Percy Griffin - Architect

Interview with Percy Griffin

Percy Griffin is an Architect in New York and a Professor at the School of Architecture at NYIT.

So, what’s your story ?

I’m an architect … and I was born and raised in the state of Mississippi. I had never had a T-Square till I came to NY. My family were sharecroppers.

In the early part of my education we had to walk three miles to school and three miles back, whereas the whites had busses to ride. We did not have the facilities in our school to give us all we needed, but we made the best we could with what we had.

I graduated from high-school and I was the top of my class, and came to NY.

My mother said that I was born to be an architect even though she didn’t really know what the word meant, because she said that I used to be attracted to drawings and models and building miniatures etc. She said that her son (me) was different from her other sons (4 of us). So, that was the beginning of the idea.

I came to NY and started school, but had to take many remediate courses. That is when I discovered that any African American (back then called a “negro”) who was accepted in any school in this country, Mississippi would pay their tuition and pay for them to travel back and forth twice a year. They didn’t want anybody knowing that of course, so I didn’t know either and no one else knew it either. It was a cover-up for the federal government’s “separate but equal” policies.

There were a lot of people that helped me in the beginning of my career. For example, a lady named Ruth Hersh – an employment agent somewhere in the 50s – called me and told me that Philip Johnson was looking for a worker, and wanted to cross the fence and hire a black (I was one of the first ones that he hired).

I worked for Philip Johnson for 5 years. It was the experience of my life. that was where I was really able to mend the areas that needed to be mended, which was necessary for me to be an architect. I was there for about a month. I went there early spring. As I was looking around, everyone there was either from Princeton, Harvard, University of Tokyo, Yale … the best universities on the planet. So, I’m looking around, and I’m like “I gotta go back to school”! And I became friends with most of the workers. They were very nice to me. So, I spoke with some of them and said that I had to go back to school, and I don’t have the money to do that, and I have to use my money to live and pay the rent, so maybe I could work part-time and go back … “I’m gonna ask Mr Johnson”… “Oh no”, they said, “don’t do that because you are extremely sensitive and he’ll insult you”. Some of the workers wanted to teach, and when they told him, he ran up and got a check, and gave them the check and said “get out of my office”!!! He was a mean man. So, I said to myself after a couple of weeks went by, “well … he’s gonna have to tell me to go”. So, I went up, and I said “Mr Johnson I’d like to go back to school”. He said “Good!” So I said, “yes, but I want to work here part time”… “I DON’T DO THAT!!!”, he said … I said “Thank you sir”… Before I could get to the door he said “STOP!”  And then I turned around he said “but in your case I will make an exception and my office will fit your school’s schedule”. He paid me full pay, the same pay he gave to the architects that had already graduated, for 5 years, and I took off any day that my class was going on, and he never took off a dime. He kept paying me the same he paid everyone else… for five long years. And he also gave me personal crits on my school projects… for five long years! My fellow students at the school would pay no attention to the professors about the assignment. They’d wait for me to come through the door and ask “what did Philip Johnson say about the assignment?” And the teachers would get so upset. That is a true story! At his office I got the chance to meet Louis Kahn, Salvador Dali, Andy Warhol, and others and go to parties with them, because they all knew Philip Johnson and he would invite everyone to the party. I wouldn’t trade that for any school in the entire world: Going to school up at City College, and being in the office of Philip Johnson.

Do you think that just that interaction with Philip Johnson on a daily basis was as critical as a formal architectural education?

Yes,  I do, because architecture is more than sitting in a studio and many of the professors at school were very prejudice. They were not ready to work with and teach an African-American. I think I was blessed and lucky to have been in that office. On top of all of that of course, you needed talent. I would proclaim that I truly had the talent and ability to be an architect.

What do you think it means to have the talent to be an architect?

It means the creativity, the mind to put things together, the mind to be compassionate, the mind to understand the needs of the users, etc. My clients are not rich clients, but they need architecture. Out of a few pennies I can put, I believe, the best they could get to transform their space into an environment that they would enjoy. I feel very confident about that. It has been my goal, my passion and what I do.

Is this ability to improve space what you love the most about architecture?

Yes. I love to help the people that are not rich but need what they need. If they need a home, they should get a home. A home is an investment, so they call upon an architect because the state requires an architect. The joy of having a home to them has nothing to do with architecture, BUT I try to give them all that they can get. And the pleasure when they have a home and it is ready and they walk into it often makes them say things like “we had no idea it would be like this”.

Here is another example:

In my career I have worked on a variety of different structures, from homes, to public buildings, churches to funeral homes. There was this particular funeral home, where the client wanted to add eight more chapels to the ones he already had. He showed me the space and he said, “professor Griffin, I need eight more chapels and you were recommended to me. There are architects here that all they do is do funeral homes, but I would like for you to do it”. There was one single hallway, with six chapels on the one side and six chapels on the other. I said “oh my god, you cannot do this” completely unconsciously and talking to myself. He said “why!”. I said “you cannot have all these chapels next to each other in a straight corridor and everyone having their service together and coming out and they are overcome with grief and then on top of that everybody is experiencing everybody else’s grief! “ I was talking to myself … he said “really ? What would you do?” I said “I would have the corridor go around a round wall, which would create four separate spaces. So, if one was at one end they would never meet someone at the other end of the corridor. And I tell you, we built it like that and it was most successful. EXTREMELY successful! You HAVE to have compassion for others and what you are doing. You have to live it. I have done a lot of daycare centers. I remember once I was working on a daycare center, and I wasn’t sure how the children would react after the space was completed. I went down to the old center and ask the director “could I fill a couple of cars with a few children? I’d like to take them to the new space”. The space came from my mind but I was trying to be a two-year-old. They got in there and went “WOW”. I walked out, tears were in my eyes. Job Well Done!!!! For me, that is what architecture is all about. Meeting the expectation of how the space will be used. It’s not about the money. Everyone needs architecture. The rich need architecture, and the poor need architecture. I work for the Poor! And I enjoy it!

So you feel that architecture has a special social purpose?

Yes, because there is a lot of need for improvement. If you are very lucky and it is something that you really enjoy it is not about work.

I tell youngster when they ask how much money they’ll make and such. “You’ll make a living”, and there are many architects that are very rich, but that’s not all. It’s far from being all. There is a lot in between. You should make a living of course, and the joy of the thing should be to be doing what you love to do, and if you are lucky enough, it will be all you want to do.

Whose vision is more important? Yours, the client’s or the theorist’s?

I try to expedite my client’s vision. That’s more important to me. But, to give them a little bit more than their expectation. They have an idea, they have a need, but in that need to give them a taste of honey is my purpose. If they are spending their money, then they should be able to get the best. As a professional, I would be very displeased if I only gave them what they need.

Is it poetics or function that are more important?

Poetics. It’s the music. Who’s gonna dance by your music! That’s what it is about.

I did a lot of churches. And again, I like to test my work. Once it is completed I like to test it. Not every piece, but to a good extent. I recall renovating this Baptist chapel on 114 street and Lenox Ave. A minister came to me (I am a deacon in the church) and said Deacon Griffin I understand you are an architect, and I need to do some work on the church. I did the work and even the little children when they walked in the chapel they knew that it had transformed into a musical piece. This is a response that I believe we all should seek when we do our work. Do it the best that you can. You will put a lot of time in it, you won’t make a lot of money, but do it the best that you can!


Do you think there are limits to what an Architect can do?

You have to know thyself and know the client as well in order to understand what you could do to help the client. You have to think of that because otherwise it can lead to a very sad end.

As an educator, what would you say to young architects?  What is the number one principle to having a successful architectural career?

I would think the first priority would be to make sure to know that this is what you want to do. It is very unfortunate if you don’t find out in an early stage. Architecture is not a picnic. You have to discipline yourself to count sand in the desert in a thousand degrees. You also need a family, and they must understand that you love what you do and allow you to do it.

Young architects tend to value awards more than actual accomplishments. What do you think?

Somewhere in the scripture it says that you should do things in quietness and that will blossom out. That doesn’t necessarily work in New York, but to go for the Marquee, you have to do the best, fight a good fight (in your own arena), and leave it there. Of course everybody would love to be published and recognized. Everybody likes a pat on the back. A publication is a joy for that reason, but that is all it is. It is not the essence. If you have the talent in fact it is good for the profession if you get publicity. However, if you don’t have the talent, it is not good for the profession.

james forren - architect

Specialization + Curriculum

Specialization + Curriculum

James Forren is an M.Arch thesis student at MIT

The first thing I thought of when I read “specialization” was a story I read in The New Yorker about the collapse of the Twin Towers. According to this article, a gentleman whose business it is to take down oversized structures (apartment towers, mammoth bridges, etc.) took one look at the planes plowing into the World Trade Center Towers and thought, instantly, “In 2 hours those buildings are coming down.” He frantically tried to phone people in charge, but couldn’t get through. When he saw fireman being sent up into the towers he could not believe his eyes. Leslie Roberts, the structural engineer for the towers, had no instinct for this. Putting buildings up and taking them down are specialized fields with separate knowledge.

A first response to this, or at least my first response, was that this is a sad, disturbing state of affairs. This is because I assumed (correctly or not) that these two bits of knowledge were once part of a synthetic discipline. I read both Mario Salvadori’s books Why Building Stand Up and Why Buildings Fall Down. I assumed that the responsibility of knowing why they stand up must, out of good, professional ethics, always be coupled with the knowledge of why they fall down. This is, in part, naïve. We know that erectors of Gothic Cathedrals had no clear sense of the threshold of their abilities. Perhaps, the early, cautious efforts were more cognizant of these limits. With success, perhaps, came distance from the specter of failure.
What I’m getting at is that I, with many others, have a longing for a synthetic knowledge that perhaps never really existed. But, I think, this is an ideal we can share and try to examine critically. When I think of the Twin Towers’ collapse, I wonder how can these threads of knowledge be woven back together. I don’t know. I have fantasies of CAD models on the web that all consultants can weigh in on and examine. I harbor fantasies of Uber-Architects whose knowledge and skills encompass everything an architect “should know.” Of expanded curricula that create a more synthetic blend of disciplinary knowledge. Again, on the larger, social and professional spectrum, I have no clue. I retell the Twin Towers story so often I hope that someone or someones may figure this out.

For the time being, I am finishing my time here at MIT. On the note of specialization and architecture, I have never, in my life, seen the discipline of architecture so forcefully and thoughtlessly rent to pieces as I have here. Nor, however, have I ever seen the discipline draw upon such deep resources from these many fragments of its personality with such ambition and elegance. HTC, BT, Computation, Visual Arts, Urban Planning, The Media Lab and Design. I may be missing a program or two. Efforts are made, different programs are invited to review and sit on thesis committees. But it is the students who are largely responsible for the effort of threading competing practices into a single synthetic or fractured vision. However, neither we nor the department are cognizant of that fact. The Department Welcome Page correctly heralds the variation and depth of our resources. The notion of richness and variety under a single Department implies a systemic connection among these parts. This is, however, misleading and, ultimately, disillusioning implication for many students and faculty arriving in the Department for the first time.

A strong indicator that this is not true lurks in the other heralded aspect of education here: the individualized pursuit of knowledge. It is fully expected that students will navigate these waters on their own. And, well, they may be expected to. But the effort this entails and the obstructions it engenders severely limits the success that can be expected of even the most ambitious students during their time here. This is not to say that the environment is not an excellent one; nor that it is unique in this lapse in meeting student needs. It does mean, however, that we are not as strong an institution as we have the potential to be.

I am not advocating specifically for an integrated curriculum, nor inter-disciplinary education. I don’t know enough about either to outright support them nor their alternatives. I am advocating that, amidst an environment of deep specialization, should the promise of synthesis be realized, measures must be in place that support this vision. It will not occur, as the laissez-faire pedagogy-without-a-pedagogy position of the administration seems to assume, organically on its own by the daily “balancing acts” of the students and faculty.

What are these measures? Steps are in place introducing curriculum integration at the Level I and SMarches years. This should help. I might naively propose a concerted attention to the required courses of the M.Arch curriculum beyond Level I. Our semester typically involves a tug-of-war between unusually demanding BT, HTC, Computation/Fabrication, Media Lab or Visual Arts courses. Working knowledge is not emphasized in these courses so much as disciplinary expertise modeled on the education of these instructors who specialize in these disciplines. This situation commonly undermines the laboratory of Studio where these concepts are, I assume, intended to by synthesized.

But this is a position marked by ambivalence on my part. I’m glad that I can take Building Science courses taught by engineers. Taking history and theory courses in a program where the discipline’s contemporary practice was practically invented is, likewise, an unprecedented opportunity. But, I am not alone in my disappointment a the collapse of design efforts at semester’s close. Nor in my sadness at the use of the M.Arch program by advancing undergrads as a place to study because they feel they’ve had enough studio prior to MIT and want to focus on other coursework. My suggestion is that, rather than anxiously resisting the notion of “some stratagem or directive” as a “once and for all” solution, the administration considers the situation at hand, develop concrete steps to address it and a framework to monitor the progress of these initiatives. Repeated knee-jerk defenses of a situation that many experience as untenable is simply short-sighted at best, and debilitating at its worst.

Stanford Anderson

Specialization in Architectural Practice and Education

Specialization in Architectural Practice and Education

Stanford Anderson is a Professor of History and Architecture and the Head of the department of Architecture at MIT.


Unquestionably, architectural practice today requires more specialized knowledge and performance than in the past. These demands increase with the scale of projects and the range of challenging issues that are addressed. To choose to address sustainability issues, for example, requires more expertise than if those concerns are ignored. Does the general phenomenon of specialization, then, represent a trend, or perhaps even a rather rapid movement away from the architect generalist toward associations of technician/specialists that might not even include architects as we have know them?

The evidence does not all point in this direction. From individual practioners to some very large firms, it is not difficult to think of architects who still build coherent bodies of work. IN some of these cases, their generalist role may be driven by purely formal concerns; we may feel inclined to criticize them for not being sufficiently attentive to the complexity of the problem, and thus to the need for specialized knowledge. But there are examples of the generalist architect who does also succeed in addressing a remarkable range of specialist issues. One thinks of the almost lone figure of Glenn Murcutt, to the small offices of a Rick Joy or Brian McKay-Lyons, the research based office of Thomas Herzon, and on through the mid-sized offices of Renzo Piano or Michael Hopkins or Nicholas Grimshaw to the large office of Norman Foster. At these very different scales of operation, all of these architects reveal a capacity to embrace many issues and address them both through their own broad knowledge and by thoughtful collaboration.
I say “thoughtful collaboration” because in their choices of engineers, for example, neither do they pass off the technical work as the responsibility of someone else nor do they resist the creative input of the engineer. The engineers with whom they work have something of the “generalist sensibility” that allows for genuinely collaborative development.

I argue then, that neither the large office nor the large project precludes the possibility of highly creative work by generalist architects.
Piano and Foster (and several lesser known but creditable architects) have built major airports without being, or becoming, “airport architects.” The small firm of one of our own graduates, Ben Wood (Wood and Zapata), built the major stadium for the Chicago Bears without being specialists as “sport architects.”

The necessity of more and deeper knowledge, and the scale of projects, does not preclude good architecture or its realization by generalists architects.
But there is a form of specialization that is troubling, and that is the type already suggested in the last paragraph. Must you have done several (probably unimaginative) airports, or stadiums, or hospitals before receiving a chance to do one? I served two terms on the Design Advisory Board of Massport, at a time when they were choosing architects for new terminals at Logan Airport. As a bureaucracy, they were protected by selecting architects already known, in this case, as “airport architects.” Even if the firm had done only mediocre work, they still were known for this type of work; you had not gone out on a limb with an architect new to the type. It did not have to be at the scale of a terminal; reworking the ticket counters in an existing terminal required prior experience of that kind!

My first exposure to the current debate about this type of worrisome specialization was this “health care architecture.” More than a year ago, Tom Payette came to the Board of Directors of the Boston Society of Architects (the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects) to explain and urge resistance to the development of special credentials for architects who would design health care facilities. Payette’s own firm has a significant position in this field, but he was resisting a cause advanced by his fellow/competing hospital architects. Tom is rightly concerned that developing and requiring special credentials for each building type is destructive of imaginative development of the field, negative in its inherent resistance to the entry of new generations of architects in the field, and contrary to the valued generalist nature of architectural practice. I cannot speak for the Boston Society of Architects, but the Board gave a very positive reception to Tom’s concerns, and no one defended certification formalities for such forms of specialization.

That, then is a form of specialization to be criticized and resisted.
I have already acknowledged the necessity to work openly and creatively in collaborations that require multiple forms of specialization. I would go further to say that “generalist architects” may find it advantageous to themselves to achieve some specialist stature. To take my sustainability issue again: We are at a juncture where it takes considerable effort to know the current state of the science and engineering of sustainability, let alone to make some contribution to those fields. If an architect wishes to take special responsibility in this area (or others), he or she will be brought to a level of specialization – but that architect could still practice over the full range of building scales; in urban, rural, or wilderness environments; and with all building types. He or she can, and hopefully would, still have a particular signature within the broader cultural enterprise of architecture.


Are the research degrees in schools of architecture and the pressure for research by professors of architecture either the cause or the result of specialization in the practice of architecture? Certainly there are reciprocities between the increasing emphasis on research in both architectural practice and education, but I would emphasize two matters in this respect.
The first professional degree should properly be slow in bringing students into a research mode. Students come to architecture, even to graduate studies in architecture, as neophytes. You cannot define a research program in a discipline until you know the current state of that field – and there is plenty for the new student to learn while becoming a contributor to the generalist field of architecture. As here at MIT, architecture students, in their brief 3+ years, may participate in a professor’s research project, may take on a sub-inquiry in a workshop, may be exposed to the research of professors and advanced degree students. They will thus be exposed to research and more generally develop the capacities that may lead to a research contribution in a M.Arch thesis, in continuing graduate education, or eventually in practice. But the M.Arch. in itself is not a research degree.

Secondly, the research degrees should allow a student committed to the role of architect to adopt a special emphasis in generalist practice (as adduced with sustainability concerns above), or, alternatively, allow a student to become a specialist who, whether in practice or sustained research, can work creatively in the realization of superior architecture that does recognize the increased complexity of the built environment and its realization.

Mark Jarzombek

Expert or Anti-Expert

Expert or Anti-Expert: Is that the Question?

Mark Jarzombek is an Associate Professor of the History and Architecture at MIT and the director of History, Theory and Criticism of Architecture and Art at MIT.

The modern notion of ‘an expert’ developed to a large extent in the second half of the nineteenth century in the context of the rise of Enlightenment bourgeoisie. By the 1880s, fields like geology, chemistry, medicine, engineering and related disciplines had begun to establish themselves with tell-tale manifestations like professional organizations, journals and annual meetings. Membership was not based on who one knew or on one’s aristocratic lineage, but on one’s ability to contribute to the field. It was a revolution of sensibilities that has all too often been forgotten in the wake of its success.

Without using too large a brush, however, I should add that the second half of the 19th also saw a remarkable interest in the liberated Ego, and I mean by that not the more limited technical definition coming out of Freud, but the broader, more psychological one with Max Stirner’s truly amazing and underappreciated book the Ego and his Own (1864) setting the tone. Holding the emerging expert culture in suspicion, he argued, for example, that the best violinists were not to be found in the Berlin Philharmonic, but on the docks of Hamburg. I mention this to remind us that expertise has to be seen outside of the insistent singularity that the work evokes. It is a historical formation and a unique by-product of the Enlightenment, and yet it is also through and through, dialectical, provoking its opposite at every turn of the clock. Frederick Winslow Taylor, for example, proposed the principles of scientific management in the same year, 1911, in which Wassily Kandinsky challenged the role of the art expert in the criticism of his paintings.

If expertise has a history that is relatively easy to identify because of its penchant for formalized discursive exchanges – not to mention its capacity to create communities around these exchanges -, the anti-expertise argument is just as tightly bound into the fabric of modernist thinking. In 1903, for example, the cultural critic, Wilhelm Uhde, was so convinced about the eminent death of art history, that he predicted that in the future people will no longer “want to whittle away long hours in the stagnant air of the archives writing catalogues”; they will want instead “to recognize the reality of the aesthetic will in the paradise of human creativity.” Such ideas were particularly attractive to American educators in the 1950’s (as I discuss in my book The Psychologizing of Modernity) when universities were looking for a uniquely American post-war ideology of authentic liberalism. Rudolf Arnheim, for example, wrote that one’s artistic sensibilities could easily be “drowned” by the flood of books, articles, dissertations, speeches, lectures, [and] guides” on the subject.

It would be wrong to see the history of expertise as a battle between the scientists and the artists, or as a struggle between academic and non-academic realities. Both want nothing more than to be seen as the legitimate formulated of the modernist episteme. When Kandinsky wrote the Pedagogische Skizenbuch, he was foreshadowing the notion that anti-experts so-to-speak can have their own standards of disciplinary behavior. It was as if the modernity of the Enlightenment, that had instrumentalized itself into something that we might now call “research,” (a word rarely encountered in academe until about 1890) encountered a different modernity that was based on a research for a rigorously grounded philosophically Ego. From Stirner, we go through Friedrich Nietzsche’s accusation that Immanuel Kant, of all people, was a bad philosopher because he was “too scholarly,” to Wilhelm Dilthey’s position that the historian’s history was less potent that the “history” that one can find in the poems of Lessing. For Edmund Husserl, the scientist’s science was weaker than the more encompassing science of “phenomenologists.” For Martin Heidegger, the knowledge of an urban technocrat pales in comparison to that of a Black Forest farmer. Closer to our time frame, we need only think of phenomenology, and its post 1970s appropriations of academe to see just how close in architectural education certain anti-intellectual trends still are.

At the heart of this is a legitimate and still unresolved crisis about the nature of intellectual production. Art history, in having separated in academe from art studio decades ago, might have won something in clarity, but I would say that architecture won something too by not yet succumbing to a neither-nor resolution of this crisis. It is a discipline where expertise – having come quite late in the game – is still in a struggle with its modernist shadow. In fact, architecture, it might well be said, is the last discipline in academe where expert and non-expert cultures (and its variously associated politics of exclusion and inclusion) still exist without many of the more common standards of disciplinary separation.

This significantly complicates the problem of how – and where – to locate epistemological gravitas in the field of architecture. Yet we have to accept that we are working in a space where the expert and the non-expert, the intellectual and the anti-intellectual, the historian and the designer, the academic and the professional, the disciplined and the purposefully un-disciplined, are, for better or worse – and in various combinations – bound up in each other’s destiny, leaving all of us in the state of uncertainty when it comes to understanding the scope and depth of architectural production. This does not mean that one must accept every brand and flavor of architectural thinking. It means, rather, that given the difficulties in understanding the shape of our discipline’s history, we have to be careful not to slide toward the easy answers.


Preparing for Architectural Practice

David Fixler is a Principal of Einhorn Yaffee Prescott Architecture & Engineering P.C.

Preparing for Practice:

1. Specialized programs are typically both responses to the practical needs of the market and ways in which to influence design and market trends. This trend is likely to continue and to encourage greater specialization, but I believe that there is a core body of knowledge with which every advanced design professional needs to be conversant in order to successfully manage and design complex projects. It will become increasingly necessary, however, for all but a rarified few designers at the top of the profession to develop one or more particular specialties.

2. Since the separation of architecture and engineering at the end of the 18th century, the nature of the profession has become continuously more fragmented and diversified. There is no doubt that we continue to have a residual attitude toward the architect as the Master Builder, the person who is ultimately responsible for the artistic, intellectual and technical content of a project, whether or not this competency is appropriately still placed in one individual. Ideally, specialization should only be pursued over the foundation of a strong general background, as it is extremely difficult to conceive and execute good architecture without a strong initial vision that can be carried through the phases and processes necessary to get a building built. This vision can only come from someone or group of people who can see and understand the large picture from start to finish.

3. Yes, specialization creates niche markets and specialties which individuals can focus upon in order to distinguish themselves, and there is no doubt the desire for niche recognition constantly creates new areas of specialization.




1. The generalist still exits, but the successful generalist usually gravitates to specialized niches based upon completed work. The exception again is the ‘Starchitect’ – though even they have really just become specialists in one type or another of design. In competing for quality institutional, government or commercial work, what often wins the day is an office that can demonstrate specialized competencies in a culture that understands the continued needs for an overarching generalist approach.

2. This is the most interesting and provocative of your questions. Many argue that architecture, as cultural production has been sidelined since the advent of the industrial revolution, and that this marginalization has become particularly acute in the information age. We must recognize that architecture is transforming, and that the best architecture above the scale of the residence will probably continue to become increasingly specialized. What I think will become more dominant is emphasis on the integration and collaboration of diverse teams of specialists to produce an optimal product. Whether one considers the visionary(ies) of the group specialists in this regard could certainly be argued, but that person or persons will have to be able to bring a broad cultural and intellectual knowledge base to bear in order to sustain and realize such a vision.

3. I think the schools need to do both – to impart the gifted designer with management skills, and the gifted manager with an advanced sense of aesthetics and the nature of design practice. Having said this however, I believe that the continued emphasis on design in academia should remain – there is simply not enough time in practice to devote the kind of concentrated energy necessary to begin to grasp design skills without having a solid bases upon which to draw – design requires immersion. Management is less abstract and more experience based and can consequently be better learned in practice or with supplemental training.
4. I think that the AIA is genuinely concerned with where the architecture market is heading, but I do not sense any strong desire on either the part of architects or clients to legislate specialization – but maybe I’m naïve…..


Adele Santos - Architect

Interview with Adele Santos

Adele Santos is the Dean of the School of Architecture at MIT and principal of Santos Prescott and Associates.

AJ: Today all architecture schools are advertising their specialized programs in architecture. Is this a calculated response to trends in the schools attempt to collect the best students and funds, and if this is a reality then how do you think it will affect the practice of architecture eventually?

Adele: Well, I think you are generalizing, which is not quite accurate because the specialization in this particular university and the way it is configured is highly unusual. I mean if you go to Penn, Berklee and other places you will not find this separation out into disciplined groups in the manner that you have here. It is quite different there. I think in most schools the focus is on bringing students into the Master of Architecture program and give them much more of a general education. In other words, you start right from the beginning integrating all these subjects as part of design, because they are not separate, and the idea then is that you are, in a way, dealing with a kind of general education in architecture that touches on all the foundational issues that we all believe in. The specialization tends to happen at a post-graduate level. So, people coming in with a professional degree, might choose, because they have already had that general background, to specialize in building technology or what have you.
I think the drift of it in architecture schools in general is to give a very balanced education where design is actually focused.

AJ: Don’t you think, however, that even M.Arch students trap themselves in these fields due to a weak HTC department and a very competitive job-market that would pay more attention to a person with highly specialized technical skills?

Adele: No, I think this is actually rather overblown as an issue. I think that when you leave school and go to an office they are going to ask you some very specific things. They will look at your portfolio and see if you can design at all. They are certainly going to ask about your computer skills and which programs you know. And I think that people may choose to specialize later because of their interest. I mean somebody going into HTC, for example, is likely to want to teach one day. People who want to go further in building technology, probably want to seek out firms later where there is a different and more technological emphasis. But I do not think it is a marketing deal. For example, urban design would be something that a number of schools have. And somebody who has gone through architecture and wants to know more about the city because that is their passion, will go to Harvard or us, or UPenn or Berlkee, to “specialize” in that. I started in architecture and I got my Master of Architecture and went on to Harvard to do urban design because I hadn’t had enough of it, and then I went to Penn and did City Planning. So I was accumulating degrees, but it was a very specific strategy to add to my architecture diploma.

AJ: How were things different in the seventies when you started practicing on your own and when the norm was generalist architects that relied on one only undergraduate degree than they are now?
Adele: Well, there was a big change in architectural education when in the United States the Master of Architecture degree became the first professional degree. Before that it was B.Archs. I have a B.Arch. The extent to which it is fit to practice, I do not think it has to do with the educational institutions as much as with the change of practice itself, because I think practice has changed a lot. The client groups have changed a lot also. We were dealing with individuals more and now we are dealing with committees. If you are in the public sector you also have to deal with the public process. So the nature of practice has changed a lot and has become international, national, etc. People do not practice in the locale. You could be anywhere. And then once you deal with computerization and all the change of that, then we do not even have to be in the same place to practice together.
Scale has changed, the complexity of projects, the palettes of materials and methods available, the way teams are composed, for example, now there are more offices that agree to collaborate to do a job, so that you do not have to be the hundred person firm in order to do a big job. You can be a four person firm that teams regularly with an eight person firm. So there are clusters formed and I think this is very different.
Pinup: Is the architect of today still a generalist?
Adele: I think you start by being a generalist and you add on skill sets. That is what people, for example, will get people to do in their office.
Pinup: But should the architect’s generalist education change into something more specific as the game of the field changes? Should the architect be able to acquire more competitive skills in project management, economics or negotiation instead of as much theory and design?

Adele: If you go to any office, you sort out the skill set and there are people that just inherently are talented in design sets, other people are naturally talented technologically. Unfortunately, there are not so many of those. Some people have management skills. I think for us to be training managers in architecture schools is just a waste of time because we have got so much to teach. And, indeed, there are more things to learn now and we have less time to teach them. Instead of six years we have three and a half. So, we keep leaving things out of the curriculum, which is scary. For example, students graduate these days with very little knowledge of the history of architecture. All that stuff just kind of gets dropped out. It seems like a luxury to put the time into that, but that’s ridiculous.

AJ: Have you noticed that at MIT?

Adele: I haven’t looked at it enough, but I have been told that you do not have enough of it. And it’s amazing, how can we be dealing with a design language without understanding the history that led us to where we are. I don’t think we deal with contemporary history, by the way.

AJ: Do you think that three and a half years is too short?

Adele: Well, yes, it is too short and we are longer than most programs in the country. The question really is …”is our teaching methodology correct? Because I suspect not! We do not teach in a way that is really well calibrated with what we are trying to impart.

AJ: Do you think that students, especially some M.Arch’s here at MIT lack basic architectural skills, not just when they enter buy also when they graduate from the school?

Adele: I have argued that this is actually extremely unfair for students to come in without the basic skills to allow them to be effective. If you don’t know how to draw and see and do all sorts of things, that puts you at a disadvantage immediately, so at Penn we had a crash course during the summer that was really important. If you did not have the skills you had to take this intensive course, it would take a lot of time to catch up. I think it takes a good semester or two to catch up. And that is wasting time. So, if we do three and a half years we have to be better at teaching what we need students to know in a more effective fashion. I mean the other thing I always complain about, and have not had the chance to look at here, is that you have to pick the right vehicle to do the job, so you are trying to teach contextualism or whatever. Pick a problem that is not so complicated that you end up doing all kinds of stuff, which interferes with the real focus of what you are really trying to teach. We tend to overcomplicate things, when we can get the message across very simply. And I think that a lot of information can be recorded and replayed, so students can digest it and so that we don’t spend our time in the lecture room giving all the facts. It should be to discuss the implications of issues. There are ways of changing our teaching.

AJ: What would be a good way of improve basic skills?

Adele: What I did at the University of San Diego was that Fridays was the skill-set day, and we had tutors. The faculty was available but it was all scheduled for the tutors to deal with computer skills, model-making skills, woodworking skills, and whatever else possible, and people could actually do this. Some of them were not about improving skill sets, but more about learning to do fantastic perspectives, or fly-throughs. So, by the end of the fifth semester, everybody was at the same level and quite sophisticated because they had their Friday tutors taking them through this.

AJ: Are MIT students ready for the profession of architecture after three and a half years?

Adele: No, the time here is short, but I am mostly interested in training students on how to think and problem solve because you are never going to have all the knowledge. But, if you have a way of approaching information and problem-sets, then the knowledge comes through the process of discovering. But you can certainly put it into a conceptual framework that everybody going out would know how to approach a series of issues, particularly on a technical level. That, in a way, is sort of on the job training and you sit down in an office and work with someone who is superior in knowledge to you, but you at least need to know how to tackle the issues that all sorts of specialists will bring to the table [engineers, etc.]. I think that we need to figure out what we really need to teach immediately, which is why the idea of management would be silly for us to do because not everybody is going to be a manager anyway. Maybe one in ten will have the temperament to deal with this aspect of the profession, so, why go through that? We must touch on the basics through the lens of architectural design because this is the moment we can do that. Once you go into an office, you are on your own.

AJ: Would you consider that design is the core around which everything else revolves?

Adele: No, and that is the part that needs to be strengthened. If that is really strong, and to be strong, in my opinion, it has to be larger. You cannot bring in 12 students, for example. You should allow 24 students to enter. Then you get four faculty teaching them and you get a much richer education, and then the following semester you bring in the two and a half year students. Once you get to the elective studios, you have more choices. If you only have the choices of two things it’s not good enough. You need more choices. You need a better exposure to a world of ideas and then you work your way through it. So, I think if the core of our program is really strong, then all the surrounding elements that appear to be satellites right not, are integrated into it because this core is the focal piece, and what holds everything together. When it is too small, it appears to be not important as there is more faculty surrounding this than there are in the middle. As a diagram, it simply does not work.

AJ: What type of firm would you suggest would be more beneficial for a young architectural professional to work for in order to develop as an architect?

Adele: I look at each student individually. Some people would flourish at a large firm, and some would get lost there and they would be making tea and coffee. I think it has a lot to do with the personality. The really talented people in terms of design usually want to go into a smaller firm that is know for design because they want to identify with that firm and its belief system. Of course, it is difficult to get into one of these firms unless you are extremely talented and you have a fabulous portfolio and there are people who want to work with you. I think that in terms of a large firm you can get incredibly good training if you just deal with it for a year or two. Go in there and learn the technical stuff that you did not learn at school, understand the process of an office, and be alert to learning. The main thing is that you have just begun a lifetime of learning. Hopefully we have set in place a way of thinking about architecture that is a healthy and good one and then when you go out you can work and aggressively try to learn as much as you can wherever you are! Pick it all up!