More Thoughts on the Studio Model

"Architectural education" was a hot topic for debate when I was in school two years ago, from conferences on exactly that topic, to the annual architectural school rankings, to my own dean's comments as he prepared to step down from his post after a decade of leading the school.  I think "design thinking" is still a hot issue, and within architecture, the pertinent questions seem to be whether architecture school prepares you well for practice, whether it's similar to practice or not, and whether it should be.

The Stanford d.school, a project built by my firm (Cody Anderson Wasney Architects); image courtesy of the d.school

Mark Wigley, the architecture theorist and aforementioned previous dean of GSAPP, told one of my classmates - our class representative, who was questioning the lack of career services provided by the school - that students came to GSAPP to "join the think tank," not to prepare themselves for a career of practice.  My classmates and I found it difficult to believe that the dean of a professional school, which grants accredited degrees that lead to licensure and, thus, practice, could have such a limited view of what should happen in architecture school.  Architectural research is great (at least, I think it is), but I think the true test of a design idea is when it gets built and real people have to use it.  Since architecture is a very practical art, getting to practice it is, in a sense, the goal.

Now that I have a couple years of distance from studio, I think I can finally look back and judge whether architecture school prepared me for practice.  In many senses, the answer is yes, but perhaps not in the ways one would immediately guess.  In school, I spent a lot of time figuring out what the problem was that I wanted to address with my work, and then solving it.  In practice, the problems are often immediate and obvious: This detail doesn't work.  That product isn't available.  The design busts the budget.  The solutions are still elusive, however, and the dogged pursuit of answers in the face of complex problems is common to both school and practice.  The importance of "studio culture," of mutual support, learning from one another, and learning to work together, is another commonality (at least in the firm where I work now).  And, for better or worse, the cyclical boom-and-bust of rushing to meet a deadline and working overtime to get it done, only to be followed by weeks of inactivity during, say, the DSA review process, has continued on in practice.  The difference is that I now have many projects going on at once, so when one is dormant, the others take over, and there is no summer break.  But I do usually get to go home at 6pm (one of my complaints about school was that there were no free evenings).

The actual "design" part of the equation is harder to judge as to whether school prepared me for practice.  I think so.  In some sense, good design is the result of experience, so gaining experience in school thinking about different types of problems / programs / scales, etc, did prepare me for real practice.  And the similar type of educational training we all experienced makes it easier for my coworkers and me to work together - we share a common language, set of tools, and background.  Even if we each focused on different specific projects in school, we learned a similar way to tackle them.

Studio is the crucible in which we forge new architects, and thus, its rigor is useful and important.  Real architectural practice is difficult, involving constantly-changing technology, politics, money, multiple stakeholders (even private homes get approved by someone other than the homeowners), multiple personalities and businesses (from suppliers to installers), legal consequences, and yes, somewhere in there, a design vision.  Submitting your design ideas to the critique of your peers and professors is only a vague approximation of the real-world architectural process, however.  I wrote at length on this approximation two years ago, shortly after graduating.  I still agree with much of what I said in my previous post -- I still think the critique process in school, which generally involves only other architectural professionals, is too insular -- but I've come to appreciate more how school and practice are similar rather than different.  The remaining question, of course, is whether they should be. 

The NAAB and NCARB seem to think school and practice should be aligned.  NCARB's recent proposal to introduce licensure upon graduation is one way they're signaling that the path to professional practice should be more integrated into architectural education in the future.  On the other hand, I think "design thinking" in general is coming to be more recognized as a valuable tool in fields outside architecture (see: the Stanford d.school, linked above), so perhaps there is value in an architectural education apart from practice.  Certainly there are plenty of people who took their architecture degrees elsewhere in the recession and seem not to have returned to architecture despite the uptick in construction over the last few years.

As for me, I'm starting to think that the tension between "pure" architecture theory / research and "applied" architectural training is a productive one, and it's probably good that architecture schools invest in both.  For all Dean Wigley's comments about the "think tank," there were plenty of highly practical courses at GSAPP, from curtain wall detailing, to woodshop classes, to GIS and mapping.  I'm sure a motivated person could find a way to make nearly any class more research-y or more practical based on his interests.  That's the beauty of letting students choose their own adventure in grad school - you can get the education that you need, or at least the one that feeds your interests.  I think I was able to navigate a course that gave me a healthy dose of both practicality and craziness (design a new transit network for Tokyo!), which, in the end, served me well for practice.  If you  think that there's an inverse relationship between how much you like school and how much you like practice, that's probably because you're taking the wrong classes, and because the intense studio schedule is terrible.  Getting paid to do the work you wanted to do anyway, and not having to do it on the weekends, is admittedly pretty great.  If you can't find anyone to pay you to do the work that you loved in school, that would be equally pretty terrible.  So I can maybe see where the stereotype came from.

I will close by saying that personally I enjoy getting to do a variety of tasks: design, solve problems, write, and research.  In architectural practice, I've gotten to do all of these things, although not at the same speed of turn-over that I had in school, where I would have all of these tasks at the same time.  So sometimes practice feels a bit dull, because I spend weeks on only problem-solving, then weeks on only design, or days of only writing or research.  The constant mental stimulation of school isn't quite matched by real life.  But when I take a breath and step back from it, I can see that I'm still getting to do nearly all the same things I did in school.  In that sense, it was good preparation, and I wouldn't change it.  (I would still change the "culture" of no sleep and too much work in school, though, which sets you up to think that's ok during real life.)  There are improvements to be made, but the variety of possible experiences in school makes up for a lot of problems - if you hate your studio, you can pick a different one next time.  The studio model isn't all good or all bad, but I think it does a decent job of preparing you for practice, and that's probably all we really need from it.  The rest is up to each student to figure out for herself.  And if you really want to join the think tank, there are post-professional degrees and PhDs for that!


An Unexpected Shortcut Through IDP

NCARB's decision to reduce the required number of hours for IDP (the Intern Development Program) couldn't have come at a better time.  Good on NCARB for making these important changes -- shortening the ARE and now IDP!  "IDP Streamline," as it's known (not to be confused with the much more sinister Operation Streamline), has reduced the required hours by 1/3, by eliminating the "supplemental" (read: pointless) hours that were required beyond the "core" hours.  Those extra hours could be in any category of work; they were just filler to make IDP last an extra year.  But no more!  Now once you finish the core hours, satisfying all the requirements for breadth of experience, you're done.  Thankfully, California follows the national IDP requirements, so as soon as IDP Streamline took effect in July, my target date for getting licensed moved up by about a year.  Thanks, NCARB!

And so it came to pass that on August 15th, I filed my final hours report, which, duly approved by my supervisor, granted me the ability to file additional paperwork with the State of California allowing me to take yet another exam and then, if I pass, file for my license.  So, you know, I'm getting there.

Lest anyone think that the new IDP regime is too soft on us younglings, keep in mind that the "core hours" requirement is still pretty onerous.  While only 3,740 core hours are required, due to the nature of the category requirements, I ended up logging 4,847 hours in my attempt to satisfy everything.  Believe it or not, my real life work experience didn't line up precisely with NCARB's categories, so I had to work a few extra months beyond two years in order to finish.  And I got lucky, since many folks don't have jobs that allow them to take on such a wide range of tasks in such a small amount of time.  Fear not, old school architects:  We're still subject to an overly-burdensome set of licensing requirements.  As of 2012, the median time it took to get licensed after graduation was about 8 years.  Even though that's coming down, as of 2015, it's still taking about 5 years to finish IDP and 2.5 years to finish the AREs.  (Check out NCARB By the Numbers for more stats and previous averages.)  The average age of someone getting licensed is still about 33 (the previous high was 36 years in 2008).  I don't think it should take that long!  And as for me, even though I have a master's degree from an accredited school, more than two years of work experience, and have passed all seven difficult exams, I'm still not an architect in California.

But I might be one by Christmas.

To those still laboring to fill up those IDP categories, remember: the IDP Guidelines gives you the descriptions of what fits into those categories.  Read those descriptions well!  Many of them may be broader than you assumed, or some tasks you would normally lump under "construction documents," like reviewing consultant drawings and coordinating their work, should really be placed in other categories.  Don't sell yourself short by throwing everything into one category, like I did for the first year or so.  It's probably easier to do it right when you're filing reports weekly, but if you do bulk hours reports like I did, make sure you track all the relevant categories.

My next step is to get California's approval to take the CSE (California Supplemental Exam).  Look forward to future posts on that!

And now, for something completely different, here is a list of famous ex-architects, who took their architecture degrees and ran away with them into different fields.  (Ok, fine, I admit it - this was a separate post that I just tacked on to the end here.  Enjoy.  There's probably no architect out there who hasn't thought a few times about giving up and entering a less bureaucracy-ridden field...)


Few professions prepare you to do something other than what you're trained to do quite like architecture.  We architectural professionals love to think of ourselves as generalists, a little bit good at a lot of things, and this tends to draw us in many directions at once.  Here are some of the more famous figures who got their training in architecture but jumped ship for other (inevitably more lucrative) pursuits.

"Weird Al" Yankovic:  A Cal Poly graduate, this famous parodist has been assaulting the airwaves since he interned at his college radio station in between studio crits.

Charles Eames:  Famed designer and half of the Charles & Ray Eames power couple, Eames is best known in non-designer circles for his chairs and short film "Powers of Ten."

Natasha Case:  You might not know her name, but you may have had her ice cream.  Together with her friend and former real estate developer Freya Estrella, Case created the ice cream truck Coolhaus, which serves ice cream sandwiches inspired by architects.  They now have trucks in three cities & two retail locations, and sell their sandwiches in many high-end grocery stores.  True story: I had a sandwich from their truck in NYC and it was tasty.

Joseph Kosinski:  Director of the films Tron: Legacy and Oblivion (of which he was also writer and producer), Kosinski gradated from Columbia GSAPP and apparently has taught 3D modeling classes there.  When the new Tron came out, a bunch of my classmates and I went to see it.  I can't say I was overly impressed, but hey, that's a project seen by way more people than any project I've yet to complete as a designer!