Architecture students talk straight about what they are (and are not) learning….

Last Saturday, this legendary night owl arose at 4:30am, hung out with a bunch of coffee addicts at Sydney Airport T2, took a 6.15am flight to Melbourne and upon arrival then drove for 2 hours. All in the good name of research. Why? Well, I was kindly offered the opportunity to conduct a focus group with SONA student  representatives from most universities across Australia, to specifically discuss the topic of construction education. And what did they say?…. Read on. 

Firstly, it wasn’t all doom and gloom, and not quite a collective head kicking of the nation’s architecture schools.

There were in fact some very positive comments about how construction knowledge is being disseminated, explored, explained, modeled, drawn, discussed and demonstrated. It was also encouraging to know that there are a variety ways in which this core knowledge area is being taught and addressed in the design studio. On the basis of this research project,  the pursuit of this topic promises to be a rewarding endeavor, in meeting with teaching staff and looking at how curricula  have been developed and reviewed to the benefit of students and their future learning as architects.

Having said this, there is an awful lot of room for improvement based on the responses this focus group elicited.

What was most striking was that whilst the lines of questioning were mostly focused on learning experiences directly related to commercial construction, materiality and structures, in providing answers the students often found it impossible not to stray into discussing other areas of architectural learning. On the basis of what I have read and researched thus far, these responses were very telling, because they demonstrated that many architecture students quickly gain a basic understanding of the integrative nature of architectural practice, regardless of how they are being taught. What is of more concern, based on the feedback received, is that soon after they come to this understanding, students rapidly conclude that they aren’t receiving adequate direction or teaching to support the development of  integrative design practices. Key to this is the manner in which technical subjects are taught (or ignored).

This lack of encouragement in integrative practice becomes amplified when they start working in architectural offices (as both students AND graduates) – where piecemeal, self taught CAD and documentation skills intersect painfully with the knowledge expectations of employers. What is interesting about this point is that the  June 2008 ALTC report Understanding Architectural Education in Australasia identifies that (in a discussion about graduate wages)

“…architectural firms argue that they are still educating these “interns” [graduates] for up to another four years. Yet the educational responsibilities of practices are not documented anywhere, and members of the profession repeatedly maintain that the responsibility for preparing architecture students for practice rests almost entirely with the schools.” (Vol2: p. 25)

From my experiences as a practice director, employer and educator, and again on the basis of my research to date, I cannot say that it is entirely the responsibility of universities to prepare students for architectural practice. Frankly, I think this is impossible: it is called the “practice of architecture” for a reason – that in practicing, you are doing. Universities cannot provide the total practice experience, therefore it is not logical to expect universities to completely prepare architecture students for their future lives as practicing architects.

But if there is no formal documentation of the “in house” teaching that practices claim to be doing, isn’t the inverse evidence enough? That students are turning up to work in practices across the nation, wishing they knew a whole lot more?

Nuff said.