Becoming an Architect: Narratives of Architectural Education
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This dissertation examines the personal narratives of several aspiring architects to investigate the emergence of “occupational identities”—or how individuals navigate their education to construct a sense of themselves within the architectural community. By interpreting the content of these narratives in relation to several relevant strains of contemporary discourse, this project exposes and foregrounds features of architectural education rarely considered by educators and scholars in the field. Becoming an architect is presented as a holistic experience that requires psychological resilience and meaning-making strategies in the face of various challenges that undermine personal investment and wellbeing. I argue that adopting such an approach towards architectural education is essential to understanding, informing, and improving the profession’s fundamental (yet historically problematic) objective of cultural reproduction. This project is thus meant to set the groundwork for future studies that focus on how aspiring architects navigate the more human dimensions of their education. Twenty-five years ago, in 1991, Dana Cuff published Architecture: A Story of Practice in which she asked “What is the metamorphic transformation of the layperson into the architect?” Interviewing members of the architectural community across the United States, she crafted a compelling narrative that described architecture’s sociocultural milieu. Most notably, she revealed certain schisms, dilemmas, and contradictions integral to the architectural community and the architect’s role in society. For instance, individuals are often initially attracted to architecture based on images of professional practice that they later learn are illusory. This project revisits many of the themes from Cuff’s book, although the story is set in a new historical context. The central tension in architectural culture that she exposed between ideology and action, belief and practice, continues to hold. Yet, a host of structural and cultural changes within and beyond architecture over the past 25 years necessitates a reexamination of architectural education. While the purview and boundaries of architectural practice have broadened and blurred, the profession is increasingly worried about becoming obsolete. The demand on architecture schools, therefore, is to continue attracting future practitioners and educate them to practice competently, on the one hand, and imagine unprecedented modes of practice, on the other. In order to enrich and update Cuff’s story, this project incorporates new understandings of higher education and professional development that foreground holistic and transformative dimensions. For instance, I apply occupational therapy’s notion of “occupation” as a framework to conceptualize how humans engage in activities, make commitments, and belong to various social communities in various ways that form self-identities and shape their future trajectories. Adopting these perspectives demands a more grounded understanding of architectural education that takes into account how aspiring architects grapple with the “occupation” of architecture to develop occupational identities. Borrowing theoretical and methodological approaches from research on narrative identity and occupational engagement, I designed the project as a case study of the University of Washington’s Masters of Architecture program. In-depth interviews with cross-sectional cohorts of participants (including current students, recent graduates, and emerging professionals) elicited narratives of their experience before, during, and after architecture school. I then analyzed and assembled these personal narratives, crafting a composite narrative that ultimately evokes architectural education as a process of personal transformation and meaning-making. In and through their narratives, aspiring architects render themselves as navigating and actively contributing to architecture’s dualistic nature. This understanding directs our attention to the strategies that students and young professionals use to gain entry into and remain invested in an architectural career path. Through analysis of this composite narrative, I reveal how participants view their education as encompassing more than just “learning” in formal institutional settings. Moreover, it became clear that forming a coherent and resilient architectural identity required that one’s narrative integrates aspects of doing, being, becoming, and belonging—or all four dimensions of occupational engagement. This project continues the tradition of demystifying architectural education, by Cuff and other scholars, by foregrounding the voices of aspiring architects. It also challenges educators to redefine “architectural education” more holistically as a set of interrelated commitments, experiences, and relationships. These vectors extend over long periods of one’s life, requiring periodic recalibration of architecture as an occupational identity. Such a perspective is not expected to be met with resistance within the architectural community. Indeed, it resonates with many of the field’s traditions and stated goals, such as self-education and lifelong learning. Yet, it does imply that teaching and mentorship practices, as well as curricular and licensure requirements set by institutional and professional bodies, undergo revaluation to ensure that architecture’s practices align with its beliefs. It also suggests that narratives of aspiring architects—insofar as they reflect the meaning-making and human dimensions of becoming an architect—be taken into account when evaluating architectural education (rather than only considering products as demonstrations of acquired skills or knowledge). Then, the profession of architecture can presumably be better equipped to serve its members and, in turn, society.
- Built environment