“My interest in architecture goes way back,” the familiar voice begins. “There was a time when I thought I could be an architect, where I expected to be more creative than I turned out, so I had to go into politics instead.” The crowd in front of the podium laughs, and architects nationwide swoon.
So began a recent speech by Barack Obama, as he presided over the prestigious Pritzker Prize ceremony earlier this year. Smart or determined as he may be, it’s doubtful even the president understands what becoming an architect might have entailed — years of school, followed by a multi-year internship and a costly seven-part exam. With roughly a third of architecture school graduates or fewer jumping through those hoops, the president’s odds of having become an architect are even slimmer than those for his reelection.
Last month, the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB), the little-known but powerful gatekeeper for the architecture profession, again announced changes to its postgraduate internship program, to be unveiled next spring. The program is long overdue for a revamp, if not elimination.
Over three decades old, the Intern Development Program is more an exercise in arithmetic than experience, with aspiring architects required to pay hundreds of dollars and record a staggering 5,600 hours across various tasks. They’re asked to do so in lieu of demonstrating creativity, competence or any other attribute one would associate with their profession. The purportedly three-year program takes an average of five years to complete.
Few within the profession and fewer beyond its walls are aware of the roots or evolution of architecture’s internship requirement, first piloted in 1976 in the state of Mississippi as a roadmap to a well-rounded experience. When it debuted some 35 years ago, 15 components represented the various aspects of architectural practice; since that time only one area has been added (around community service), although the practice of architecture has expanded substantially. The program has barely evolved, yet all the while it has been adopted as a requirement for architect registration in all 50 states with virtually no alternative paths.
Further, the program was designed for volunteer participation. It remains voluntary for employers to participate — by signing off on timesheets and providing the various experiences that NCARB recommends at their sole discretion — but mandatory for graduates seeking to become registered architects. This creates a troubling power dynamic with little recourse, and has led to falsification of the timesheets, creating a generation of first-time cheaters, as the sociologist Beth Quinn has written in the Journal of Criminology.
For decades, the program — even while adopted and required by states — has evaded critical review. The lone independent study, commissioned in the late ’90s by NCARB and conducted by Quinn, compared graduates who participated in the program with those who did not (in states where participation was not yet mandatory). Quinn consistently found “no significant difference” among their experiences, although the program was designed to provide experiences to which aspiring architects might not otherwise have access. Based on her findings, she recommended that architecture’s postgraduate internship period be eliminated as a requirement.
NCARB promptly buried Quinn’s study. Its findings have resurfaced in several journals as part of her scholarly work, and to this day, it remains the only professional research on the effectiveness of this decades-old program.
While physicians’ training has undergone extensive critiques in recent years, architecture still has much to learn from medicine. Unlike engineers and lawyers, who need fulfill no postgraduate requirement before their qualifying exams, doctors must perform a residency administered by an accredited and heavily regulated teaching hospital. No such accreditation of firms exists to support the administration of architecture’s internship program, much less across firms made up of anything from a single architect to a staff of thousands.
Architecture’s internship program also inherently limits a practice that offers much beyond the design and construction of buildings. Aspiring architects are effectively given the option of being tutored by a registered architect for years on end or leaving the profession. There is little space in between.
Imagine if graduates didn’t have to decide between devoting their formative years to serving the public, for example, and obtaining their license. Virtually every leader of the growing public-interest design movement made that difficult choice, and the public is better off for it, but the profession is missing out — disassociated from their extraordinary work. Further broadening the settings recognized as suitable experiences is a necessary first step.
At present, architecture treats its education, internship and exam as separate acts with little overlap. Internship is arguably the broken middle link. To be relevant, it should be redesigned and seamlessly integrated with the exams to focus on the acquisition of skills, no longer just time spent doing a task. (A seven-part exam, however imperfect, is already in place to test for competency.) This would also lift the artificial minimum of three years to complete the program, which, again, takes an average of five years.
Firms must also be held to higher standards, as schools are through accreditation. Teaching hospitals, charged with administering doctors’ residencies, provide a model. And rather than developing interns, as its name implies, what if the program were truly geared toward developing architects, and ideally those prepared to serve society? It would bring new meaning to “health, safety, and welfare of the public” — the mantra used by the architecture establishment and state licensing boards to justify the architect registration process in the first place.
Back in the days when he was known as Barry, President Obama might have gotten lucky and navigated his way through the licensure process to become an architect. The odds, however, are not in Obama’s favor. Now consider the vast majority of architecture students and graduates, bright as they may be. They, the architecture profession, and our country deserve a better, more reliable and more contributive postgraduate experience.