Student-Centered and Urban: Architectural Education at IST

The second stop of my Fulbright Inter-Country Lecturing visit was to the Instituto Superior Técnico (IST). One of the organizers of the day, José Figueiredo, explained to me that IST “is the biggest and oldest engineering school in Portugal.”

Professor Teresa Heitor lined up all kinds of fascinating events for me.  The 60 first year architecture students presented their work to me (in English!).  Then, they came along as their professors gave me a tour of all the architecture studios.  We got a glimpse of what these particular students will encounter in the coming years, as they progress through the five-year architecture program at IST.

Their architectural education will be structured very, very much like ours in the USA.

Their design assignments will be quite similar as well, although the projects students encounter here do tend to have more of an urban focus than most programs I’ve visited in the US.  (I serve on architectural accrediting teams and have visited many different schools in the US through conferences as well as accreditation visits.  I have to say, however, that my home institution–Hampton University–has done a noteworthy job over the past decade of integrating urbanism into the curriculum.  Of that, I have been proud.)

At IST, I was particularly impressed with what I learned from the first year professors.  They’re doing a great job overcoming what I see as a big weakness in architectural education today.  So many teachers around the globe focus on teaching students to make “signature buildings” and “modernist masterpieces” that other architects will love.

These teachers, instead, endeavor to draw out their students’ unique interests and abilities.  Unlike the many teachers who seemingly want to “wipe the slate clean”, these professors seek to help students draw from the wealth of experience and knowledge they bring to the first year design studio.