Assaulting suspicion

Last week, a several-year old compilation of things not learned in architecture school resurged between us bloggers. Having before only read such lists while in school, I figured I’d give it another go to see if anything felt relevant to my current situation. A third of the way down the 101 item list, #36 stopped my eyes.

“Expect to be regarded with suspicion if your undergraduate degree is not in architecture.”

Memories surfaced. Me, shifting around in ill-fitting clothes, explaining my undergraduate career to architects in crisp suits, of how and why I switched. Defending my educational choices, trying to sell them as positive. Fingers frozen over my computer, I felt the same stressed fluster, as if I was still wilting under scrutinizing and skeptical gazes. A few bad experiences need not make the rule, but after seeing the words following #36, I have to ask.

Is that the common view?

Are non-architectural bachelors’ degrees causes for concern? If so, I would then need to ask, Why?

To re-brew spent coffee grounds, medicine offers itself as a useful analogy, one that I’ve used before. Careers in medicine follow fairly set paths – a few years in school, a few spent interning, and finally (hopefully) licensure. Medical schools themselves are similar in duration to longer graduate architect programs (like my own former 3.5 year track), their curricula intended to build upwards from very basic coursework.

Yet medical schools don’t require undergrad degrees in pre-medicine. And, if my years spent volunteering under various doctors while still courting a career in medicine offer any reliable indication, medical schools actually prefer different degrees for the diversity of perspectives and experiences that they bring to the field. Pre-medicine itself is viewed with suspicion.

The human body is far more complex than a building, so why do architecture students ‘require’ more schooling than their medical counterparts in order to be more successful and saleable?

I’ve so often heard that in architecture as well as medicine that the real learning happens in the field, and my own limited experiences have so far corroborated this. So why does medicine, with its great complexity, only require three years of field-specific study, while architecture prefers six? If most learning happens in the workplace, why would an undergrad degree in physics or fine arts preclude adequate learning?

Furthermore, #81 even seems to address this: “If you already have a B.Arch, consider further education in a different field. Your M.Arch can’t make a real contribution to the field if you’re just showing off software skills.” Key point that I seem to interpret? Diversity your skills. Differentiate yourself.

And for another point from the list, #59: “Architects should not intermarry. Inbreeding is not good for the gene pool.” Further argument that a measure of diversity – in a marriage, in an industry, in a species – is not only healthy but also healthier.

The gene pool of architecture consists of perspectives on the world and its inhabitants, of ways of thinking, or of ways of even organizing or running a business. Limiting the experiences and skillsets of the industry’s adherents only weakens the field, perhaps irreparably.

Skepticism can be a healthy thing. But, if misplaced or based in ignorance or faulty assumptions, it can also be destructive, to an individual or an industry.

If the suspicion is common, I would love to know why.

4 thoughts on “Assaulting suspicion

  1. Anyone who saw Thom Mayne accept the AIA’s highest achievement award (the Gold Medal) last Thursday night can see that the field of architecture, thankfully, casts a broad net. As I look around our office, at least half of us come from non-architectural backgrounds and I would imagine this is the case in many others. Diversity is the new norm but “passion” and “vision” are still the foundation. Nan Anderson, AIA (BA/art history; MFA/sculpture; MArch; married to Dave Anderson, AIA)

    • I hoped this viewpoint was wrong and that diversity is common – and encouraged. More encouraging are the words you used as the ‘foundation’ in architecture. Thank you, Nan

  2. I find this view kind of surprising and contradictory to my personal experience in the field. I have never herd it expressed that the lack of an undergraduate degree in architecture is some how viewed as detrimental. On the flip side, I have on many occasions heard expressed the value that unrelated fields of study, as well as professional experience, brings to ones prospects. I believe, and have seen this play out in a few different offices, that young interns entering the profession possessing unrelated undergraduate degrees, a few years of professional experience and MArch’s, are more prepared to take on greater responsibility earlier in their careers than the kid in his/her early 20’s, wet behind the ears have never been in an office of any kind. When I take stock of my peers, I very quickly notice that the ones poised to be future leaders by in large have backgrounds in fields ranging from business, engineering, psychology to fine arts, music and even the culinary arts and library sciences. The reason for this is best articulated in an interview i read with Joshua Prince-Ramus in which he states…

    “My personal opinion is that it’s better to not get an undergraduate degree in architecture, but to get a graduate degree in architecture. That’s because the student with an undergraduate degree in something other than architecture brings something to the study of architecture that helps him or her. But I also think of it in terms of life and practice: Having a wider breadth of knowledge and then focusing on a professional degree when you’re older and more mature is better. I’ve noticed these individuals to be more well-rounded architects who bring other considerations to what they’re doing, which I find invaluable.”

    In the past the argument for undergraduate degrees in arch may have been valid but in this brave new world we are simultaneously required to be savvy architects, engineers, artists, psychologists, negotiators, marketers, tech wizards, trend setters, writers, lawyers and business people. So to promote such a narrow field of focus seems to me to be more than a little short sighted. I am not sure how many responses you will get to this post, but I believe if you start asking around you will find the opposite is true. I have read this “101 things…” list and though humorous, it was probably written by a disgruntled CAD jockey who is not a very high performer due to their lack of vision or someone who is not even in the field at all. but that’s just my observation, i could be wrong, besides what do I know, my background is in sculpture and construction.

    …here is the link to the Prince-Ramus interview

    • Kevin, very thoughtful comments, thank you! It’s been awhile since I’d spoken with anyone about this – I’d kind of forgotten the ‘bad’ experiences I had explaining my psych degree to various few architects until the article. Your thoughts are fascinating, though, as is the JPR quote. And thanks for the link to the interview, should be some good reading. But what do I know, either, my background is psych and sciences.

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