Academic architecture

Ernie Barber is very cautious when he talks about an academic program in architecture at the University of Saskatchewan, always using the word “if” rather than the word “when.”

Barber's caution is a deliberate effort to manage expectations and enthusiasm in order to allow for a period of what he termed discernment, thoughtful reflection on what such an academic program might look like, how it might connect across campus and how the U of S might be able to advance architectural education in important ways. "This is not about pushing ahead with a school of architecture," said the acting dean of engineering. "It's about understanding the potential for an academic program. I want to make sure the University of Saskatchewan does not miss an opportunity … but we might decide this is not more important than the least important thing we're already doing."

The road to this point of discernment has been an interesting four-year journey, said Barber, who first became involved with the notion of an architecture school while serving as vice-provost of teaching and learning. The idea came from the Saskatchewan Association of Architects (SAA), which commissioned a feasibility study in 2008 and endorsed a proposal for a school in 2009. "And that was really neat," he said, "because it demonstrates that not all of all the good ideas come from within the academy."

The focus, he said, has been on an administrative structure that would make a school happen "but if the university is to do this, we need to do more than just produce professional architects. We need research and scholarly work, and community engagement." As ideas about an architecture program have matured,

Barber said activity over last two years has been centred on building relationships with various partners— the city, provincial government, the professional association and individual architects and potential donors. Barber said he stayed involved in the proposal "because the most likely administrative attachment point for a school of architecture is the College of Engineering."

In the last academic year, however, his thinking changed. "I came to the conclusion that unless the proponents of a school could persuade industry and government to pay for it in its entirety, we would have to switch our attention from the business case to the academic case."

To do that, the dean met last fall with some of his colleagues to ask very basic questions: "Are you ready to explore what architecture education could look like on this campus? How might an architecture program link with what you're doing in your college? What can you bring to this effort? Are there ways of having architecture faculty help you do some of the things you're doing in new and creative ways?"

The result, he said, was an assurance "we could do a good creative exploration of the idea" but Barber wanted to go further. "We want a distinct program. We want to do something different, not just fill in the spaces between architecture schools on the map of Canada." Architecture is about culture, environment, sense of place and design thinking, he said, and consideration needs to be given to how a U of S program might incorporate those elements.

"We also want to learn more about where the leading thinkers, doers and educators are taking architecture. If we knew that, we could set those experiences in our own context where we could make the largest contribution to the evolution of architecture education."

A working group has been set up with university and professional architects and others who are attempting to answer some of those questions while bridging between the profession and the academy. Barber said an important step has been for him and others from the U of S to meet with the SAA and its members to ask them "not to push us too hard. We need this interlude to get our thinking together on the academic side."

Part of the effort to understand what an academic program might look like is a series of three "architecture is…" symposia at the U of S featuring renowned educators and professionals discussing material and technical innovation; environment, culture and community engagement; and design thinking and teaching. The public events will take the idea of an architecture program "deeper into campus," said Barber.

So far, Barber has been pleased with the results achieved—openness from colleagues to explore an academic program, support from the profession ("they've been incredibly patient with us") and a stellar line up of speakers for the symposia. He does, however, regret there are so many distractions on campus, including budget cuts and program prioritization.

"It's a hard sell to talk about new initiatives when we're already having trouble paying for what we're already doing (but) we have to see organizational renewal as important and this is part of organizational renewal."

Barber said he will present the provost with a discernment report before the end of this academic year. That report will detail the opportunities for an architecture program at the U of S, what that program would look like, its distinctive features and how it would fit into the current array of university programs.

He is also advocating for a formal advisory board involving all the stakeholders in an architecture program. "This is about the university but we shouldn't come to any conclusions on our own. We have an obligation to work with industry and government to help come to some conclusion about whether there should be architecture education in this province."

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