How Can Higher Education Build a Better Architect?

In the 2010s, design/build programs were the cutting edge of architectural education. Today, young architects must master empathy as much as any design software or construction know-how.

At a point in human history where time has never felt so bent and warped (we can all agree August straight-up disappeared, right?), it’s a balm to be able to reflect on the past. 

Flipping open a copy of Dwell’s January 2010 issue, dedicated cover-to-cover to exploring the future of design, is a way to find some much-needed temporal balance; it's a grounding portrait of a hopeful time. Ten years ago, writer-architect Dan Maginn covered the future of design education, and in his story ("Not So Big, Not So Easy") he offered an optimistic look at the design-build programs that were starting to crop up at architecture schools around the globe. 

At the time, these courses were fledgling entries into a new era of hands-on architecture, ones that celebrated collaboration and encouraged both thinking and doing, taking bright young things out of the classroom and into the world. 

The super-insulated building, designed and built by the students of Studio 804, also features a solar collection system to help it reach a LEED Platinum status.

And 10 years later, in the unending time distortion that is 2020, we’ve never been more grateful that this idealistic future of architecture is our here-and-now reality—because now, more than ever, we need programs that create citizens, not starchitects, and that treat empathy as reverently as drafting skills.

A Decade of Design-Build

In Maginn’s 2010 story, he reported on Tulane School of Architecture’s innovative UrbanBuild studio as it tackled its fourth project: A 1,200-square-foot shotgun-style home for a challenged neighborhood in New Orleans, intended to be as novel as it was economical. A decade later, hundreds of other aspiring architects have followed in their footsteps.

Back in 2010, UrbanBuild's UB04 project was the center of Dwell's Future of Design Education story. The student designed-and-built home responded to New Orlean's requirements for hurricane preparedness with a shutter system made from impact-resistant polycarbonate materials

Inside UrbanBuild's most recent project, UB15, completed in May 2020. For the past five years, students have been iterating off of the previous class' final design. The result this time around was the creation of a prototype that could be expanded into a dense, multifamily configuration.

Working with a real budget, a real time frame (16 weeks), and real physical restrictions, UrbanBuild’s cohorts continue to experience the true gauntlet of a project from start to finish. The same type of opportunity and hard work exists at the University of Kansas' Studio 804, a design-build program headed by Dan Rockhill. At the Midwestern school, students have designed buildings for the university itself, and created housing for the homeless; fourteen of these have been LEED platinum, each designed, planned, and built within nine months. 

The biggest benefit of these sorts of outside-the-classroom courses is the ability for students to see all of the different ways in which they can contribute to our built world. We can’t all be Bjarke Ingels—but, really, how many Bjarkes does the industry even need? 

A rendering of Studio 804's next planned project, The Monarch Village, intended as safe, temporary housing for single mothers with children. It also doubles as a space for isolating during the pandemic for shelter residents.

Sharpening the Skills

"These programs allow students to find out what they’re good at," says URBANbuild director Byron Mouton on a Zoom call from his office, where the walls are covered in tiny balsa wood models of a dozen-plus graduating classes. Project managers, city liaisons, fundraisers, storytellers, graphic designers—these are all critical positions in any design project, and in project-based programs, students can discover their talents for any one of them. 

These small scale, intensive projects also continue to be a window into what a modern architecture career could be. Yes, corporate firms await, but knowing what else is out there can be empowering. "I don’t do this to make them builders, I do this to have them see there are other ways of delivering architecture and design," says Rockhill, calling from Studio 804’s latest job site. "There’s a degree of confidence in trying something."

The students of UrbanBuild's 2010 design-build program in front of the LEED silver home they dreamed up and crafted together.

Out of the Classroom and Into the World

Importantly, the impact of education in these programs goes beyond the enrolled students themselves and out into the community. "We want to get out of our walls," says Iñaki Alday, dean for Tulane's School of Architecture. "The way that we work in urban building is not just for the experience of the students but the impact on a neighborhood." Working in the neighborhood day in and day out, as they’re getting a house designed and built in eight months—"a miracle," Alday calls it—students build trust and accountability. 

Dr. Harriet Harriss, dean of the Pratt School of Architecture, echoes this sentiment. "Architectural education has shifted on its axis towards more civic rather than commercial outcomes," she says. "Increasingly, students see architecture as a means through which matters of social change and ecological survival can be addressed." To put it bluntly, aesthetics are out and equity is in. 

Studio 804's 1,500-square foot house supports the city of Lawrence's goals of increased downtown-adjacent residency.

Of course, these sort of heroic neighborhood rehabilitation projects can have a negative side when done without care and context. Lesley Lokko, former dean of the Bernard and Anne Spitzer School of Architecture at CUNY, says she was inundated with requests from students abroad who wanted to "come and build something," with little understanding of what or why. 

"I felt that the term 'design-build' had taken on all kinds of 'savior' connotations that I personally felt very uncomfortable with," she says. "As anyone who's ever worked in a participatory design context will tell you, often the building itself is not the most important part of the process. Working with others—however you define 'other'—is the project." 

The students of UrbanBuild's class of 2020 get hands on designing the roof of UB15. This roof form, when completed, will bring water to the courtyard of the home.

It’s one more reminder of the importance of context and consent in architecture, a lesson that increasingly is baked into the more comprehensive programs. Architecture today, many believe, is more than a vocation—it’s a public responsibility. "We have a responsibility as a school of a design to impart how architecture connects with the people," says Alday. "They’re not only becoming great designers, they’re becoming citizens." 

Alday envisions a future of architects who aren’t just providing a service. They’re leading the discussions on the big questions, and practicing curiosity and empathy as they do it. 

"It’s clear we can’t keep inhabiting the planet the way we’re doing it," he says. "In discussions about how we’re developing and redeveloping and densifying and creating infrastructure, we need to have more architects. We cannot leave these to economics and policy people and technical solutions."

Into the Next Decade

If 2020 ever ends and we start looking into design’s next decade, what happens to architecture education from here? Lokko suggests that ideas of status quo will continue to break down and not just on a curriculum level. 

"The de facto supremacy of the West really has come to an end. New alliances, new centers, and new knowledge paradigms are emerging that seem far more in tune with global interests, challenges, and concerns," she says. 

The importance of the word "alliance" here is key. "What's clear, at least to me, isn't just that new centers are emerging—it's that they do so in conjunction and in dialogue with older ones. We're all hybrid, to greater or lesser degrees," says Lokko. "What's exciting isn't that 'this' replaces 'that'—it's that both are now in dialogue. There's a cross-institutional, cross-disciplinary, cross-national conversation opening up that I find both compelling and exhilarating."


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