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.


What’s your opinion? Leave your comments below or send a letter to the editor. To contact the writer, click the byline at the top of the story.

Show Comments Hide Comments
Sign up for Inman’s Morning Headlines
What you need to know to start your day with all the latest industry developments
By submitting your email address, you agree to receive marketing emails from Inman.
Thank you for subscribing to Morning Headlines.
Back to top
Only 3 days left to register for Inman Connect Las Vegas before prices go up! Don't miss the premier event for real estate pros.Register Now ×
Limited Time Offer: Get 1 year of Inman Select for $199SUBSCRIBE×
Log in
If you created your account with Google or Facebook
Don't have an account?
Forgot your password?
No Problem

Simply enter the email address you used to create your account and click "Reset Password". You will receive additional instructions via email.

Forgot your username? If so please contact customer support at (510) 658-9252

Password Reset Confirmation

Password Reset Instructions have been sent to

Subscribe to The Weekender
Get the week's leading headlines delivered straight to your inbox.
Top headlines from around the real estate industry. Breaking news as it happens.
15 stories covering tech, special reports, video and opinion.
Unique features from hacker profiles to portal watch and video interviews.
Unique features from hacker profiles to portal watch and video interviews.
It looks like you’re already a Select Member!
To subscribe to exclusive newsletters, visit your email preferences in the account settings.
Up-to-the-minute news and interviews in your inbox, ticket discounts for Inman events and more
1-Step CheckoutPay with a credit card
By continuing, you agree to Inman’s Terms of Use and Privacy Policy.

You will be charged . Your subscription will automatically renew for on . For more details on our payment terms and how to cancel, click here.

Interested in a group subscription?
Finish setting up your subscription