Out of Order

How should we really rank architecture schools?

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Are architecture schools being ranked appropriately? (Cole Keister/Unsplash)
Are architecture schools being ranked appropriately? (Cole Keister/Unsplash)

What are we to make of a recent survey that claims MIT, the Bartlett, and Delft University of Technology are the best architecture schools in the world?  This ranking, created by British-based Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) also names Stanford, New York University, and University of California, Santa Barbara, as its top schools for architecture and these institutions don’t even have standalone schools of architecture. This assessment has received a great deal of attention on social media, particularly from those associated with the top schools. But what are we to make of a listing that does not even mention SCI-Arc or the Architectural Association in London? It also lists the University of Melbourne and the University of New South Wales ahead of Cornell University, and Kyoto University just ahead of Princeton and the University of Michigan.

I have nothing against the schools that came out on top, nor am I trying to be chauvinistic by emphasizing U.S. universities, but one has to wonder about a list that puts King Saud University in Saudi Arabia ahead of Rice University in Houston.

But what criteria did the QS use in establishing the ranking? First, this firm, which calls itself a “higher education marketing company” and one of the “three most influential university rankings in the world,” looked only at universities. This means that while QS surveyed “2,122 institutions across the globe, offering courses in architecture or the built environment,” schools like Pratt Institute, Rhode Island School of Design, Cooper Union, or the Royal College of Art in London were not even considered for evaluation. QS asserts that its evaluation is based on four factors: academic reputation, employer reputation, citations per paper, and what it calls “H-Index citations.” An H-Index citation is a metric that attempts to “measure both the productivity and citation impact of the publications of a scientist or scholar.”

It’s hard to learn more about the QS architecture ranking, and it seems rather sloppy and unscientific, but the firm also rates universities worldwide, and these rankings seem to line up fairly closely with its architecture list. Its top universities in the world are, in order, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University, Harvard University, California Institute of Technology, University of Cambridge, University of Oxford, University College London, Imperial College London, University of Chicago, and the ETH Zurich. Interestingly, Yale University came in sixteenth in the QS world ranking of universities, but its architecture school ranked a lowly 100th in the world behind the University of Kebangsaan in Malaysia, Texas A&M University, and Monash University in Australia.

This QS ranking seems tone deaf to the real qualities that make a great architecture school, even while admitting the value and importance of PhD-level scholarship and research. Architecture is a craft as much as a liberal art, and therefore requires its teaching institutions to transmit a particular set of real-world skills that have to be mastered by students. For this reason, a great lab with CNC milling and robotic machines is important to contemporary design education. The students’ ability to work with their hands, render a plan, and be able to create a working section is as important as learning the history and theory of the discipline.

In addition, the realities of the marketplace mean that students need the mentoring of professional working architects who make up the bulk of most design schools.

The students who come out of great design schools need the refined focus of building culture, and this has been true since the École des Beaux-Arts and its workshop intern practice that is unique to the field. Furthermore, today’s architecture graduates don’t always find employment in traditional architecture offices—let alone go on to pursue PhDs as the QS ranking would suggest. In the words of cultural critic Brian Holmes, “designers, architects, and other actors in the creative fields must be multidisciplinary, open to collaboration, and motivated to find and initiate these often-amorphous work arrangements.” You can only get these in a full-blown school of architecture, and this need not be a university.

There are many problems with the QS evaluation that undermines its usefulness, but one, in particular, is its disregard for educational differences between undergraduate and graduate programs—not to mention overlooking the educational content in two- and four-year degree and non-degree programs. The DesignIntelligence ranking of schools in the United States may also have shortcomings, but at least it gets the finer points of undergrad and graduate education and considers them. It identifies Cornell as the best undergraduate program in the country and the Harvard Graduate School of Design as the best graduate program, and that assessment seems more in line with real-world architecture in 2018.

Finally, it may make sense to consider architecture education in a national context, rather than a worldwide one, since the licensing protocols and building requirements are so different from nation to nation.  Sorry, MIT, but this QS ranking is so myopically concerned with academic citations as to be nearly worthless as a guide for what comprises quality architecture education in all its 21st-century variety and subtlety.

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