Why Architecture?
Illustration: Michael Kirkham

While the profession of architecture has rebounded since the 2008 recession, with plentiful postings on job boards, the number of young people pursuing the vocation is lagging. The Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ACSA) reported that enrollment in architecture degree programs has dropped about 10 percent in the last five years.

The main culprit: Other majors are beating out architecture—particularly those that lead directly to jobs, such as engineering, the hard sciences, and those related to health. The trend is due to a variety of factors, including students’ lack of knowledge of architecture, the long and expensive road to becoming an architect, and recent changes to U.S. public schools’ curricula. The problem may worsen, as education experts are predicting that the country will produce fewer high school graduates in the coming years.

How can architecture attract more interest from the K–12 set? Organizations, degree-granting institutions, and individual architects and teachers are working to make architecture more appealing to young people through communications campaigns and outreach programs. Yet more fundamental structural changes are also required, and some are addressing this need by making the profession easier to join and more welcoming to largely untapped populations: women, people of color, and those from low-income families.

Setting a Baseline

In 2013, the ACSA hired a research firm to suss out what high school students know about the profession. It turned out that the student respondents had limited understanding of what an architect does, though they often noted that they knew it takes a long time to become one.

The feedback spurred the ACSA to launch a communications campaign, dubbed “Study Architecture,” with the goal of increasing applications to and enrollment in its more than 200 member schools. The campaign has an Instagram hashtag—#imadethat—that shows prospective students what architects do and create. “We want young people to understand that architects design the world at different levels, from the city to buildings to interiors to furniture,” says Michael Monti, Hon. AIA, ACSA’s executive director.

It’s even better to work such information into K–12 classes, but recent national changes in public schools’ curriculum and areas of focus present challenges. President Barack Obama’s STEM initiatives, for instance, incentivized a concentration on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Under his leadership, millions of dollars from both private and federal sources were marked for STEM education.

Architecture, though related to the STEM fields, is clearly not part of the acronym. As Monti noted, “Architecture is a ‘between’ discipline. It’s a great synthesizer of science and technology, art, and the humanities.” This liminal position has meant that architecture has not received the kind of rhetorical or financial support that traditional STEM disciplines have received, likely making it less attractive to prospective students—a situation that the ACSA wants to remedy.

Monti says that his organization is attending STEM student fairs and student association meetings—primarily those geared toward middle and high schoolers—to show students that a college major and career in architecture is well-suited for those who want to apply STEM in a real-world context.

The ACSA is also encouraging its members to classify their architecture degrees under STEM categories, because the Department of Homeland Security allows international students completing STEM degrees to work in the United States two additional years—making STEM majors that much more appealing to prospective applicants. “It’s a specific case,” says Monti, “but for tuition-driven schools with a high proportion of international students, it’s important.”

Grounding STEAM in Projects

At the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), an initiative called “STEM to STEAM” is also working to fold the arts, including architecture, into STEM. One of its main goals is to encourage the integration of art and design into K–12 education. Carl Lostritto, director of RISD’s M.Arch. program, says that a dwindling engagement with the arts in K–12—due to budget cuts and a focus on STEM and other “core” subjects—is hindering students’ path to architecture.

Engagement with art and design, Lostritto says, helps prepare young people for the profession more than math—despite the fact that guidance counselors often look at students’ math grades to determine whether they would make good architects. “Math is part of practicing architecture, but the kind of math that deals with numeric equations is minor in terms of design,” Lostritto says. “I would love to see K–12 classes that have an artistic component and inspire creativity, whatever the subject.”

Lostritto noted that in pursuit of such learning STEM to STEAM urges project-based, rather than knowledge-based, models of education. “These models get at knowledge through creativity, rather than by disseminating it through lectures or reading,” he says.

Doreen Gehry Nelson, Hon. AIA—sister of Frank Gehry, FAIA—was instrumental in developing this type of learning in the late 1960s and early ’70s. The methodology, originally called “City Building Education” and now dubbed “Design-Based Learning,” asks young people to come up with creative scenarios for a miniature city that they build, after which the students learn about the subject in question. Nelson recounted an example in which high schoolers in a biology class were asked to design a never-before-seen creature to live in the city; the teacher required that each beast have a lineage and traits that it would pass on to its offspring. After fashioning the creatures, the teacher taught the students about DNA. “The kids were riveted,” Nelson says.

The method reverses the usual order of teaching, causing the “imagination to go wild,” says Nelson, who added that though her method involves buildings, it doesn’t teach architecture. “I’m not teaching kids to be designers; I’m teaching them to think,” she says. “But architecture needs creative thinking, and if people learn how to think creatively, they might be interested in studying architecture.”

Thousands of teachers have been trained in Nelson’s methodology (Nelson heads the Design-Based Learning master’s program at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona), and a few elementary and high schools have made it their official pedagogy.

The AIA is encouraging similar learning techniques through outreach to elementary and middle school students. Del Ruff, AIA director of K–12 initiatives, supports the work of 18 AIA chapters across the country that encourage youth to generate ideas about how the built environment can address their communities’ needs. In one such program in Raleigh, N.C., called “The SCALE UP Project,” eighth-graders conceived, designed, and built mock-ups of affordable housing units and other buildings vital to a low-income area in the city.

The kids engage with local architects and nonprofit employees, and even present their work at a community event. “They work with a mentor who helps them understand what it’s like to be a professional in the field,” Ruff says.

Ruff also works to incorporate material on the built environment and architecture into K–12 classes. This is particularly important given that 42 states and the District of Columbia have adopted the Common Core State Standards, a set of benchmarks in math and English on which students are tested. The standards necessarily consume classroom time and teachers’ and students’ attention, sometimes leaving less time for electives like art. But since the standards do not dictate curriculum, teachers still convey the material by their own design.

“This means you have to have a teacher who is familiar with architecture to get it into the curriculum,” says Ruff. As such, Ruff works with AIA members to serve as a resource to teachers and bring them knowledge of how architecture can meet the Common Core standards (as well as state standards). In math, for example, this can mean using buildings to learn about volume, area, and surface area.

Ruff also strives to incorporate architecture into subjects other than math and English, such as history, science, and civics. He cited the benefit, for instance, of studying the differences between a district court building and the Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C. “The architecture is different based on what happens inside,” he says. “This provides an opportunity to learn about the built environment, political systems, and civic structures at the same time.”

The AIA’s K–8 outreach programs target low-income communities: Of the 10,000 students served, 80 percent receive free or reduced lunch. The RISD’s Department of Architecture also reaches out to public high school students in Providence who normally would not be exposed to architecture, bringing them to the department to meet with undergraduate and graduate students. “It opens doors for them to see that architecture is a way to use some of their skills and interests,” Lostritto says. “It dispels some of the elitism that comes with RISD.”

Such programs are needed, as architecture— like other professional disciplines that require years of expensive schooling—remains out of reach for many young people by virtue of cost as well as class-based unfamiliarity. “For instance, if you come from an affluent family, it’s more likely that your family has engaged an architect,” says Lostritto. “And being exposed to an architect is a motivation for choosing to study the discipline.”

Moving the Goal Line Closer

To address the long and costly route to becoming an architect, the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB) has established the Integrated Path to Architectural Licensure (IPAL) initiative, which gives students the opportunity to gain licensure before graduating with a B.Arch. or an M.Arch.; currently 26 programs at 21 schools participate. Without such a streamlined process, becoming an architect can take as long as 12 years.

Further, issues of class and cost intersect with architecture’s longstanding “diversity” issue in terms of gender and race. Kathryn H. Anthony, a professor of architecture at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who wrote Designing for Diversity: Gender, Race and Ethnicity in the Architectural Profession (University of Illinois Press, 2007), said that since the book was published, in 2001, the number of women in architecture has grown, and awareness of diversity issues in the profession has increased. “But many of the troubling findings I uncovered then are still true,” she says—findings that discourage young people of color and women from pursuing a career in the discipline.

The National Association of Minority Architects (NOMA), for instance, reports that only 2 percent of licensed architects are African-American, and National Architectural Accrediting Board (NAAB) statistics show that only 3 percent of faculty members teaching in accredited programs are black and 8 percent are Hispanic. And though NCARB reported that in 2016, 36 percent of licensed architects were women—up 2 percent from 2015—women are more likely to leave the profession or be prevented from rising to senior positions, a phenomenon often due to outdated policies and attitudes about childcare, as women still devote more time to caring for children than men. At architecture schools, the ACSA found that fewer than one in five deans are women, and a study conducted by the women in the architecture collective SHarE showed that only one in four scheduled lectures are given by women.

The RISD Department of Architecture’s partnership with a girl’s high school in Providence, in which RISD graduate students teach the young women architecture at the high school level, is helping to address this issue. “It’s very appealing to us because of the gender imbalance in the profession,” Lostritto says. Cornell University has launched an award for minority high school students; winners come to Ithaca, N.Y., for the summer to study architecture. Ruff added that he strives to match women and architects of color with the students who participate in his AIA programs. “We’re intentional about it,” he says. “It really is consciously getting women architects in front of girls so they say to themselves, ‘This is something I can do.’ ”

Anthony, whose new book Defined by Design (Prometheus Books, 2017) examines the need for greater diversity among designers, cited a number of other strategies. “Architecture students in colleges and universities, such as those in organizations like Women in Architecture and the National Organization of Minority Architecture Students, can be very effective in connecting with younger students,” she says. She also touted the Mike Ford, Assoc. AIA, hip-hop architecture camps, which host middle school students in one-week camps and a semester-long after-school curriculum, along with initiatives such as NOMA’s Project Pipeline in Chicago, which invites local high school students to meet with guest designers.

Monti says that these initiatives help to move the profession in the right direction: toward long-term, fundamental changes in the culture of architecture schools and architecture more broadly. “You have to move from a diversity perspective to one of inclusivity,” he says. “It’s not just about getting students to campus, it’s about creating a culture that includes many different experiences and perspectives.