Getting other, not better The architectural profession was set on a false path in 1958. We must avoid this happening again
Earlier this year, Professor Allen Cunningham criticised the Stansfied Smith Review of Architectural Education, in a paper suggesting that the basis for the review was conceptually flawed given the massive changes in the dissemination of knowledge which are upon us. We publish edited extracts.
Oxford's dangerous legacies
The 1958 Oxford Conference on architectural education, far from being a panacea, created structural problems for architectural education and research which require resolution if the aspiration persists to have its unique characteristics acknowledged in the university ambience without concession to conventional academic expectations. Leslie Martin did deliver an authoritative account of architectural education in 1970 which re-examined some of the Oxford Conference conclusions (eg the relationship between education and practice) and contains many elegantly stated wisdoms.
Architecture continues, of course, to live uneasily within the university system, since it is clearly neither a humanities nor a science-based discipline. As James Madge, in a letter to the editor of an important architectural journal, once put it: 'What 'art' can there be in an architecture which is divorced from its specific and material base in construction? Or what 'science' in an architecture which tests but has no hypothesis? It is ill-defined in its epistemological scope and is staffed by academic professionals rather than professional academics.'
Design, which is constantly claimed as the central discipline of architectural education, is an activity, not a branch, of learning and the scope of knowledge relevant to its practice is without limit.
One especially dangerous legacy of the Oxford Conference was the virtual banishment of the apprenticeship, no doubt because, as a practice, it was an idea associated with trade, not academia. The discouragement of part-time education and the 'burden of pupillage' eliminated any obligation for practitioners to serve as masters to guide aspirants across the threshold 'when play becomes real' - as do lawyers, doctors, musicians, sports people and fine artists - and therefore placed the onus upon academics to produce 'complete' architects, a fatuous expectation which endures.
There is a huge misconception that research within architectural schools should directly inform and influence the teaching programmes, as occurs in science. That no school in this country or anywhere else has (to my knowledge) successfully demonstrated the principle of a consistent, causal link between research and studio work, has not discouraged the conclusion over many years that this reflects poorly on those teaching or conducting research in the schools.
The problem is structural. A legitimate goal of research in architecture may be described as 'to build knowingly', which architects practice every day, a form of research not recognised as such - all other studies engage with science or the humanities and do not, consequently, constitute distinct, architectural research. So the expectations have been, and continue to be, misplaced. . . .
Getting other, not better
Architecture throughout history may be perceived and interpreted as a product of myth and technology. The myths through which architecture is interpreted concern two aspects; first, interpretation of its historical inheritance (eg classical and modern); and second, those which surround its conception through an activity called 'design' which evades any academic measure as a discipline (thus alienating its practice within universities); and, distinct from the instrumental basis of technology, involves subjective, irrational procedures and poetic outcomes. Architecture, which relies upon such mystical procedures, does not proceed and get 'better'; it gets 'other'. There can be no culture of 'improvement' based upon myths, a factor which alienates those reliant upon measurable outcomes.
Technology, on the other hand, which provides an objective framework of established and tested procedures, progresses with time, and gets 'better'. As with the pure sciences, enquiry is cumulative. Each finding builds upon previous discoveries in linear progression - the central concern is to produce things, so knowledge is as much knowing 'how' as knowing 'that'. In technology resides a secure, tangible measure of architectural output, the common territory for clients and public as the basis of 'professionalism'. Architecture thus combines the immeasurable with the measurable as a 'productive art', a professionally and academically unique category which continues unrecognised as such.
Examination of educational transformations from the nineteenth to twentieth centuries reveals an evolution from a static, definable world to our present perception of it as a sort of energy 'matrix'. In the schools, the curriculum, far from being a finite defined, narrowly prescriptive core, now has no limits, with each new problem generating need and defining its new territory. A brief review of the educational components exposes these transformations. Technology has traditionally been concerned with tried and tested evolved systems, but has evolved as open-ended, presenting a challenge for invention as a means of architectural expression employing proto-scientific methodology. History was presented objectively as the procession of styles and is now interpretative rather than factual and neither all inclusive or chronological. Theory was primarily concerned with Laws and Principles of Composition, but now encompasses semiology, structuralism, phenomenology, positivism, sociology, chaos theory, deconstruction, philosophy of mind, aesthetics and most things one cares to name.
Even the area of presentation which was narrowly prescribed has now assimilated the medium which really is the message, reality having been displaced by its virtual image as an end in itself. That special preserve, design, which was the product of compositional rules and typologies generated by a 'brief', now springs from any source, concrete or subliminal, the end product being the identification of a need appropriate to architectural expression (the problem), thus reversing positivist procedures. Process has replaced product. Even the concept of the 'school', understood since Athens as a School of Thought, thus providing a coherent forum for debate around courses of studies, is now fast disappearing as an entity. The course, which was a prescribed programme of related studies and projects bound by a pedagogically coherent framework within a school now consists of a subjectively devised route through modules selected by each student following guidelines of 'acceptability' relating to a possible ultimate activity called 'architecture', the definition of which is now, itself, increasingly uncertain.
These educational transformations challenge by their very nature the concept of an architectural profession. A profession, which not only has acceptable modes of practice but also a theory of action which can become a reproducible, valid procedure, requires courses which serve it to proceed along rationally devised routes. A profession is an elite which protects its knowledge base and maintains a mystique which surrounds the practice of its discipline. It is judged by those outside its practices who expect the techniques employed 'to be used to achieve a self-reinforcing system that maintains constancy,' as Donald Shon states. A profession further expects that graduates from the educational system have been expertly scrutinised to ensure a competence backed by a secure knowledge base. The public perceives the maintenance of professional standards via control of the specialist education which serves it a prerequisite justifying its status. But control of process is fast becoming less feasible - soon, the only means of monitoring standards will be by examination of output on an individual basis at the point of graduation.
Evaluation at the final stage will soon be fraught with difficulty. Design project work in many upper-level courses is now increasingly characterised by the avoidance of instrumental procedures - the project has become a means through which aspects of culture may be explored, employing computer- generated images. Process has subsumed product.
The 'problem' and its 'resolution', instead of generating action, are now identified at the conclusion of very personalised, highly subjective searches which follow no pre-defined linear pattern. Methodology is unpredictable, knowledge is secondary and the process thus departs from that which the culture of professionalism expects.
A further problem arises from the student who, from being a static entity, is now peripatetic and, in emulation of the supermarket, may wander the world picking tasty modules from the academic shelves and assembling the certificates into a 'recipe' which someone, somewhere, has advised, may constitute an acceptable passport to architectural practice. Given a future with no schools or courses, and individuals contriving their mix of studies in many locations, how may the processes or the outcomes be judged? If it is conceded that at best validation of 'content' and 'process' will become difficult, and probably impossible, then the certainties and guarantees upon which a profession relies will have vanished. Professions demand the education of aspirants operate on a rational basis, but regulation can only control and measure a predictable activity, so the system must be definable. Architecture might under these circumstances thrive but, according to traditional measures of professionalism, architects would lose what authority they still command in the public domain. There is no evidence that architecture benefits from the institutionalisation of values. In a plural world the concept 'school' is perhaps, an anachronism. Ivan Illich in Deschooling Society (Harper & Row, 1971) states it thus: 'Traditional society was more like a set of concentric circles of meaningful structures, while modern man must learn how to find meaning in many structures to which he is only marginally related.'
A first task of the review might be to test the concept of architecture as a 'profession' to determine whether the concept has become an anachronism as have those of 'school' and 'course', 'knowledge base' and 'core'.
The processes of validation and quality control of architectural education require fundamental reassessment consequent upon which, so do the roles of the professional institute (riba) and statutory registration body (arb). The architect might very well be required to demonstrate ability to serve culture and society outside and beyond the artificial constraints and protection provided by the cocoon of 'professionalism', and this might be no bad thing. The practice of architecture is the only profession having at its core 'creativity' - this being exercised through an activity called 'design', which does not constitute a 'discipline' in the sense applied to law, medicine, accountancy, civil engineering etc. While one can nurture 'creativity', it is arguable whether 'design' can be taught - certainly it can be demonstrated and endlessly rehearsed, but that does not constitute a definable pedagogic discipline having measurable outcomes.
Furthermore the expansion of knowledge, which has eroded any definable core common to all architectural educational programmes, and the access open to all via the Internet to gather information on any chosen topic, removes the exclusivity (and aura of myth) surrounding specialist courses - open learning is available, informally and universally, as a reality. It remains a paradox in protecting the title 'architect' that producing architecture is different from being an architect. Although the word 'architect' is protected by law in the uk, architecture has no such legal protection - in other words, a person can create architecture but not be an architect, while another who is an architect in law as often as not creates nothing which might be recognised as such.
My argument in this section of the paper has been that the concept of 'professionalism' can no longer be sustained given education as a dynamic matrix beyond traditional levels of control. Consequently the ability of any institute to effectively guard professional standards will be progressively eroded. However, such challenges are the easy bit - the cultural context in the next century is likely to pose far more radical challenges.