Technical Courses in the Architecture Curriculum

Published in Architronic, Vol 4, No. 3, Article 5 , 1995

Kirk Martini
School or Architecture
School of Engineering and Applied Science
University of Virginia

Ed Allen's commendable Connector publication has given new life and a national forum to the debate surrounding 'technical support' courses. Despite this new forum, the central themes are familiar. The discussion typically focuses on the question of what young architects need to know and the best way to teach it: an interesting question that has sparked lively debate for decades. Today, however, I think there are other more pressing questions facing architectural education. Determining the proper role of technical courses requires questioning the premises underlying the entire curriculum.

Here are a few fundamental questions: What are the objectives of architectural education? How do we measure success? Where do we expect this year's graduating class to be in twenty years? The simple reply is that architecture programs train junior architects who in twenty years will be senior architects. If that is the only reply, then we should begin a widespread shutdown of architecture programs; there is no shortage of architects in America, as comparing fee schedules with other professions makes clear. Undergraduate education in architecture must find a broader mission or face inevitable decline.

The history of U.S. railroads is often cited as a case study of failed vision. Rail empires of the early 20th century wasted away because rail barons saw their business as trains rather than transportation; they focused on product rather than service; they failed to see how knowledge specific to their field could be generalized and applied elsewhere. Architectural education faces a similar situation. Many programs seem to see their business as training people to design buildings, rather than educating people to engage in creative, critical problem solving. These programs measure success by competence, the ability to perform in specific situations, rather than robustness, the ability to cope with novel situations. With the accelerating pace of change in the world, competence decays with a very short half-life; practices of today may be obsolete in a few years. To prepare students for unprecedented change, we need to educate them to be intellectually robust, creative, and critical.

The contrast of training for competence versus education for robustness is reflected in the two-tier system of undergraduate architecture degrees: the four year general programs, which have emerged over the past twenty-five years, and the more traditional five-year professional programs. To study this contrast, I have examined statistics concerning applicants to the University of Virginia's Master of Architecture program; while it is impossible to draw definitive conclusions from these statistics, because of bias in the sample, etc., some illuminating trends emerge nonetheless.

Like many graduate architecture programs, the UVa program has three entry points: one for students with 5-year professional degrees; one for students with 4-year degrees in architecture; and one for students with degrees in other fields. The following table lists the mean scores achieved by each applicant group for the three parts of the GRE examination, considering the cumulative applicant pool from 1990 through 1994:

Other degree 4-year arch 5-year arch
Analytic 614 576 541
Quantitative 627 612 595
Verbal 563 503 500

Mean GRE Scores for Applicants to the University of Virginia M.Arch. program from 1990 through 1994 [1]

The statistics show a similar pattern for the analytic and quantitative tests; applicants with 4-year degrees score about halfway between those with other degrees on the high end and those with 5-year degrees on the low end. For the analytic test, the difference between each group is roughly 35 points; for the quantitative test, there is a smaller difference of about 15 points. The verbal test shows a different pattern, with architecture graduates from both 4- and 5-year programs scoring about the same, and significantly lower than graduates from other fields; this pattern reinforces the familiar, and unfortunate, stereotype of architects as verbally inept.

There are many possible explanations for these results, and many potential sources of bias; moreover, the GRE is a far from ideal measure of intellectual acumen. Nevertheless, the numbers put 5-year degree holders at the bottom of the scoring ladder, particularly for the analytical and quantitative tests, despite their extra year of higher education [2]. Although 5-year graduates are more thoroughly drilled in methods of practice, it seems they are giving up other skills in the bargain; they are more competent, but less robust.

The contrast of competence and robustness is not an issue of 5-year vs. 4-year degree programs, but is a balance to strike in every course and throughout the curriculum. Accreditation requirements for 5-year programs mandate an emphasis on competence. Much of the debate on technical courses in the architectural curriculum has presumed competence as the primary goal, I think we need to reshape the debate to encompass robustness: the ability to thrive in situations that we cannot conceive, but which our graduates will certainly encounter in the workplace of the coming decades. Fortunately, addressing technical issues in the context of architectural design provides many opportunities to challenge students and stretch their intellectual ability. There are two areas that I think are particularly important: abstract reasoning and creative problem-solving.

Much of the world's worst architecture has been done in the name of rationalism. Pure functional reasoning rarely provides a sound basis for architecture; however, logic and reason are essential for the coherent and sophisticated construction of concepts that must underlie any successful design. In addition, realizing an innovative design requires sound argumentation to counter the inevitable opposition that faces new ideas.

In the insightful book How to Solve It, author George Polya describes the importance of teaching reasoning, and the role of geometric proofs:

In fact, we should distinguish between things of more and less importance. If the student failed to get acquainted with this or that particular geometric fact, he did not miss so much; he may have little use for such facts in later life. But if he failed to get acquainted with geometric proofs, he missed the best and simplest examples of true evidence and he missed the best opportunity to acquire the idea of strict reasoning. Without this idea, he lacks a true standard with which to compare alleged evidence of all sorts aimed at him in modern life. [3]

Polya's point is key: geometry is in the curriculum not only to impart knowledge of the topic, but also to develop general powers of reason and abstraction. If students cannot reason within a starkly abstract world such as Euclidean geometry, then it is very unlikely they will be able to construct--or even fully comprehend--coherent arguments concerning the far more complex abstractions involved in ethical, moral, and philosophical arguments.

Technical courses in an architecture curriculum can serve a similar role. Taking structures as an example, topics such as beam theory can be taught in a way that not only builds competence in estimating required member sizes and understanding general structural design, but also enhances powers of abstract reasoning. Like Euclidean geometry, beam theory builds a complex set of conclusions and relationships from a small set of axioms. Engineering education often places too much emphasis on this type of reasoning, to the exclusion of more practical concerns, but architectural education usually makes the opposite mistake, relying too much on step-by-step procedures, tables, rules of thumb, and other tools whose full value can be realized only when synthesized with clear reasoning.

Teaching design is the central strength of a good architecture curriculum. To make the most of that strength, design instruction should permeate the curriculum, rather than being isolated in studio courses; the studio tradition has established an excellent setting for design synthesis, but there is no benefit in isolating design instruction to the studio. Technical courses are ideally positioned to teach design as creative problem solving; that is, finding original solutions to constrained, goal-directed problems using rational methods to evaluate and improve creatively generated solutions. Engineering programs should teach design in this sense, but few do. Since the 1950s, engineering education in America has been entrenched in a scientific model of education and research motivated by the prominent role of scientists during World War II, and spurred to full momentum in the aftermath of Sputnik. Several prominent engineering figures and organizations have criticized the excessively scientific bias of modern engineering education [4], most notably the National Research Council [5], and the chair of MIT's Department of Mechanical Engineering [6].

Unfortunately, in many architecture programs, technical courses are even worse than their engineering counterparts, not only failing to address creative problem solving but also neglecting mathematical and logical rigor. This situation arises from typical combinations of teacher and student skills. As revealed in Prof. Daniel Faoro's recent survey of structures instructors in architecture programs across the country, the majority of instructors have terminal degrees in engineering [7]; on the other side of the podium, few architecture students have the mathematics background to cope with detailed engineering material. Courses focus on the common ground between student and professor: the engineering that the professor knows minus the math and physics that the students don't know, a recipe commonly known as "watered-down engineering". There are, of course, notable exceptions to this scenario, but they are too rare.

Rather than combining the worst of both worlds, technical courses in architecture should combine the best. Instead of engineering courses drained of mathematics, technical courses should be logically rigorous courses infused with creative, original design. The engineering model of relying solely on assignments and tests that require each student to reach the same solution does not teach design as creative problem solving; technical courses in architecture need to include work where each student reaches a different solution, based on his or her own creative response to the goals, constraints, and context of a problem. Many forward-looking educators in the engineering community are searching for ways to combine creative design with physical and mathematical rigor; architectural technical courses have an opportunity to provide them with a model. Instead of following a few mathematical paces behind engineering courses, architectural technical courses should be leading several design steps ahead.

As the support-course debate proceeds, I hope the discussion of integrating technical courses and studio is framed within the larger issue of integrating architectural education with a fast-changing world; failing to address this issue, architecture programs face obsolescence. The continually accelerating pace of change makes it impossible to predict the particular skills graduates will need in twenty years; competence is a moving target, robustness is timeless. To assume an influential position in the university and in society at large, architecture programs need to promote an agenda beyond competence. Technical courses are an essential part of that agenda.

Copyright © 1995, Kirk Martini


[1] The averages are based on the following numbers of applicants: other degree, 1,084; 4-year architecture degree, 680; 5-year architecture degree, 161.

[2] As a holder of a Ph.D. and two Masters degrees, I can attest that there is some credibility to the theory that each year of college beyond the fourth makes a person less capable, but I think there is a different phenomenon at work here.

[3] G. Polya How to Solve It, Princeton University Press, Second Edition, 1957, p. 216.

[4] See, for example, Samuel Florman The Civilized Engineer St. Martin's Press, 1987, and David Goldberg Change in Engineering Education: One Myth, Two Scenarios, and Three Foci, Illinois Genetic Algorithms Laboratory report no. 94003, June 1994: available on the World Wide Web at

[5] The National Research Council Committee on Engineering Design Theory and Methodology, Improving Engineering Design: Designing for Competitive Advantage, National Academy Press: Washington D.C., 1991.

[6] Nam P. Suh The Principles of Design, Oxford University Press, 1990, p. 19.

[7] Daniel L. Faoro Structures Survey Curriculum, North Dakota State University, Department of Architecture, May 1994. The results are based on surveys distributed to 117 programs with 57 responding.