How to Improve Architectural Education: Learning (and Unlearning) From the Beaux Arts Method

How to Improve Architectural Education: Learning (and Unlearning) From the Beaux Arts Method

Learning how to design is hard. It requires students to learn an entirely new way of thinking and seeing the world. It even requires a whole new vocabulary. So architecture school is rightly hard. However, architecture school is known for being hard for the wrong reasons; studio is considered a mystical place on college campuses full of sleep-deprived students who are designing simply because professors decree that they must—so much so that when a non-architecture student meets an architecture student on the Quad they immediately offer their condolences. This perception exists because studio culture has not yet evolved from its rigid hierarchy, originating in the Beaux Arts teaching method, that thrives on competition and intensity and creates a breeding ground for unhappy students.

© Jeff So

The Beaux Arts period in Paris had four primary elements: the Ecole, private ateliers, the Salon, and café life [1]. The Ecole was the stiff, traditional study of classical painting and architecture, which culminated in the Grand Prix de Rome, a competition in which the winner would get a full scholarship to study in Rome. In the small independent ateliers students learned directly under a “master” with all the success of the students reflected directly back on the master; success breeding success, creating a strict hierarchy. The annual Paris Salon was the show in which the best works as chosen by a jury were displayed to the public. Lastly, the Parisian life of cafes was the informal extension of the ateliers and the Ecole, in which people came together to discuss design.

Contemporary architecture schools maintain many of the core ideas of the Beaux Arts method: the creation of competition and intensity between students, the strict hierarchy of students and teachers, and the jury or professor’s power to decide upon the “correct” and best student work. Yet schools today have lost informal café aspect and with it the spirit of discussing design in a more informal setting. If we dismantle the rigid hierarchy and need for competition and recreate the informal café style of architectural discussion and innovation in contemporary architecture schools, then they would become better environments for learning and designing.

© Flickr user ks_archi205-2009 licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

I work as a tour guide for Syracuse’s School of Architecture and whenever I give prospective students a tour of the school I tell them my favorite part of studying there is the inclusivity found in the School of Architecture. I tell them that we are a unique school that only has one major with everyone housed in the same building, Slocum Hall. I tell them that Slocum is wonderful because within the lecture hall, the computer lab, or even the elevator you can strike up a conversation with anyone about design. I tell them that every student, from first years to fifth year thesis students, is interested in learning from each other and discussing what is going on in each others’ studios. And I mean it. However, there is a weak point in this inclusivity when it comes to professors and the studio culture they perpetuate.

Every year at Syracuse Architecture the Slivers Competition is held, in which each second year student completes a singular drawing in response to a prompt. When my year completed the competition we all pinned up our work side by side and walked around excitedly discussing all the drawings, fascinated at how over a hundred students each interpreted the prompt differently. Then the professors arrived. They announced the winners of the competition and dismantled the fun design environment the students had naturally fostered. All the students had been celebrating the diversity of interpretation, ideas, and production styles, but by imposing “right” and “wrong” design designations the professors created a negatively competitive studio culture in which students whose work was not selected were suddenly embarrassed by their productions and were simply unhappy to be there.

© Ien Boodan

Of course studio culture still needs criticism and feedback from professors. However, the rigid hierarchy of the professors and jurors being the sole possessors of knowledge on the subject makes it impossible for design dialogs to open up. Schools should level the playing field by inviting students to have just as much of a voice as the professors. In doing so architecture schools would become places that students and professors with the same passion can come together to inspire and learn from each other.

The most productive studio I have ever been in was with my first year studio professor, Sekou Cooke, who insisted we call him by his first name. The way he saw it, in five years’ time we would be his colleagues, so why not start acting like it now? That was a logical statement, yet it was completely novel to us because so many professors force the hierarchy in which students are expected to respect and even often fear professors. In his studio every Friday we had to pin up our work and comment on each project individually. Sekou required that we stated our feedback in the format of “What works is ____. What does not work is ____. And what could be done differently is ____.” As a freshman it was excruciating. And then half way through the semester it clicked. We were required to follow this format because we were learning how to look at projects and consider the successes, the flaws, and the room for improvement of each project. It was essential for us to learn to look critically at our own work and give feedback to our classmates without the professor decreeing what was correct and incorrect in each project. It also left room for improvement in every project, allowing each student to continue working to improve their project and to be the best possible designer they could be.

Sekou Cooke listens to a student at Syracuse University's Architecture Thesis Prep Showcase in 2014. Image © Stephen Sartori

There have already been efforts to research potential of collaborative architecture studies, most notably by Radical Pedagogies project at Princeton University School of Architecture [2]. Working alongside her PhD students this political project led by Beatriz Colomina experiments with architectural education and the potential for collaboration in design schooling. The idea of collaboration within architectural schooling coincides perfectly with the reality that all architectural firms function due to design collaboration.

But even if the “Radical Pedagogies” explored by Colomina and her team are too groundbreaking for mainstream architectural education, architecture schools need to loosen their structures so student, faculty members, and staff members are considered equals in the design field. A reintroduction of the informal Parisian café style of design discussion and collaboration would allow architecture schools to foster architectural innovation, and would be one step towards creating a platform of mutual respect where students and professors can be inspired by and learn from each other. By leaving behind the hierarchy of knowledge and the enforcement of “correct” designs schools would become open to more experimentation and innovation. If we can create more moments like the beginning of the Slivers Project when we appreciate each others’ work and strive to learn from each other, then the perception on campus would shift from one for which other students pity architecture students to one for which they envy us.

Michaela Wozniak is in her third year at Syracuse University School of Architecture with a dual degree in geography. She was born in Cambridge, MA and is interested in pursuing a career in urban design.


  1. John Singer Sargent Virtual Gallery. Updated Dec. 13, 2014.
  2. Radical Pedagogies. Princeton University School of Architecture.

About this author
Cite: Michaela Wozniak. "How to Improve Architectural Education: Learning (and Unlearning) From the Beaux Arts Method" 19 Apr 2016. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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