Gabriel Keller
courtesy PKA Architecture Gabriel Keller

Over the last few years, a conversation has evolved about barriers into the field of architecture. Perhaps the most difficult to cross, for people without generational wealth, is the ever-increasing educational requirement for licensure, which can take seven years and cost as much as medical school, with starting salaries at a fraction of a doctor’s. Few can afford this amount of time or money. Many are making efforts to remedy the situation—by retaining the historic apprenticeship model or offering an alternative pathway—but progress has been piecemeal; we need broader change.

Historically, one could become an architect through apprenticeship. That’s how David Salmela, FAIA—the most celebrated architect in Minnesota, where I live and work—got his license. Yet, by the time I entered architecture school in 1994, the state of Minnesota had eliminated that pathway.

The only way I could become an architect was with a degree, an unreachable feat considering my circumstances: I am the only child of a single mother who struggled with schizophrenia and drug addiction. I was lucky, however, as I excelled academically and entered the B.Arch. program at Cornell University.

During college, my mom’s mental health deteriorated. I was also diagnosed with a serious heart condition, and for the next two years, I bounced between doctors and hospitals, had heart surgery twice with the ensuing recovery periods, and cared for my mother—all while trying, and failing, to finish school.

Overwhelmed, depressed, and saddled with medical debt, I still had to support myself and my mother. I assumed I would go back to school, finish my degree, and become licensed.

Unfortunately, when I moved back to Minnesota to care for my mother, many credits did not transfer to the M.Arch. program at the University of Minnesota and, after I began working at a firm, I no longer qualified for financial aid. By the time I had a family to support, the window for school had effectively closed.

Even so, I worked at Domain Architecture & Design with the late Lars Peterssen—an architect who believed in me. In 2009, we co-founded Minneapolis-based PKA Architecture. Our firm has grown, and we’ve won numerous awards. Yet even after more than two decades working in architecture, designing award-winning homes, I still cannot—legally or otherwise—call myself an architect. Exclusion from even the language of our profession still feels like a personal failure.

I’m not alone. According to the AIA 2020 Membership Demographic Report, 19% of its 94,286 members are “Associate members,” or unlicensed. Some are on their way to licensure; many will never make it. According to a 2021 report from the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards, over the last 10 years, only 63% of candidates stayed on the path to licensure, with people of color being the most likely to drop out. Of AIA’s Associate members, 32.1% are from “underrepresented racial and ethnic groups,” compared to 12.8% of its “Architect members.”

The elimination of the apprenticeship path has created a de facto caste system. Licensure is crucial for advancement in many firms. Within AIA, many feel that unlicensed professionals are not only unwelcome, but an affront to the profession. One AIA leader told me I was “only playing at being an architect.”

Knowing this, I try to help others who face these or other barriers. At PKA, we hire people from all backgrounds based on their proven or potential abilities, regardless of degree status. We’ve witnessed firsthand that the quality and potential of employees doesn’t correlate with their educational background.

Aspiring architects who lack seven years of personal, family, and financial stability are denied access to the highest level of the profession. The elitism and exclusion caused by educational inflation are not only unjust and unnecessary; they’re bad for architecture. We would all benefit by having more people in the field from diverse backgrounds.

Some states are working to rectify this, while others have retained their historic apprenticeship model. In Wisconsin, you can meet the educational requirement with seven years of experience. In New Hampshire, it’s 13 years. California requires five years under the direct supervision of a licensed architect. At least 13 other states have alternative pathways.

In Minnesota, the conversation has begun as I and others begin to share our stories. AIA Minnesota is now supportive of the efforts for removing barriers to our profession. My hope is every state will offer an alternative pathway open to those with a love for the field, a talent for design, and a desire to work hard to achieve the job of their dreams, no matter where, or who, they come from.

This article first appeared in the September issue of ARCHITECT.

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