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08.02.2012
Review> Blue Book
Ginger Nolan on Architecture School, the first comprehensive history of North American architectural education.
Detail from a 1969 student poster for the Learning From Las Vegas studio at Yale School of Architecture.
Courtesy VSBA

Architecture School: Three Centuries of Educating Architects in North America
Edited by Joan Ockman
(Rebecca Wilson, Research Editor)
MIT Press, $50.00

Education has long been the object of much discussion among architects, yet this present volume, Architecture School: Three Centuries of Educating Architects in North America, constitutes the first comprehensive history of North American architectural education. Whereas most scholarship has focused on a particular school, pedagogue, era, or curricular component, Ockman’s book—while making no claims to be all encompassing—aims, in her words, “to open up as many avenues as possible for future inquiry and, in doing so, to work against the tendency to produce a canonical history.” By and large, the book achieves this objective, partly owing to its binary structure, which combines telescopic breadth with more microscopic glimpses into particular themes. Part one comprises a broad chronological account from “Before 1860” to the year 2012, with chapters written by Dell Upton, Michael J. Lewis, Ockman, Mary McLeod, and Stan Allen. Part two is encyclopedic in structure, containing short topical essays by different scholars. By thus adopting both a chronological and a thematic approach, this compendium is able to trace changes in broad trends over time while including more focused investigations into particular components of architectural education.

Despite the profession’s longstanding interest in education, it is not so surprising that this book is the first of its kind, given the daunting challenges of such a project: first of all, there is the quandary of how to broach the staggering number of schools, each with their diverse casts of characters—educators as well as students. Perhaps in view of this difficulty, Ockman solicits contributions from an institutionally diverse roster, including educators from no fewer than 30 schools within the U.S. and Canada. The book maps key tendencies and events across an impressively wide range of schools, both public and private, with the possible exception of the final chapter, “1990 to 2012,” which chronicles an educational discourse occurring mostly within the Ivy League. As for how student activities are integrated into the book, numerous illustrations of student work provide some evidence of material practices occurring in design studios.

Another challenge for such a book lies in the work of contextualizing architectural education—already a broad field—vis-à-vis other histories. McLeod’s chapter, for example, presents a history of feminist, civil rights, and countercultural movements. Ockman opens her chapter with the United States’ Cold War investments in scientific research at universities. If there is, however, one contextual link which remains less explored than we might wish, it is the connection between histories and theories of architectural education and those of general education, which might have helped contributors avoid citing familiar discourses of the architectural profession to account for practices within architecture schools. Of course, there exists no hard line segregating professional discourse from educational discourse (since educators are usually practitioners), but one distinguishing function of education is its reliance on underlying assumptions about epistemology and psychology. One could argue that theories of how human beings learn have had a remarkable impact on changes within the profession itself, given that educating architects requires a teacher to translate an otherwise personal and inarticulable process of design into a communicable system. Such pedagogical systems (as clearly demonstrated two centuries ago by Jean-Nicolas-Louis Durand’s Précis, and again withe 1970’s turn towards digital systems of design) have had the effect of reorienting the profession towards established protocols, toolkits, and systematic techniques of creative production. Arguably, architecture’s educational methods have had impacts on design and technologies reaching far beyond the walls of the university or the discipline. The book’s contributors certainly do discuss the systematization of design processes, but these cases are treated as indicative of the professional preoccupations of people who happen to be educators, rather than as processes indebted to an educational interest in epistemological systems. To put this more simply: The development of teaching methods driving the profession towards techologization is not a possibility covered in this book.

Overall, Ockman’s book provides a rich, dense, and macroscopic treatment of 19th- and 20th-century architectural education, and its high-quality writing renders it a great pleasure to read. Yet there remains the difficult challenge of accounting for architecture schools’ increasing global spread, digital embrace, and reliance on privately funded research. Seeming to accept “technology” and “globalism” as having swept architecture schools along in their inexorable tides, the book’s treatment of the 21st century does not provide great insight into how methods of architecture education may have actually helped instigate such tendencies, e.g., not only through the recent tradition of sending design studios on trips to the Global South, but, more broadly, through a long tradition of treating processes of the imagination as codifiable, communicable, and thereby reproducible through systems of global and technological exchange.

Ginger Nolan

Ginger Nolan is a New York-based architectural historian.