The Powerful Link Between Academia and Professional Practice

On one hand, the profession of architecture theoretically has no ceiling in the visionary power to positively change the world for everyone. On the other hand, the profession is notorious for holding itself back. The building industry as a whole is often focused on solving briefs and creating programs with the most efficient and cost-effective strategies given the constraints of laws, code, zoning, economics, and technology. For decades, the prevailing view was that only starchitects playing the singular hero in the story of architectural theory could break through this paradigm.

In today’s culture, I believe that both notions are a thing of the past, thanks mostly to the talent the academic arena is producing with the drive to affect every element of modern society at all project typologies, scales, budgets. This includes cultural challenges, psychological barriers, equality, environmental stewardship, and societal injustices. We live in a world of data, research, and constant exposure to the larger picture around us, further expanding the impact that we as architects can have.

We must be the authors of widespread positive change, and this begins with investing in academia.

We must teach our next generation of architects not only to solve the problems that are asked of us, but also uncover and illuminate problems and solutions that benefit a wider societal audience. This notion of a never-ending question of the status quo is at the very core of academic studio atmosphere. The best critical thinkers envision spaces that have never existed, addressing problems that haven’t even been thought of, to facilitate the future of how we will live, think, work, heal and innovate. To help students learn to look beyond a brief or the current perceived limitations of our industry, we must encourage them to look past what we are currently doing to take into account a litany of ingredients. Theory, history, artistry, composition, research, data, construction science, high performance, materiality, boundary, procession, light, color, special volume, and sculpture must take part in a distillation process or confluence of forces especially suited towards design excellence.

I have been fortunate to have an intimate connection between the work I do as a practitioner and the always-inspiring world of academic institutions. My experience includes serving on review juries at prominent institutions around the nation, partnering with design/build studios, teaching classes, leading interdisciplinary student teams, sitting on graduate thesis review committees, presenting university lectures, creating fellowships for empowering young designers, leading intern teams, mentoring through the AIAS program, and participating in joint professional/academic studio research addressing significant societal challenges.

Here are the powerful lessons I have learned from students and educators across the United States:

Experience is a double-edged sword
Experience is beneficial in our profession because we must always learn from our mistakes and transfer knowledge to our peers. The downside of experience, however, is preconceived notions about what something must be or should be before the artistic distillation process is even initiated.  Academia benefits from a very powerful culture of discovery but often lacks real-world constraints of executing projects. There is a very real divide between the relentless imagination of academic studio culture unburdened by preconceived notions and the realities of professional practice. To bridge this gap, practitioners need to rediscover the magic that we all once had and learn to let go of negative experiences that hold back creativity.

Steve Dumez once said that his firm, EDR (2014 AIA national firm of the year), does their best work the first time they tackle a new building typology. This sentiment is simple, yet astounding, if you think about why that happens. Lack of experience almost certainly means more failure in the process, but coincidentally results in a beautiful uncovering of how to produce more impactful spaces. The mental shift from only focusing on constraints to only seeing opportunity could arguably be one of the most powerful instruments for design excellence. Student interns and recent graduates are one of the greatest forces to combat complacency. Allowing them to be integral parts of design visioning will almost always result in viewpoints, questions and ultimately solutions that are far beyond what is expected. I would argue that most architects are at their most creative when they are in the mindset that everything can and should be questioned. Lessons learned in the profession, combined with unbridled youthful energy, are a recipe for success.

Recruiting and Leadership
Long ago in a conversation with Thom Mayne, fearless Morphosis leader (likely a conversation that he doesn’t remember and one that I will never forget), he stated that his success as a Pritzker Prize winner was not merely because of his own brilliance, but also because he created a machine for his peers to operate within as the most successful versions of themselves. This is true leadership through empowerment but also relies on the ability to attract and retain generational talent. High-level students are generally less interested in compensation packages and more interested in whether they will have an immediate impact to make the world a better place. The key is to provide both.

In recent years, ideals have shifted from the notion that the only place to achieve great architecture is in New York City or Los Angeles, to the belief that all places and walks of life need and deserve great design. I am always astounded by the willingness and energy of the top 10% of student talent to engage with some of the biggest challenges of our time. The best young designers want to be heard, want to contribute, and want to have an impact. The best leadership understands people, their wants and needs, their strengths and weaknesses, and puts them in a position to flourish. I often work with universities that probably wouldn’t have accepted me as a student, and thus it is inspiring to be surrounded by people that are either smarter than I am, or have the immediate potential to be. Academia is about extrapolating the highest potential of a designer, and the profession must do this with the same vigor.

The role of academia vs professional practice
Academia teaches designers how to think critically and “see” the world through new lenses, and professional practice teaches designers how to translate those ideas into reality. Students and young designers are often immersed in a world of critical thinking, questioning, and analysis, and are seemingly sponges for knowledge. Conversely, the professional world is often engulfed in the complex nuances of successfully running a business. What I find beautiful is the balance of these two ideologies, when critical thinking, visionary ideas and execution of reality are running congruently with one another. Neither take a backseat to the other. Though these processes may seem to be counterintuitive or to detract from one another, every time I attend an academic design review I am reminded that the business of architecture must be in complete harmony with the artistry of space. One has the power to change the world, and the other enables it to do so. Investing in critical thinking allows for a more efficient management process; investment in the power of design propels our industry forward.

Power of applied research
The value of research cannot be understated. My fascination with design is not rooted in the heroism of master designers, but rather using master design to tackle the immense challenges of our time and future. I have noticed a shift in architectural education away from designing the best high-profile object towards an idea of collective effort, and shifting academic culture towards applied research based on systemic societal challenges. The application of design excellence to the most mundane of building typologies is what will propel the profession in the future. Some of these endeavors include Clemson University bolstering K-12 design towards the idea that building materials, program, and space can effectively shape the learning environment into a place of inspiration and discovery instead of a place of confinement. North Carolina State University has tackled the idea of rural healthcare in a time that politics and profits are defining basic human rights instead of the combination of spaces that facilitate healing, positive human psychology, and ultimately a healthier society. Savannah College of Art and Design is finding ways to manipulate archaic zoning laws to find solutions for affordable housing that promote deeper community connections and self-worth among residents by challenging the ideas of personal space ownership and redefining communal space. These are the examples of the “starchitect” of this new era by making everyday spaces transformational. Currently, teams of students are better suited to envision better spaces collectively and challenge the status quo, but by combining the efforts of professional practice and academic research, we can leverage data to design better places.

Connection to academia makes better architects
My connection to academic culture has encouraged me to be a more introspective, analytical, and self-critical designer. In studying what makes the people I admire so successful, I have found that one commonality between some of the greatest designers of the past, present and future is the connection to the academic world. The most influential people in my professional life are often influenced by academic studios and students. It is a powerful idea to be surrounded by people that do not know all the answers, yet are constantly driven to seek them out. What the professional world can learn from these experiences is that all designers have an artistic conscience that is derived and built upon by their own unique experiences, diversity of ideas, people, and places and that diversity creates better solutions. I encourage all designers to engage with academic reviews because the biggest lesson I’ve learned is that every problem has infinite solutions, and the ability to see them all, digest, assess their validity, and give constructive feedback in a very quick span of time makes us better designers and critical thinkers in our own work.

About Matt

Matt Barnett, AIA, LEED AP BD + C,  is a project architect in LS3P’s Wilmington, NC office who blends history, theory, art, and sculpture with a background in construction to create compelling spaces. As an iterative designer with a knack for solving complex problems with highly conceptual yet rigorously researched designs, Matt brings previous professional experience in diverse commercial, residential, higher education, landscape, performing arts, nonprofit, and mixed-use clients across the US.

Matt focuses on producing contextual, high performance buildings targeting certifications such as LEED Platinum, Living Building Challenge, net-zero energy, and carbon neutrality resulting in three COTE awards. He has completed extensive research on advanced façade systems, material applications, and unique construction methods such as prefabricated modular building, cross laminated timber, complex masonry, layered skin systems and low-impact development. These projects have collected over 40 design excellence awards, and over 10 national awards  from the American Institute of Architects (AIA), Chicago Athenaeum, Metal Architecture, American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), and Architect Magazine, including local, state, regional, and national honors. In addition to architectural practice, Matt is actively engaged in the academic community as a regularly invited juror, lecturer, mentor, and collaborator to universities across the US.