Los Angeles–based designer Peter Zellner has an ax to grind with architectural education in the United States. Students are saddled with debt, schools aren't teaching the right skills, and a patriarchal dynamic squashes free thinking. Maintaining the status quo comes at a risk, he argues. If the profession doesn't change how it teaches aspiring architects, it risks losing creative talent to other fields.
Zellner—who served as a design lead at the engineering firm AECOM for two years, operated his own firm, and is a faculty member in the University of Southern California's architecture school—sees an alternative path. "A lot of people told me I should just start a school and quit complaining," he says. "I thought that’s right—rather than being just a critic you have to put your money where your mouth is."
Last week he announced plans to open the Free School of Architecture, a tuition-free (and for professors, salary-free) architecture school kicking off as a summer postgrad program before eventually becoming an institution for undergraduate education. The curriculum will focus on architectural history and theory, design and aesthetic theory, practical and vocational topics, philosophy, and general studies. Design studios aren't part of the program.
We spoke with Zellner to learn more about his mission to redesign architecture schools.
Co.Design: What frustrates you the most about the state of architectural education?
Peter Zellner: I think this is probably across the board for all tertiary education, but the fees that are being levied on architecture students and the debt-to-professional-opportunity ratio. When [students] spend five years—or in some cases seven years if they’re doing an undergraduate degree and a master’s degree—in school, sometimes they’re walking away with $200,000 worth of debt. When I look at the economics of it, it makes it virtually impossible for a young person to start their own practice and to teach.
How are you looking to shake up academics and teaching styles?
This is a corollary to for-fee education. It’s also a corollary to the intense scrutiny that accreditation plays on architecture schools. A lot of teaching is very cookie-cutter, and I think a lot of it has to do with getting students to jump through a series of hoops and to train them basically to be good workers.
I don’t think that was the case 20 or 30 years ago when schools were a little more open in terms of their pedagogy. I think the expectation was often that a graduate would learn the trade, so to speak, while working vocationally and really schools were places for sharing ideas about architectural history or theory, and certainly practice but also a kind of focus on design theory and aesthetic theory.
What that’s been traded in for is a kind of very regimented and sometimes very generic education. I see a lot of schools pretty much teaching the same thing, and, as a result, I see a lot of young architects—particularly people entering the workforce—with a real disconnect from the realities of the practice.
Another part of this is entrepreneurship. I’ve had my own business. I had a boutique firm that did really well. I was headhunted into a very large 100,000-person infrastructure firm. I’m now back in private practice. The challenge for a lot of students is the whiplash effect they have in going from a cloistered academic environment and going into the professional world. That has to be addressed as well.
What made the architecture schools from a few decades ago better?
I think the 1970s were a period of great social upturning or upending. What happened at schools like SCI-Arc, the Architectural Association, the Cooper Union, and the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies was the wholesale rethinking of modernism and its teaching paradigms.
Certainly in North America, we inherited traditions from 19th-century and 20th-century teaching. Top-down Beaux Arts-style teaching was replaced with Germanic modernist teaching out of the Bauhaus. Mies van der Rohe at IIT and Walter Gropius at Harvard pushed a very particular technically and rationally oriented teaching style. But in the '60s and '70s there was a resistance to a lot of things. That moment created independent schools of architecture, like SCI-Arc, which were fundamentally about changing the relationships between students and teachers and how classes are taught. I’m definitely going back to that moment, not nostalgically, but because I think there are a lot of good ideas from the time that are relevant to today.
So back to training "good workers"—why doesn't that mean "good architects"?
If you’re a young person and you’re carrying several hundred thousands of dollars worth of debt, you’re more likely to go into a large practice. Those practices tend to be very commercially oriented and they don’t tend to promote creativity or individualism. They’re really just looking for people who can draft and produce. I don’t believe that somebody should spend five years giving away money [for tuition] and giving away their lives to end up drafting mundane things like toilets and fire-stair details.
Fundamentally, architecture is a social art. It has political and socioeconomic impacts. What saddens me is so many of my talented students are out in the world and they’re paying down their loans, and they haven’t found an opportunity to find their own voices, let alone start their own businesses or practices and studios. That’s very different from what I see happening in tech and in the arts. Individuals in their 20s are not only very successful, but very liberated and able to work in different ways, including sharing or coworking or really thinking about innovation.
In architecture, what we have is a very antiquated, almost 19th-century work model that’s based primarily on drafting farms and are culled when the economy goes up and down. What happens is they’ve reached midlife, they’ve been brutalized for 20 years, quite frankly, and they leave the profession. This is another concern I have. We’re seeing a huge flight of mid-career architects from the profession going into other industries. They haven’t been able to satisfy their ambitions or their financial needs.
In talking about the appeal of more lucrative industries—like UX design—is the profession at risk of alienating the young creative talent that it needs to innovate?
Absolutely. It’s too slow. It takes too long to get licensed. I think it’s an antiquated process that’s held down by a very patriarchal structure. For young people—especially women or people of color—it’s a very hard industry to enter. If we want architecture to reflect society, things have to change.
You mentioned traditional schools are notorious for underpreparing students for the realities of business. How so?
They don’t understand fee-for-work structures. Typically [students] don’t understand that they’re competing against engineers, builders, and individuals who are working in a much more mercenary way. Most of them don’t really know how to promote themselves or understand marketing.
I’m not setting up my school as a kind of business-prep finishing school. I’m interested in theories of business, but I’m most interested in trying to understand how young individuals can become autonomous as quickly as possible, can become self-supporting as quickly as possible, and can execute their dreams as quickly as possible. That used to be the case in this country and is certainly the case in other places like Europe and Japan where a few years out of school you see really talented young people practicing and running successful businesses.
Architecture courses are heavily dependent on the professor's own interests, which can be limiting. How are you viewing the dynamic of the teachers and students at the school?
Architectural education is very hierarchical and it works under a master-disciple model, which is medieval. In that sort of academic structure, students' voices are not approved until the point where the master has deemed them valuable. As a result, we don't have an idea of partnership—intellectual and even philosophical—between student and teacher. What we have is really kind of a model in miniature of what the profession does itself.
First and foremost, I’m interested in a Socratic method of teaching in which the student and the teacher are accountable to each other for how they debate things. I also think students aren’t given enough autonomy in terms of being asked to be responsible for setting the tone of their voice, how they speak, how they debate, and how they argue their points. That’s not the case in other fields. If you look at the sciences or medicine, senior researchers and graduate students are coworkers on projects. In architecture, we have this very antique model—and again it’s mostly patriarchal—of information and ideas being handed down from elder to young people. The expectation is a kind of servitude in a way and I think that’s pretty backwards.
What will students learn in the program?
The program is essentially aimed at a postgraduates, so a minimum requirement for entry is one professional degree, probably an undergraduate, and students can be enrolled in a master’s program. The expectation is really discourse first.
There's no project required, no submissions, no grading, and there’s no assessment per se. At the end of our initial six-week summer school, students will be able to make a defense and that can be in the form of a challenge to something they’re learned, or a critique, or ideally a kind of practicum statement in which they outline their academic or professional ambitions or outline what they plan to do with their lives as creatives.
Ideally, the place becomes a kind of respite from traditional education and the profession to give young individuals—and individuals of any age for that matter—an opportunity to reflect on what they want to do with themselves in the discipline and in the profession.
Structuring it as a postgrad program, it seems like you’re going to have to break bad habits the traditional system already taught the students.
Yes, but it also gives me a bit of a leg up right now because of the reality of starting an undergraduate program, or a five-year program, with no proof of concept is it could fail pretty quickly. So my hope is we could do this for two or three years as we move toward 501(c)3 status and find a fiscal sponsor for the organization. Eventually, we'd move toward a model in which a novice can enter the school and acquire training.
Another piece of how I’d like the school to operate, and this is specifically modeled after [Mexico's] Escuela Libre of Architecture, in Tijuana, which is run by my colleague Jorge Gracia, is giving students the opportunity to work on real projects as they study.
What are the most important things for architecture students to learn?
I think any young person entering the world today should be fiercely independent and individualistic and not fear taking risks on ideas. Mostly, I think they should be willing to commit themselves to what they’ve studied in a way that’s meaningful and not just to do with paying the bills. I see students graduating and investing sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars in their education, and then finding out the world isn’t ready for them or they’re not ready for the world. That’s enormously wasteful. So the only way to address it is for students to take more control over their futures, and there has to be institutions supporting the idea of autonomy, individualism, and ultimately independence.
For more on the Free School of Architecture, visit freeschoolofarchitecture.org.