The Education Of The Architect

Vitruvius regarded the architect's ability as so central to the enterprise of building that he made the architect's education the point of departure for his entire treatise. He certainly expected that the training would be practical as well as intellectual, each of those aspects being equally necessary as well as indispensable to the other. The practical he felt no need to describe, whereas the intellectual he discussed in considerable detail. At another point in his text he expressed pride in his education and gratitude to his parents for having provided it. So the curriculum he delineated in the opening book may have been pretty much what he had received and found useful in his own career.

The subjects he prescribed are not far removed from a liberal arts curriculum in present-day institutions. They include eleven disciplines. Drawing is needed in order to make sketches. Geometry helps one to employ a rule and compass in making a design and also to figure proportions. Optics is useful to determine the quality of light in buildings. Arithmetic is needed to calculate costs and dimensions. History helps one to explain features of famous buildings to clients. Philosophy provides the basis for cultivating personal virtues. Physics is needed to understand the laws of nature. Music, as an intellectual rather than a practical pursuit, helps one to acquire mathematical theory (related to acoustics) and to tune weapons. Medicine is useful in judging the health conditions of building sites. Law informs one about regulations related to building. And astronomy helps one to understand the harmony of the universe. Although each of those subjects is individually important, he recognized that each informs the others as well. He was quick to admit that he was no scholar and that one need not be an expert in any of the subjects. Rather, he felt it important to grasp the principles involved in the various disciplines so that they can be employed in a pragmatic way.

It is hard to fault such a curriculum and general outlook for the education of an architect. The difference in concept between this and what is prescribed today is not great, even if the particular subjects are not the same, but ironically the similarity probably has little or nothing to do with the fact that Vitruvius articulated its scope. It has more to do with the gradual return to a cultural situation in which a holistic view of the needs of society combined with the technological demands of construction is roughly parallel to that of ancient Rome.

From Alberti's standpoint, such a curriculum could not be provided in one institution or cultural circumstance. Functioning in a context in which the medieval curriculum of the seven liberal arts still survived virtually intact, Alberti posited a prospective architect closer to the realm of the scholar than to that of the builder. Indeed, in writing his treatise he was carrying on a campaign to gain acceptance of the visual arts as pursuits belonging to the intellectual realm. For him it was important to gain recognition for the architect as a scholar and gentleman rather than merely the craftsman he had long been in Italian society. Thus did Al-berti get cornered into asserting a greater importance for theory than practice in the architect's education and regarding his profession as more that of an artist than a builder.

Alberti's outlook prevailed, with two telling consequences. The most direct is that for as long as the classical tradition dominated in European architecture, the education of the architect was more artistic and theoretical than practical. Official academies were eventually founded in the seventeenth century to propagate exactly this regimen, and they dominated the preparation of young architects for at least two more centuries to come. The less direct consequence was that, lacking a venturesome technological training, European architects did not develop any important structural innovations during the era when this philosophy of training prevailed. Although rich in formal invention within the rubric of classicism, their practice remained largely static in matters related to technology.

Viollet-le-Duc is the theorist who wanted to bring the education of the architect into the modern age. The chronology of his writings on the subject does not correspond with the order of their applicability to the development of an architect, so it is the latter sequence that will be followed here. The education of a child who shows interest or capability in matters visual should, he thought, be centered on drawing. Discussed in his last work, Histoire d'un dessinateur, comment on apprend a dessiner (Paris, 1879), drawing is to be pursued not for the sake of developing an artistic talent but to help a child learn to see what he looks at and to analyze what he sees. The point is that through the exercise of independent analysis of things not encountered before one develops an active rather than a passive intellect, fostering in turn a problem-solving outlook. While pursuing a higher education, Viollet-le-Duc explained in Histoire d'une maison (Paris, 1873), the prospective architect should work in a professional office—much like today's intern—and even on a construction site, if possible, in alternation with academic activities. Moreover, he explained in the same treatise, design should be developed step by step in accordance with a definite rational method. Fundamentally, as he argued in the two volumes of Entretiens sur ¡'architecture (Paris, 1863, 1872), academic training should cease to be addressed wholly to the artistic side of architecture but should be balanced with the technological concerns of engineers.

Viollet-le-Duc's negative view of an art-centered architectural education was directed toward the official academy, the École des Beaux-Arts, where, ironically, he had been teaching just before the Entretiens were published. His opinion was that the only original works in building in France at the time were the undertakings of engineers. By the early twentieth century his position had been adopted by numerous universities, especially in America, and their curricula began to resemble more and more a combination of the formulas of Vitruvius and Viollet-le-Duc.

In the 1920s the Bauhaus, under the direction of Walter Gropius, emphasized even more strongly the practical aspects of training. Before proceeding to a professional level of architectural education, students were required to master all sorts of practical skills related to building, both in institutional workshops and in formal apprenticeships. The requirements stipulated in Gropius's booklet The New Architecture and the Bauhaus (Cambridge, MA, 1965) certainly exceeded the level of practicality that elitists like Gropius would themselves have tolerated as students, but they served to advance a strong case for the inclusion of practical training in architectural education. A certain amount of this carried over into the curriculum he imposed upon the Graduate School of Design at Harvard, which spread from there to architecture schools throughout the United States.

Architectural training today increasingly tends to emphasize technological training, largely in response to the demands of senior partners in firms hiring new graduates. Many employers take for granted a familiarity with CAD— computer-aided design. What they do not take into consideration is that education is not the same thing as job preparedness, and that the more beginners are educated in analytical thinking, the more readily they acquire practical skills and become effective in office procedure.


The range of activities considered the proper work of the architect has varied considerably over time, generally developing in the direction of greater specialization. For Vi-truvius's architect, the creation of all types of buildings was to be accompanied by the making of timepieces and the construction of machinery. In other words, his architect was fully the equivalent of both the civil and mechanical engineer of our time as well as the architect; he was expected to be able to devise military structures and machines in addition to civil facilities. Regarding the built environment alone, Vitruvius specified four activities that involved special expertise. Laying out new cities required a mastery of health, safety, and security issues. Constructing ceremonial structures required a mastery of the orders. Constructing amphitheaters required a mastery of acoustics. Constructing houses required a detailed knowledge of functional layout and techniques of decoration. In sum, such a professional had to be both intellectually flexible and technically accomplished.

Alberti's architect, concentrating upon art and theory while still conversant with engineering, would, in actual practice, mainly design buildings and monuments. To be sure, he would regard military fortifications as his responsibility, and perhaps also the machinery involved in his construction projects, but the mechanics would be largely left to the builder. As the scope of the architect's activity became narrower, a division between the architect and engineer developed that continued to widen during the next three centuries, reaching a climax in Scamozzi's art-centered definition of the profession. Ironically, as that gap widened, architects were becoming involved in the artistic aspect of exterior environments—notably great gardens and parks, city squares, and avenues. Even so, the artistic orientation of the profession continued to dominate through much of the nineteenth century, and the issue of its relative appropriateness still persists.

Viollet-le-Duc advocated a greater overlap between the activities of the architect and the engineer, but in his theoretical construct the two professions remained separate. His architect is concerned almost entirely with the design and construction of civil buildings. It remained for the visionaries of the early twentieth century—such as Scheer-bart and Sant'Elia—and the first generation of modernists—such as Tony Garnier, Le Corbusier, and Wright—to expand the scope of the architect's activity, if only in theory, to city and regional planning. Meanwhile, treatises composed under the influence of England's Ruskin-inspired Arts and Crafts movement, such as Hermann Muthesius's Das englische Haus (Berlin, 1904-1905), justified expanding the architect's purview to matters smaller than the design of a single building—including specific features of the interior such as furniture, rugs, wallpaper, and even dishes and cutlery—in the interest of promoting design of the total environment. This concern was adopted by Gropius for his Bauhaus curriculum and was promulgated by his theoretical propaganda on behalf of the school. Manifested in furniture design, it has persisted in the practice of some high-profile architects until the present.

It is hard to imagine what more anyone would have ventured to add to the role of the architect. Perhaps not surprisingly, such comprehensive ambitions have subsequently dropped out of theoretical writings. Nevertheless, any major architect asked to take on a large-scale assignment is more likely than not to accept it and to regard it as justly included within the competence of the building professional.

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