Walk into any of the 154 architecture schools certified by the National Architectural Accrediting Board and you are likely to encounter students working long hours in the design studio, learning their craft in small groups through desk crits and pinups. It’s a scenario with roots in the 19th-century tradition of the Ecole des Beaux Arts. Combined with rigorous professional requirements, this approach makes becoming an architect an extended and expensive proposition, entailing from five to eight or more years of full-time study, with heavy course loads. Factor in internship and licensure exams and you’ve got an endurance course: the average time from starting a degree to becoming a licensed architect is 11 years. Architecture, and architectural education, are still to some degree a gentleman’s game geared to people well endowed with time, money, and social capital.
High barriers to entry skew the demographics of architecture by steering away talent, especially among women, first-generation college students, and people from historically underrepresented ethnic groups. Recognizing this, the organizations regulating access to the profession have changed procedures. Nineteen schools now incorporate work experience and test preparation into degrees to provide an “integrated path to architectural licensure,” and the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards has changed its internship requirements to recognize a broader range of activities and give candidates an earlier start.
But these are small steps, and there’s substantial pressure to make the field more accessible and equitable. I see two primary methods for changing this: building new pipelines into the profession and exploiting the efficiencies of online tools.
The discipline starts losing a diversity of talent early on. Having completed a study on inclusion in architecture last year, Harvard professor Toni Griffin suggests that we need to introduce the field early to future architects by addressing middle- and high-school students from underrepresented backgrounds. To this end, the National Organization of Minority Architects runs youth summer camps and workshops through its Project Pipeline, while the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning has joined forces with the Detroit public schools to launch a one-semester college-level introductory program. The Equity by Design committee of San Francisco’s American Institute of Architects chapter uses research and conference workshops to promote gender equity in both academia and practice.
Recruiting and retaining people who aren’t interested in a gentleman’s profession also requires changing curricula to foster awareness of architecture’s relevance to matters of common concern. This is the work of Design Futures, an annual workshop founded in 2013 by Dan Etheridge and Barbara Brown Wilson, to train students in public-interest design, and of the Feminist Art and Architecture Collaborative, a group of young historians generating teaching materials that emphasize women’s contributions and the insights of feminist scholarship.
A bigger impending change is technology-driven. San Francisco’s Academy of Art University, Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, Michigan, and Boston Architectural College offer accredited architecture degrees either fully or partially online, allowing students to fit education around work and family. So far, these programs generally replicate the methods and scales of on-campus education, with class discussion moving into chat forums and desk crits conducted in video calls. Across higher education, though, providers ranging from established universities to specialized for-profits, such as General Assembly, which was begun in New York, are offering new formats. MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses, present course materials and assignments online, with students evaluating the work of their peers. And since people need new knowledge and skills at multiple points during their careers, fields such as interaction design and teaching are issuing microcredentials—certificates recognizing that the bearer has demonstrated competency in a specific topic or expertise.
MOOCs and microcredentials have low completion rates, however; so far, in architecture, they function primarily as free or low-cost loss leaders that recruit students into traditional degree programs. But market analysts predict an “unbundling” in which students move from signing up for the degree program as a complete package finished in a short period right after high school (the traditional college-degree model) to a service consumed in different ways throughout a career. An exercise at Stanford University’s d.school imagined the future university as a lifelong “open loop” between study and work, with a self-paced curriculum in which participants move forward not at set time intervals but when they demonstrate competency through exams and completed projects. Marketplaces such as LinkedIn, which use peer endorsements and other data to represent competency in specific areas of skill, may begin to supplant degrees in some fields.
Since most architecture degrees are connected to professional licensure, these changes will be slower to affect architectural education than other fields. But we can expect many architecture schools to combine on-campus learning with online courses, allowing students to learn at variable paces and lower costs. The key to significant change is innovation in the design studio, which owes its uniquely powerful teaching to a high cost in time, space, and staffing. The information-rich, multiuser platform afforded by building information management (BIM) software suggests that cloud-based platforms can support more efficient ways to learn and to evaluate design. Architect and Yale University professor Peggy Deamer sees BIM as a framework for introducing students to architecture as a collaborative art embedded in markets for products and services. Future practitioners educated in this kind of complex and dynamic design medium may be better equipped to navigate the labor market. Ultimately, the strongest incentives for people to pursue architectural education are higher earnings and a better work-life balance.
Many people practice architecture without becoming licensed. They work in a firm with other licensed practitioners, partner with someone who can stamp drawings, or operate outside the service model embedded in AIA-approved contract documents. Some of the strongest design research in the professional and post-professional degree programs at California College of the Arts, where I am dean of architecture, comes from experimental studios that adopt tech-sector approaches. In our Creative Architecture Machines studio, students make prototypes of automated fabrication systems for building components, generating intellectual property for commercial use rather than bespoke “instruments of service” for clients. Architecture offers ample room for innovation, not only in design but also in the models of practice and methods of preparation through which we equip students to transform the built environment.