What is the goal of the Professional Practice Course?
Bob Mohr: The professional practice class is a required component of architecture curriculum in the U.S. for those pursuing a professional degree and is meant to provide an introduction to everything that happens after students leave University. We are here to help demystify the architecture field because there is a big difference between what their life is like in university and what it’s like out in the world.
Rebecca Berry: As Bob mentioned, the class focuses on what actually happens once you’re a practitioner, in other words, things like contracts, fees, clarifying why these things matter. For example, why does it matter how you structure a practice? How does that affect how we can practice and the differences that we can make in our communities and trying to turn it more into a question of looking at the big picture issues within the profession. And I always love the way that, Bob for instance, says “let’s not talk about fees, let’s talk about how you make a living.” That’s the real question – how do you get paid for your work? How can that be fair? How does that affect how we compensate our employees and the bigger picture questions, rather than it just being about purely the nuts and bolts of the profession?
Why is this type of course important? Do you think students are shocked during their first job after school?
RB: Oh, we all were shocked. It is a real disconnect between architecture school and the practice of architecture. I think this is changing, honestly. There are architecture schools that are focused on practice, like the Boston Architectural College where students are fully engaged and working in offices all the way through school. You come out of school and work on stair details – ‘I have to do what? Why do I have to deal with this? And, why am I stuck over here in the corner doing this? I’m a designer, I want to do big picture things.’
BM: Yeah, I think it’s definitely changing. I think more students are more interested in actually going out there and doing architecture. MIT Architecture, as a department, has changed too. You are more often reminded how this might be implemented in the world, and there’s a focus on the reality that architecture is an effort that results in things for real people. That’s who we’re doing it for. We’re not just creating art, we’re creating things that are occupied by humans. How do we serve the people that are going to be living, working or playing in our buildings? That’s been a nice evolution to witness and play a small part of it.
How has the course changed to meet the needs of today’s architecture students?
BM: This is the third year that Rebecca and I have taught the class together, and I’ve been teaching it since 2016. We, along with the department, wanted to reinvent the class. We flipped it upside down and started asking the kinds of questions we’ve been talking about – what are the things we need to give people? How do we introduce the students to things and give them resources without flooding them with a singular picture on ethics, project management, fees and contracts, without contextualizing it or making it relevant to the work that they understand architecture to be. The curriculum didn’t create a conversation about how you take your design interests, passions for social equity, or whatever may be your environment, and help turn those aspects into a career. That’s kind of where the class started – creating a class that’s about helping architects do what they want to do.
And it’s changed and evolved a lot in five or so years. Now we’re in a rhythm where we built in a lot of the real core necessary stuff, and we throw everything at them at the beginning of the class. Then the classes become more about giving them as much as possible, with the understanding that architecture is multi-dimensional, and not monolithic. There are many different ways to practice architecture, there are many different acts that can be called architecture. Architecture may extend to community organizing, or activism in the service of the people who need good architecture, or urban design projects.
Why did you get involved in the program?
RB: Andrew Scott, the interim department head at MIT, explained that the department had shook up the class and they were looking at it in this entirely different way. Andrew Scott was literally my first studio professor at the Institute and someone who I had a lot of respect for. The answer to being involved was going to be yes. Especially as I knew that I wouldn’t be involved in just having to stand up and run people through the nuts and bolts of an AIA contract for 12 weeks, which is my memory of professional practice.
What Bob and his previous fellow lecturers had done was to take multiple steps back and talk big picture and issues on what was happening in the profession. And then how new practitioners could really change it and make it their own which was interesting to me. As someone who had been removed from academia for an extremely long time, this is not a place I had been. Stepping in as someone who had gone out and practiced architecture, it was interesting coming back into the fold, if you will, of academia in this way. The fact that the point of the class was to focus more on integrating real issues and talking frankly about problems of society and how the profession interfaces with that – was really interesting to me.
How has the class pivoted again?
RB: I still remember the conversation that we had – it was probably around June 2020. Where we – Bob and I – basically said, we can’t not acknowledge what is happening in this country around race, the pandemic, and its effects on society. So, we shook the course up again, and went all in on focusing on those issues. What was really interesting, since we were remote, we were able to engage with people all over the country. Bringing people from New Orleans to Minneapolis. Bob has fantastic connections on the west coast, because he worked out there with firms that are doing socially oriented work. Though it was challenging to teach remotely, what it gave us was this opportunity to connect with people in a way that was previously difficult, because we didn’t have kind of endless money for travel to bring people to the Institute.
Have you taken a similar approach this year with virtual guest lecturers?
BM: Yeah, that’s the hope. We’re in person but have added three virtual sessions to have tours of offices. One upcoming session is with Moody Nolan, who are based in Ohio, which will be an amazing presentation and discussion. They would have loved to come in person, but it’s easier to get them this way. We wanted to include them because well they are on fire at the moment, , but it’s also learning about architecture in Ohio. We’re having people from the west coast talk about community engagement – which is something they’ve been dialed into for years.