Taubman College

Dean's Message

The fields of architecture and urban planning are poised to undergo dramatic changes. Beginning in the nineties, we saw the emergence of the "star" architect as a cultural force and the consolidation of architecture as an agent for physical and economic change in cities across the world. The 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing were a culmination of this era and a demonstration of the potential power of architecture. However, this model of practice has already shown its limits, its weaknesses, and its flaws. It is safe to say that a new generation of practitioners will not be able to follow in the footsteps of its predecessors and, more importantly, should not.

Technological changes paired with economic forces are significantly altering the construction of buildings and the practice of architecture. Conventional techniques will no longer suffice if architecture is to remain a viable venture. In addition, architecture’s role in the construction of culture has become associated with elite societies and, as a result, has remained outside of recent dramatic cultural shifts.

It is not surprising that, in the new economy, architecture has been badly hit. According to the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the unemployment rate for architects in 2008 more than doubled from the previous year. With more than 50,000 students in schools of architecture across the country, this figure should give us pause. It is important, however, to look at a complete picture. If we look at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are positive signs: as I write, the national overall unemployment rate is over 8%, while the architecture unemployment rate is 3.8%--only slightly worse than that for engineers (which is holding at 3%), but much better than the unemployment rate for the finance sector (4.5%). Even more encouraging, the United States Department of Labor "expects the number of jobs for architects to grow faster than the average for all occupations through 2016." Similarly the Department of Labor forecasts "employment for urban and regional planners to grow 15% by 2016, faster than average for all occupations."1

At the same time, it is evident that architecture is being left out of the most critical issues in the national agenda, despite the fact that historically our field has precisely demonstrated to have the tools and expertise to address these very pressing problems (environment, housing, infrastructure, just to name a few). We must wonder if our concern for very narrow problems (mostly formal) has led to our failure to engage the world.

The time has come to examine these issues and to begin to chart a course for the future of the disciplines. This will require new approaches to cultural engagement and for architecture and urban and regional planning to re-write their own rules. These changes need to begin "at home" with our own cultural institutions, namely in architecture and planning schools. At critical points in the history of our fields, the academy has given us critical perspectives with which to measure and evaluate our impact upon the world. Academia provides a lens independent of the demands of the professions and has the potential to advance the fields in extraordinary ways.2 But so far pedagogy is not living up to this potential: Our teaching methodologies and the predominant model of studio instruction has remained virtually unchanged for over 100 years. More importantly, in the last 20 years, architecture has stagnated in research that narrowly focused on topics that proved to have little consequence.

The conundrum of academic specialization is not exclusive to our disciplines. Our current environmental, economic, and societal crises have exposed the limits of conventional notions of specialization as a mode of research and scholarship in every field. Many disciplines are beginning to recognize this and are moving toward an interdisciplinary model of research and education. In no other area does this become more poignant than in the environmental arena. In this first decade of the 21st century, it has become clear that by looking at technological advances in isolation during the 20th century we missed their broader impact. Efficient production methods have led to the proliferation of goods, and it is now clear that our patterns of consumption have led to a disastrous impact on the globe. This is certainly true for architecture and planning, as well. In the last century, as we extolled the benefits of new materials and methods of construction in terms of efficiency and economy, we overlooked their impact on natural resources. For most of the 20th century we exalted the comfort and convenience of the suburbs while overlooking their impact on a larger network of natural ecosystems. Now we know that addressing environmental degradation has no easy answer and that the responsibility resides across many fields. Transgressing the boundaries of various disciplines may be the only way to address the complex challenges of our time.

Because of their history and their own nature, architecture and planning are best suited to develop an academic model that works across disciplines. After all, unlike most other fields, architecture is an intricate area of study that encompasses distinct fields in the sciences and the humanities, and urban planning is considered to be the first multi-disciplinary profession. It is not surprising that several schools of architecture and planning mention interdisciplinarity in their mission statements. However, for most, this is limited to relationships between architecture, landscape architecture, interior design, and urban planning. Instead, the disciplines of architecture and urban planning should re-examine their place within a larger body of knowledge that lead to new pedagogies. Only through new teaching methods that work across disciplines will we be able to allow future generations to look at design holistically writing a new chapter in the public missions of architecture and urban planning.

Here are examples of the work that the chairs and the faculty have been doing in order to transform pedagogy:

Revising course content of all courses to integrate significant issues

The Urban and Regional Planning Program, for example, is revising its course of study so that environmental sustainability and social justice, two core topics, are integrated in virtually all instruction. The intention for these overarching themes is to inform the full scope of the planning coursework, as opposed to being self-contained in discrete classes. For example, environmental planning courses may examine forces behind inequitable environmental burdens, quantitative methods courses may develop techniques for the analysis of exclusionary zoning, and history courses may seek approaches to sustainable development in the heritage of domestic planning.3

Integrating expertise from other units on campus into core courses

For instance, the Architecture Program is currently revising its sequence on environmental technology. It will be taught in teams that include faculty from engineering and the School of Natural Resources (SNRE), as well as Taubman College. Other areas where we see similar opportunities are the history sequence, which could be co-taught with art history faculty, and site planning courses that could involve faculty from SNRE.

Revisiting the relationship between design instruction and the other areas of architectural expertise

This is essential in order to more closely represent contemporary professional practice. In this regard we have identified three strategies:

  • Integrating studio work into other required courses. As an example, Construction II students are asked to advance their design studio project from a previous semester by developing it to a high level of technical resolution.
  • Integrating various areas of expertise into studio. Studio may no longer be taught exclusively by a studio instructor but also by faculty in other areas of specialization. For instance, we are currently revising the format for the design thesis project so it will be co-taught by two instructors: a designer paired with faculty in another area such as history/theory, structures, environmental technology, or urban planning.
  • Coupling design studios with courses in other areas of concentration. In the winter we are launching a pilot program that pairs a structures course with an upper level seminar in structures. The intention is that students who enroll in the studio will be required to also enroll in the seminar. The content of the courses will be coordinated while each faculty will retain their area of expertise.

Monica Ponce de Leon
Dean and Eliel Saarinen Collegiate Professor of Architecture and Urban Planning

1 U. S. Department of Labor website
2 My gratitude to Keith Mitnick for articulating these issues clearly
3 With many thanks to Jonathan Levine for articulating this example so well