At a time when women had few options in architecture, Frank Lloyd Wright provided one, as a circa 1962 photo from Taliesin West attests.
Ed Obma/Courtesy of the FLW Archives At a time when women had few options in architecture, Frank Lloyd Wright provided one, as a circa 1962 photo from Taliesin West attests.

Apparently, the merger between the National Architectural Accrediting Board (NAAB) and the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ACSA) that has been under study for almost a year is, if I can believe rumors, moving forward. That is too bad. I have no particular desire to preserve more bureaucracy, but I do think the two organizations stand for—or should stand for—two different things. The ACSA should be the place where architecture schools figure out who they are, what they do, why, and how to do it—and then should set the standards and preserve the space for that activity. The NAAB should be the agency that makes sure that architecture schools provide an education that might allow a student at an accredited school to become an architect.

A dot-to-dot location diagram of architecture schools, from Archi-Graphic.
Courtesy Frank Jacobus, Laurence King Publishing A dot-to-dot location diagram of architecture schools, from Archi-Graphic.

To many in the profession, the division these two organizations define is unnecessarily cumbersome. If you have a degree from an accredited school, you should be able to immediately start practicing as an architect, as is the case in some European countries. The “fast track” programs currently being implemented at 13 schools of architecture, after it was first implemented at the University of Minnesota, is the model.

It certainly is an efficient future we are facing. What concerns me is the erosion of that particular space that architecture schools provide not just to learn the tools of the trade, but to develop an understanding of the wider context, and to mind the why and the wherefore, that I believe are so necessary for architecture to make a contribution to our society beyond building the most efficient possible monstrosities. Architects need to think, to wonder, and to doubt. They need to know history, ecology, structure, theory, visual culture, and many other things to be able to create the frameworks that connect us to each other and our environment.

For many years, I taught at the University of Cincinnati. It is a good school, with excellent students and some good faculty, but it suffers from the “co-op program” in which students spend almost half their time working in offices. This improves their skills, but it deadens their creativity. The School, which counts the late Michael Graves and John Hejduk among its alumni, has produced many competent architects and some who have the potential to make much larger contributions, but its fixation on getting the job done stymies students’ ability to even think of themselves as being anything more than, at best, mid-level managers.

Don’t worry, I am told, all that creativity will still be possible: This new set of governance and the pathways to licensing are only ways to clarify and simplify the system. The streamlining does away with the labor- and time-intensive practice of apprenticeships and the headaches of the licensing procedure for those who just want to get to that drafting room (or computer screen) as soon as possible. As such, it will have the added benefit of making the path towards the profession, and thus the profession itself, more attractive to minorities who are so scandalously underrepresented in the schools, discipline, and profession of architecture.

That might be true, but it will also mean that without the ACSA’s values and with such a cost-and time-effective alternative available, architecture education will now have one goal that will overwhelm all others: To prepare students to be able to practice. That might seem like a logical outcome, but I have this strange idea: Architecture is not just a profession; it is a way of knowing, working on, and even improving the human-made environment. You can do that by designing buildings, but you can also do it in a variety of other ways, as an unlicensed designer, as an activist working in a community, as an artist, as a developer, as a politician, or in ways that might be even less obvious than any of these.

More than that, I think that the most important part of architecture is the linked triad of seeing, knowing, and doing. To be able to know your world through the skills of architecture, and then to change it with that knowledge is more important than technical skills, which I still think you can learn better and with more context in the field than in the abstraction of a school. Schools should prepare you for the real world, but they are not, nor should they be, the real world.

Sydney Opera House in AutoCAD.
Shaan Hurley Sydney Opera House in AutoCAD.

There is an economic logic to my line of thinking as well. More and more of what we think of as the traditional skills of architecture are becoming automated, or can be outsourced to people specifically to transform those rote tasks. Do we truly want to train our students to be Rhino-monkeys and AutoCAD operators, or do want to invest our educational resources into making them into thoughtful, insightful people with creative skills and knowledge who can make our designed environment better—and who can make a great deal more money doing that, by the way?

The jury critiques a thesis presentation.
Courtesy Cooper Union School of The jury critiques a thesis presentation.

I have this romantic notion of the architecture school as a place for studying architecture, not solely for preparing you to be an architect. This is what I hope and wish the ACSA would defend and vouchsafe as an independent organization.