Architecting our education: Skills and scalpels

“Trade schools teach Revit. Architecture schools teach architecture.”

One of the biggest polarizers in my 3+ years of grad school has been one simple little word: Revit. I have heard varied opinions ranging the full spectrum, from this single piece of software being architecture’s future to being its death. Many of the program’s detractors, however, still admit that Revit experience is all but required to land an internship anymore.

Despite this, I have heard the above quoted sentiment a few too many times from professionals across the discipline – often from visiting jurors as they spurn wall-mounted drawings so clearly derived from Revit. I initially loved the thought; my school offers Revit as an elective at several levels, but some of us pursued other academic paths of greater interest to us. Why spend so much money to learn a single program, when I can take courses dedicated to higher-level thought and discourse in architecture and urbanity?

The trade school sentiments validated my course choices.

More recently, though, as the real world looms ever nearer, I question that opinion… If Revit is the single most sought after skill from new graduates, what have I done by not learning it? Should I dedicate my summer off to it? If our field considers its use so vital that we can’t get jobs without knowing it (as we’re so consistently told now), why is Revit merely an elective? Should its instruction be mandatory?

My most exhaustive studio was not Comp, but the studio preceding it. The instructor that my classmates and I balloted for had a rough program and sequence of assignments in mind, as did the other instructors, but he had one more piece to his agenda: everyone in his studio would learn Rhino, V-ray, and the basics of digital fabrication.

His studio became an integrative experience, the kind of immersive learning experience increasingly seen in other fields like language, music, and computer science that I hinted at several weeks ago. My favorite studio project coincided with, and actually arose from, the acquisition of a new and very useful technical skill. I wasn’t required to ‘waste’ an elective to get it.

Revit isn’t even really the major point… Most of us probably fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, thinking the program to be a useful tool but not the only or the ultimate one.

Instead, what are the most absolute vital skills that architecture’s emerging professionals should possess, and how might our schools better encourage the development of those skills? (After all, we all want jobs to pay off our school loans and support our heightened caffeine addictions.)

If any of those vital skills are technical in nature, why would it be beneath a school of architecture to mandate them, relegating them instead to trade schools for their instruction?

If other disciplines echoed the thought, we might hear: “Trade schools teach scalpels. Medical schools teach medicine.” How might our surgeons compare if their schools had believed this, had expected surgeons to learn how to cut only in their spare time or by elective choice?

Practical skills should never be learned in isolation from the higher-level concepts that drive their use. Doing so deprives them of their purpose, value, and limitations. Likewise, teaching concepts without applicable skills ensures that those concepts will never be applied.

I heard a saying once… “To practice without theory is to set sail upon uncharted seas. To theorize without practice is to not set sail at all.”

3 thoughts on “Architecting our education: Skills and scalpels

  1. There should not be an ideological distinction between conceptual thought and technical process – they are means to the same ends: making buildings.Making buildings is the whole point, right? Revit (or any flavor of the month -er, decade – CAD program) may be shunned by your professors because they themselves do not know the tool. Fear of the technique and its’ (perceived) ubiquity is a very strong driver of attitude. Schools can sometimes unintentionally reinforce backwards-looking ideologies, IMHO. Revit is one of many tools and techniques you can choose to ply your trade. The simple fact is that in today’s market for architecture there is less pie to go around, and therefore employers have the ability to cherry pick the skills they see as necessary from a labor pool fighting for the chance to work. Knowing Revit will not ensure you a job, but your chances of getting hired will be much greater as it is gaining market share.The studio you join will likely dictate the tools and processes you will use (hopefully with an open attitude towards your strengths and predilections). Don’t fight it, be open to any and all tools and techniques you can learn (especially if someone is willing to pay you as you learn!). I studied at a program that was ‘old school’ – lead, ink, mylar, and physical model based studios- very little computer modeling. This was mostly because I am old(er) – in the late ’90s the tools were clunkier, less fluid, and the teachers were even OLDer school. After entering the workforce I learned the programs I needed to in order to help make buildings: AutoCAD, SketchUp, Adobe CS, HTML, CSS, and now Revit. All are useful and facile tools. I agree that theory and conceptual thought is harder to teach and to learn than a technical process, and I do not think you will regret your decision to focus on these areas of design, they are the foundation. Tools are the roof – they need patching and updating much more often.

    • Those were some very insightful two cents – thank you. I hadn’t really seen the connection between the various ideologies you bring up and the ways that they can unintentionally (regretfully?) be reinforced. I hadn’t even considered that the distinction between concept and tool might be as much a ‘backward-looking’ ideology than something more substantial.

      I really appreciate the analogy to a foundation and a roof, too.. It was a very interesting and helpful perspective on them

  2. Pingback: Unexpected Instructors and Longed-for Lessons « AIA Colorado EP Blog

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