SO MANY CLASSES, SO LITTLE TIME

École des Beaux-Arts, Atelier André, 1880s

École des Beaux-Arts, Atelier André, 1880s

Architectural curricula have changed in the last several decades. First, they are shorter. Architecture, since it concerns creativity, takes time. The original course of study at the École des Beaux-Arts recognized this; you simply kept at it until you were considered ready to leave. Modern architecture programs used to be five or six years. Since they devoted  time to general subjects, this usually meant about four years of intensive architecture study. In the 1970s, most universities followed Harvard’s lead and made a three-year Master the professional degree. The problem was that a BA degree didn’t really prepare students for a career in architecture, so while graduate students might be more mature, they still had to be taught the basics, just as before.  Compressing four years of material into three was made more challenging by the emergence of another trend: elective courses. When I was an architecture student my six-year program was composed entirely of required courses; today 20-25 percent of most programs is elective courses. These courses cover a large range of material, some essential, some peripheral, some downright arcane. Electives are popular with students, of course, and also with teachers, since they allow the teaching of highly focused subjects tailored to the instructor’s own interest or research agenda. Deans like electives because they can be taught by inexpensive part-timers.

But curriculum design is a zero-sum game: teach this, and you don’t have time to teach that. So, with less time and fewer required courses, what has been left out? Architectural history has taken the largest hit, compressed into one quick survey course, transformed into “history-theory,” or just cut out altogether. One of my classes was life drawing, two hours a week with charcoal, easel, and a model; I can’t imagine that many schools require this today. Another was an introduction to sociology–how people behave–important for an architect. Years ago, I taught a required course in specifications; today, that subject is generally folded into a catch-all class in “professional practice.”

Architecture is not the only profession facing the challenge of streamlining. In the 1970s, many American medical schools, in an attempt to produce more graduates to meet practitioner shortages, switched to three-year curricula. Subsequently, many of these schools reinstated a fourth year, but consisting chiefly of electives. It was not an unqualified success. One study of medical education concluded that “A much greater emphasis on educational rigor in all fourth-year courses (especially electives) is necessary to address the reputation for academic laxity and grade inflation.”

What is to be done? Extending graduate architecture programs by a year would be a start. It is not as if there is a shortage of architects–quite the contrary–so if a longer program reduced the number of graduates, that would not be a bad thing. The number of elective courses should be drastically curtailed. Important subjects should be mandatory; peripheral subjects such as furniture design (you can’t learn to design furniture in twelve weeks), should be cut. With a bit of ingenuity, it might even be possible to make room for life drawing.

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