Specialization in Education: How do you develop a distinct edge?
In order to produce internationally competitive architects, schools should revise their curricula to include specialization
September 25, 2020
Written by Dan Lichauco
Drafting. Design. Construction. Research. These are the thrusts of architecture education in the Philippines. Aspiring architects are expected to be experts in the first three, while the last is treated merely as a means to the first.
Current school paradigms concentrate on developing skills in one or two of the first three thrusts, with design perceived as the most prestigious. Less than 1% of a batch will develop into “starchitects” in the local setting, and fewer still will be considered as such in an international arena. The practice of architecture is competitive the world over, and in the Philippines, it is one of the most overpopulated and underemployed professions. One way that an individual or a small firm can jump ahead of the pack is through specialization.
The days of general practitioners like Arellano, Nakpil, Toledo, and Antonio are over. Given the rapidly changing market demands and the explosion on the scene of new technologies and typologies, the fact of architecture today is that to develop plans effectively, efficiently, and correctly, the project team should be comprised of specialists, just like a crack surgical team made up of specialist doctors.
Traditionally, specialized fields were limited to interiors, landscape design, historic preservation, building systems, and construction methods. Today, specialization in the practice has expanded to space programming, acoustics, lighting, finance and feasibility, urban design, energy conservation, specification writing, furniture, fixtures and equipment (FF&E) consulting, and construction management. Architects can also specialize in specific building types like hospitals, schools, airports and museums.
Large firms cultivate these specializations in house, which can be expensive, and so hiring specialists on a project basis may be the more efficient way to go. These specialists take the lead in the different phases of the job, with the lead architect (not necessarily the designer) acting as conductor and arbitrator of the project. Few people will ever be chosen to lead teams, so why not be a member responsible for a key aspect of the building process? Only one can be president, but many can be cabinet members.
Another practical argument for specialization is that it offers alternatives to students who discover midway that they can’t be designers but still want to be in the building industry. Architecture schools in the Philippines, however, do not even broach the idea of becoming specialists in a field of the practice. The architect is seen as a Jack-of-all-trades, and design, the end-all of the practice.
The thesis programs of most of the schools are biased towards design, not allowing for a particular concentration in the thesis project. There have been attempts to allow students to choose their field of concentration, but the programs invariably revert to being design-centric. This may be because jurors and advisors are ill-equipped to deal with specialty subjects in depth. There often is a gross mismatch between student and advisor, and student and juror. The schools in which I have taught or participated in as a thesis juror do not take the time to match students with faculty expertise. This is a valuable opportunity missed, as professors are required to have masters degrees, which would indicate an area of concentration, not to mention, most faculty with active practices do develop areas of expertise.
To support the direction towards specialization, the curriculum for design students in their 3rd year onwards would show an area of concentration that should be reflected in design projects, and made part of grading criteria. Then, the thesis program would likewise be modified so that the area of expertise is explored in depth during deliberations. For example: If a student chooses to concentrate on architectural space, then the total built area as drawn by the student should accurately correspond to the area specified in the space program; and a variance of, say, 5% in the area would be penalized in the deliberations. This would require jurors competent in detecting such variances, among other competencies.
Specialization—knowing what you enjoy and are good at, and concentrating on that field—is the best way for an architect to compete.
With ASEAN integration taking effect at the close of 2015, the best way Filipino architects can distinguish themselves is to provide a service scarce in the region. An architect fresh out of college can sell himself as a product of a good school, but possessing skills other architects have yet to develop gives him a distinct edge. Aside from drafting, design, and construction, knowledge in areas like code analysis based on international codes, space programming, financial feasibility studies and façade consulting will be a major leg up in the promotion process. For boutique firms, specializing in a certain building typology will allow them to branch into countries less developed than the Philippines, as well as compete in other countries that are further along than ours.
If one cannot gain expertise from our schools, then the crux of the solution is to take advantage of the Internet to avail of information, to network with those more knowledgeable, and to challenge one’s thinking and understanding at every opportunity for one to become an expert in his chosen field.
Philippine architecture education focuses on training designers, and in some schools, draftsmen. In today’s highly competitive landscape, architecture education could choose to maintain the status quo of Design as its main thrust, but it must, to be of service to future generations of Filipino architects, push for areas of concentration as equal partners in the thesis project. Specialization—knowing what you enjoy and are good at, and concentrating on that field—is the best way for an architect to compete, especially in the context of ASEAN integration and globalization. It could even be a route to becoming a “starchitect” in a specialized field.