In the companion to this post, we took a look at some of the challenges and barriers to creating an incubator culture that could support architectural startups. But, when you take a step back, would accelerating the number of new startups really solve some of our most pressing issues? The notion that architecture is an ‘old person’s profession’ has legs for a reason – to master all the complexities takes years of accomplishment, learning and doing. Starting a firm before you’ve gained the right kinds of experience doesn’t, on the whole, help advance the profession forward. And, by extension, how many young practitioners really want to start out with no clue as to what they’re doing? I’m willing to bet it’s very, very few.
To improve the startup culture of the profession – something any reader of this blog would know is a Martha Stewart “Good Thing” to me – one would first have to address how to properly train young professionals and in an appropriate time frame. Does this mean it should take, on average, 7 years to complete IDP or another 3 to finish the exams? Of course not. But, for the past decade+ , that’s the reality of where professional development is. And it’s in this early stretch, as Daniel Friedman, John Cary, Laura Lee and umpteen interns have carried out in discussions across conferences, chat rooms, bars and studios, that we see the greatest failure in the architecture profession today. Solve the professional development equation and young, dynamic startups can take care of themselves.
It’s actually pretty easy to summarize the fundamental problems – the entire sequence between graduation and licensure is unstructured. IDP, while identifying areas of experience to be acquired, fails to include methods that qualify or structure that experience. There is zero accountability for the practitioners charged with both overseeing and administering the opportunity to get the experience. And, with the economy of the past four years, it’s been impossible for alarming number of recent graduates to even get the chance to run this gauntlet. As John notes in his well thought out article for Design Observer “…the program was designed for volunteer participation. It remains voluntary for employers to participate — by signing off on timesheets and providing the various experiences that NCARB recommends at their sole discretion — but mandatory for graduates seeking to become registered architects. This creates a troubling power dynamic with little recourse…” Finally, when you make it through IDP, a 7 part exam awaits that, at best, has some relevant bearing on what you've supposedly been learning the past few years. At worst, the exam carries no direct link at all. The absolute disconnect between all three components is startling.
So, enough of what we already know. The real question is: how are we going to start proposing a way out? I’m going to build on a long conversation and propose that there are 3 irreducible needs any revised model has to address:
Yes, there are firms who have taken this burden on themselves out of pure professional obligation. But many haven't, can't or won't. And it shouldn't fall to the arbitrariness of those individual entities to determine the value of professional development. The current system, clearly, can’t be tweaked to accommodate these concerns. And I agree with the notion that there are reasons to look at other professional models for help.
One radical proposal would be to create a new model of professional development that leverages the schools, IDP and existing programs. To accomplish this requires embracing a shift from thinking of IDP and professional development as simply gaining experience, piecemeal, and moving towards a more holistic approach that methodically addresses the technical and managerial aspects of practice. Discussed on many an occasion over the years, is the idea to look at the ‘teaching hospital’ for some guidance. The merits are known: it provides guaranteed training (if and once you can get in) and it provides a structured curriculum that is relatively standardized across the various institutions implementing it. There’s enough flexibility to allow each hospital the opportunity to tweak it to fit their strengths and operations. You can check off the first three items above – accountability, standardization and structure.
Making a direct translation is problematic. Teaching hospitals are large, complex beasts that rely on combinations of public and private financing, with a fair percentage derived through grants of all sorts. The selection system is brutal: you apply, hope you’ve been accepted to one of your choices and ultimately move to where you’ve been accepted. There’s very little say that the medical interns have during that time (the power structures would make IDP look good) and it’s impossible to obtain any kind of ‘alternative experience’ to forge a path to licensure. So, perhaps our best option is to take the good, leave the rest and forge a hybrid all our own.
Some of the criteria that this kind of model could contain:
Standardization of Content | Customization of approach.
This is just an outline. It's not nearly complete. But, there is, I hope, enough clear benefit to this kind of restructuring – the profession gives greater certainty to the graduates (though perhaps not all) that they’ll have a chance to complete their license quickly, cohesively and efficiently. It provides for a more comprehensive approach, with real accountability on all parties and provides a way for young practices to flourish more quickly, while providing established firms a pool of talent that (presumably) has a greater capacity to contribute more effectively and quickly. In short, it would help bring us into the next iteration of the profession.
Ideally, the AIA would rise up and more forcefully claim their responsibility to the profession to oversee its development (yes Robert Ivy and Jeffrey Potter, we're looking at you). NCARB has already washed their hands on this count – they’re too content taking money and keeping their real clients (the state licensing boards) happy (think I'm kidding? Just read their description of the ARE: "The Architect Registration Examination® (ARE®) assesses candidates for their knowledge, skills, and ability to provide the various services required in the practice of architecture. The ARE has been adopted for use by all 54 U.S. Member Boards and the Canadian provincial and territorial architectural associations as a registration examination required for architectural registration.").
Regardless, one organization should oversee the development of the curricula material and administer the audit process. Again, to my fellow members in the AIA, why not us? This is our chance to make the organization relevant again.
This model isn’t perfect – poke holes, push, stretch, make it work harder. Find a completely different alternative. But for the love of all that’s good, we can't just keep ignoring the problems we have now, nor be content to nibble around the edges. “Now” is broken. Instead of providing real value, we’ve left our young in the most precarious and morally unconscionable position imaginable: relying on forces beyond their control to provide enough work so that they can gain enough experience to sit for a test to finally obtain a license in the profession they trained and studied so long for.
We can do better. We should demand more of ourselves. Let’s get started…
Central to the blog is a long running interest in how we construct practices that enable and promote the kind of work we are all most interested in. From how firms are run, structured, and constructed, the main focus will be on exploring, expanding and demystifying how firms operate. I’ll be interviewing different practices – from startups to nationally recognized firms, bringing to print at least one a month. Our focus will be connecting Archinect readers with the business of practice.