Monday, January 9, 2012


In the past, an architect was just what his Latin name suggested--a “master builder”.  Practical experience was the most important schooling such a person could have, and architects thus trained gave us the Great Pyramid of Cheops, the Parthenon, and all the cathedrals of the Middle Ages. 

Only during the past hundred years or so has the right to use the title “architect” been determined by academic degrees and testing rather than by practice.  In 1897, Illinois became the first state to require that architects be licensed. California followed suit in the early years of the new century.  

The National Council of Architectural Registration Boards was founded in 1919 and held its first annual meeting two years later.  Given the ever-increasing complexity of building technology, the remaining states instituted requirements for licensure over the next thirty years, with the last two holdouts, Vermont and Wyoming, doing so only in 1951.  

Today, no one may use the title “architect” in the United States without fulfilling a  seven-and-a-half-year long course of education and office internship, including an exhaustive series of examinations.  Despite the rigors of this procedure, mere possession of an architectural license has never been a guarantee of talent.  Or, as my old boss used to put it, “You can have a fishing license, but it doesn’t mean you’re gonna catch any fish.”

Conversely, a lack of formal education and licensure hasn’t always ruled out extraordinary ability.  The last two columns in this series recounted six non-architects--Frank Lloyd Wright, Addison Mizner, Cliff May, Carr Jones, Buckminster Fuller, and Craig Ellwood--who changed the course of architecture and, just as important, made the world a more interesting and beautiful place.

None of the six had formal training or licenses (in Wright’s case, his practice predated licensure requirements). Wright and Mizner gained their entire architectural educations through apprenticeship--Wright with Louis Sullivan, and Mizner with Willis Polk.  May, Jones, Fuller, and Ellwood had no formal architectural training whatever.  

None of this is meant to suggest that no schooling is better than bad schooling, or that licensure is unimportant.  But it does suggest that there are alternatives to the usual way we teach architecture and building, and how we judge architectural skill.  

It’s no accident that each of the gifted non-architects cited above learned his craft mainly through practical experience, not through academics.   Today, a handful of schools still struggle to include such hands-on training--Wright’s Taliesin and Paolo Soleri’s Arcosanti among them.  Yet for the most part, the architectural establishment remains firmly entrenched in the belief that formal schooling and office internship are the only legitimate basis for competence and licensure.  

Today, few would deny the contributions of geniuses like Wright and Fuller, romantics like Jones, Mizner and May, and even consummate front men like Ellwood.  Yet the current process of education and licensure, overwhelmingly weighted as it is toward academic and office training, holds little room for such mavericks in the future.  That’s a pity, because in many ways, the practically-trained architect follows most closely in the footsteps of the  “master builder”.    

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