Summer has come to an end here in Los Angeles. Despite the unabated high temperatures, the days are becoming shorter. Gardeners are already planning the transition from the growing cycle of warm weather into the cooler autumn months in preparation to plant next year’s bounty. Vacation season has come to a close too, with students returning to school. In recognition of this seasonal transition, we’ll be focusing on a Back-to-School theme for September, specifically one from the perspective of the landscape architecture education and profession. We hope you’ll learn something from their lessons.
Design isn’t easy to teach.
Great design requires both an intuitive sense and a fierce dedication to research and knowledge. A great landscape designer listens to the client and distills their wants and needs with the requirements of the site to create a harmonious whole. A designer might only get one chance during his or her entire career when circumstances align to create a perfect amalgam of client, budget, team, and know-how for the possibility of designing a classic, timeless project. As an instructor of design at a small arts college, my mission is to try and get my students ready for their moment. But is that what I should be doing?
Real design jobs are hard to find, and few and far between. In the architectural design industry, a primary designer must have proven experience to be entrusted with the direction of a multi-million dollar project. Even then, projects are usually team-driven, with only a “Starchitect” given the freedom to enact a singular vision. Yet, the majority of architectural and landscape architectural programs around the country teach us to be just that: a singular, primary designer.
The reality is most architects and landscape architects are job captains and project managers. We turn dreams into real world built projects, on time and on budget. It is not what we got into the profession to do but it is what we end up doing. Yet, despite this, almost all college architectural and landscape architectural curriculums do not have mandatory classes in project management and development or business. We learn imperfectly through trial and error on the job. This system might have worked through an apprenticeship paradigm of 100 years ago, but in today’s job market of high expectations, impossible deadlines, and low fees, there’s no patience for on-the-job training.
Recent graduates are expected to hit the ground running and be able to manage systems and projects after only two to three years on the job. Couple this with relatively low wages for the amount of schooling required to become a landscape architect and is it any wonder that the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) are both predicting a shortfall of trained professionals in the next decade?
Look, I fully recognize the counter-argument: as educators, we must teach to a higher bar. How can we expect to produce qualified designers if we don’t try and teach them design to the highest standard? Also, with building projects becoming as complex as living entities, there simply is not enough time to teach everything the students need to know for their first job. If we teach project management, would we be sacrificing design for practicality?
I believe there is plenty of room for compromise. If we are not teaching our professionals the job they are expected to do over the course of their careers, we are not doing our jobs. Good design is important, but so is good construction document practices and project management, both which make up the bulk of our profession’s work.
Adding a mandatory professional practice and business track to a five year program will not impede the next Frank Lloyd Wright. However, without teaching our students the business of our business today, we might never might see the Lloyd Wright of tomorrow.