The Top Ten

November 4, 2009

The Architectural Record is the oldest architectural periodical in America and one of the world’s longest running (it was founded in the 1890s as an offshoot of a real estate periodical in New York). Once it was a majestic presenter of the best design in the world’s most powerful nation, with writers like Herbert Croly, Montgomery Schuyler, Louis Mumford, and A. Lawrence Kocher on the masthead. Today it has a small circulation by past standards, and caters mostly to members of the American Institute of Architects, for which it is the official media organ. As I’ve said before in these pages, architectural publishing is in the doldrums, and this magazine does little to raise standards of criticism. The Architect’s Newspaper, an internet and small market publication, is fresher, more informative, and far more pluralistic in its criticism. As a member of the AIA, I receive Record “free,” but otherwise wouldn’t bother reading it.

Record publishes glossy, praiseworthy articles about “top ten” architects and projects in various categories virtually every month, as if competition in the art of building could be measured in degrees. There is the annual Record Houses issue, once a barometer for the best in domestic architecture, but now a curiosity. The Progressive Architecture Design Awards, and the AIA Honor Awards are also published annually. The former was once the pride of a competing journal, but now must beg for space in its former rival’s pages. The competition these days is for space in a media forum that architects and clients respect and read regularly. Sadly, media sources are few and far between. The David Letterman Show could have fun with a parody of this situation, if anyone cared.

This month the magazine featured a cautious article about the nation’s “top ten architecture schools.” In the glory days of American architectural education, about 40 years ago, such a ranking would be ludicrous. In a profession marked by elitism and a closed network of masters and proteges, one knew the best schools as a matter of professional savoir faire. This year’s publication of academic rankings by a private communications/management firm (run by a former AIA executive director) is on the one hand a necessity in a changed marketplace, on the other an admission of defeat among the design elite who run the top schools. The old order is changing.

Despite some criticism in the article, the methodology upon which the survey is based is sound: ask practicing architects, students, clients, and faculty to rate the best architectural schools in the U.S., adding a few categories to sort out special programs. Emphasize training that prepares a student to practice architecture in the current marketplace. The results should be pretty indicative of what’s out there, and may be useful to everyone who cares about quality in architecture.

I would wager, however, that a lot of architecture professors and deans are fuming about various biases in the data. Bastions of architectural “theory” like Princeton, SciArc, and Cranbrook are conspicuously absent from all the lists. They should be, because their students are not trained to work in the profession. Classical and traditional schools such as Notre Dame, the University of Miami, and Georgia Tech are also absent, perhaps for similar reasons of bias. Only one school emphasizing “sustainability” makes the list–the University of Oregon (not a traditionally strong program). Only a handful of “polytechnic” universities (with engineering or tech emphasis) are listed.

Two of the nation’s top universities, Harvard and Yale, top the graduate school rankings, as they do in law and medicine. In both status and quality, they are undoubtedly premier programs. The undergraduate list is led by two traditionally strong programs, Cornell and Syracuse, that had slipped in recent years but appear to be on the right track again. From that standpoint we might as well be looking at a 1960 ranking. But below the top some interesting trends are emerging.

The consumer is taking charge in a marketplace once governed by rules of art. Virginia Polytechic and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo are in the top ten! Prestigious private universities are being pushed out by schools that offer value priced education, even in an elite profession. This trend says a lot about both higher education generally and the specifics of training practicing professionals today. Neither students nor practicing architects are being well-served by bastions of theory and art.

Though Record seems reluctant to acknowledge a sea change in the educational realm, its publication of “popular” rankings may signal a thawing in policies that proscribe the publication of architecture that is not by “top ten” starchitects. Unfortunately, the cover of the magazine shows a bizarre building in New York by Thom Mayne of Morphosis.  To me it looks like a giant fig leaf covering some unflattering genital protrusions. Oh, and it’s a building for Cooper Union, which didn’t make the list.

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