Somewhere Between Architect and Planner; The Argument for Interdisciplinary Work

Interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary work has been a hot topic in architecture recently. Firms developed interdisciplinary teams to make it through the recession and found that the model worked quite well. Students have started to pursue double degrees to make themselves more competitive in the job market. Personally, I was one of those students. And yes, I did pursue a second degree because I believed it might give me an edge on other candidates. But the main reason I decided to become a multidisciplinary student was mostly to expand my knowledge and gain a better understanding of architecture as a piece to the whole built environment.

So often we hear critiques of fellow design professionals.

“Architects don’t understand that is impossible to construct” 

“Planners don’t understand basic architectural principles”

“Developers don’t care about design, they just want money” 

Depending on what programs were in your school’s Architecture department or what disciplines you have worked with on projects, you may have heard a few of these. I could go on. In school, architecture students are taught to think outside the basic box. We are taught to express our ideas through space and proportion. Planners are taught to think rationally about planning theory and its applications and understand the implications of policy and law within a municipality. Business majors (of which a few also earn architecture degrees/planning degrees) are taught to understand and develop a pro forma. In general, each discipline is trained within its own silo. 

As an undergraduate student, I spent four years dedicated to the architecture program, rarely venturing into the other disciplines (although I did take water aerobics for an elective credit). As I started my graduate program in architecture, I felt underwhelmed. Sure, I loved architecture. It was my passion! But I knew there were so many other components to actually constructing the built environment. This is when I decided to pursue a dual degree in Architecture and Urban & Regional Planning at UC Denver. A funny thing happened though. I no longer fit into a “group” of students. I had started my architecture degree with a class of studio mates. We got drinks, we celebrated the end of critiques, and we poured tears and blood into the same studio projects. As soon as I started in urban planning, my course work changed and I was on a different schedule than my fellow architecture studio mates. I made planning friends! The other fascinating thing about being a multidisciplinary student is that your “side” in a classroom debate is greatly altered. I was no longer just an architecture student. I was a planner. In planning, I wasn’t just a planner. I was an architect. Don’t get me wrong. This is the spot I wanted to be in. I had chosen this path for myself. But the frustrating part is both architects and planners were having the same conversations, just separately. Sure, we both held some varying opinions based on the influences to our selected professions, but I truly felt to best understand our influence on the built environment we should be having these conversations together.

I do believe that each professional is an expert in his or her own field. If we all pursued architecture, landscape architecture, planning, and development we risk muddying the waters and devaluing each profession. However, it is important to keep interdisciplinary lines open and work with other professionals to learn the importance and the value of the way others think and work through problem solving. It is important to have our conversations with others outside of our architectural circle. In fact, the Emerging Professionals Coalition for AIA Colorado has gotten together with design industry emerging professional groups and created an event where all disciplines are brought together to network and form relationships. This year is the second annual “Meet the Dark Side” event on October 30, 2014 at the Viewhouse in Downtown Denver. I would highly suggest going. I would also suggest broadening relationships and understanding what motivates these other professionals. In the end, we are all here to create a better built environment.

A year out from graduation, I still identify somewhere in the middle of architecture and planning. I am currently in the process of trying to become an “expert” architect, but the influences from my planning degree have helped me to examine the architectural profession differently and think through critical problems using a varied lens. With the fast-paced progression of technology and global nature of our profession, our ability to solve problems as designers can be much more influential. I do believe that we can solve these problems much better working together with experts in other design fields.


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