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

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

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

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?

[Photo: APCortizasJr/iStock]

Harvard’s Virtual Yard

Last month, the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) announced a 10-week online introduction to architecture course called “The Architectural Imagination.” The school hopes it can reach not only incoming students and practicing architects who didn’t have time to take history in school, but nonprofessionals who are interested in architecture and the public at large.

“We live and die in buildings and in cities that are populated in buildings, but we perceive buildings in abstraction,” says K. Michael Hays, one of the course’s authors along with fellow Harvard professors Erika Naginski and Antione Picon. “We don’t look at them like paintings, we don’t read them like novels. Buildings tell us something that’s spatial, that’s about materials, that’s about a value system, that’s about how we use space. We hope people will learn to see buildings in a deeper way in order to expand our ability to understand our world.”


After Harvard announced the course, more than 30,000 people signed up. It’s a statistic that shows how hungry people are to hear Harvard’s version of history–an undeniably conservative perspective on modernism. The syllabus, which begins with Renaissance architects and addresses Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, and Renzo Piano before concluding with Peter Eisenman, is overtly male and overtly Western European and North American in its scope.

“We’re explicit in our explanations that while Europe and America are influential, that wasn’t preordained,” Hays says. “It’s contingent on history. We’re clear that modernism and imperialism are linked, and architecture is linked to colonialism and capitalism. Because architecture is an active agent, it can be complicit or resistant [to those forces]. We decided very consciously that it would give us more focus and more control in an introductory course if we stayed with the canonical material.”

Harvard’s online course, which will potentially reach to tens of thousands of new students, has the audience needed to start rewriting that canon. In that sense, the GSD missed an opportunity to reevaluate what goes into the introductory course in the first place, and reimagine the foundation of architectural history. Hays hopes to broaden the free course offerings to include non-Western subjects, industrial design, and more contemporary themes. For now, there’s the Architectural Imagination, which, for its traditional syllabus, is still a big stride for students of history who are curious for more knowledge.

Still, it raises questions about how our teaching of architecture’s history impacts diversity in the profession today. At a recent Center for Architecture panel addressing the architecture profession’s diversity problem, Steven Lewis, a lecturer at the University of Michigan and former president of the National Organization of Minority Architects, spoke about the importance of making the baseline history more inclusive. The default shouldn’t only embody the dominant culture: The stories of architects of color in history could show students from underrepresented communities that they do have a seat at the table and contributions to make.

“We’re hidden in plain sight often,” he told the audience. “The work of people of color in the architecture, design, and construction fields goes back to the foundation of our nation. The stories are told cyclically. We pay attention when it comes into the public view and then it passes and we’re back to a default setting.”


While a very tradition-oriented institution like Harvard has an argument for sticking with its introductory program, other educators developing free architecture schooling are taking a more aggressive stance on challenging what’s considered fundamental knowledge.

[Photo: Flickr user Antoine Imbert]

Rewriting The Canon

Last year, Peter Zellner–formerly design lead at the engineering firm AECOM–announced a plan to fix the broken system of architectural education. Launching later this year, his Free School of Architecture will admit 12 postgrad students. So far, Zellner has received more than 500 applications from people on every continent, except Antarctica, for those seats. Demand for a free education is strong; so is demand for nontraditional schooling.

“The colonialisms of Eurocentric architecture that have been imposed on the planet for the last 100 years are going to have to be challenged,” Zellner says. “For practitioners in North America, it’s understanding limitations of our own pedagogy. We will have to confront what’s happening in the rest of the world, which will open up new ideas. We’re going to have to prepare for teaching to have to shift in order to serve a shifting student population.” For example, Zellner plans to teach students about the realities of practice and entrepreneurship–which aren’t normally a focus at university–in addition to theory.

Nelly Ben Hayoun–a multidisciplinary designer who has worked with organizations like SETI, WeTransfer, and the UN–agrees that teaching needs a shakeup. University of the Underground, a new postgrad design school she directs, is an example of the change she wants to see. “We want to grow a network of creative soldiers that infiltrate society,” she says. “This is about the revolution and the resistance.”

She believes that traditional schools have become too expensive and inaccessible to the non-rich. Free for students, the school will be funded by 80% grants and donations and 20% from government sources–a model Hayoun borrowed from the financial structure of museums and cultural institutions. Hayoun also believes schools aren’t moving fast enough to keep up with what students need to receive from an education. Modern systems don’t exist in silos, she argues, but schools still teach this way. In order for designers to understand their full capacity to impact society, Hayoun believes they need systems thinking and knowledge of politics, theater, and film, in addition to design. Students will stage performances, conduct ethnographic research, develop podcasts and broadcasts, and do plenty of field visits in the course.


Her approach to upending design education is to diversify the content of that education. Inspired by Antonin Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty–an avant-garde approach to theater that created an immersive experience through sound and light to agitate the audience’s senses–Hayoun is designing her program to provoke arguments by bringing together advisors from different disciplines, such as independent publisher Dave Eggers, curator Beatrice Galilee, graphic designer Paula Scher, and recording industry creative director Phil Lee.

“It’s about creating a university the same way you’d create a theatrical troupe,” Hayoun says. “You cast different people, each with a different skill set and outlet to keep people engaged.”

[Photo: Flickr user angela n.]

While the the GSD, Free School of Architecture, and University of the Underground are all approaching education innovation differently, they all aim to make a difference by shaking up how–and in some cases, what–design and architecture students learn. “Students have more freedom to pick their way through pedagogy and tailor their education to their need,” Zellner points out. “You could patch together an education from more than one institution.”

Hayoun believes that true diversity in design isn’t just about race or demographics; it’s about having representation from different economic, cultural, and social backgrounds. She believes that without these different inputs, the output will be an echo chamber–a compelling reason as to why an equitable design education that brings many different people into the fold is important.

“The only way you can reach true innovation is through conflict,” she says. “If everyone is polite with each other and talking about their own discipline–whether its doctors or engineers or designers–no one is challenging anyone. Ideas have to be brutally discussed and challenged. You can’t have innovation if everybody has the same background, the same beliefs, and the same stories–you’ll just be creating a blog.”

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.