Educating the Next Wave

Are the deans up to the task?

Once again all eyes were on the built environment when, earlier this year, the catastrophic collapse of a Minneapolis bridge and a steam-pipe explosion in midtown Manhattan brought back the nightmares of 9/11. But soon the headlines returned to Hollywood starlets and their sordid rehab sagas. And one of the biggest questions of the twenty-first century—how can we maintain and rebuild our aging infrastructure?—remained unasked. True, some engineers and architects were initially consulted by reporters. But their ideas, opinions, and solutions were not sought out later; their unique knowledge has not become the foundation for our long overdue national discussion on the built environment. I know literally dozens of concerned citizens in the design community who are willing to participate in such a debate and offer smart ways to save and make safe our buildings, bridges, schools, hospitals, and transportation systems. How come they can’t get airtime?

This thought was buzzing in my head on an early autumn evening as I settled in to listen to the third annual Deans Roundtable at the Center for Architecture, in New York City. I wondered, What will I hear from those responsible for educating our next generation of citizen designers? After all, this group of students is part of the most globally connected, tech-savvy, environmentally and cultur­ally aware generation our schools have ever seen. What are the deans doing to reach them, to teach them the expected intellectual rigor while helping them connect with their heartfelt social and environmental concerns?

The 16 deans from regional architecture and interior-design schools agreed in general that the education they offer is inefficient, too expensive, and “committed to teaching students to design the equivalent of a Hummer,” as one said—basically a luxury profession for middle-class kids. Aside from scholarship programs, what are they doing to recruit from the most needy neighborhoods and backgrounds? How do the schools tap into this new human energy? No one asked. Instead, the deans were concerned that the current buzz phrase “Design for the other 90 percent” is an incorrect number given the narrow influence architects have in the United States today.

Much was made of the frustration with school accreditation, which, as the group agreed, is “stuck in the box.” This concern was defused by news that the AIA and the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture are working to bring curriculum evaluations into the twenty-first century. With the AIA’s public adoption of Ed Mazria’s 2030 Chal­lenge, which calls for the elimination of fossil fuels from building operations within the next 23 years, we can expect new standards to push for the elim­ination of carbon emissions from buildings. Will the deans wait for this shift, or are they already gearing up for it? Some have programs in the works. But from what I heard that evening, most seem mired in ambivalence.

When asked about Mazria’s wildly successful 2010 Global Emergency Teach-In, through which the Santa Fe architect aimed to give a boost to the environmental knowledge of architecture and design students and teachers, the gathered deans said that “it had no traction” in their schools. Though a quarter-million people tuned into the Webcast, most of these deans didn’t deem the event important enough to encourage their students to participate. I see this as an ethical lapse on the deans’ part. They know of their students’ commitment to green design and how eager they are to delve into the complexities of a sustainable world. In light of this, making room for the teach-in during a busy school day should have been each dean’s priority and considered a unique opportunity for learning.

There were very few students in the room that night at the center. Perhaps their absence signals the kids’ frustration with their remote, disconnected, and seemingly clueless deans. Though the deans like to talk about educating citizen designers, it feels empty to me, and apparently to the students too. Which leads to some painful questions: Can this socially conscious generation get an education that connects them to their fellow creatures’ needs and concerns? Do the schools know how to educate a new generation of civic leaders? Who will inspire fledgling designers to dedicate themselves to upgrading and rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure while protecting our environment?

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