Two Cultures

During my nineteen years at Penn I have served as a faculty member in two departments, architecture in the School of Design, and real estate in the Wharton School. I discovered many small differences: the real estate faculty is more social, with a Christmas party and an end of year barbecue; architects are less punctual and more long-winded than economists; the business school has better box lunches at faculty meetings. But what struck me most was the differences in academic cultures.

Medical schools do medical research, business schools advance the theoretical state of the art, but architecture schools don’t produce architecture—except on paper, and that work is done almost entirely by students. The design studios are the heart of the program, and the exhibition of student work is a highlight of the academic year. Like most programs, Penn’s department also produces an annual catalog of student work, but one cannot imagine an annual real estate publication devoted to student course assignments. In the real estate department, although all the faculty teach large lecture courses and teaching is what “pays the rent” for the department, the emphasis is on faculty research. Many faculty do all their teaching in one semester, in order to have the second free for their own work.

It is not that the real estate department doesn’t pay attention to teaching, quite the opposite. Attendance is more firmly enforced, assignments are more demanding, and grading is stricter than in architecture, at least in my experience. US News and World Report, which is basically a student consumer guide to university programs, regularly rates Wharton as one of the best B-schools in the country. How do they teach? Real estate faculty teach the same courses, year-in and year-out, refining and updating but not drastically altering the content. The content of architecture design studios, on the other hand, changes from year to year. Who teaches? The real estate department makes minimum use of adjunct teachers, considering them unreliable amateurs. By contrast, in architecture programs there is a long tradition, dating back to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, of practitioners teaching on a part-time basis. In the Penn architecture department, for example, scores of adjuncts and lecturers far outnumber the dozen or so standing faculty.

Architecture curricula are in a constant state of flux, influenced by changing fashions, and torn between the profession’s demands for new skills, and emerging scholarly theories. It would be easy to say that the real estate curriculum is more focused. But the narrow aim of B-schools is to expose students to course content—theories and methods. The goal of a design school is to teach creativity, which is an elusive goal. Especially as talent, rather than merely hard-work, is the key variable—and talent is always in short supply.

3 Responses to Two Cultures

  • Fritz Steiner says:

    I found this interesting because, at the University of Texas at Austin, we have had ongoing discussions between our McCombs School of Business and our School of Architecture. Among other things, this has resulted in a new undergraduate concentration in real estate for our architecture students.

    I can observe two big differences between our UT Austin’s School of Architecture faculty and Penn’s Design School. First, we have architects who design buildings(from the city airport to the new Formula One grandstand), interior designers who create interiors, landscape architects who produce open spaces, and planners who make plans. In fairness to Penn, certainly the work of faculty like James Corner, Laurie Olin, and Bob Yaro indicate active, reflective practices. Second, at the UT Austin School of Architecture, we do have an annual holiday party and an end-of-year barbeque during our reviews.(Perhaps, we are just more social.)

    Something we have in common with Penn, but isn’t mentioned by Professor Rybczynski, is the great disparity in the endowments between the Wharton School and Penn Design.

    • Witold says:

      Prof Steiner appears to be not up to date on the Penn faculty who also practice. Standing faculty include Marion Weiss and Ali Rahim; professors in practice are Enrique Norten, Cecil Balmond, Winka Dubbeldam, Homa Farjadi; adjunct professors include James Timberlake, Steven Kierans, Richard Farley, Richard Wesley.

      My point is that a professor doing medical or economics research at a university is not the same as a professor who also runs a practice outside the university. When Kahn taught at Penn, his work was seen as HIS work, not as an output of Penn. And the work of students in a design studio rarely qualifies as research—does anyone remember the student work done in Kahn’s Penn studio, or in Mies’s IIT studio?

      Prof Steiner is quite right about the money question. Salaries at the Wharton School are higher, and teaching hours are lower (as in all B-schools). The endowment question is more complicated. Endowed professorships are more common in the Wharton School. Since the real estate department dates from the 1980s, it does not have a long history of scholarships and endowments (as the architecture department does). What it does have is on-going financial support for faculty research from industry sponsors. This is a reflection of the direct value that the real estate industry sees in faculty research. I wonder if the same could be said of schools of architecture?

  • Witold says:

    From my friend Prof Adrian Sheppard, Professor Emeritus at McGill University, Montreal:
    We have embarked on a new world of architectural narcissism that has no bounds. I was once accused by the most “popular” design teacher at Carleton University that I was but a rationalist, the ultimate insult. Much of our silly architecture has to do with the manner in which we train our students. I am aghast by the teaching of some of my colleagues (who have never set foot in an architectural office) and who live in a world of make-believe. Turning a skyscraper into a pretzel is justified on the grounds that it is a valid formal experiment, a form of research. At a review last week a student was designing a “building” whose premise was based on a flaw he had discovered in a new computer program The flaw was to be the generator of the form. And he was searching for more flaws!

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