Editorial> A Teaching Moment
Sam Lubell on the gap between architectural education and practice.
Adam Kuban/Flickr

You know something is a worthwhile topic when every time you bring it up people grab on and start talking as if they’d been waiting forever for you to ask them. Of all the subjects I’ve brought up lately, the one that elicits this response most often is the divide between architectural education and architectural practice.

The more I have these conversations and the more I attend architecture reviews and lectures, read interviews with architects, and peruse educational journals the more I understand that architectural education has moved further and further away from the realities of actually working in architecture.

Bluntly, architects coming out of school are not well enough prepared to practice architecture. Certainly schools have become incredibly sophisticated laboratories for theoretical and technical discourse. Students I’ve encountered develop a firm grasp on design strategies—addressing program, site, form, massing, environment, urban scale and other essential issues—and are more adept with technology than any generation before. But those skills are not sufficient to getting architects ready for the issues, challenges and constraints of the real world.

Among students, familiarity with the building process outside of computer modeling is rare; familiarity with commercial and client issues is rarer still; learning about running a business is almost nonexistent; and history and even the basics of architectural terminology and building skills are less and less integrated into curricula.

I have witnessed many critiques where discussion of the client, of budget, of material restraints and of any limitation whatsoever is brushed off. Schools argue that limitations are for the real world, but that’s exactly the point. Students need to at least have some familiarity with this reality. These are not things that can be left to two years of apprenticeship in an office cramming for licensing exams. Even small doses in school will give them much better facility with these issues when they’re making designs of their own.

Another problem is the lack of focus on careers once students get out. IDP (Intern Development Program), an intern requirement of NCARB is usually considered a joke. So are career placement programs, which in many schools are almost non-existent. Students often wind up taking free internships with their professors, hardly a sound career placement path. Most students consider business training (teaching valuable expertise in starting a company and in navigating the rough waters of the trade and of the development process) in their schools a joke as well. Funny since all architecture offices are, in fact, businesses. Imagine this being the case at law schools or medical schools?

Of course architecture programs shouldn’t become trade schools, and students need to dream, theorize and have freedom. That goes without saying, and it’s one of the strengths of our architectural education. But that freedom needs to be balanced with constraint and real world expertise that will help future architects invaluably down the line. And of course it’s easy to complain about the shortcomings of architectural education, but it’s a lot harder to decide how to fit all these necessary pieces into the mix. The question is how can we integrate all of these essential elements into the existing framework, and where can that framework be better balanced.

The Architect’s Newspaper, UCLA and the A+D Museum will soon host a forum on this topic to be held at the A+D Museum in Los Angeles. I encourage you to weigh in on that topic prior to the event by sending us a letter or email.

Without a smoother transition to practice academia will become a revolving door in which students are trained only to become teachers or perhaps frustrated visionaries and not to practice successfully on their own. Sounds like graduates in poetry or philosophy. But this is not poetry. This is architecture. Let’s keep it that way.

Sam Lubell