Practice is Learning Through Experience

Ted Landsmark
Boston Architectural College

Theories about space, materials, and aesthetics have long been integral to design education. Design theories developed by academics and innovative practitioners have captured our imagination as teachers, and have long been juxtaposed against the value of learning skills in practice.

How should we best prepare design school graduates for the coming decade? The design professions are undergoing dramatic changes due to globalization, new technology, materials innovation, data-driven management, sustainability, interdisciplinarity, and constrained budgets. We now need more than just theorists or just technicians. According to DesignIntelligence’s Jim Cramer, we need design entrepreneurs “who will take us toward new understandings of design as organic science … professionals … moving from the majority of design’s value perceived as economic investment in objects to a new moral design capitalism that serves society’s interests.”

Design thinking, or the ability to match human needs to available technical resources within the practical constraints of business, is becoming, according to IDEO’s Tim Brown, a dominant approach for design-professionals’ success. Design practices are evolving to be more consultative and nimbly networked. Teaching abstract theories alone, in isolation from intense exposure to real clients in empirical, field-based settings, falls short in preparing graduates for the vicissitudes of professional practice.

National accreditors agree that professional designers are accountable primarily for serving the public good and protecting our environment. The National Architectural Accrediting Board (NAAB) sets “educational quality assurance standards to enhance the value, relevance, and effectiveness of the architectural profession,” and to verify through external quality reviews that each accredited program substantially meets those standards.” The National Council of Architectural Registration Boards licenses graduates of NAAB-accredited schools after they complete practice-based internships, and rigorous tests are combined to assure that newly licensed architects are prepared “to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public.”

Singular, Western-generated theories such as Modernism, Semiotics, Postmodernism, New Urbanism, Deconstructivism, Poststructuralism, or Minimalism have rarely directly addressed diverse clients’ site-specific needs. Such theories have also been disconnected from the public accountability and environmental consciousness that derive from actual field experience.

In contrast, pragmatically based design empiricism arises from within the stated needs of the end user. Our best designers learn to craft exquisite objects and spaces through the direct experience of modeling, scaling, making, reflecting, managing, and accepting the consequences of success and failure for real clients.

Fifteen years ago, Ernest Boyer’s and Lee Mitgang’s Carnegie Foundation–funded Building Community—A New Future for Architecture Education and Practice argued for education that taught “building to beautify; building for human needs; building for urban spaces; and preserving the planet … [and providing] stewardship for the physical environment.” The report recommended a diversity of approaches to architectural education, with “greater recognition to professional and civic service—the scholarship of application.”

Accreditors, it was recommended, should support the upholding of rigorous educational standards without narrow standardization, focused on the discovery, integration, application, and sharing of knowledge. Academics unified with practitioners would join in teaching the same values: competence, caring, and civic activism.

Professional education would link a flexible, integrated liberal-arts curriculum to pragmatic lifelong learning. Inclusive, open, tolerant curricula would teach theory—but not be dominated by theoretical constructs. All schools of architecture would then evaluate themselves as communities of learning.

Over the past decade, socially conscious students and activist faculty have begun to achieve these goals. Students influenced by Hurricane Katrina and the earthquake in Haiti are working in empirical contexts to reverse the degradation of our ecosphere. Cross-disciplinary, student-based initiatives are changing design schools from within, just as economic, managerial, and cultural pressures are changing educational expectations from outside the academy.

Enhanced practice-based initiatives are transforming schools through pro bono work. They are inspired by Public Architecture, the Rural Studio, community design centers, Cameron Sinclair and Architecture for Humanity’s global projects, Habitat for Humanity, the Solar Decathlon, and other hands-on learning initiatives often coordinated by digitally networked non-architects. Leading architectural publications have connected with this changing perception of the architect’s role by countering the tendency to present glamorous unpopulated images of buildings and interiors as sculptures, and instead showing floor and site plans, and functional spaces designed in collaboration with and occupied by end-users.

What, ultimately, is the case for multidisciplinary, hands-on learning? Empiricism shifts schools’ emphasis away from the education of artistic theorists and back toward a view of the architect as a socially conscious and technically proficient master builder. Cognitive and neuroscience studies indicate that experiential learning encodes and reinforces human spatial memory in ways that encourage the learner to pay closer attention to the world around one’s self. Evidence-based design models holistic systems of design and project delivery, and meets specific client needs for clear performance-based outcomes, particularly in situations where health, safety, and well-being are concerned.

Practice-based learning enables students and emerging professionals to overcome the technological and cultural failures of modernist design while empathetically meeting specific client needs. Many of these initiatives are linked to outcomes-based learning—for example, “cradle to cradle” assessments of sustainable designs, life-cycle costing, and post-occupancy analysis.

Experiential learning combines functionality with creative delight and is no longer deemed subservient to teaching impenetrable theories. Collaborative, empirical practice today is more than just the latest theory: It is the essence of how both mainstream and innovative architects can best serve their clients and society.