Architecture Programs Need a Change: Put People First—Not Just ‘Art’

Here is an essay on architectural education and the need for reform, written by a group of educators and practitioners including our own executive director, Michael Mehaffy:

This essay responds to the British architecture schools’ “Open Letter to the Architectural Community: A Call for Curriculum Change.” Since educating architects is a global problem, the analysis presented here is aimed at an international audience.

We are at a pivotal point in recognizing the relationship between the built and natural environments and human health and well-being. Architects are increasingly called upon to be more than narrow technical specialists or mere “creative” suppliers of exotic, art-led designs. They must instead become leaders and collaborators within problem-solving teams focusing on the problems of people and of society as a whole. To this end, architects need to understand the most relevant findings of science and evidence-based applications to policy and practice.

Therefore, architecture students need to know recent findings in cognition, neuroscience, and psychology on how structures affect our physiological and psychological health.

Beauty (i.e. pleasure) is a neurological response we instinctually, physically, and subliminally yearn for to support our health and well-being. Students should learn to assess the likely effects of forms on users—how architecture affects experience and perception—by applying scientific methods of evidence and experiment.

Buildings also must fundamentally contribute to the public realm, and architects need to understand the social, environmental, and economic dimensions of that imperative. Architecture should re-focus on the requirements of the public realm, and of its (public) users.

Scientific evidence shows that some buildings and places make us feel at home, alive, and whole, whereas others literally diminish us. The first place to understand that impact and meaning is in the student’s own feelings and self. A designer must distinguish between their momentary experience and excitement caused by a piece of abstract art and their much more important duty to elevate the quality of life for the people who live and work in and among the architecture. With Henry David Thoreau, we acknowledge that “the greatest art is to shape the quality of the day.

Art, craft, and skills are necessary but must be subservient to this new human-centered focus. Among the skills needed are training in visual thinking, drawing, concept development, group working, and the knowledge to apply precedent patterns. A basic literacy in the successful lessons of history is required but without stylistic, chronological, or cultural prejudices.

Education connects each of us to our culture: aesthetic, historic, social, and technological. Addressing social and environmental problems and building beautifully are two deeply complementary mechanisms. To build beautifully is to create places that architects and non-architects alike find delightful, enriching, and worthy of care. We ought to be producing enduring settings where people feel at home in their natural and social environments.

Unfortunately, this human and public focus is hardly in evidence today for various psychological, ideological, and economic reasons. Those include power relationships and cognitive biases, professional silos, industrial dictates, and economic and technical “rules of the game.” Those forces, unfortunately, have produced an “art-led approach” that drapes fashionable “artistic” designs on top of unsettling (or banal) industrial products. But an “exciting” looking building could, in fact, generate anxiety in the user. The consequences have been a growing ugliness—and declining sustainability—in our world.

This art-led approach plays to the dangerously tempting fallacy that what matters most is a student’s “creativity” and “freedom.” This indulgence only promotes irresponsibility, however, and graduates architectural students who are woefully unprepared for a professional career. It does the student no favors because soon after graduation the hard realities of modern practice set in.

A few students carve out a counter-cultural role, doing projects that they find socially and environmentally relevant. But this niche is very much against the tide, and architectural schools do little to prepare students for the challenges they face when working as cogs in the system (not to mention trying to create living environments). Too often, professors offer only lip service and aspirational theory when students need something much more.

It is remarkable that no other profession institutionalizes hero-worship like architecture. Students across the world are mainly taught narrow 20th-century architectural histories and theories, and upon graduation are ill-prepared to adapt this knowledge where they practice and respect locality.

Those schools that do teach contextual design, which trains students to design buildings that fit in the neighborhood where they get built, either focus only on a formalist approach or don’t succeed for other reasons. Current architecture pedagogy somehow misses the important nuances of human places and their histories, and their uniquely local social and environmental issues. This lack of nuance explains architects’ failure to respond to context, despite their often-genuine attempts to do so.

In providing a narrow architectural education, schools of architecture obsess over means and methods that don’t confront today’s building challenges. Fascinated by the technology of design, they tend to focus upon a narrow conception of architecture that leaves out traditional beauty, links to living systems, and human responses. Yet we need more training in the real challenges of modern practice, its global effects, and the biology and humanity of our experiences and motivations.

What might a more expanded set of design techniques and technologies include? One crucial element is applying the insights of neuroscience and environmental psychology, and in particular, the findings that have come to be known as “biophilia”—the consistent human preference for biological forms and characteristics within our built environments.

Another toolbox to apply fruitfully comes from the breakthrough work of Christopher Alexander and others. Alexander’s “pattern language” methodology is an effective tool for using evidence-based precedents for any design project. While some architects ignore Alexander’s innovations, designers in many other fields have reaped enormous benefits. In software design, “design patterns” are a powerful and common methodology, leading directly to wiki (and Wikipedia) and Agile Methodology (a flexible management method for software development).

Other pattern-driven innovations have occurred in biology, engineering, management, and sociology. Architecture deplorably lags behind the curve.

Alexander’s later work “The Nature of Order” on geometric patterns ties design patterns and biophilia to an understanding of the basic properties of life. Those results formed the curriculum of the Building Beauty Master’s Program currently taught in Sorrento, Italy.

Why are architecture students not given adequate preparation with such useful and appropriate tools? The system of architectural education must answer this question honestly. One hopes that in the process, schools will become more capable of forming young architects who will play their part in addressing the existential environmental challenges of our age.

Nikos A. Salingaros is a professor of mathematics, architectural theorist, winner of the 2019 Stockholm Culture Award for Architecture, and co-winner (with Michael W. Mehaffy) of the 2018 Clem Labine Traditional Building Award.

The authors of this proposal—a concerned group of architects, educators, researchers, and policy advocates—came together to write a series of articles on architectural education for ArchNewsNow (reprinted in Architexturez). Some of the authors are members of the ESRG—Environmental Structure Research Group and have co-authored “A New Pattern Language for Growing Regions”. Others are featured in the forthcoming PBS documentary film “Built Beautiful”. We are liaising with a group of senior architects in India to reform education there. This is imperative because of the immense damage that the present insensitive industrial approach to building is causing to the developing world.

Nikos A. Salingaros, University of Texas at San Antonio;
Mathias Agbo, Jr., architect, Abuja, Nigeria; 
Nicholas Boys Smith, Create Streets, London, UK; 
Duo Dickinson, architect, Madison, Connecticut;
Paul F. Downton, Ecopolis Architects, South Australia;
Michael W. Mehaffy, Sustasis Foundation, Portland, Oregon and Centre for the Future of Places, KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, Sweden;
Yodan Rofè, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Sede Boqer, Israel;
Catherine Ryan Balagtas, Terrapin Bright Green, New York, New York;
Ann Sussman, The Genetics of Design, Concord, Massachusetts; and
A. Vernon Woodworth, Fitzemeyer &Tocci Associates, Woburn, Massachusetts.

The full article is available here: