Should architecture schools favour a practical knowledge over a theoretical one?

The most recent AJ has revealed some interesting figures this week concerning the contradictory mindsets of students and employers when it comes to the need for certain practical skills. Recent surveys have found that only one third of architecture students deem hand drawing to be an important skill in the workplace, compared to 44 percent of employers. While a seven year architectural course does include a mandatory two years in industry, many employers argue that there are many topics not covered throughout this education which are fundamental to the success of a firm in industry. These include topics such as knowledge of the law, working in multi-disciplinary teams and a mature understanding of cost management.

With tuition fees this high, a broad knowledge of the construction industry is therefore expected of graduate students, but it would seem that many universities are favouring a theoretical knowledge over practical ability. But is this necessarily a bad thing?

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My response to these statistics is that architecture school is not and never will be like industry practice, and for good reason. It is a chance to explore ideas and hypothesise about solutions to future concerns without having the burden of politics, costs and laws to restrict you. If universities were to only teach practical ability and neglect theoretical knowledge, the architectural degree would be at risk of losing the one thing which draws many students towards it, that freedom to explore in an environment which encourages conceptual, broad, artistic ideas. Students may not be prepared for day to day working in an office, but they are well equipped and in the right mindset to question societal conventions and inspire innovation, which is arguably more significant to the long term success of a practice.

Each architectural school is different, some focusing more on construction and practical applications of design, and others taking a more theoretical approach. How is it then, that arguably the most highly sought after graduates come from the more theoretically minded schools such as the Bartlett and the Architects Association? This clearly shows that yes, employers do want a graduate who will settle into day to day office life quickly, but more so than this, they want a person who will be asset to their business in the long run and help the business’s success through innovation.

In the end of the day, at the heart of the architectural profession is creativity which comes from the exploration of theoretical problem solving. A knowledge of the law, which only 15 percent of part 3 students viewed to be important compared to 44 percent of employers, can be learnt on the job when working in industry; whereas creativity and a theoretical outlook can easily be clouded by numbers and politics. Therefore is it not far better to stimulate theoretical thinking early on in an effort to encourage its transfer into the construction industry?

If theoretical knowledge is lost, the architecture of today would revolve even more so around politics, costs and laws, meaning we might all end up living in tiny square rooms in enormous concrete tower blocks. I don’t know about you, but I would much prefer to live in an architecture students vision of a world.

By Edward Powe – Stage 2 BA (Hons) Architecture