ARCHITECTURE SCHOOL 201
Once we have understood the basic structure of a school of architecture, its hierarchical—if paradoxical—composition of faculty, students, and administration, we can move on to the consideration of its content: what it teaches and why.
Most schools of architecture today are ‘professional’ schools. This means that their goals, methods, and content, are aligned with the demands and expectations of the profession of architecture, as generally accepted.
It is interesting that a great university, Harvard, was once reluctant to accept a school of architecture into its program, because of its professional, not academic, orientation. The goal of Harvard’s academic programs is to immerse students in different bodies of knowledge, in order to prepare them to assume active, creative, leadership roles in society. The university was and, perhaps, remains suspicious of professional training, which tends to be narrow by comparison, focusing on technical or other parochial skills. Even today, Harvard’s Graduate School of Design (GSD) must support itself independently of the wider university’s budget.
Schools that grant professional degrees must be ‘accredited’ by professional groups, notably (in the United States) the National Architectural Accrediting Board (NAAB), which is comprised of professional architects and educators approved by professional organizations—such as the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB)—who continually visit schools, examine them, and decide whether they meet the standards they have set to be accredited to confer professional degrees. A professional degree is, today, a necessary step toward becoming a state-licensed professional practitioner. Because most graduating architects want to design buildings that will be built in the public domain, and which requires a state license, the accrediting process has an enormous influence on the content of almost any school’s curriculum. The power of a dean to lead the school in any but an orthodox direction would seem to be very limited. But this is not always the case.
A historical example of the exception to the rule is Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture of The Cooper Union, in New York. In the 1970s and 80s, when John Hejduk was dean of the school, he pursued a radical architectural design program and managed, at the same time, to maintain the school’s accreditation to confer professional degrees. It was not easy.
During that time, his faculty included Raimund Abraham, Peter Eisenman, Bernard Tschumi, Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio, and a host of lesser known avant-gardists, who brought their radical ideas into the design studios they taught. Hejduk himself was teaching the fifth year undergraduate thesis, with an emphasis on innovative concepts of space and design. Seminars by the likes of Jay Fellows and David Shapiro added depth to the unconventional approach to architectural education. Often, accreditation committees would arrive at the school on their regular visits in a hostile mood. ‘What has all this to do with architecture?” was their question when they saw projects that did not resemble any buildings they had ever seen. While the school’s catalogue listed an orthodox program of architectural studies, the ways in which the studios and classes were conducted were utterly unorthodox, and this worried the examiners. Yet, time and again, Hejduk—with the support of his faculty and students—was able to convince them that this was a valid, indeed a valuable approach to architectural education and practice. Hejduk’s charisma? The sheer quality of the student work, however unorthodox? The need for change, however grudgingly recognized? The allowance for exceptions in a vast field of sameness? Certainly all these were factors in the survival of the professional degree program by a radical school. By the 80s, the worst fears of the more conservative critics and examiners were already being realized. With the publication of The Education of an Architect, a book laying out the school’s philosophy and methods, a revolution in architectural education had already been effected, as many schools adopted aspects of Cooper Union’s innovative approach.
The Cooper Union story is a prime example of working within and at the same time extending the limits of a prevailing system of orthodoxy. Whether the same story could be written today is an open question. One can certainly argue that it is easier to transform an already working system of education than invent an entirely new one. But the latter prospect may be necessary, if and when the prevailing system has failed. To consider that we should look at the institution of the Bauhaus, as well as more contemporary examples of experiments in architectural education.
(To be continued)