Cross Campus


Design Education

January 9, 2020
Drawing by Paul Meuser, M.Arch I, 2022

Phil Bernstein is currently Associate Dean and Senior Lecturer at Yale School of Architecture, where he teaches Professional Practice in the core curriculum. He was formerly a Vice President at Autodesk, where he was responsible for setting the company’s future vision and strategy for technology as well as cultivating and sustaining the firm’s relationships with strategic industry.

Several years after graduating, just about the time my contemporaries were becoming actual professionals like lawyers, doctors, and architects, my college roommate abruptly left his fancy Wall Street attorney job to become an entrepreneur. While he had aced college and did well at an equally fancy law school, he explained to me that “unfortunately, law school has little or nothing to do with practicing law.” He’s the CEO of an energy company now, having used his brief law career as an accelerant to another trajectory.

One wonders if the same is true of architectural education. The rarefied air of the design studio is seldom if ever matched in actual practice, although it may blow through a scant number of highly academic firms; those offices often survive subsidized by teaching salaries paid to their principals, a self-reinforcing financial/intellectual loop where design outcomes neutralize business considerations. And even those architects who practice at the pinnacle of our profession spend most of their working lives dealing with issues and challenges—client relationships, regulatory constraints, group dynamics, money, lawyers—that they didn’t come within a hundred miles of while in school. One might argue that wrestling with these constraints is part of solving a design, and perhaps make the solution richer. But, I suspect that some graduates accelerate their careers to non-architectural trajectories after they realize that making buildings is a larger enterprise than the joyful abstractions of graduate education.

Out in architecture’s curricular suburb that is Professional Practice (where I’ve lived during my entire teaching career, a distinctly different locale from the cool, downtown nightclub district of the design curriculum) I grapple with this question every year. Is ProPrac just another course to be tolerated on the road (an accredited degree that grants the right) to licensure, or somehow more profoundly relevant to design training? And if not, must it get in line with the ever-enlarging enterprise of training the next generation of architects? When I was a Yale M.Arch candidate in the last century (yikes) there were no computers, barely any theory taught, no consideration of sustainability (“solar energy is akin to plumbing” Scully once told me), no ProPrac, no social justice agenda, no summer programs, no studio travel… all of which is to say that as teachers we are trying to stuff more and more curricular potatoes into a time-limited, expensive sack, and demanding much more of our students to partake.

Ironically, what has engaged the current generation of students (and resulted, for example, in this invitation to contribute to Paprika!) is not the realization that insight gained in practice is central to design competence but rather the general entrepreneurial zeitgeist in post-graduate education today, combined with mounting pressure on recent graduates to make money and repay their loans. Today’s architectural anxieties—low pay, high risk, and a general lack of appreciation of our craft—are not new, they’re just vivified by the enthralling possibility that, dammit, we’re professional innovators, why can’t we cash that in?

On our side of campus you can see urges to raise our innovation/business game everywhere: Keller Easterling’s LAUNCH course, the burgeoning number of dual M.Arch/MBAs, folks wandering over to the School of Management (SOM) to take electives, Tsai City, even my Exploring New Value in Design Practice course. Across campus, SOM wants to attract more architects for the dual degree (“we love having architects over here” Amy Wrzesniewski once told me). Their core curriculum is experimenting with teaching something called “Design Thinking” in a class called Innovator, which is taught without our help. They completely reorganized their curriculum several years ago to remedy, according to a Harvard Business School case, “an increasing disconnect between the traditional MBA curriculum and the demands of management and leadership in modern organizations” and “[the need for leaders who can] draw together diverse constituencies in pursuit of meaningful aspirations.” Beyond the standard employer trope that “architecture graduates can’t do anything useful” these worries resonate on both sides of Cross Campus. Can we articulate the desired outcomes of an architectural education so clearly?

The thrall of design/studio pedagogy is so strong in every architecture school—after all, it’s a tradition that’s literally centuries old—that it insulates the curriculum from having to really answer that question. “Train great designers” is a good start, but what does that mean, and how is that objective tied to creating a generation of young architects who can sustain both the built environment and the relevance of the profession itself? In the parlance of the prompt for this issue, what, exactly, is a “capable design professional” and how do we purport to create one?

Schools today can make, it would seem to me, one of three choices to answer this question. First, and easiest, is to make no choice at all and simply follow the template (studio, support courses, etc.), guided only by the parameters of accreditation. Few schools would admit to this positioning, but their curricula may present a different set of facts on the ground. If a school can’t describe how it is truly different from its competitors, then assume this is their (non-)strategy.

A second option would be to declare a set of skills and competencies necessary to be a practitioner—one who might be almost immediately useful to an office upon graduation—and build a curriculum around that approach. The degree of satisfaction of employers with their recently minted graduates would be the measure of success here. Ironically, the only “Top Twenty” architectural school ranking in the US, provided yearly by Design Intelligence, uses precisely this largely meaningless metric of the efficacy of architectural widget producers.

So it seems that Yale’s long tradition of a pluralist, stylistically agnostic, multi-valent curriculum might well be the best route to creating a competent future practitioner, exposing a student to a wide variety of perspectives, priorities, skills, and contexts and forcing her to learn to make intelligent choices—the core capability of a good designer. Our “differentiator” then, from other elite schools, is the breadth and quality of those opportunities, organized around the principle that good architects can in fact “draw together diverse (considerations) in pursuit of meaningful aspirations.” Perhaps SOM might have looked across campus to Rudolph Hall for some inspiration toward those ends, where real training in “Design Thinking” would truly integrate the learning experience of tomorrow’s business leaders.

But at the same time, given our putative shared educational mission with our brethren at the Management School, we should explore the opportunities to take a few lessons from Evans Hall, where there is a strong emphasis on both integration of curricular components (focusing on “customers” rather than “accounting,” for example) as well as skills in leadership and collaboration. While there are notable exceptions (like Systems Integration), studio work operates in isolation from the balance of the curriculum. Collaboration skills may be touched on lightly here (ask a third-year about “Legoman”) but are largely relegated to “group work.” Turns out that an understanding of principles of working in a group, participating in or even leading a team, or building a consensus are necessary competencies to practice architecture, despite the singular nature of design pedagogy.

We should look for opportunities to teach them more often in our building, and need to look no farther than SOM to consider how.
I’m often approached by our students interested in the dual M.Arch/MBA program, who explain to me that they “want to run a firm someday” and believe an MBA is necessary to do so. You don’t need a full curriculum in finance, accounting, or even marketing to run an architecture practice, most of which are pretty simple businesses that require only rudimentary acumen and skills. I suspect that those of you who have manipulated a firm operating model in ProPrac have more experience on this front than the majority of your future employers.

Where architecture needs real innovation, however, is in the design of future business models and their relationship to the larger systems of the building industry. Today the emergent interest in that question can be seen in the appearance of new practice strategies (like Katerra or Alloy Development) but it isn’t being worked on in a systematic way—particularly in the academy—nor are students exposed to the basic skills of strategic innovation in business that will be needed as our profession faces climate change, globalization, and most importantly, relentless automation.

While this is the subject of a much longer and rigorous examination, we have begun a conversation with SOM about exchange of pedagogy across campus that could benefit both Yale’s M.Archs and MBAs, where congruent “innovation” agendas can be served with both design and business capabilities. There are many possibilities, ranging from cross-listed course exchanges to collaborative research. What if MBA students represented clients in the studio? If architecture students applied design skills to creating new business strategies? If actual buildings were designed as part of real estate finance classes? If our design faculty taught “Design Thinking” at SOM and SOM faculty taught strategy or leadership at the School of Architecture? These sorts of episodic integrations might lead to a larger idea about true cross-campus collaboration across multiple disciplines, and thereby more fully prepare today’s students for tomorrow and make a Yale M.Arch that much more relevant to the practice
of architecture.