i found this article interesting as we could learn a little about the history of the professional program, professional practice in general, and the co-existence of both that would influence the future of the profession .. this topic was delivered eight years ago and at this moment we could see whether its content meets the present situation. e.
The Once and Future Profession of Architecture
Delivered to the AIA National Board, September 20, 2002, Lincolnville, Maine
Thomas Fisher – professor and dean of the College of Architecture and Landscape Architecture at the University of Minnesota, editor of Architectural Research Quarterly, and former editorial director of Progressive Architecture.
I want to talk, this morning, about the apparently contradictory pressures on the profession and the schools, what that means in terms of where we are going, and what we can do to work more effectively together. I use the words “apparently contradictory” because I think there is much that we have in common, both in terms of our past and our future prosperity. The lines that tend to get drawn between educators and practitioners come, instead, from our tendency to define situations in mutually exclusive terms, and then think that we have to choose sides.
It’s curious that we do so, because one of the most profound and often unrecognized roles that design can play in the world is to help resolve seemingly irresolvable conflicts. We do this all the time when we resolve clients and communities’ competing demands in buildings, but we don’t do it enough when it comes to other, non-physical conflicts, such as those facing the profession and the schools.
The marketplace has put unrelenting pressure on the profession to do its work ever faster, for lower fees, and at an ever-higher standard. At the same time, the schools face pressures like never before to generate more tuition, produce more research, and provide ever-greater service.
As a result of those pressures, the profession and the schools have seemed to be at odds in recent years. And yet, as I will argue, the pressures on each actually have the same origin and our response to them demands that we work more closely together rather than in isolation or worse, in opposition to each other.
In the first part of my talk, I want to trace a bit of our history and the reasons for the pressures we now face, and in the second part, I want to use that background to suggest how the profession and the schools might respond to those pressures in mutually beneficial ways.
Architectural education and practice coexisted some 800 years ago in the medieval guilds: the scholar’s guild and the various building craft guilds. In Medieval Europe, the guilds organized work, and controlled membership, workplace conditions, and markets, determining who could join, the length of apprenticeship, the dues and fines members had to pay, the means of production, the pace and hours of work, and who could practice in what area.
That co-existence, however, began to wane about 500 years ago, when the increase of trade and the rise of markets in the Renaissance led to a weakening of the guilds. People increasingly saw the craft guilds, in particular, as a hindrance to free trade, and after about the mid-1500s, architects, often learning through apprenticeship and working in small offices or on their own, began to compete, without licenses, in the marketplace.
The scholar’s guild avoided this fate. Academics were more mobile and theirs was a labor-intensive, low-profit activity, of not much interest to the marketplace. Also, as universities amassed wealth in the form of public sponsorships and private donations, they became less vulnerable to economic pressure. As a result, universities retained many of the trappings of guild power, such as tenure, collegial decision-making, and control over contact hours with students.
The diverging paths of architects and the academic guild came back together in the 19th Century in response to a populist revolt against the professions that very much echoes what we face today. In the United States, from the 1830’s through the post-Civil War period, populist politicians such as Andrew Jackson saw professions as anti-democratic elites. Because of their weakened political position in that era, the professions formed associations – the American Medical Association in 1848, the American Institute of Architects in 1857, the American Bar Association in 1868 – to re-establish some control over their practices. These associations gradually won the upper hand politically, and convinced state legislatures to enact licensure laws that became the basis for the professions, as we now know them.
In doing so, the professions also re-established their old connection to the academy. As part of a renewed emphasis on the public good and on knowledge creation, the professions moved away from learning through apprenticeships and backed the establishment of professional schools.
In architecture, the first professional program began at MIT in 1865, followed by programs in land-grant schools such as Cornell in 1871 and Illinois in 1873. Practitioners had considerable influence over the curricula in these early programs, with faculty largely drawn from the profession, representing a major intrusion into the territory of the academic guild. As a result, the architecture schools occupied an uneasy place in universities, tolerated because of the student revenues and outside support that they brought with them, but separated from the traditional academic disciplines.
Since the 1980s, we have entered another period of anti-professional sentiment, driven in large part by a renewed faith in the marketplace as the best arbiter of value. The professions once again face criticism of inefficiency, elitism, and unfair advantage. The rise of fee bidding, the attacks on quality based selection, the increasing pace of practice, the rising amount of litigation — all reflect either skepticism of the professions or a belief that the marketplace should determine our worth.
In the 19th Century, the state eventually sided with the professions, but not now. In the last few decades, the state has sided with the marketplace against professions, evident in our field, in the Justice Department’s anti-trust ruling against the use of fee schedules or in the growing use in the public sector of design-build as a project delivery method intended to drive down costs and speed up construction.
The support of the professions by the public at large has also withered in recent decades. While architects have fared better than other professions in this regard, we have still been painted with the same brush of skepticism about professionals looking after their own interests or those of their private clients at the public’s expense.
This public disillusionment with the professions has led, in the case of architecture, to proposals in several state legislatures to suspend our licensing laws because of perceptions that we have become too much like a service business.
This marketplace criticism of and the public disillusion with the professions have extended into the universities, threatening the guild of scholars as never before. This has taken many forms, from actions in some schools to eliminate tenure to efforts in others to impose corporate-style management or to tie budgets to faculty productivity. Public support for higher education funding has also greatly subsided.
The professions and the professional schools, in other words, now face the same marketplace pressures, and struggle against the same populist skepticism.
And the situation does not seem likely to change anytime soon. As the sociologist Christine McGuire has argued, “Predictions for the future of individual professions strongly suggest that most, if not all, will continue to be faced by more external regulation, increased competition from outside the field, intrusion of new occupations, louder public demands for more high-quality service at lower cost, and increasingly rapid and pervasive technological change that drastically alters practice.”
Although facing very similar pressures, practitioners and educators have, unfortunately, sometimes blamed each other for the situation. You hear some architects argue that the schools have to become better at training graduates to be as productive as possible the first day on the job, an understandable concern given the schedule and fee pressures practitioners face. But that strategy plays into the very force that has caused the problem to begin with: the idea that a profession should model itself after business, despite the fact that a profession is supposed to be a counter to business, looking after the public good before private profit, and doing the right thing rather than what is just most expedient.
At the same time, you hear educators argue that the schools should focus on the disciplinary side of architecture and align themselves more with other academic departments than with architectural practitioners. This, too, is understandable given the pressures academics are under from their institutions to bring in more research dollars, to generate more tuition, and to support the values of the scholar’s guild in the face of increasing criticism. But that strategy also exacerbates the problem either by giving in to inappropriate marketplace models for education or by putting one’s head in the sand rather than accept change.
What we, instead, must do is redesign both the way we practice and the way we teach, each contributing in our different ways to the same goal of reaffirming the value of our profession and of professional education in the face of the conflicting demands placed on us by marketplace fundamentalists and political populists – demands that we work faster, cheaper and better, while also attending to large public problems.
As with any design problem, we might start by looking at precedents. When faced with similar hostility in the mid-19th Century, the profession and the schools refocused on public health, safety, and welfare, while leaving behind old ways of practicing and teaching. And they joined together to build up our knowledge base while, at the same time, redefining the core skills of an architect.
We might to pursue a similar course today. In the second part of this paper, I will suggest three pairs of apparently contradictory, but in fact interdependent strategies that we might consider.
The first pair involves rediscovering our public calling and expanding the range and types of services we offer and educate for. We should remember that the monopoly granted by our licenses or the security granted by our tenure demands something in return: that we serve as public intellectuals, as advocates and activists for the public good. At a time when 80 percent of the world’s population lives in substandard housing, when the U.S. construction industry alone contributes over 100 million tons of debris annually to landfills, and when we are reaching a ceiling in the ready availability of fossil fuels and freshwater supplies – there are plenty of issues for us to take up. But we need to do more that espouse opinions: we need to conduct joint research in these areas, make public our findings, advocate appropriate policy changes, make pro-bono proposals, and integrate all of this activity into our education and our practices. In terms of the severity of these problems, there is no time to loose, and in terms of our profession regaining the public’s faith in us, there is everything to gain.
At the same time, we need to leave behind hidebound traditions and become more entrepreneurial in how we practice and in what we teach. The old industrial model of practice, with interchangeable staff laboring in the back room and a few partners in front of clients, needs to be rethought not only because it is inefficient and ineffective in leveraging the talents of knowledge workers, but because it unduly limits the range of projects we can cost effectively take on, and thus limits the service we can provide to ordinary people who cannot pay typical architectural fees. Similarly, the schools need to rethink the old Beaux Arts model of the design studio, which focuses mainly on schematic design for hypothetical users and imagined clients. The schools, instead, need to expose students to all phases of design work, including pre and post-design services, and to innovate new applications of our knowledge that go far beyond the one-off, custom design of individual buildings that fewer and fewer people can afford.
The second pair of strategies involves reasserting our economic value and exploring new ways of generating and distributing knowledge. We need, as practitioners and educators, to join in a common research effort to build a knowledge base on the effects of what we do. We do, of course, have considerable knowledge about the design and detailing of buildings and about how to educate students in these areas. But we have very little rigorous, easily accessible knowledge about the consequences of our actions, which makes it hard for us to predict the effects of our decisions. This one fact may have had more to do with the disappointing compensation of architects than anything else. In the early 20th century, the salaries of doctors, engineers, and architects were not much different, but since then, medicine and to a lesser extent, engineering, have engaged in intensive research into the consequences of their actions, to the point where they can predict failures or know the probabilities of survival. As they have done so, so have their average compensation levels diverged from our own.
To achieve such a state of knowledge, we need to communicate in new and more effective ways. The knowledge loop between the profession and the schools in our field has broken down in two places. Practitioners do not have a good way of communicating to the schools the kinds of problems you are encountering or the kinds of knowledge you need, nor do the schools have a good way of capturing the knowledge that we generate or of communicating relevant research results back to the profession. Other fields have large federal agencies, such as the NIH or the NSF, to facilitate such research and communication, but we need to design other, more creative ways of funding such work. For instance, rather than see students as cheap labor of only modest use to an office, the profession needs to work out, with the schools, a system in which students can work, partly for credit and partly for pay, to conduct research of relevance to the office and to the larger discipline, overseen by both a practitioner and educator. At the same time, rather than see teaching, research, and community service as separate activities, the schools need to find ways of having students conduct research relevant to the profession – materials and systems research, post-occupancy evaluations, digital tool development – as part of their coursework. To make all of this a reality – to reconnect our fractured knowledge loop – we desperately need many more channels of communication among practitioners and educators, ranging from web-based databases in which the knowledge we collectively generate is readily available and easily searched, to print-based journals in which the knowledge we build can be evaluated and sorted in ways most useful to offices and schools.
The final pair of strategies involves redefining our core skills and embracing a wider application of our knowledge at the edges of the profession. We have tended to define ourselves according to what we produce – the designs and drawings of buildings – rather than according to our process or way of thinking, which have an ever-expanding range of applications. The legal profession made that transition from thinking of itself mainly as trying cases in court to defining law as a way of analyzing and resolving problems that has many applications and much influence. Our field has been undergoing a similar transformation, although with little official recognition. About half of all architecture school graduates end up in “alternative” careers – so many that these are no longer alternative – ranging from product development to property development, manufacturers reps to owner’s reps, construction management to facilities management. What architecturally trained people bring to these fields – our “core skills” – involve not just an understanding of building design, materials, and technology, but an ability to see relationships, resolve conflicts, embrace ambiguity, and envision the future. Those latter skills may be where our greatest value lies and yet we pay little attention to them in school and rarely articulate them as what we do as a profession. That needs to change.
And yet, as we redefine the core, we also need to open our membership and embrace those who are expanding our profession and deepening our discipline. Our field suffers from a tendency to elevate one application of our knowledge – building design – over all others, evident in the awards programs we run, the feature stories we publish, and the studios we emphasize in school. All others who don’t excel in this one area often feel, as a result, as if they had failed. While other professions also suffer from this – surgeons and trial lawyers sometimes act as if they are synonymous with medicine and law – at least those other fields have gotten past the idea that all others have second-class status. One way they’ve done so has been to embrace the wide range of applications of their knowledge into their professional societies. Another way has been to provide tracks within their schools that let students move into their areas of interest before graduating. Both of these steps are ones that our field needs to take. Otherwise, we will continue to lose the talent of students and professionals who don’t fit the straightjacket that we have placed on ourselves.
We live in a world embroiled in physical, social, and environmental conflicts of all sorts, a world in great need of the conflict resolution that design can bring. But for us to thrive in such a world, especially in the face of the public’s skepticism about our motives and private sector’s skepticism about our value, we need to rediscover our calling as we expand our services, reassert our value as we elevate our knowledge, and redefine our core skills as we embrace alternative paths. We managed to do this over a hundred years ago and I am convinced that we can – and will – do so again.