most important skill you need to have not only in this profession but in any workplace.  In a career littered with academia and theoretical retort, writing is a must, even if you're practicing architecture in the most traditional sense, those proposals, RFI's and Submittals will not write themselves.  

Back to where we were, the over-emphasis on studio.  And the fact of the matter is that it really is the most important class you  have because how will you ever find a job without those pretty images of buildings held up by sky hooks?  Rem Koolhaas once said in an interview that studio should be the least of a student's worries, instead focus on the tools that architecture school gives you.  These are those "boring" PM classes or building technology seminars that most fall asleep in.  There needs to be an emphasis put on the over-emphasis of studio; learn other things too or life after graduation will be that much harder.  

A Solution

But of course what would my banter be without some sort of constructive criticism?  While I do believe that our system works to get people out and learning, it's tough to stomach that after five (or six or seven) years of education, one must start all over again.  It really is a different world when one gets to the actual practice of architecture, but that's okay.  While I really want to be involved with higher-end, world-changing designs influenced by theory in the likes of Eisenman of Holl, I know this isn't a reality for many (maybe 5% of the people in the AEC community today).  

There are two possible ways to solve this issue and allow students to get a clearer picture of what they will  be doing as 'architects' (after all those exams and  years of interning, of course).  

Solution 1:

Create a studio-centered school.  Okay, I've gone mad because I'm contradicting myself (again), or am I?  Studio is important and it's the place where we all congregate, hell even after I graduated we still went back to the studio to have a beer before leaving for the last time.  Hold all architecture classes in the studio.  Make the professors aware of the work that's going on so they can sway their lessons to reflect the projects.  In this way, the education becomes cohesive, we can all learn how our curtain walls get attached to the building as well as explore in-depth the abstract sides of our projects that many of us were so caught up in during those years.  This set up would encourage professors to get more proactive in students' projects which at the end of the day would allow for projects with greater depth and display of technical knowledge, artistic intent and understanding of the overall system.  

Solution 2:

School & practice, in one.  This is a way of learning that I've seen Drexel utilize extensively not only for architects but also engineers.  Co-op programs are probably one of the most underrated and underutilized systems we have in any field today, especially those specialized in an area (especially for engineering or architecture).  If students were to be able to work and learn all at once, they would have a better idea of what life would look like outside of the crimson-plated walls of the studio, get networking early and even begin the IDP process earlier on.  Would that mean more students would have licenses earlier on?!  Certainly, they would also know what type of work interested them most and be more prepared to follow that path instead of wasting their first 5-10 years in the field figuring themselves out.  These co-op programs could still consist of a 5-8 year degree, internships could be paid/unpaid, more specifically the latter for younger students who are almost going to an office for another 'class', if you will.  This would increase employment rates and decrease on-the-job training that most firms invest millions into each year to ensure that they re-teach their shiny new hires the things they actually need to know.  Overlapping school and work would be a diverse experience that all could benefit from.

I was misled in my schooling, both in a good and a bad way.  I love what I do now, but I wasn't prepared for it, nor did I think my daily activities would be what they are today.  Abstract concepts and theories are imperative, especially in a field that has lacked serious intellectual approaches in the last fifty years, but learning how to make that abstract happen is just as important.  Being taught in an environment so vibrant and alive is great, but professional practices don't always allow for 48-hour 3ds Max renderings or ten foot physical models.  There's a lot more that goes into a building that a student has almost no or very little idea about.  This is a problem that needs to be addressed so students entering the field may be more prepared to take on all of the challenges thrown at them.  This is a tough career that usually doesn't see peaks until at least 35 with more in the 40-50 range.  It's time to take a closer look at preparing students for an ever-changing practice and getting them a better grip on what to expect their first few years in an office.