Learning by osmosis

I think that architectural training in North America is more wrong than right. It is based on an Enlightenment model of learning, imagining that verbal and/or written communication equals knowledge transfer equals education.

After toiling in invaluable apprenticeships, and learning mostly by overhearing, I beg to differ.

February 13 th 2009

Every profession worthy of the name has a course of training that leads to one's being free to practice that profession unsupervised. If the state views a profession as affecting the public health, safety or welfare, it may license practitioners before they can work on their own. The profession in which I respond to my calling, architecture, makes this requirement. But in my view, the bodies that govern architectural licensing have an understanding of "training" that does not accurately reflect created reality.

In order to sit for the exam that, upon successful completion, allows a person to use the title "architect," most states in the United States—and the group that ties them all together, the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB)—require a candidate to hold a professional degree from an architectural school accredited by the National Architectural Accreditation Board (NAAB). The NCARB also requires, as do most states, that the candidate spend a two- or three-year internship period working under a licensed architect. That all sounds perfectly normal, doesn't it—degrees, accreditation, internship?

But I think that this course of architectural training as currently practiced in North America is more wrong than right. It is based on an Enlightenment model of learning (one that takes Descartes' famous dictum "I think, therefore I am" more literally than perhaps he intended) that imagines that verbal and/or written communication equals knowledge transfer equals education.

Since the Enlightenment, we have come to equate thought with existence, ideas with reality—even with life itself (the expression "brain-dead" comes to mind). Similarly, in the architectural profession, it is imagined that if a sufficient quantity of correct thoughts about professional practice occupy a person's brain cells, that person is unquestionably qualified to practice architecture. I beg to differ.

Without delving too deeply into epistemology—which I am barely qualified to spell, much less discuss—I think the biblical idea of knowing is both more personal and embodied than the Enlightenment "knowledge transfer" model. It involves inhabiting a truth, not just hearing it or writing it down or repeating it. Apprenticeship is the educational model that allows us to inhabit the truths of our master/teacher. It is not done in a classroom, nor through reading a book, though both of these may play a part.

This is the thing that North America's greatest architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, got right in his Taliesin Fellowship. From the time of his earliest success, Wright surrounded himself with what might be called disciples in the best sense: first at his living/working compound in Spring Green, Wisconsin, and later at a second Taliesin in Scottsdale, Arizona. Students would pay for the privilege of being apprentices in Wright's studio, a privilege that included doing household chores as well as work in the design studio.

His apprentices learned to become architects by being around him, by watching him work and by emulating him, to the degree that they could. Eventually, nearly all of them moved on to develop their own mature styles: Alden Dow, Bruce Goff, E. Fay Jones and many others had long and distinguished careers (Jones won the AIA's Gold Medal), but all bore the imprint of the time they spent with the master. Taliesin fellows could have gone to 110 college seminars on "The Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright" (the Knowledge Transfer model) and never have learned what they learned sharpening his colored pencils.

Today, the architectural profession has this completely backwards. Despite the internship requirement, in most jurisdictions you cannot sit for the licensure exam to be an architect without an NAAB-accredited professional degree. Wright's model—the apprenticeship model—has been discarded as not meeting objective standards, as being neither comprehensive nor reliable. Schools of architecture are required by the NAAB to hold certain standards that ensure that graduates have been exposed to crucial components of content without any recognition (beyond exams) that they understand or indwell any of it. "Indwell" is not a word you will ever hear in a discussion of architectural education; "core competencies," maybe. So the richest source of architectural learning, the practicing architect, has been outsourced in favor of curricular standards, student/teacher ratios and certification.

(One cannot help but be reminded of the scene in The Wizard of Oz where the Wizard tells the Scarecrow, "My boy, back where I come from, men teach at great universities with no more brains than you have. But they have one thing you haven't got—a diploma!")

It bears mentioning, with respect to Wright, that though I believe his training model to be spot on, his personal life was a mess, with multiple affairs, divorces, and abandonments. At one point Taliesin East was burned down and his mistress killed by a servant enraged by Wright's outrageous conduct. Although one can never condone arson and murder as a response to immoral behaviour, the acts were not pointless. And the apprenticeship model Wright practiced has this inherent flaw: that his apprentices were exposed equally to his personal fallibility and his architectural brilliance. I hope his disciples followed the latter example and not the former.

I have long maintained that the reason I passed the architectural licensure exam on my first try was not because of the professional degree I earned, but because of the two and a half years I spent toiling away on seemingly insignificant work at a six-person office in Wichita, Kansas. I learned more by osmosis in that small office than I ever learned by diligent (or less than diligent) study at the university—in half the time. This is where the value of apprenticeship is greatest, and least quantifiable. I learned the standards of professional care by watching older architects debate design, draft details, and argue with contractors and with each other, although documenting my "learning outcomes" during that period would have been next to impossible. And more often than not, I was not directly involved in the discussion; most of what I learned in that period was overheard.

Let me give you an analogy: I think that high-achieving athletic coaches get this. If you want to be a great basketball coach, reading books and watching instructional videos will not get you there. What would-be coaches do is go and attach themselves to great coaches—as graduate assistants, as managers, as gofers—for little pay or for no pay at all. And gradually, they absorb a way of coaching that allows them to become great. The lineage of great coaches is easy to trace (for example: Hank Iba to Jack Hartman to Lon Kruger) because the connections are always personal and always involve being in the master's presence over an extended period of time. Young players might think it's neat to say that they went to Bill Self's Summer Basketball Camp, but real coaches know that if you want to have Bill Self's success, you have to grab a mop and a towel and humble yourself and go be with Bill Self for four our six or ten years or whatever it takes. Summer camp won't do it. Why this model, which works so obviously well in coaching, seems unable to wash over into more "serious" professions, is both a mystery and a grief to me.

 

David Greusel has worked as an architect for more than thirty years with several Midwestern firms of varying sizes. He is founding principal of Convergence Design, a Kansas City-based practice specializing in places where people gather. While with another firm, he was lead designer for two major league ballparks: Minute Maid Park, home of the Houston Astros, and PNC Park, home of the Pittsburgh Pirates. In 2009, David was named a Fellow in the American Institute of Architects.

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