Keith Negley

Few moments elicit as much fear and trepidation in architecture school as the studio review or critique—the “crit”—where students’ designs are dissected, discussed, and—all too often—demeaned. A 2017 piece in The Guardian stated that the architecture crit is often “a nightmare … an emotional and theatrical assault course all architecture students have to get through.” Do they, though?

Emotionally draining crits are just one aspect of traditional architecture education currently being pinned to the wall and reviewed. Often, architecture students leave school saddled with huge debts just to enter a profession where the work they are asked to do is far different than what their professors taught, and for far less pay than they might have received in a comparably licensed field such as medicine or law.

As a result, a significant percentage of trained architects leave the profession after a few years or never get licensed. Untold numbers of others, particularly women and people of color, face barriers related to finances, work-life balance, and discrimination that prevent them from entering the profession in the first place. Compounding the problem is the fact that architecture itself faces challenges with regard to competition, automation, and complex environmental issues such as climate change.

AIA and the other collateral architecture organizations (American Institute of Architecture Students, National Architectural Accrediting Board, National Council of Architectural Registration Boards, and Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture) met in Chicago in July to address a revamp of the accreditation process and a formation of new task forces. What they accomplish in the coming years could have long and wide-ranging impacts on the future of the profession.

Barriers to Entry and Retention

Nate Hudson, AIA, can remember when he first decided to study architecture. He had been a mechanical engineering major at the University of Nevada but had met an inspiring architecture professor at a community college. “There was something captivating about architecture, about doing something in your community that outlives you, and that affects the conditions of mankind,” Hudson says. He soon transitioned from university engineering to begin his architecture training at the community college. This eventually led him back to university and to a dual-track career in both teaching and private practice. Founding partner and principal at Reno-based FormGrey studio, Hudson now co-convenes the AIA Strategic Council’s working group on architectural education.

But that community-college student pipeline that benefited him is one that is drying up, Hudson says, as undergraduates have felt increasing pressure to attend only large accredited architecture schools. These schools are, of course, more expensive to attend, a self-limiting factor to the economic and demographic diversity of people who choose to attend architecture school.

To Hudson and others working in this arena, there is a fundamental disconnect between what’s taught and what’s practiced. A design studio in school, they say, is a world apart from a typical day as an entry-level architect plugging away in a cubicle, a small fish in a vast ocean. The academic world is often about individual dreams, whereas practice is more often about collective practicalities. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the chances for a young professional to be successful and profitable as a sole proprietor or small-practice architect are less and less common, so they stay a small fish for a long time as they chip away at student loans. The effects can be demoralizing, squashing talent and contributions from bright and unexpected voices.

“A lot of this has to do with the traditional way we’ve been educating our students,” Hudson says. “I loved the education of architecture, but I think to myself, is it a fantasyland? … If the academy and practice became less siloed and better integrated, we could set students up with the broadest set of tools.”

Los Angeles–based designer and educator Peter Zellner agrees. In 2016, Zellner founded the Free School of Architecture as a way to demonstrate out-of-the-box thinking in architectural education. It was essential to Zellner that the collective—which is not a school in any traditional sense, but an opportunity for open discussion and exchange—be tuition-free, to remove the most daunting barrier for many students.

“When we set up the Free School, it wasn’t meant to be a replacement for existing institutions,” Zellner says. “It was meant to ask some questions in a post-educational environment. I’ve split my life between teaching, running my own practice, and working in corporate America. I see both the front end of the educational process and the back end where, after graduating, you find sometimes that there isn’t a lot of relevance to what is taught and how it applies to the office. I found a lot of my young employees struggling to make sense of what they were taught and what they were being asked to do.”

Because the disconnect is sometimes so severe that it is hard to recover from, young professionals might leave the field altogether. Academy and practice are “two different universes—in one you have gravity and the other you don’t,” Zellner says. “The rule systems are so different and disconnected, the individuals don’t understand each other. The student is lost in translation.”

As the organization representing students, AIAS is seeing this phenomenon as well. “This organization is about filling the gaps and making sure students are aware of opportunities,” says Sarah Curry, Assoc. AIA, current president of AIAS. “The gaps that I feel exist right now line up with the committees and task forces we’ve created, such as the Health and Wellness Committee, to make sure students feel emotionally supported.”

Curry notes that when architecture school and practice do resemble each other, it’s too often not in positive ways. “Late hours, rude crits, and things of that nature—we believe you can still have a great architecture school experience without having to feel so bad,” she says. “Those are the toxic behaviors that spill over into firm culture. It is unethical to work outrageous hours without commensurate overtime pay or to be forced to endure workplace harassment. … Students entering the profession with low expectations and a martyr’s mentality can hardly be expected to remain in the field without burning out, much less contribute positively to its advancement and innovation.”

Another major lack in the academy, Curry adds, is diversity and inclusion. “We want to move beyond the architecture history seminars that are about the same five dead white architects, which I’m sure everyone can name. Not that they’re not relevant, but there are so many more significant people to study as well. We’re focusing on highlighting architects of color and other minority architects, and architecture from places we don’t often get to hear about.”

Curry says that this movement has faced its own criticism, with advocates of the traditional academic approach saying that its challenges (such as the crits) are “character-building.” But Curry adds that, overall, practitioners seem positive about building a broader approach to architecture education. “Honestly,” Curry adds, “something that happens more frequently, and is almost more dangerous, is where people agree that there are issues, but then there’s not a lot of action. They do hear and understand our concerns, but they assume it has nothing to do with them or they don’t understand the role they play in perpetuating the culture.”

Changing Approaches

Across several fronts, AIA and its partners are changing the narrative around architecture education, raising up new voices and removing barriers to educational success. The Transforming Architectural Education Work Group of the AIA Strategic Council, for example, has been advocating for the creation of a standing committee within AIA to work with schools and other partners to encourage and facilitate a new model of architectural training. At the root of this work is an understanding that future architects have to know more than their predecessors did—about economics, climate science, research, and more—and that their learning should continue throughout their careers.

“The architect has always claimed to be a generalist—but that has expanded exponentially,” Hudson says. “We have to know more and more and more things. We have to hold on tight, because change is happening, and it’s our responsibility to be quick and agile enough to respond.”

One way to increase this agility is the Integrated Path to Architectural Licensure (IPAL), which NCARB created in 2015 to offer an additional pathway for students to move into the field. IPAL allows students to do their internship (Architectural Experience Program) and take the ARE (Architect Registration Examination) concurrently. This interweaves employment opportunities with educational requirements and can jump-start an architecture career, lessening the chance of emotional or financial flameout, advocates say. In 2018, the first architecture students graduated from IPAL programs, and many more are expected to follow.

This year, NAAB overhauled its comprehensive accreditation review process so that it could be more responsive to a changing academic climate. In July, this process culminated in the three-day Accreditation Review Forum 2019 (ARForum19) in Chicago, which brought together the boards of the five collateral organizations to discuss the first draft of the 2020 Conditions for Accreditation and 2020 Procedures for Accreditation, which are designed to allow for more flexibility, diversity and inclusion, and access to the profession while in school. A subsequent draft is now open for review and comment.

“We scaled back on student criteria, to allow schools to be more innovative in their curricula,” says Kevin Flynn, FAIA, current NAAB president. “We also came up with a set of six values that all the collaterals will share.” Among these values is an assertion that the education of an architect is a “shared responsibility between academic and practice settings, and is important for the continuous improvement of our field.” To this end, Flynn says, he’s looking for more sharing and collaboration among the collaterals, so that the traditional wall between school and practice becomes more permeable.

This is an initiative Zellner supports. “One of the things we’re seeing now is we have an enormous brain drain in the profession as boomers retire,” he says. “I think there would be an opportunity there for continuing education. If you could connect millennials to boomers, architects on both ends would be positively engaged. As an older generation mentors a younger one with the ins and outs of practice, young architects could help retrain older architects in new technologies.”

Flynn adds that NAAB has convened a task force looking at both two- and four-year architecture programs to increase support for things like credit transferability, which is often limited and disheartening for students looking to make the leap to a university program. “We see the junior colleges as the way to be a pipeline of talent and reduce the cost and timeframe of education,” Flynn says.

Because of new technology and an opportunity to effect change in an increasingly globalized society, the AIAS’s Curry still believes that architecture is an essential profession, and that the academy is poised to have an ever-greater toolbox with which to encourage people to enter it.

“The built environments we orbit and inhabit have the power to govern us as much as laws do,” she says. “An education in architecture unlocks that power, even if we don’t always focus on the corresponding responsibility. When we are not given fish, but taught how to fish, we can apply that critical thinking for the better—and those who make the most of this enabling education are unstoppable.”