When we talk about the quality of architectural education, we refer mainly to the level of plain knowledge acquired and taught during university. We tend to forget about the social and participatory, human – centered dimension of the education needed to form an architect. It’s no surprise that the average graduates, trained in a sanitized academic environment, are unsuspected about the problems awaiting in the challenging reality of the professional field. There is a routine on the well-oiled teaching machine that needs to be challenged.
Architectural education is responsible for forming the right conditions that lead to the drama or the miracle. In a rapidly globalized and technocratic environment, the practice of architecture has been reduced to the process of construction, subservient to the logic of commodity and economic claims. The influence of social and economic reality is present in the educational process. Good architecture survives only incarcerated in elitist circles, in institutions with high fees and from clients with a high budget. When in crisis, the only solution is collective action and change.
There are two people who moved a step forward and started questioning the solid, established educational system: Peter Zellner and Christine Ortiz. With a long professional and academic experience behind them, they have what it takes to critically stand in front of the current educational system which in their opinion is already broken.
Christine Ortiz to found a “New Research University”
Christine Ortiz is the dean of graduate education at MIT and a professor in the materials science department. Recently, she decided to give up her prestigious position as a professor, to found a radical, nonprofit kind of university, where there will be no majors, lectures or classrooms. Being at MIT for 17 years, she has always been interested in the future of the university. By archival research, she found out that many of the structures were taken from hundreds of years ago and never changed. She thinks that it’s time to move forward and start reshaping the future. In an interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education Christine explained her new school model as the following,
“What if you could start a university from scratch for today’s needs and with today’s technology? I’m looking at a new model, where the whole sort of vocabulary is different. The distinction between undergrad and grad goes away.”
She believes in a transdisciplinary approach to teaching where knowledge will be acquired virtually online, while the on-site education will be based on real projects and active learning. She has already begun to assemble a team that will help shape the proposed university and finally will begin the legal process of its founding.
Basically the idea is that we’ll have a core that’s project-based learning, but where students can have a really deep, integrative longer-term project rather than shorter projects. And then all of the knowledge acquisition would be moved virtually. So instead of projects’ being at the periphery, to sort of flip it more toward the graduate-education model.
The plan is, to begin with, a campus in the Boston area with huge project spaces and large centralized laboratories, where students from different fields of interest will work on projects that they are really passionate about. This will not only outcome profitable for the individual student but she also thinks that this new educational model will be a huge investment to the public good. Although this whole new idea is still at the foundations, she is optimistic that in a few years they will be able to start accepting students’ applications.
“Free School of Architecture” to launch by Peter Zellner
On the other coast of the United States, in California, Peter Zellner is launching the Free School of Architecture. Zellner takes a lead role in ZELLNERandCompany architectural design direction, and he has been teaching for more than 20 years in institutions such as the University of Florida and Ecole Spéciale d’Architecture in Paris. With his article “Architectural Education is broken – here’s how to fix it“, he highlighted the importance of the architecture school as an autonomous intellectual and cultural institution and the decline of the university to a business enterprise.
He is now in the process of launching the Free School of Architecture, as a direct follow-up to the concerns he outlined in his article. It is a post-graduate architecture school with no institutional fees and with the vision to explore the edges of architectural education. Escaping the traditional university model, FSA will not require from students to produce design or writing projects and will work on the philosophy of free exchange of ideas.
Students and teachers will be no longer forced into their usual roles and ideas can be literally exchanged for free. That doesn’t release or excuse either the students or teachers at FSA from having to argue for the value of their ideas. In fact, it elevates the need for real debate and exchange.
With 12 courses over six weeks, the classes are set to launch during the summer of 2017. Zellner believes in the productive debate and conversation on equal terms both for students and professors which will lead to a better acquisition of technical and creative knowledge. Although this post-studio model doesn’t offer a professional degree, it provides the right environment for a critical engagement in the discussion for the future of architecture.
Christine Ortiz and Peter Zellner have both made promising proposals with good intentions for the future of architectural education. In an obsolete academic world where the roles of the professor and the student are still predefined and inflexible, they dare to experiment with a fresh and innovative view. However, they still have many obstacles to overcome.
With the economic crisis expanding globally, gathering sources to fund these non-profit institutions can be a great challenge. The engagement of the public state in these efforts is crucial. Furthermore, as long as they don’t offer a professional degree, projects produced during these courses are not recognized as legitimate and need negotiation and justification to be accepted. We are still far from the ideal of an open and free university but as long as there are restless people with innovative ideas, we come closer to its realization.
Architecture is a synthetic and collaborative profession and as the world around us is changing we cannot stay static and uninvolved. There’s a need for a universal solution that will redefine the role of the architect and will adapt to the future challenges of the profession. Most of all, we should never forget that architecture consists mainly of the spiritual and the stochastic creation of living space, so it cannot be separated from the socio-political context. Through real life projects, with community participation, real debate and exchange of ideas, teaching, training and education will evolve into something bigger and deeper: pedagogy.
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