Peter Zellner’s New Architecture School: No Tuition & a Radical Curriculum

The architect and instructor believes his tuition-less school will bring more experimental ideas into the world—but could it sabotage students’ futures?

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Having been very vocal about the prevalent problems he sees in architectural pedagogy, Peter Zellner is ready to take action against it. Zellner, a well-known architect and educator based in Los Angeles, is slated to open up the Free School of Architecture (FSA) next summer. As plans for his new school shape up, the initiative opens up more questions than gratifying answers—and that, he sometimes inadvertently suggests, is the point.

In late September, Zellner put out a loose curriculum that favors seminars about theory and history. He says he hopes to cultivate a learning environment that is both “post studio” and “post digital,” referring to the two pillars of architectural education today. It will require no written work or design projects from the first 12 post-graduate students it admits, nor will it offer any degrees. While the school, in its current state, isn’t accredited and only serves as a platform for post-graduate studies, Zellner sees it scaling up to inform a new type of teaching (and learning) about architecture.

Most notably, FSA endeavors to be tuition-free. The exorbitant costs of higher education have stimulated one of the nation’s most intense debates. Architecture school is no exception, where, according to Zellner, students almost always lose out on their investment. “A lot of students are going into tech and earning in some cases I would say ten times what a graduate architect is making,” he says. Those who pursue a more traditional career in the profession are riddled with debt upon graduation, which dissuades them from ever opening up their own firms. This is a crucial issue for Zellner, as the dwindling of young firms means fewer new ideas are being introduced into architectural practice. “Fewer experimental ideas—whether they are formal, economic, socioeconomic, or political ones—are entering the world. What we’re seeing instead is just a replication of many of the same aesthetic motifs.”

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Zellner, who previously taught at SCI-Arc, identifies the source of this stagnancy as the master-disciple model​, one of his chief criticisms of architectural education. He wants to re-configure the way knowledge is transferred, away from a top-down, 19th-century approach where the studio instructor holds the keys to learning. “What I’m thinking about is a relational model, where the teacher and the student participate in a debate around ideas,” Zellner explains. “The student isn’t simply a recipient of, let’s say, ‘approved’ knowledge but rather acts as a co-researcher with the teacher and has a responsibility to make new knowledge.”

It’s an idea that brings to mind learning-centered teaching, an educational model that has mostly been experimented with in the sciences. LCT has its roots in constructivist pedagogy, which argues that knowledge cannot just be given to a student. Instead, pupils should be empowered to control their own learning and create their own meanings, a process called “deep learning.” In other words, as prominent higher education theorist Maryellen Weimar puts it in her book Learner-Centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice, it discourages the “copying down [of] teacher-provided examples” and pushes for “changing the power dynamic of the classrooms.”

Zellner arrives at the point via John Baldessari’s call for change in art education back in the 1970s. In an op-ed published in the Architect’s Newspaper in September, Zellner wrote how Baldessari sought a more collaborative learning environment between student and teacher through his famous post-studio art class at CalArts. With this as a model, Zellner attempts to do something similar, only with architecture. (Hence, the “post studio” descriptor in FSA’s mission statement.) His critics have taken issue with the comparison to Baldessari, citing technical education issues such as knowledge of building codes and structural realities that artists don’t have to face. (In fact, Zellner has included a course component in FSA’s curriculum to address technical aspects of design.) Still, he defends his call for reform: “I was saying that Baldessari’s model avoids instances where the teacher basically directs work, making students make work that looks like their work.”

Not all the blame should be completely laid at the feet of studio instructors. Another problem, Zellner says, is the software that students use—programs that the entire field of architecture is reliant upon. “Students are told, ‘If you don’t learn Revit, you won’t be able to be an architect.’ For me to hear that suggests that the market forces us to use certain software and so determines how and why we teach.” It’s pay to play, as students and firms cannot even begin designing without first securing the proper software licenses.

This dependence on digital technologies belies an acute philosophical issue—that our understanding of space is limited by the tools practitioners are often forced to use. Contemporary architecture is inextricably tied to the market, says Zellner, but he hopes FSA can open up a space of resistance. “What I would be interested in finding out is whether or not architects can take control back of the tools that they use and move them out of being just merely commoditized platforms that you have to subscribe to every month for a certain fee. That would mean really starting to rethink where and when software is appropriate.”

Surely, Zellner’s call for a re-evaluation of the master-disciple model seems overdue. However, a key component of education is assessment—usually in the form of grading produced work—and it is conspicuously missing from the FSA’s self-description. Meanwhile, FSA’s nonconformist attitude and theoretical bent presents a conundrum: Will students without the kind of design experience necessary in the current job environment feel emboldened to found their own ventures? For now, Zellner is hedging his bets—the school will only admit students who have obtained undergraduate degrees (which somewhat bursts the bubble about the “tuition-free” claims). And his gripes with software’s chokehold on architectural creativity are justified if vague.

Zellner is open about the school being experimental. It’s evident that its structure will need to be reconsidered after the completion of each semester cycle. Much like a good work of design, you must test your ideas and run several iterations before defining a solution. 

But how many questions is too many questions when it’s students’ education at stake? Experimenting and questioning the system is the theoretical backbone of FSA, and hopefully some of the answers will reveal themselves in the iterations over the years to come.

The Free School of Architecture will begin accepting applications Sunday, January 1, 2017, until Tuesday, January 31, 2017.

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