Earlier this month, the architect and educator Peter Zellner announced plans to start a new, cost-free institution for architectural education — the Free School of Architecture — next summer in Los Angeles. His announcement followed closely on the heels of an op-ed he wrote for the Architect’s Newspaper, which delineated his critique of architectural education’s current state and a list of principles he believes will fix it.
His critique posits that architectural education — and, by extension, the profession itself — is stuck in a hierarchical funk in which knowledge is only allowed to be imparted to younger generations under the authority of entrenched elders. His proposed solution is to explode our conceptions of teacher and student roles in architectural education by holding both in equal regard, accountable to each other through rigorous critical questioning, and to shift to an educational model where knowledge is shared through “engaged debate, critique and conversation.”
Can the design studio really be eschewed within architectural education? Image via the Virginia Tech School of Architecture + Design
The primary motivation for his proposal seems to be a sense of frustration with the inertia that restricts many young architects relative to other creative industries. In an interview with Co.Design, he stated:
“What saddens me is [that] so many of my talented students are out in the world and they’re paying down their loans, and they haven’t found an opportunity to find their own voices, let alone start their own businesses or practices and studios. That’s very different from what I see happening in tech and in the arts. Individuals in their 20s are not only very successful, but very liberated and able to work in different ways, including sharing or co-working or really thinking about innovation.”
This statement followed a previous contention about preparing architecture students for the realities of business: “I’m most interested in trying to understand how young individuals can become autonomous as quickly as possible, can become self-supporting as quickly as possible and can execute their dreams as quickly as possible.”
Considering that Zellner’s proposal, in its current state, is only targeted to graduate-level students, it could be understood that the intention of the Free School of Architecture is to approach the profession from a far younger, more vigorous and disruptive angle than is common today.
Peter Zellner; via Architect’s Newspaper
How this might play out in a discipline bound by the laws of building codes and professional licensure will be worth paying attention to, but what’s most interesting about his proposal is its format: Individually oriented studio design projects, long a hallmark of architectural education, will not be part of the curriculum. Instead, architecture will be taught in a classroom setting. Zellner describes a composition of 12 courses covering architectural history, theory and vocational topics as well as other general issues such as philosophy.
The significance of such a proposal cannot be overstated, as this format runs counter to decades of mainstream wisdom surrounding architectural education. Most importantly it begs the question: Can architecture be taught without studio?
First, it’s important to reinforce the notion that Zellner’s proposal is intended for students who already hold a professional degree of some kind. If that degree is in architecture, then that student will already have passed through the traditional studio system. For students from other backgrounds, the Free School of Architecture could be their first introduction to the profession. In this case, it’s also important to note that Zellner intends for the program to be un-accredited, and it will not bestow its own degrees.
However, considering that some jurisdictions allow people to become licensed architects without holding a degree in architecture, the Free School of Architecture could potentially jump-start the career of someone with an exceptional level of practical technical knowledge and an innate design sense. For students who already hold an architecture degree, the school may be able to propel them to relevance by helping hash out the realities of practice and the mechanics of preexisting power structures opposing young practitioners — topics that are rarely broached in a formal setting.
While the current focus for the school is on post-grads, Zellner mentions eventually moving toward “a model in which a novice can enter the school and acquire training,” a statement implying that undergraduate architecture students can be viably educated under what he calls a “post studio” model. This is especially noteworthy because it suggests the possibility that a high-school graduate could pass through the architectural education system and become a licensed practitioner without going through a single design studio.
How would this happen? Zellner doesn’t offer any specific details in this area, especially because he notes that “the idea for FSA is still gestating,” but it does raise some significant challenges. While it’s conceivable that requisite technical, historical and theoretical knowledge could be imparted in a classroom setting (as opposed to a design studio), Zellner’s notion of treating student and teacher as equals may be difficult to put into practice at the level of students who simply know nothing about the intricacies of building.
In this sense, it may hold true that one has to know the accepted rules of a particular subject in order to break them, in which case Zellner’s forthcoming ideas of what those rules are — and how they should be presented to students charged with aggressively questioning them — should be of particular interest to anyone with even a slight stake in the future of the profession.
The Free School of Architecture will issue a newsletter in November with more details about its programs and application process. Stay tuned in at its site.
Top image via Xataka