On campuses across the United States, fall brings homecomings, which tend toward beer-laced nostalgia amid the swirling autumnal leaves. Some of us will return to architecture schools, shudder as we pass through the design labs, puzzle over incomprehensible student work, clap old friends on the back, eat and drink to excess, then gratefully retreat to paying jobs.
One university’s graduates have cause for another kind of celebration—an unanticipated one. On October 22, graduates of Tulane University’s architecture program gathered for a ceremony celebrating the retroactive conferral of the Masters of Architecture degree. You heard that correctly: Throughout most of its long history, the Tulane School of Architecture offered the B.Arch. as the first professional degree. In May, with a wave of the academic wand, those degrees automatically converted to a master’s.
In renaming its degree after the fact, Tulane (which now grants the M.Arch. and the Ph.D.) joins an extremely short list of other universities; 13 schools of architecture offer a 5-year M.Arch. program at present. While such a gift to its graduates might seem precipitate, there is precedent in legal education. Forty years ago, the American Bar Association recommended that the Juris Doctor (J.D.) replace the more ordinary LL.B.
Certainly, the granting of degrees involves more than pleased alumni; larger benefits should accrue from the action, and the arguments for the M.Arch. are several. The first is clarity: For most people in the larger world, a bachelor’s diploma signifies a 4-year undergraduate degree. Few outside of architecture’s inner circle understand that the B.Arch. is designated as a “First Professional Degree,” or that it stands for a 5-year education often accompanied by a thesis or other rigorous requirements.
Although the public admires architects and architecture, few understand what we do, much less care how we are schooled. Unfortunately, we’ve only compounded the confusion. For all of our vaunted love of order, we have created a cholesterol-clogged education system jammed with choices and resulting diplomas. Who can parse them out? Alternative programs, from the B.A. in Architecture to the 3-year accelerated master’s to the 4+2 clutter our understanding. In such a polyglot environment, some consistency is called for; everyone understands the master’s.
To the need for clarity, add degree inflation. We all know that the master’s has become de rigueur for anyone with the hope of teaching on a university campus, including valued practitioners hoping to return to the classroom. Unfortunately, the perception of the B.Arch. has become devalued on campuses overrun with Ph.D.’s, ergo a strong impetus for change. There would be much homework to accomplish to ensure that the pedagogical system be equal to the designation.
No one suggests the master’s as a panacea for fundamental problems surrounding architectural education. Our best minds, including the five collateral organizations with a stake in the efficacy of architectural education, have been debating the pros and cons for years. Some programs simply are not suited for the master’s, and others will chafe at the notion. However, for those of us bobbing about in society at large, including the editor in chief of architectural record (yours truly is one of those graduates who pursued an accelerated 3-year program following a liberal arts degree, resulting nonsensically in two bachelor’s degrees), the M.Arch. offers a recognizable standard that elevates our position and allows us to hold our heads higher. This is a retroactive ceremony well worth a homecoming.
The implications of Tulane’s largesse remain unclear. But as Joanna Lombard stated in a paper for the ACSA in 1997, “If law schools are an example, then without a specific degree mandate from any of the five architecture organizations, individual schools will set the course.” The time for consensus in architectural education has come, or outside forces may force us into unanticipated or unwelcome change.