A Better Model for Architectural Education

BY ROBERT WEDDLE, PH.D., AIA, LEED AP
Professor of Architecture
Interim Director of the Hammons School of Architecture

moderl2Schools of architecture are typically located in large institutions—often public land-grant universities with emphases on technical education and large engineering or agricultural programs. Enrollments in these architecture schools can reach over 700 students, and the host institutions often have enrollments in the tens of thousands. In such settings, the natural tendency of professional schools to isolate themselves is reinforced by scale and institutional complexity. Architecture students are often removed from the diverse people and professions they will one day serve.

Drury’s architecture program represents a very different model for educating architects—one we think offers a better path toward leadership and successful practice. Since the founding of Drury’s architecture program 30 years ago, our emphasis has been on creativity, critical problem solving, community service and learning-by-doing. These approaches are supported by our unique setting—the Hammons School of Architecture is one of the only nationally accredited architecture programs to be housed in a small liberal arts university.

The HSA’s origins are in Drury’s Department of Art, where architecture courses were offered as early as the 1970s. As the program formalized— eventually gaining full accreditation in 1991—it has retained close ties not only with the art department but also with Drury’s liberal arts identity in general. Whereas architecture students at other schools are often discouraged from giving attention to non-architecture courses and activities, HSA students are able to fully embrace the breadth of education offered to them. Many students complete minors or double-majors, and all are expected to use their growing architectural expertise to engage broadly significant issues and problems.

The HSA fifth-year thesis experience illustrates the school’s distinct approach. Students spend their fall semester conducting in-depth research and identifying topics of special concern to them. These topics often derive from some of the most complex issues confronting contemporary culture, including problems of sustainability, famine, refugee housing and social justice. Others might investigate how changing technological capabilities affect our relationships to spaces and to one another, or how spaces and forms can help inform and educate about specific issues. After a semester of intensive research, students identify design projects and sites with which they can explore these topics through spring semester design activities.

Ambitious thesis projects like these are often limited to post-baccalaureate graduate programs, as many first-professional architecture programs have abandoned the thesis project in order to spend time on more pragmatic skills. At the HSA, our continuing emphasis on the thesis project reflects our attention to students’ abilities to draw upon diverse coursework, to think critically and creatively, and to engage important cultural issues.

Even as we expect students to make deeper than usual connections with complex problems and communities, the HSA program is also highly effective in training students to handle technical demands and to become successful professionals. In fact, in the last reporting of ARE (Architect’s Registration Exam) pass rates, Drury alumni were more likely to pass than the national average by a margin of ten percentage points. Our alumni also have pass rates higher than those of all of our regional competitors, as well as well-known national schools like Harvard, MIT, Columbia and Cornell.

hsaDrury Architecture’s unique combination of liberal arts setting and effective professional training is now attracting students from across the United States and from many foreign countries. While the majority of our students still come from Missouri, nearly 20 percent are from out of state and nearly 25 percent are international students. HSA students come from 13 different states and 22 countries. This growing geographical diversity connects not only with our longstanding practice of sending HSA students out into the world, to learn from great places and great architecture, but also to understand architecture’s complex relationship with the specific cultures that produce it. As has been the case since the early years of our program, every HSA graduate spends at least five weeks (and most spend an entire semester) participating in an international architecture experience. Study abroad opportunities exist through the Drury Center on the island of Aigina, Greece; through a student-exchange agreement with the famed ETSAB program in Barcelona, Spain; and through other summer and semesterlong programs that have been based in Austria, China, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Romania and Spain.

Just as we have always sent our students abroad, we also send them out into local communities to gain direct hands-on experience. All students take part in a community engagement design studio, through which they gain experience working with real clients and solving problems for real communities. Drury community engagement studios have contributed the equivalent of nearly six million dollars in design services to nearly 40 communities across our region. Students also have access to designbuild opportunities and have completed real projects for communities in need—including post-tornado Joplin. A student team is currently designing and building a solar powered and storm-resilient house for the national Solar Decathlon competition.

In short, Drury’s unique model for architecture education centers on the kind of personalized attention and flexible curriculum that is possible in a liberal arts setting, where committed faculty work directly with students. But this supportive local setting must be coupled with an outward orientation, through which communities are served, cultures are examined and students from around the world are welcomed. The effectiveness of this model is proven by the success of our graduates and the pride they feel as they become increasingly aware of how our educational model has shaped their careers—giving them tools that set them apart from their peers and define them as leaders in their professions and communities.