Architecture Needs Students to Stay Relevant

At this year’s Deans Roundtable, Rice University’s Sarah Whiting, Assoc. AIA, posed the question: “How do we make architecture relevant again?” She posited that it is time to move beyond social responsibility and instead focus on making architecture more socially relevant. As the discussion shifted from Occupy Wall Street to the impact each school is making in its respective community (see “Deans Discuss Relevance of Architecture,” by Jacqueline Pezzillo, Assoc. AIA, LEED AP, in this issue), I was pleased by the general consensus among the deans that community engagement is a major part of the discourse in academic circles.

However, something about social engagement struck me during the discussion. A couple of the deans talked about the Solar Decathlon, and their surprise when they arrived in Washington, D.C., to see the amount of research and knowledge the students had about sustainable design and technology. While I’m sure they meant to compliment the efforts, as they continued to praise the enthusiasm and excitement radiating from each team member, I began to question the respect given to architecture students while they are in school.

When I was in graduate school I remember all too well being made to feel by my professors that I did not have enough knowledge to truly understand the field of architecture. The pressure on architecture students to pull all-nighters and prove that they have what it takes to last in the profession is enormous, but rarely do professors give students positive reinforcement and encouragement that their perspectives are important. At least that was my experience.

I think of programs outside of architecture, programs such as those in the sciences, where graduate students are tasked to complete important research for their professors. The work that those students are doing directly contributes to the advancement of their fields… and they know it. Architecture students are taught to develop their designs and work through problems in studio, but the work they do is hardly ever then related back to society (with a few exceptions).

While architecture schools may be incorporating more community-based design studios with the intention of helping students understand the relevancy of the profession, as the Deans Roundtable suggested, the true change needed in architecture school is toward the students themselves. Professors have to enable students and give them confidence to continue in the field. Professors need to show their students how they can significantly contribute to their communities when they graduate. The only way to make architecture relevant again is to help architecture students understand that their views are important, their knowledge is valid, and, ultimately, they are the future of the built environment.