Learning From America’s Best Schools

View the 2011 Rankings

Stepping into a successful career in architectural practice begins with education. Norman Foster, a Yale University graduate, said that two strong influences have contributed to his success and resilience over the years. They are, first, the people he met in school and during his formative professional practice years and, second, the time he spent in college. Foster has enjoyed a unique and storied career, but parts of his experience are common to all architects.

Click the image above to view the Design Futures Council's annual rankings.

At university, students’ experiences can significantly enhance or diminish their interests as well as their likelihood for future success. This gives schools both tremendous opportunity and huge responsibility, since what happens in them has the potential to change the careers of individuals as well as the architecture profession as a whole. This is one response to a question I’ve been called on to answer many times since publishing the first “America’s Best Architecture & Design Schools” rankings in DesignIntelligence 12 years ago: Why rank schools?

Another answer is given by the architecture firms that employ recent graduates. If the purpose of a professional degree is to prepare students for professional practice, then how well are degree-granting institutions performing the task? Ongoing research by the Design Futures Council and Greenway Group shows that architecture firms and related professional practice careers are being deconstructed and reinvented at an accelerated pace. Beyond the economy, for example, the profession is being shaped by profound changes in technology, such as building information modeling. Can educational institutions keep pace with the changing needs of 21st-century practices? And so we ask in our survey, “In your firm’s hiring experience in the past five years, which schools are best preparing students for success in the architecture profession?”

Time for change

Since 2004, when DesignIntelligence began ranking undergrad and grad programs separately, Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design has held top honors for its M.Arch. program. So it is fascinating to consider how the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning nudged Harvard out of No. 1 this year. In fact, Michigan didn’t even appear on our list of top 20 grad programs last year. It hovered just below the requisite votes needed to tie for 20th place.

Suddenly emerging at the top seems like an unlikely story for Michigan. Yet the unfolding story is even more interesting. In her Dean’s Message posted on the Taubman College Web site, Monica Ponce de Leon explains how the school is reformulating a pedagogical strategy that has remained virtually unchanged in architecture education for more than a century. To forward Taubman’s goal of more realistically paralleling contemporary professional practice, studio work is being integrated into other required courses; various areas of expertise (history, structures, urban planning) are being integrated into the studio; and design studios are being paired with courses in other areas of concentration — a structures course or a structures seminar, for example.

And the students seem to agree with this tactic. Among students who took a separate DesignIntelligence survey, 90 percent of University of Michigan attendees indicated a belief that they’ll be well prepared upon graduation, with 96 percent giving the quality of their program an A (excellent) or B (above average).

Michigan is not alone among the rising stars of graduate education. Of the 20 top-ranked M.Arch. programs, seven schools improved their position this year: Cornell University, the University of Pennsylvania, Washington University in St. Louis, Southern California Institute of Architecture, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Syracuse University, and the University of California, Los Angeles.

Each year in connection with the Best Schools survey, DesignIntelligence conducts a parallel survey of architecture deans and department heads to assess opinions about their own and peer institutions. It is telling that this year the deans’ five most admired M.Arch. programs are the same top five chosen by practitioners, albeit in a slightly altered ranking: Harvard University, Yale University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Columbia University, and the University of Michigan.

And space for continuity

In the undergrad program rankings, the interesting story this year is that school rankings are remarkably consistent. The top five schools have the following rank average over the past eight years: Cornell University, 1.25; Syracuse University, 3.75; Rice University, 5.37; California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, 3.75; and Virginia Tech, 4.50. In addition to these stalwarts, Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Texas at Austin, Rhode Island School of Design, and the University of Oregon have made the top 20 for eight straight years.

Top-ranked Cornell University shows devoted consistency among the student body as well, with 97 percent indicating a belief that they will be well prepared for their profession upon graduation, and 97 percent giving Cornell’s program a grade of A (excellent) or B (above average).

Among the 20 top-rated B.Arch. programs this year, nine improved their position in the rankings: Rice University, Southern California Institute of Architecture, Carnegie Mellon University, Pratt Institute, the University of Southern California, the University of Kansas, Cooper Union, the University of Notre Dame, and California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.

Deans’ picks for their five most admired B.Arch. programs diverged a bit from practitioners’ favorites: Auburn University, which was ranked 18 by practitioners, was chosen No. 1 by deans. In particular, academics said they valued the program’s integration with the Rural Studio and its highly focused curriculum, both of which serve to engage students at a high level. Rounding out the deans’ most admired undergrad programs were Cornell University, Virginia Tech, the University of Texas at Austin, and Syracuse University.

Whenever I speak or write about the DesignIntelligence Best Schools research, I add a caveat: It is important to be aware of the limitations of any ranking system. Small schools are at a disadvantage, as are newer programs, simply because there are fewer graduates; therefore, fewer professional practices are familiar with the fruits of these programs. And we’ve seen that some large programs that have drifted in the past are coming back with strong, innovative programs but may not yet have regained their brand strength. Some schools are a good deal better than they are able to communicate. And in any case, a student’s choice of program must go beyond rankings and delve into the specifics important to that individual. The ability to connect with peers, mentors, and educational options that speak to personal needs and preferences is imperative.

A robust profession requires a regular infusion of strong up-and-comers. The architecture profession is dependent on schools to deliver fresh talent each year, individuals who are not only driven by their passion for the profession but who come prepared with what they’ll need to begin a career that will last for decades. Many professional-practice beliefs and methods are born in tertiary education, with accredited architecture programs serving as either leaders or laggards in innovation. This is why professional-practice leaders and educators need to continue discussing how to align their priorities and establish strategic pathways forward.