Back during my school days at U.C. Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design, one of our final class assignments was a project for a hypothetical cultural center. The program was elaborate, requiring dozens of spaces, large and small. I spent a good part of the allotted three weeks coming up with an unassailable floor plan before finally moving on to — as architects like to put it — expressing my solution in three dimensions.
Yet when it came time for the faculty critique session that traditionally culminated these assignments, the professors spent virtually the entire time discussing the external appearance of each project — its forms and their associations, its metaphorical symbolism, and so on. Few of them, including some well-known architects in their own right, even glanced at the floor plans to see if they actually worked.
Now, it may well be that the professors simply — though wrongly — assumed that advanced-level students should already be able to produce a functional and buildable design. Then again, it may be that our distinguished faculty simply wasn’t interested in dwelling on nuts and bolts before getting to the fun stuff.
This approach may be cracking good architecture, but it isn’t good education. A curriculum preoccupied with metaphysics is one reason many "Cal" students of my era earned architectural degrees without being able to produce a logical floor plan or a cogent structural system, and instead were left to learn these things on the job, if at all. The things we did excel at — plumbing obscure depths of meaning and lofting high-flying rhetoric to explain them — didn’t often endear us to prospective employers. Unless they happened to be newspapers.
While Berkeley’s architecture program has no doubt become more well-rounded since my years there, the whole broad sweep of architectural education, alas, has not. Most schools continue to fall into one of two categories — those (like the Berkeley of my day) that focus on aesthetics at the expense of technology, and those that focus on technology at the expense of aesthetics. Neither can provide architecture students a comprehensive education, and both risk training them in what has derisively been called "paper architecture."
Yet even if schools were to strike a perfect balance between these two academic extremes, there would still remain a gaping hole in the middle of the architectural curriculum — that little matter of how we build things in the real world. As the often poetic work of Frank Lloyd Wright, Bernard Maybeck, Addison Mizner and a good number of other practically trained architects will attest, great architecture — not to speak of just-plain-decent architecture — is vitally dependent on a firsthand acquaintance with the physical realities of building. It’s as integral to architecture as the alphabet is to writing.
Yet with rare exceptions — Wright’s Taliesin and Paolo Soleri’s Arcosanti perhaps best known among them — architecture schools at both extremes continue to pointedly ignore the inarguable importance of hands-on building experience. By all means, teach students subtleties, teach them technicalities — but for heaven’s sake, teach them to appreciate how it all gets off the ground.
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