An undergraduate degree in architecture can be of two types: professional or non-professional.  The professional degree is a sufficient academic qualification for obtaining a legal license to practice architecture.  With the non-professional degree, a further graduate degree is needed to qualify for a professional license, but the degree can be applied to non-practicing work allied with architecture, such as journalism, history, academia, or work in a practice at a level below that of partnership.

Practically all architectural undergraduate programmes in India are professional degrees, and ten semesters (five years) in length.  Therefore, this analysis will confine itself to Indian professional degree programmes, of which all demand that internship in a design practice constitute a part of the programme.  There are two models that are followed.  The first, which had been the dominant model till quite recently, calls for an internship of one semester duration, usually in the seventh or eighth semester.  The second, a more recent introduction, doubles the internship duration to two semesters at the end of the course: that is the ninth and tenth semesters.  Both models treat the necessity of internship as axiomatic, and it is this axiom I seek to deconstruct here.

The axiom rests on four underlying assumptions:

  1. The purpose of the college is to make graduates employable in practice.
  2. Ten semesters are more than the necessary time a student needs to spend within college, and one or two semesters can be easily spared out of this to prioritise the internship.
  3. Exposure to design practice is a prerequisite to acquiring a license to practice.
  4. The practical exposure gained in an office is a necessary part of the training necessary to qualify an architect as the holder of a professional degree.

I examine these assumptions one by one.

The College Should Make Graduates Employable in Practice: This is a commonly heard refrain: one that is deeply troubling.  A practice is easily positioned to cover gaps in technical exposure in young graduates.  All one need do is apprentice the young architect with a senior professional who mentors her/him, and if the youngster is a committed learner, within a few months she/he has reached the ability to work independently.  However, the practice is not equipped to cover gaps in the ability to think creatively, rigorously, and independently.  The kind of mentoring needed here is difficult to absorb within the inherent routines of practice, and only colleges can lay the foundations for this ability.

What happens when practices are only able to find graduates whose abilities are technical rather than creative and critical.  The practice finds it difficult to differentiate itself, and it becomes just like any other practice.  An undifferentiated practice becomes what economists define as a commodity: a good or service that cannot be effectively differentiated by qualitative measures, and is primarily differentiated quantitatively, with the dominant measure being price.  This breeds the situation we find today in India: a small handful of self-motivated creative practices, and a majority that is driven to undercut each other in the fees they quote.  Education’s desire to serve practice, if made a dominant goal, will only undermine it in the long run.  Colleges must realise that their primary obligation is toward the discipline of architecture, and not toward the practice of architecture.

One or Two Semesters Can Easily Be Spared for Internship: There has been a historical reason why professional degree programmes are of five-year duration.  Learning design is primarily learning by doing rather than learning by understanding, and therefore, the core of architectural education has always been the design studio where one learns design by personally doing design.  Learning by doing is a process that cannot be easily compressed in time.  Going by international standards for professional degrees, the year-by-year stages through which this process evolves, that necessitate five years, are:

  • Year 1: Supplement verbal and linear logic with visual and associative logic. Understand design process through basic design exercises.  Learn basics of theory and history of design.  Develop confidence for creative exploration, rather than be preoccupied with being correct. Develop spontaneity of thinking with one’s hand, and not just with one’s brain.
  • Year 2: Learn to carry out simple architectural design projects, gradually moving to how design can enrich life in the way it captures propositional value.
  • Year 3: Extend architectural design abilities by learning to design complex projects with an impactful context.
  • Year 4: Extend design abilities to be able to handle complexity, context and scale, learning how to organise multiple buildings on a site, and the links between large sites, their ecology, and how design can respect the site.
  • Year 5: Prior to graduation, use the thesis project to develop one’s identity as an architect, taking a specific position on the contribution one aspires to make to the discipline.

Each of these steps is challenging, complex, and difficult to handle in less than two semesters.  Moreover, they need focus within a freedom that is possible only in college, distanced from the commercial and political exigencies of practice, so all of this time of ten semesters must be within the college.  We should take heed of the rest of the world where any academic programme that is less than ten semesters within college is not considered a professional degree.

Exposure to Design Practice is a Prerequisite to Acquiring a License to Practice: This is unquestionable, as one should not acquire a license to practice architecture without practical experience within a practice.  But it does not necessarily follow that this experience must come while still in college, or that one or two semesters is a sufficient duration.  Here too, there is valuable precedent in many parts of the world where, unlike the situation in India, the degree is not a sufficient qualification for acquiring a license to practice.  After obtaining a degree, it is necessary to work in a firm for two to three years, and only after acquiring the necessary experience one qualifies to sit for a licensing examination.  This examination is unconnected to the degree, and is typically administered by a body that is not connected with regulating education.  The examination does not seek to check the creative or philosophical abilities of candidates, with focus being more on assessing the ability to design as per building codes, and understanding of construction, structure, building utilities, and standards of professional practice.  One must pass this examination to acquire a license to practice architecture, ensuring that all licensed architects start with a minimum of two to three years of work experience.  In India, the need to include internship as a part of the undergraduate degree programme arises more from the shortcomings of the professional licensing system than from the intrinsic requirements of education.

Office Exposure is a Necessary Part of Undergraduate Education: This rests on the assumption that exposure to the practical dimension of design is necessary for completing the set of abilities of a graduating architect.  This assumption is unquestionable, but its corollary that this exposure can only be found in an office is erroneous.  The theoretical and practical dimensions are not to be studied in isolation: the key is how one integrates them in the design process.  Architecture students need to learn that design does not spring solely from their creative and intellectual abilities, and that the inherent tectonic logic of structure, material, construction sequence, and utilities also play a role in shaping the design.  The quality of a design springs from the elegance with which this integration is achieved.  Practices are not an environment that can provide this mentoring: it can only be taught through the continuous guidance possible in an academic design studio.

If the intern comes without having learnt this integration, her/his utility in an office is very low.  The intern is thus assigned the lowest level of technical tasks, with little guidance on how their task connects to wider issues.  Effective training in integrating the practical dimension into the design process remains elusive to the student of architecture.

Conclusion: While still in college, a student may voluntarily intern in an office during vacations, and this should be allowed and encouraged.  But making internship a mandatory segment of a professional degree programme only serves to undermine the quality of education provided: consequently, both student and discipline suffer.  Mandatory internship should be made a part of the licensing procedure rather than the degree programme.  Colleges should realise they must teach the student how to integrate the practical, creative, and theoretical dimensions.  Mandatory internships deprive them of the time required to do this, and allow them to abdicate a crucial part of their responsibility to practices.