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.
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.