Harvard GSD/HarvardX

At the beginning of the year, I began writing a weekly column in the Sunday arts section of the Los Angeles Times, where I’ve been the architecture critic since 2004. I started the column, called Building Type, in part because I wanted to cover more critical territory; at the end of a typical year there is always at least a small handful of significant buildings, exhibitions, and books that I feel guilty about having left uncovered. The world that architecture touches on is huge, and in some basic way I wanted to visit more of it.

I also figured that at some point, once I’d published enough columns, I’d be able to look back and see certain themes emerging as if on their own—that the columns, in the aggregate, might be an effective instrument to detect or measure changes in the profession. After eight months and more than 30 columns, this has turned out to be the case. And the idea that has presented itself more strongly than any other—and there hasn’t been a close second—is that architectural education in this country is at the moment in radical flux.

Frank Gehry's Masterclass course

About a half-dozen of my columns have touched on this idea in one way or another. I’ve interviewed a number of architecture deans. I wrote about a memoir on race and the Ivy League. And—sort of the way George Plimpton once suited up for preseason camp with the Detroit Lions, except in my case relying on an iPad instead of shoulder pads—I enrolled in a pair of online architecture courses, one offered by the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) and the other, starring Frank Gehry, FAIA, by the sleek online platform MasterClass.

What I learned in the writing of those columns is that the combination of new technology, changing demographics, and shifting philosophical priorities is fundamentally reshaping architectural education. (I’ve also been watching the emergence of a new tuition-free architecture school in Los Angeles.) The field is democratizing itself and having an identity crisis at the same time. In fact, at no time since the crumbling of the modern movement a half-century ago, an upheaval that happened to coincide with the rise of the counterculture and protests against the Vietnam War, have the changes to architectural education come so quickly and unpredictably.

The Absence of Activism
What does it mean to be an American architecture student? For a not-insubstantial portion of the country’s history, the answer to that question was connected in some basic way with amateurism, with the acquisition of knowledge in a haphazard or at least an idiosyncratic way. Thomas Jefferson studied at William & Mary but gained his architectural knowledge through his library and sharpened his appreciation for Neoclassicism while he serving as ambassador to France. For his generation and many that followed, architecture was something that you learned less in school than in life. These days you might say the opposite is true: architecture students now front-load the technical and digital parts of their educations and pick up the practical and especially the political experience after they leave school. They also, like many college students these days, define themselves at least in part as consumers. They know exactly how much they (or their parents) are paying for their architectural training. They are accustomed to assigning stars to their Uber drivers and complaining about slow service at the Thai place on Yelp. They treat architecture school the same way.

“There are times when I wish there were a little more activism,” Ingalill Wahlroos-Ritter, AIA, the ambitious and energetic new architecture dean at Woodbury University in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley, told me over the summer. “And yet I have also realized that students today, they’re raising families, and they’re supporting their parents, or they’re far from home and coming from places of conflict. They’re here very specifically seeking a professional degree, and they’re very focused on that.” This is particularly true at Woodbury, where many students (reflecting the L.A. population as a whole) are the children of immigrants.

Woodbury is also one of a growing handful of universities that have signed on to a program to integrate the licensing process with architectural education, which Wahlroos-Ritter sees as part of the school’s ethical responsibility to help students keep their debt low and make them as employable as soon as possible: “The idea is that if they complete the program they can get licensed upon graduation, which makes them that much more marketable.”

Her own experience as an architecture student at the University of California, Los Angeles, she said, had been very different—more actively political. But at Woodbury, where a full 80 percent of students receive some kind of aid, the concerns are decidedly pragmatic. “My generation, it was apartheid. It was UC [schools] have to divest from oil. These students are facing very real problems in their own lives.”

That level of pragmatism can be a good thing: After all, architecture is nothing if not a pragmatic discipline. But at many leading schools, the detachment from the political has been less about the pressing needs of the outside world and more about a pedagogical focus on insularity, on treating architecture school as a protected place with its own customs, language, and protocols. That approach, dominant for a generation at many of these schools, might be fading fast now that a new generation of leadership is taking over, but it continues to color the way that many architecture students are introduced to the field.

K. Michael Hays lecturing during his online course at Harvard's Graduate School of Design
Alex Auriema/HarvardX/Harvard Graduate School of Design K. Michael Hays lecturing during his online course at Harvard's Graduate School of Design

Online with Hays and Gehry
A case in point is “The Architectural Imagination,” a free course developed largely by K. Michael Hays, a longtime professor of theory at the GSD, that represents the school’s first foray into online education. In the first couple of “modules,” to borrow the language of the course, Hays was clearly making an effort to be accessible; his introduction to architecture theory was clear and lucid, and he showed some real charisma in front of the camera. But over time, the old Hays began slowly to re-emerge: he slipped back into old habits, into jargon and opaque, if not twisted, logic. And from the beginning a certain insularity was wrapped into the syllabus: Much of the reading was by Hays himself, a figure who—to put it politely—is not known for his riveting prose.

After I wrote a column pointing out what I saw as the flaws of the Hays approach—the way, primarily, it promised a new kind of GSD, rebuilt for the digital age, but instead delivered more of the same—the professor responded energetically. A few days later, in an interview with the website Archinect, he had this to say about “the vexed notion of architecture’s autonomy”: “Critics have completely misconstrued the argument. The autonomy thesis asks the question: Does architecture engage society, and if so, does it simply reflect its technological and social determinants or does it contradict, distort, resist, compensate, or in some way reconstruct those determinants? The premise of this course is that architecture is deeply embedded in history and society, but it represents social values in its own architectural way.”

"The Architectural Imagination" at the GSD

An entirely different approach, meanwhile, has shaped Gehry’s offering for MasterClass. The course—“Frank Gehry Teaches Architecture and Design”—costs $90 (for a promised total of 17 sessions, only five of which are available as I write this). The high price reduces the reach of the course but also helps provide a glossy level of production values. Gehry presides over a set, inside a warehouse, that is dramatically lit and decorated with models of his most famous projects sitting atop packing crates. Gehry is his typical self, which is to say he is the anti-Hays, a figure eager to connect with his audience and to hide his genuine intellectualism behind an aw-shucks persona. Still, despite the fact that I know Gehry and his work well, I surprised myself by learning a few things, including the fact that the architect considered leaving Los Angeles and moving his office to the East Coast two decades ago, as repeated delays and money problems with the Walt Disney Concert Hall left him concerned that the project would never be completed.

I closed the MasterClass tab wishing that the online architecture world could find some middle ground between the Gehry offering and the Hays one, a digital course that is substantial and rigorous yet doesn’t treat architecture as a private club where you have to learn a series of secret handshakes before you learn anything else. At the same time, to the degree that both of those online courses are largely disinterested in politics, race, or inequality—and how those subjects relate to architecture—their hosts date themselves. (Gehry is 88, Hays 64.) For politics has begun to move (or move back, as we’ll see) to the very center of architectural education.

The Citizen Architect
This was a central theme in the conversation I had with the new architecture dean at the University of Southern California, Milton Curry. An African-American scholar who comes to Los Angeles from an associate dean post at the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, Curry told me his central goal at USC is to educate a new generation of “citizen architects” capable of shaping not just buildings but civic life. He also said that bringing diversity to the ranks of architecture students has to do with more than just race; he said he wants to encourage a range of “students who may not have considered architecture. It’s more than identifying talent. It’s about cultivating potential. We have to provide the pathway for those students—not only underrepresented minorities but lower-income students, students from rural areas.” I can’t tell you how much of a shift Curry represents—even in simply rhetorical terms—at USC. For a full decade, under his predecessor Qingyun Ma, the words “diversity,” “engagement,” and “citizenship” were barely uttered; the focus instead was on a global perspective (Ma’s firm is based in Shanghai) and helping students polish their digital skills.

Milton Curry, the new dean of USC's architecture school
Tafari K. Stevenson-Howard Milton Curry, the new dean of USC's architecture school

Architectural education is a pendulum, and longtime observers of the field will see in the new interest in political engagement clear reminders of the tumult of the late 1960s. In that sense, When Ivory Towers Were Black: A Story about Race in America’s Cities and Universities (Oxford University Press, 2017), by Sharon E. Sutton, FAIA, professor emerita at the University of Washington, is compelling both as a memoir of distant battles and a primer for the contemporary moment. Sutton writes about how intense student protests at Columbia University helped pave the way for a successful—if sadly short-lived—effort to diversify the student body in architecture and planning. Sutton enrolled at Columbia in 1968, the same year civil rights leader Whitney Young, the executive director of the National Urban League, gave a fire-breathing keynote address at the AIA Convention arguing that architects couldn’t sidestep at least some “responsibility for the mess we are in in terms of the white noose around the central city.”

Sharon Sutton discussing her book "When Ivory Towers Were Black" at GSAPP
courtesy Columbia GSAPP Sharon Sutton discussing her book "When Ivory Towers Were Black" at GSAPP

Her book at its heart is the chronicle of a campaign at Columbia, funded by the Ford Foundation, to boost the number of students of color. That campaign made huge progress—the number of nonwhite students increased eightfold between 1968 and 1971, from 2 percent of the total to 16 percent—but couldn’t sustain itself. A change in Columbia leadership and a financial crisis in New York short-circuited the effort. The number of graduates of color from Columbia’s architecture school peaked in 1973 and then, depressingly, slid back essentially to where it had been a decade earlier. Still, Sutton recalls the era “as a magical, intoxicating time”—particularly the degree to which architecture school was in those years as politically charged as the rest of American life.

Denizens of the New School, before it became SCI-Arc
Denizens of the New School, before it became SCI-Arc

I wonder how the students at the upstart Free School of Architecture (FSA) will look back at their education. Established this year in Los Angeles and directed by Peter Zellner, who taught for several years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc), the FSA is dedicated, as its website puts it, to exploring “the edges of architectural education.” Its founders appear unfazed by the difficulty that the Cooper Union had maintaining its tuition-free status, though by comparison the FSA’s offerings are skeletal; it won’t grant degrees. The FSA launched over the summer in the Arts District, on the edge of downtown, with what the school described as “32 post-graduate students and a faculty of 22.” The freewheeling approach recalls the beginnings of SCI-Arc, which was founded in 1972 in Santa Monica by a group—including Ray Kappe, FAIA, and a young Thom Mayne, FAIA—splintering off from the architecture department at California State Polytechnic University in nearby Pomona. Whether the FSA will have the staying power of SCI-Arc remains to be seen. By late summer, the school’s website had gone largely dormant. Its main sections were empty of content and there were no announcements, at least that I could find, about future sessions.

It’s entirely possible that the lull at the FSA will turn out to be temporary. Still, it’s a reminder, like Sutton’s book, that the democratization of the profession, whatever’s driving it from year to year, comes in fits and starts.