Search This Blog

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Architectural Education: Part 2

Minimum architectural qualifications have increased during my lifetime but employment has declined and compensation has never equaled the investment in time, education, credentials and risk needed to emerge from draftsman status. Continuing education has now added to a burden that requires increasing levels of commitment to sacrifice while others profit from the effort. This is not a healthy recipe for a profession that depends on a team of highly trained practitioners to avoid errors and omissions.

The problem begins with an unstable economic world and architectural graduates filled with opinion that has limited employment value and flexibility. They are draftsmen until they are partners, and even then the public has difficulty making a distinction. After graduation, they face years of apprenticeship, registration, and continuing education – if they can find a job to produce a limited return on investment. This is all for the sake of excellent service to others until the next economic collapse. The word is out, and some may applaud the decline in numbers, but it will be a short term gain at the expense of the nation.

I’d like to set the stage with a brief recap of architectural history from a different perspective. It takes place during my lifetime and is written from an educational and economic point of view. For a long time, minimum qualifications for license examination stipulated a high school education and eight years of experience. Before my time, Frank Lloyd Wright gave an interminable taped lecture to the AIA questioning the value of formal education and licensure. During this time, a five year “professional” degree graduated draftsmen from universities. Three years of apprenticeship were required to qualify for licensure. Graduate programs added years to the eight year minimum. License exam study added another year. An internship program was adopted in an attempt to ensure that graduate draftsmen were not pigeon-holed with a pencil and deprived of comprehensive office experience. The eventually-licensed architects didn’t turn into butterflies. They remained under-compensated along with everyone else. They were also at risk in an unstable economic world where capital investment was the first budget item eliminated and the last restored. The economic risk fluctuated dramatically from 1973 – 1983. The economy then stabilized until 1987. It recovered again until the dot com bust of 1999-2000. It recovered again after Enron, but the recovery was eventually based on a concept of universal home ownership that could only exist in the mind of a politician.

Around 2005, if not sooner, some on Wall Street saw the default potential of this political concept. Unstable mortgages had been bundled for re-sale to average the risk; but the risk was not average. Speculators moved to capitalize on the unrecognized discrepancy at the expense of others. At least one added a mortgage “bundle” designed for maximum default and sold the entire concept short. Others rated the mortgage bundles investment grade, while others sold insurance against default without reserves to cover potential loss. It all collapsed with Lehman Brothers in 2008. They were refused a government “bail-out” for the complex pyramid of home ownership deception the government helped create. The concept had been unstable from the beginning, but few investors were aware of the products purchased by others with their savings, and fewer still understood the risk. The winners reasoned: (1) that the buyers should have known better; (2) that profiting from the ignorance and deception of others is competition; and (3) that a weakened nation is simply part of the game. Deceptive investment rating of risk was considered business activity. Deceptive underwriting was considered creative financing, and public deception to benefit special interest is still called politics and representative democracy. These are my interpretations of the “spin”.

During these economic times architecture was initiating four and six year degree programs that replaced the five year program. Doctoral programs multiplied at least in partial response to higher education requirements for teaching credentials. The NCARB and CSI became notable accomplishments and continuing education was added to justify state licensure requirements. Liability increased. Public expectations increased. Special certifications were introduced, and I’m sure you can add to the list. My intent is not to be comprehensive, but to paint a brief picture of increasing architectural complexity and responsibility in an economically unstable world that does not support architectural growth. This world holds few rewards for architects that assume incredible levels of risk – and we ask what makes architecture excellent? Part of the answer is a level of commitment to sacrifice for a dream that transcends individual accomplishment; but is in decline because the education-risk-reward ratios represent surreal expectations while pricing power is non-existent.

For those concerned about architectural design, let me first mention that it involves leadership decisions that are only implied by the appearance observed. These decisions consume land, introduce intensity and set the physical stage for social, psychological and economic activity. Intensity decisions influence our quality of life and ability to shelter the activity of growing populations within sustainable limits. Architectural project decisions combine to form neighborhoods, districts, cities and regions. They also limit our ability to pursue city design in the public interest because architectural permanence currently precedes the scope of city design.

Architecture appears without a massing plan to protect the public welfare within sustainable city limits. It simply grows with the extension of utility services and land use plans that anticipate annexation. Subsequent demolition and redevelopment is often an unrealistic option. This permanence casts a new light on the importance of architectural design decisions within symbiotic limits. These decisions consume land, the consumption is virtually irreversible and they have no current correlation with a symbiotic future. This means that more knowledge must be accumulated and distributed through education to ensure that these permanent decisions contribute to stabilizing design within and beyond the Built Domain.

Environmental design is the next frontier, and city design is the next level of architectural contribution needed to succeed in a new Symbiotic Period. Energy conservation is not enough. It is based on engineering research and architectural inclusion with no correlation to land consumption, shelter capacity, social benefit, psychological impact or economic stability.

In design, an idea is a point of departure that may not survive examination and refinement. From this perspective, I don’t use the word “should” in the following paragraph out of arrogance; but because “might” is such a weak, but more appropriate, adverb. My intent, however, is to grapple with the economic and educational problems that obstruct an architect’s ability to contribute more to public welfare and survival. We cannot lose the leadership potential of creative thought, so we must improve the credibility and value of its advice. In fact, we need more creativity within disciplines that combine art and science, but architects must learn how to tap creativity within a format that stimulates growth.

In the traditional three phase format of higher education, the first priority of education for a Bachelor’s degree in Architecture should be consistent employment through turbulent economic times. It should leave students with a design introduction and flexible technical skills that can adapt to shifting employment opportunities. I will stay away from curriculum suggestions because debate over detail will overwhelm the goal suggested. A master’s degree should leave them with advanced design skills, management skills and flexible employment opportunities. A doctoral degree should leave them with professional design skills as well as research, practice, teaching, and licensure opportunities. If this doesn’t provide a decent return on investment however, it will simply represent more commitment to sacrifice while others profit from the effort. This is becoming increasingly less acceptable to those who must struggle in an economically unstable world.

The devil is in the detail and I have avoided curriculum for that reason. A debate over detail will overwhelm the goals suggested, but the relationship of economic issues, employment opportunities, practice standards and research emphasis must be resolved by educators, institutions and government before architects can make the contributions needed to shelter growing populations within sustainable environmental limits. This is critical because solutions must not threaten a population’s quality of life with excessive intensity. Private interest is simply not equal to the effort required, but is capable of participation. If this is the goal, then we need more architects, not less; but the market is undeveloped because the need for city design is not recognized.

City design begins with geographic limits for a Built Domain that includes agriculture and protects the primacy of the Natural Domain. The Built Environment expands within the limits of a Built Domain. In my opinion, this is the only realistic concept on a finite planet with limited resources, and it requires extensive collaboration and political acceptance for definition. After these limits are established, city design for the Built Environment will begin with development capacity evaluation and end with shelter, movement, open space and life support systems designed to protect a growing population’s quality of life. This is not an interest of development speculation, but it is in the public interest. Architecture can work to protect this interest, and serve private interest; when it recognizes the need, creates the market and builds the knowledge and tools required.

No comments:

Post a Comment