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Separating Science From Architecture: Why Technology is Taught Outside The Design Studio

Jonathan Ochshorn



Technical subjects germane to the study of architecture are usually taught outside the design studio, a practice rooted in the design-oriented Beaux-Arts tradition imported to this country at the turn of the century. This separation and de-emphasis of technology raises several questions: why are designers preoccupied with the "art" of architecture; what makes it possible for architects to relegate technical issues to a second-class position in their education; and, finally, should coursework in design and technology become more fully integrated. The apparent split between the "art" and "science" of architecture is widely criticized; yet, paradoxically, some of the very tendencies that reduce the architect's need for technical knowledge in practice insure that the integration of this knowledge with design does, in fact, take place. Implications for the teaching of technology are twofold: educators must broaden the context in which technical subjects are considered while at the same time paying more attention to their content as self-contained disciplines.


Architects are not expected to be able to design the increasingly complex technological systems in their buildings. I use the word "design" in the sense that an engineer would use the term (to design a structural system or an air-conditioning system); not the way an architect would use the term to describe the process by which the whole building takes form.

The fact that architects must know something about technology without being required to possess the specialized knowledge to design most of the technological systems in their buildings would, in itself, pose a problem for architectural educators. Yet the problem of teaching technology is compounded by a more fundamental dilemma: if technological systems are becoming increasingly important in modern buildings, how can technology be taught so that it informs design (here used in the sense that an architect would use the term). There is a general suspicion that the separation of the design studio from technology courses creates an unbridgeable chasm between the art and science of architecture, with dire consequences for the final product.1

As opposed to this view, which regards the separation of design and technology in architectural education as a weakness to be corrected, I propose to explain the separation as a logical response to the realities of architectural practice.

Historical Context. The technical education of architects must be understood in a dual context: one historical and the other philosophical. Historically American architectural education, with its emphasis on the design studio separated from an array of supporting classes has had pretty much the same structure since the early part of this century. Surprisingly, it was not the assimilation of modern architecture in the 1920s or the influence of Bauhaus pedagogy beginning in the 1930s, but rather the French Ecole des Beaux-Arts to which this method of educating architects owes its essential features.

Certainly there were reforms introduced in the 1920s and 1930s that reduced the competitive nature of the design studio and introduced more "reality" into design problems. Additionally, the study of the classical orders as a prerequisite to further training was abolished and instead first-year students at institutions like Cornell began in 1929 with "the design for a complete building instead of the traditional elements of architecture."2 Yet with all these changes, the design studio survived intact and the teaching of technical subjects generally remained a specialized and separate activity.

The first attempts at American universities to integrate construction and practice with design occurred in the 1920s at places like the University of Cincinnati, Columbia and Harvard. Similar attempts continue to be made today. Yet despite the fact that most educators feel strongly about "linking technical education to design education," the legacy of Beaux-Arts training continues to dominate architectural instruction in American schools.3

Arthur Clason Weatherhead, in his History of Collegiate Education in Architecture, attributed the separation of design and construction in American schools to three factors: "…first, the fact that the practice of structural engineering had developed into a complex and highly specialized profession largely separate from architecture; second, the influence of the Ecole with the emphasis of its graduates upon design; third, the spirit of Eclecticism both in the profession and in the schools. In a time when the architect turned to the periods of the past for every idea in design, such matters as the processes of modern construction could scarcely be associated with it in his thinking. The fact that the subjects of science and building construction were usually given in connection with engineering or by an engineer with the engineer's viewpoint within the architecture division, fostered this alienation."4

While all of these observations are interesting, they do not, upon closer scrutiny, explain the separation. First, the strategy of teaching design independently from construction preceded the establishment of structural engineering as a distinct profession. It was, in fact, during the Renaissance in France that the method originated: the French Academy of Architecture was founded in 1671; its Grand Prix de Rome was instituted in 1720; and the first independent atelier was established in 1750. Yet only beginning in the twentieth century did architects routinely consult structural engineers for the design of complex buildings.5

Second, the influence of the Ecole on American architectural education, while undisputed, cannot be counted as an explanation for the separation of design and construction in American universities. With the so-called German system, where designs "were carried through to the working drawing stage…," and the English system, "which had always emphasized construction at the expense of the more purely aesthetic side of architecture," both offering competing models for the education of architects, the question of why the Beaux-Arts model was selected remains unanswered.6

The third cause for the separation offered by Weatherhead, that a lack of interest in modern construction was due to the designers' preoccupation with historic precedent, is also inadequate as an explanation. Juxtaposing "modern" with "historic" just confuses things, since what is really at issue here is not the particular chronological distance separating the "art" and construction of the Beaux-Arts period, but rather the notion that art and construction, in and of themselves, are independent activities. Thus the third observation really boils down to the following: that a lack of interest in construction was due to the designers' preoccupation with the "art" of architecture. When rephrased this way, the following questions remain unanswered: 1) why were designers preoccupied with this art; and 2) why was it possible for designers to relegate construction to a second-class position in their education. The second of these questions, as it applies to contemporary conditions, will be dealt with later; the first question leads back to the philosophical context in which the technical education of architects must be considered.

The "Art" of Architecture. Designers are preoccupied with "art," as opposed to mere "construction," to the extent that they aspire to produce "architecture," as opposed to mere "building." The distinction between the utilitarian and non-utilitarian, or the "science" and "art" of architecture, has a long tradition in architectural theory. Yet there is no common understanding as to the exact relationship between them, their proper balance, or even what the art and science consist of.7

The view that art and building are independent was, of course, held by Ruskin, who urged his readers in the mid-19th century to "distinguish carefully" between the two: "To build ... is by common understanding to put together," whereas Architecture (with a capital A) must also "impress on its form certain characters venerable or beautiful, but otherwise unnecessary."8 Although the idea that art could be attained through the attachment of decorative features was repudiated by the early modernists, the necessity for and independence of art in works of architecture was still central to much of their theoretical writing, in spite of the fact that they, unlike Ruskin, embraced the new technology. The Futurist Sant 'Elia, for example, wrote that architecture is not "an arid combination of practicality and utility, but remains art, that is, synthesis and expression."9 Le Corbusier's exhortation that "[p]assion can create drama out of inert stone" is a restatement of the same theme: architecture (as opposed to mere building) cannot be derived from construction.10

John Ruskin

John Ruskin

Sant 'Elia

Sant 'Elia

Le Corbusier

Le Corbusier (photo by Walter Limot, 1934)

Bruno Taut

Bruno Taut

The opposite point of view is represented in the writings of Bruno Taut, who saw in modern architecture the opportunity to "make beauty dependent on practical value." Predictably, he also criticized the separation of engineering from architecture in practice, calling it a "sign of decadence." While it is no longer considered decadent for the architect to relinquish a great deal of expertise to the engineering professions, echoes of Taut's call for the unity of art and science still persist.11 But the question of why designers are preoccupied with design cannot be answered by focusing exclusively on the nature of art and its relationship to construction; it is equally important to investigate the purpose of art in its cultural and economic context.

Like other artists working for a living, but to a much greater degree, architects can create art only to the extent that there is a demand for it. This market for art, through which it obtains "economic value," is diverse enough to support a wide range of architectural responses, from the mundane to the esoteric. Robert Gutman, in his recent book on Architectural Practice, describes a typical corporate strategy for the purchase of architectural services: "Routine building problems are dealt with by the facilities management department or other in-house staff. Buildings for which there are many established precedents in the architectural tradition, but which the company in question has not constructed previously, are given to competent, experienced, but undistinguished architectural firms. Corporate headquarters for which the company may want high visibility, or building problems that demand innovative solutions, are assigned to firms known for their record in producing highly imageable structures, or for experimental achievements in other realms of architecture."12 In other words, art, as a commodity, is purchased only to the extent and in the form that it is deemed useful.

It is interesting to note that in the 19th-century competition between architects, builders and contractors for the right to design buildings, out of which the profession of architecture emerged, it was the ability to design buildings presumed to embody some artistic notion that distinguished architects from their rivals. As Andrew Saint points out, referring to the British experience: "It did not take long to discover that the only broad line of defense..., the only element in architecture to which some other professional group did not have a prior or better claim, was 'art.'"13 Although the American profession, through the A.I.A., long ago shifted its emphasis from the "artistic role of the architect" to the idea of "comprehensive services," there remains a strong sentiment within the profession "that in an increasingly competitive design service market, this [the ability to create art] is the distinctive skill that secures their position in competition with engineers, contractors, and less imaginative, more routine practices."14


The fragmentation of the expertise required for the design of modern buildings associated with the proliferation of engineering and other specialized professions has been widely recognized. But in addition to the list of consultants familiar to all practitioners — including structural, electrical, mechanical and civil engineers; lighting and acoustical experts; landscape architects; etc. — there are other ways in which architects are freed from the task of mastering technical knowledge.

Separation of Technology in Practice. As building specifications become increasingly codified, for example, they appear more and more like a body of technical information existing independently from the design of the building itself. In fact, most specifications do exist prior to and independent of the building's design and are not written, but merely edited, for each particular case. Outside of those architects who have become specialists as spec writers, typical practitioners view the specifications not as a manifestation of professional skill, but as a form of protection for their lack of knowledge.

Building codes and zoning ordinances have had a similar effect. On one hand, their proliferation and complexity has led to the creation of specialists within architectural firms along with consultants and "expediters" outside the firms. On the other hand, many architects, even when familiar with the rules and regulations contained in these codes, still relate to them as a collection of results, the technical basis of which remains outside their interest and expertise.

Other technical knowledge necessary for the construction of buildings is in the hands of building contractors and the various building trades within that industry. Here I am not referring so much to the skills needed to actually operate the equipment and perform the various tasks associated with modern construction, although this is certainly outside the competence of most architects. Rather, the entire question of how a building gets built is, in American practice, regarded as the contractor's job. The standard contractual "General Conditions" spell it out quite clearly: "The Contractor shall ... be solely responsible for all construction means, methods, techniques, sequences and procedures…"15

Finally, a great deal of technical knowledge is embedded within the products manufactured by the building industry. Where the architect was once confronted with the task of shaping more or less raw materials into a useable form, a task requiring some knowledge of the properties of materials and the means for their transformation into building elements, an architect today is more likely to assemble product-systems that have already been engineered to meet typical standards, and whose connection to adjacent systems is either specified in product literature, or detailed in handbooks.16

Yet given all the ways in which technical knowledge has been separated from the architect within the practice of architecture, the question raised earlier — what makes it possible for designers to design without this technical knowledge — must now be addressed.

That it is possible to design this way in practice is not challenged nearly to the same degree as is the educational strategy of separating technology from design. In fact the practice in architectural offices of starting with a "schematic design" phase forces the architect to make major design decisions without the benefit of rigorous technical input. The drawings that accompany this phase — "conceptual site and building plans, preliminary sections and elevations [and] perspective sketch(es)" — are no different in principal from the presentation requirements of the Beaux-Arts design studio.17

There are several reasons why designing this way is possible. First, architects possess particular kinds of knowledge about the building types they are asked to design, either through having designed similar projects in the past, or by examining similar projects designed by others. This experience supplies the architect with the typical dimensions, spans, etc. known to produce reasonable solutions within the bounds of conventional wisdom. Included here are things like typical mullion spacing, wall thickness, beam sizes, elevator capacity, size and location of mechanical duct shafts, and so on. Yet this internalization of "rules of thumb" and standards of practice should not be confused with technical knowledge. An architect can "know" how big a beam is without having the slightest idea how its size was computed. When it becomes necessary to actually design the structural and mechanical systems, engineers specializing in those areas are invariably consulted.

Second, handbooks such as Architectural Graphic Standards and manufacturers' catalogues present detailed solutions to technical problems commonly encountered in practice. But it is precisely because the results of technical knowledge are tabulated, displayed or otherwise made available to the architect that the knowledge itself becomes superfluous.

Before leaving this subject, however, we must temper these observations about the ways in which technical knowledge is separated from the practice of architecture by acknowledging a division of labor within the architectural profession through which opposite tendencies appear to be at work. Not only has there traditionally been a balancing of designers with business or planning partners in such firms as Adler and Sullivan, Bernham and Root, and McKim, Mead and White; but there is additionally a hierarchy of technical knowledge within the profession, manifesting itself in the split between "designers" and "detailers," "project managers" and "job captains," etc.18 Any discussion of architectural education must recognize the implications of this professional division in the pedagogical strategies within the schools. Thus, the tendencies discussed here will not apply equally well in all cases, as each school finds itself with a somewhat different role in producing this spectrum of architect-types. Even within a single institution, a multiplicity of strategies is not uncommon. Yet in spite of the different degrees of technical expertise within the architectural profession, the general tendency to separate this type of knowledge from the practitioner is unmistakable.

The Idea of Integration. The complaint that the teaching of design is divorced from the teaching of technology is usually followed by a call for their integration. Seventy-five years ago, at the height of Beaux-Arts influence in this country, the only attempt at such "technical" integration with design occurred in the thesis year where, for the first time, "some definite considerations of the structural as well as the more practical functional requirements..." were brought into the studio.19

This view of integration as the process of adding technical detail to architectural design actually approximates quite closely the way integration often works within the profession: as discussed earlier, it relies on some prior awareness of common building types, routine solutions to technical problems, and an assortment of rules of thumb and conventional wisdom. An example of this technique occurs at the University of Tennessee where students in a fourth-year studio "incorporate structural systems, HVAC, lighting, and plumbing into their building designs from the third-year class."20

Opposed to this idea of integration is one which seeks to broaden the concept of technology "beyond the narrow meaning of 'technique'" (David Lee Smith) to include questions of "significance and of essence" (Peter McCleary) or, as advocated by Kenneth Frampton, to give primacy to the "tectonic rather than the scenographic." Here, the technical basis for construction is seen not merely as the means to implement a design idea, but as a basis for the art of architecture as well.21

Of course, as technical knowledge becomes further removed from the architect, the project of integrating technology in a way that informs the design process is often transformed into the task of expressing technology (or, when completely divorced from its rational basis, to the fetishizing of technology). There are several reasons for this. First, the integration of technology and design is often presented to the architect as a fait accompli in the form of building products and systems whose selection is mandated by their superior performance and lower cost. The proliferation of exterior wall systems, suspended ceiling systems and so on, tends to make design a process of assembling systems in which the integration of various technologies with design has already occurred.

Second, the optimized results of complex technological processes may be distressingly routine from the point of view of an architect seeking to design something of a more "imageable" nature, to use Gutman's rather euphemistic term, or to one, like Frampton, interested in "creating significant urban form."22

Thus, the architect's decreasing grasp of technical knowledge does not imply that technology no longer informs the design of buildings. Paradoxically, some of the very tendencies that reduce the architect's technical knowledge insure that this knowledge does, in fact, become integrated with design. It is the result of this integration, rather than its absence, that ends up being criticized.

Pedagogical Implications. The art of architecture is taught in our schools because it remains valued in practice. The central role of the design studio in teaching this art is rarely disputed, and its unique methodology and mystique have been extensively documented.23 But to the extent that the professional definition of architecture as the provision of "comprehensive services" (enforced by accreditation and licensing requirements) has supplanted the single-minded pursuit of art as the dominant rationale within the schools, there is a far greater variation in pedagogical strategy within the schools of architecture than there was during the heyday of the Beaux-Arts. This is due to several factors: first, to the division of labor associated with the professionalization of architecture, both within the profession as a whole and within each firm, which has created the need for architects having different aptitudes, interests and skills.

Second, it is due to the fact that programs in "architectural-engineering," which had become quite common in the early part of the century, were undermined by the wave of experimentation and curriculum reform within the schools of architecture associated with the growing influence of the modern movement and the educational methods of the Bauhaus. These hybrid programs had allowed the Beaux-Arts schools of architecture to coalesce around a standard design-oriented curriculum (promulgated by the newly-formed ACSA) by satisfying the "real professional need" for individuals with more interest and competence in technical matters.24

Yet with the multiplicity of approaches regarding the priority accorded to design vs. technology, the question of how to teach technology to architects remains problematic. For if the proliferation of specialized areas of knowledge, and their increasing complexity, puts a complete understanding of these subjects beyond the grasp of any single individual, what, then, should architects be learning? Answers to this question range from David Glasser's "Art of Detailing" course, in which "graduate students are encouraged to evaluate building assemblies... [as carriers] of literary and metaphorical values...," to a proposal at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte to actually build a new architectural facility as "a laboratory" in which various environmental and structural parameters could be monitored, presumably under the watchful eyes of the architectural students.25 The first approach reflects a growing tendency to see technology in a broader context, reversing the more typical strategy of bringing technical information to the design studio (for example, by having instructors act as technical "consultants" or through team teaching).

By inverting the usual roles, the social, environmental, cultural, political, economic, historic, and intellectual context from which the "art" of architecture draws much of its inspiration can be seen as informing the study of technology as well. As Lance LaVine suggests, the question, what is architectural about technology, is at least as important as the more commonly asked question, what is technological about architecture.26

The second approach defines technology within more conventional boundaries, as a group of mathematically-based disciplines through which the rational construction of buildings becomes possible. While there is little question that some degree of literacy, if not competence, in technological subjects is necessary, most proposals of this type fail to systematically address the basic question of content: what exactly do architects need to know about technology?27 Given the likelihood that this knowledge will be relatively superficial, several related questions come to mind: 1) do all architects need to understand technology to the same extent; 2) is there a minimum amount of technical knowledge that all architects should possess and if so, what it is; 3) to what extent should technical matters be deferred to the architect's professional training and apprenticeship after graduation; and finally, 4) can general "principles of technology" be found that give architects insight into the behavior of structural and environmental control systems, construction materials and so on, without requiring the more rigorous mathematical derivations and numerical techniques characteristic of the "engineering" approach; and if so, a) what are they; and b) should they be taught.

It should be noted that the discussion of content is complicated by the requirements of accreditation and licensing and their role in defining architecture as a profession, especially since technology is the area in which the claims of architecture to professional authority are least secure. Additionally, studying the content of technological education does not, by itself, address the issue of its integration with design, or of its more general significance.

The question, then, of how technology fits into architectural education needs to be attacked from two opposite sides: first, by studying it in its broader context; and second, by paying closer attention to its content as a self-contained discipline. In doing this, however, given the multiplicity of roles that architects fill within the profession, it is likely that there will be as many answers as there are schools.


1 This sentiment is expressed throughout the literature on technical education. See, for example, Smith, David Lee "Integrating Technology Into the Architectural Curriculum," JAE Vol. 41, No. 1 (Fall 1987), p.4 ("...contrary to what is generally prevalent today, the teaching of technology must be effectively integrated into the architectural curriculum."). That this viewpoint is typical of those who have given direction to architectural programs at least since the 1930s can be seen by examining the statements of various Deans and Department Chairmen. Compare, for example, Gropius, Walter "Blueprint of an Architect's Education," Scope of Total Architecture Collier Books (New York, NY) 1955, pp.55-57 ("The architect [must] unify the many social, technical, economic and artistic problems which arise in connection with building ... Construction should be taught as part and parcel of design...") with this analysis prepared by the Deans of the Consortium of Eastern Schools of Architecture forty years later in "The Challenge to Schools of Architecture," Architecture Education Study, Vol. I Consortium of East Coast Schools of Architecture, 1981, p.828 ("We have, to start with, failed to find practical ways to integrate non-studio course material into the studio/workshop exercises...").

2 Weatherhead, Arthur Clason The History of Collegiate Education in Architecture in the United States Published Dissertation (Los Angeles, CA) 1941, p.195

3 Stubbs, M. Stephanie "Technical Education of Architects," Architecture Vol. 76, No. 8 (August, 1987) p.73

4 Weatherhead, op. cit., p.159

5 Gutman, Robert Architectural Practice: A Critical View Princeton Architectural Press (Princeton, NJ) 1988, p.34. For a brief history of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts see Weatherhead, op. cit., pp.15-16.

6 Weatherhead, op. cit., pp.23,28

7 See, for example, Saint, Andrew The Image of the Architect Yale University Press (New Haven, CT) 1983, p.34 for a discussion of Ruskin's view of the "art" of architecture; or Herdeg, Klaus The Decorated Diagram: Harvard Architecture and the Failure of the Bauhaus Legacy The MIT Press (Cambridge, MA) 1983, p.26 where this "art" is described as offering "an intellectual challenge and an emotional reward." On the other hand, theories on the "scientific" basis of architecture have been influenced by such disciplines as "[b]ehaviorism, building science ... and applied mathematics theory:" Wang, Marcy Li "Educating architects at Berkeley," Architectural Record Vol.171, No.2 (February 1983) p.109.

8 Ruskin, John The Seven Lamps of Architecture The Noonday Press (New York, NY) 1974, p.15

9 Sant 'Elia's "Messaggio" of 1914, quoted in Banham, Reyner Theory and Design in the First Machine Age The MIT Press (Cambridge, MA) 1982, p.129

10 Le Corbusier Towards a New Architecture Praeger Publishers (New York, NY) 1970, p.140

11 Taut, Bruno Modern Architecture The Studio (London) 1929, pp.3,5

12 Gutman, op. cit., p.19

13 Saint, op. cit., p.61

14 Gutman, op. cit., pp.37,39

15 "General Conditions of the Contract for Construction," A.I.A. Document A201, 1976 Edition

16 If evidence is needed regarding the proliferation of systems in today's building industry, a comparison of product advertisements in trade journals from 1900 vs. 1988 is instructive. Where advertised products in 1900 tended to be either more or less raw materials (lumber, cement, stone), or relatively discrete products (hinges, paints, boilers,etc.), products advertised in 1988 tend to integrate various building elements into larger entities. Where the word "system" does not appear in the 1900 ads, by 1988, almost 50% of the advertisements use that word to describe their product or service (based on a comparison of Architectural Record from July 1900 and September 1988).

17 "Scope of Designated Services," A.I.A. Document B162, 1977 Edition. According to this document, schematic design should be wholly "conceptual in character." For Beaux-Arts presentation requirements, see Weatherhead, op. cit., p.156.

18 Saint, op. cit., pp.83-89; also see Gutman, op. cit., p.101

19 Weatherhead, op. cit., p.154

20 Stubbs, op. cit., p.76

21 Smith, op. cit., p.6; McCleary is quoted in Stubbs, op. cit., pp.73-74; also see Frampton, Kenneth "Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance," in Hal Foster, ed., The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture Bay Press (Port Townsend, WA) 1983, pp.27-28. Unlike the radical theory of Taut, who believed beauty was inevitably the result of construction and therefore denied the independent existence of art, the idea of the tectonic still posits an art of architecture separate from its technological basis. That the subject of this art is the construction itself gives rise to the ideology among its proponents that it is somehow more valid than other artistic approaches to the design of buildings. See, for example, Glasser, David Evan "Curtains for the Wall," a paper presented at the 1989 ACSA Technology Conference: "...the notion that a scenographic coating of a functional package comprises an ethical posture with respect to architectural production is chilling."

22 Frampton, ibid., p.17: "Modern building is now so universally conditioned by optimized technology that the possibility of creating significant urban form has become extremely limited."

23 See, for example, Schon, Donald A. "Learning a Language, Learning to Design," Architectural Education Study, Vol. I, op. cit., pp.343-471. A more cynical view can be found in Stone, Harris Workbook of an Unsuccessful Architect Monthly Review Press (New York, NY) 1973, pp.173-178.

24 Weatherhead, op. cit., pp.144-149

25 Glasser, David Evan "Design Education for Creative Management of Changing Technology," Design Methods and Theories Vol. 18, Nos. 3/4 (1984) p.169; also Stubbs, op. cit., p.76

26 LaVine, Lance "Technology and Architecture vs. Architecture and Technology," paper presented at the ACSA Technology Conference (Baton Rouge, LA) 1989

27 The distinction between literacy and competence is discussed in Trilling, Leon, "Technology as Part of a Liberal Education," Technology and Science: Important Distinctions for Liberal Arts Colleges Davidson-Sloan New Liberal Arts Program (Davidson, North Carolina) 1984, p.70. Trilling says: "We are literate in a discipline when we understand its presuppositions, its research techniques and some of its more important results. We are competent in it when we are able to use it for our own purposes."