Free Architecture School? It’s Not As Crazy As It Sounds

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Free Architecture School? It's Not As Crazy As It Sounds
© Marcio Silva

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Free Architecture School? It's Not As Crazy As It Sounds
© Marcio Silva

Some schools are changing architectural education by eliminating tuition. Could it help make the profession more relevant and diverse?

When it comes to diversity in architecture, the statistics are jarring. For instance, African-Americans comprise 12% of the U.S. population, but only 2% of registered architects—a statistic that hasn’t budged since the 1970s. Women make up only about 25% of the profession. Economic diversity is also a problem with tuition soaring as high as $60,000; the average student graduates with $40,000 in debt according to the American Institute of Architecture Students.

Architecture is undergoing an identity crisis as practitioners grapple with what their profession—long dominated by white men—stands for today. Though the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards says both race and gender gaps are improving, the industry is struggling to maintain its relevance, as Rem Koolhaas said at last year’s AIA Convention. “If you want to be relevant, you need to be open to an enormous multiplicity of values, interpretations, and readings,” he said. “We’ve slowly found ourselves supporting, at best, individual ambitions and, at worst, pure profit motives.”

For architecture to reach its full potential, diverse perspectives are essential. We’ve already witnessed the damage of discriminatory design on cities and streets. If architects and designers all have the same cultural, social, and philosophical background, the work they produce will reflect those homogeneous values. A lack of meaningful difference may let design slip into stagnation at a time when it needs to be charging ahead.

Could the solution to changing architecture lie in changing how architects are made? To bring more diverse ideas and people into the conversation, some experimental schools, and even established institutions like Harvard, are adopting a new tactic: make architectural education more accessible—even free. Eliminating the fee barrier could bring a broader range of economic, social, and demographic perspectives to the table, ultimately leading to more nuanced, interesting, and progressive design. It’s not just about making a profession diverse; it’s also about making architecture, which we all experience, more interesting and inclusive. But does free school go far enough, or is it time to rethink what is taught as well? […]

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