The current education system is formalised and standardised and largely divorced from the realities of practice. It is not really designed to produce good architects, writes Eleanor Jolliffe
At recent graduate summer shows I found myself marvelling at the enthusiasm, the energy and the ideas of the students; and how poorly such potential was being served. Not specifically by our school but by the way that we have evolved architectural education away from the practice of architecture.
Architectural education as we now know it originated in the 1950s – when what became known as the Oxford Conference turned its back on, quite literally, millennia of teaching practices in the optimistic postwar mentality that with new technology and methodology we could do better. I applaud the sentiment and enthusiasm, but the results have been disastrous.
Prior to the Oxford Conference, education had been slowly moving from the apprenticeship to formal university taught courses. On the recommendations of the conference, wholeheartedly embraced by the profession, education was formalised and standardised; and what became our three-part system was introduced to encourage a broad undergraduate study, integrated with practice, with technical or typological specialisation at postgraduate level.
The intention was to encourage greater technical capabilities and a broad profession of architects with specialist skills – much like doctors may specialise in a certain area. This is not what we have ended up with.
The intentions and aims have morphed instead into Part I and Part II curricula that can barely be distinguished from each other, largely divorced from the realities of architectural practice. We have created a system that values the genius of the individual concept, worked at in glorious and competitive solitude over almost anything else.
By Part III many able candidates will have been alienated by the culture of university architecture schools and left for other professions or trades
Spectacular art is produced by students who will win prizes, great accolades and yet struggle when faced with their first real job where the requirements of client, budget and building regulations are all too real. They will be required to work collaboratively in a team; to compromise, engage with others and coordinate the input of other professions, often at a cost to their overriding concept… all of which they will be almost entirely unprepared for.
The lessons of real-life practice are left until far too late. By Part III many able candidates will have been alienated by the culture of university architecture schools and left for other professions or trades.
Some architecture schools make efforts to mitigate this, or pay lip service to the constraints of practice, but by default the realities of practice are now all but entirely taught after Part II. They are taught in architectural assistant jobs, with all the variations in competence and vagaries of the employer making an uncertain and unreliable mould for the future profession.
It is openly said by the majority of the Part III examiners I know that they increasingly see case studies that describe decisions and practice that is so poor they would have little option but to fail the student… except the decisions and actions were being taken by their employer. How competent an architect you become now seems to rest almost solely on the luck of your first job. It is exactly the situation the Oxford Conference had sought to eliminate.
Do we value our profession so little that we believe its future competence should be left to sheer chance?
The ARB, the only body with the statutory power to define educational standards for architects, is midway through a consultation that will publish its recommendations in 2023. Already its initial survey sees overwhelming support for greater diversity in educational routes and the end of the three-part system.
All too many of my friends and classmates, especially those who excelled at university, have since moved on from a profession that has failed to deliver on the glittering promises of the degrees we all dutifully studied for
I finished my Part III in late 2017. I survived the three-part system, loving parts and hating parts. I needed the broad grounding that university gave me, but I never found the practical or technical depth that would have made it possible to transition to life in practice with minimal culture shock.
To be honest I was never a star student. I did decently well at a good school – but have found myself happier, more successful and better suited to what being an architect actually is, rather than what architecture school suggested it might be.
All too many of my friends and classmates, especially those who excelled at university, have since moved on from a profession that has failed to deliver on the glittering promises of the degrees we all dutifully studied for.
The architectural education we have today is not really designed to produce good architects. It is a spectacular arts course giving the student a wonderful set of skills that could lead to an excellent career in academia or almost any area of design; it is just a pity that it does not currently prioritise the teaching of the practice of architecture.