Has architectural education jumped the shark?

Beginning last fall, The Guardian (UK) launched its Architecture and Design blog, authored almost exclusively by Oliver Wainwright. Like most architecture-related blogs, it serves as a repository for links, shout-outs, and the like. Not that there’s anything wrong with a puff piece or a shameless plug now and again to spread the word about good ideas or successful work (the Critical Design blog is certainly no exception). But The Guardian’s blog also includes a fair share of thoughtful criticism directed at anything architecture- or design-related. Personally, I’m still partial to the paper’s Rowan Moore, who writes in a more combative style exemplifying the baby boomer era, but when he is compelled to serve as a critic, Wainwright doesn’t hold back his true feelings, either.

A few months ago, Wainwright posted this piece on architectural education in the UK, prompting an expected wave of commentary from readers. Whether or not you agree with Wainwright’s critique, it is certainly contextual to his own experience–both in terms of place and time. Here in the US of A, there seems to be a more healthy diversity of accredited architecture programs (and some programs that are quite diverse internally) when it comes to where they are located along the spectrum of practical-minded versus visionary graduate-output.  Many, many thoughts arise on this topic, since it is near and dear to my heart, so I’ll limit myself to a couple brief comments.

First, Wainwright seems to circumvent students as autonomous or intelligent decision-makers themselves. He closes by warning that “students may begin voting with their feet”, but don’t they already to some degree? No matter how much of a black-box architectural education is, can’t we give students some credit (or blame) for knowing what they’re getting into? It’s also important to note that the top-tier UK schools are actually regarded quite highly by American students and faculty, in spite of or because of their visionary impracticality. Wainwright calls out those courses at UK schools that are “only there to further the theoretical position of their tutors.” Again, this characterization sounds as though students are passive recipients of such theoretical positions, unable to reach their own critical stance or filter their tutor’s subjective position. A better solution than ending or censoring those courses would be to train students to develop and make their own arguments more adeptly on theoretical grounds.

Second, Wainwright and many of the subsequent commenters sound as though they want programs that produce a single type of student. Yes, I can certainly agree that “visual complexity masking conceptual thinness” is probably a bad direction across the board and not something to emulate. But shouldn’t we be aiming towards fostering students who tend toward thoughtful visual complexity or thoughtful practicality and not just one or the other? Having a collection of students and faculty that fall on various points along the practical-visionary spectrum seems like a win-win: it fosters the need to defend one’s position without necessarily denigrating the value of other forms of designing. No matter where you fall on the spectrum, it is important at some point to be able to defend the significance and rationale for such an approach, whether as a faculty member or a student. Thoughtlessness is primarily what Wainwright was so distraught over, but turning against all architecture driven by visionary or utopian thought is just throwing the baby out with the bathwater. While perhaps it is true that too many UK schools have let the pendulum swing too far in the visionary direction, the solution is promoting epistemological diversity, epistemological empathy, and above all, fostering thoughtful, critical designers.

Any of these student projects could be groundbreaking works of genius...but if their creators are unable to effectively defend their significance, the power of visionary architecture gets gradually undermined.
Any of these student projects could be groundbreaking works of genius…but if their creators are unable to effectively defend their significance, the power of visionary architecture gets gradually undermined.

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