How Did Architecture Become a Licensed Profession?

Building a Tower c.1200, masons check angles with plumb line, construction workers with bricks

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The architecture was not always thought of as a profession. The "architect" was the person who could build structures that didn't fall down. In fact, the word architect comes from the Greek word for "chief carpenter," architektōn. In the United States, architecture as a licensed profession changed in 1857.

Before the 1800s, any talented and skilled person could become an architect through reading, apprenticeship, self-study, and admiration of the current ruling class. Ancient Greek and Roman rulers picked out the engineers whose work would make them look good. The great Gothic cathedrals in Europe were built by masons, carpenters, and other artisans and tradesmen. Over time, wealthy, educated aristocrats became key designers. They achieved their training informally, without established guidelines or standards. Today we consider these early builders and designers as architects:


The Roman builder Marcus Vitruvius Pollio is often cited as the first architect. As chief engineer for Roman rulers such as Emperor Augustus, Vitruvius documented building methods and acceptable styles to be used by governments. His three principles of architecture are used as models of what architecture should be even today.


The famous Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio apprenticed as a stonecutter. He learned about the Classical Orders from scholars of ancient Greece and Rome when Vitruvius' De Architectura is translated, Palladio embraces ideas of symmetry and proportion.


Sir Christopher Wren, who designed some of London's most important buildings after the Great Fire of 1666, was a mathematician and scientist. He educated himself through reading, travel, and meeting other designers.


When the American statesman Thomas Jefferson designed Monticello and other important buildings, he had learned about architecture through books by Renaissance masters like Palladio and Giacomo da Vignola. Jefferson also sketched his observations of Renaissance architecture when he was Minister to France.

During the 1700 and 1800s, prestigious art academies like École des Beaux-Arts provided training in architecture with an emphasis on the Classical Orders. Many important architects in Europe and the American colonies received some of their education at École des Beaux-Arts. However, architects were not required to enroll in the Academy or any other formal educational program. There were no required exams or licensing regulations.

The Influence of the AIA

In the United States, architecture evolved as a highly organized profession when a group of prominent architects, including Richard Morris Hunt, launched the AIA (American Institute of Architects). Founded on February 23, 1857, the AIA aspired to "promote the scientific and practical perfection of its members" and "elevate the standing of the profession." Other founding members included Charles Babcock, H. W. Cleaveland, Henry Dudley, Leopold Eidlitz, Edward Gardiner, J. Wrey Mould, Fred A. Petersen, J. M. Priest, Richard Upjohn, John Welch, and Joseph C. Wells.

America's earliest AIA architects established their careers during turbulent times. In 1857 the nation was on the brink of the Civil War and, after years of economic prosperity, America plunged into depression in the Panic of 1857.

The American Institute of Architects doggedly laid the foundations for establishing architecture as a profession. The organization brought standards of ethical conduct to America's planners and designers. As the AIA grew, it established standardized contracts and developed policies for the training and credentialing of architects. The AIA itself does not issue licenses nor is it a requirement to be a member of the AIA. The AIA is a professional organization—a community of architects led by architects.

The newly formed AIA did not have funds to create a national architecture school but gave organizational support to new programs for architecture studies at established schools. The earliest architecture schools in the US included the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1868), Cornell (1871), the University of Illinois (1873), Columbia University (1881), and Tuskegee (1881).

Today, over one hundred architecture school programs in the United States are accredited by the National Architectural Accrediting Board (NAAB), which standardizes the education and training of US architects. NAAB is the only agency in the US that is authorized to accredit professional degree programs in architecture. Canada has a similar agency, the Canadian Architectural Certification Board (CACB).

In 1897, Illinois was the first state in the US to adopt a licensing law for architects. Other states followed slowly over the next 50 years. Today, a professional license is required of all architects who practice in the US. Standards for licensing are regulated by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB).

Medical doctors cannot practice medicine without a license and neither can architects. You wouldn't want an untrained and unlicensed doctor treating your medical condition, so you shouldn't want an untrained, unlicensed architect to build that high rise office building in which you work. A licensed profession is a path toward a safer world.

Learn More

  • The Architect's Handbook of Professional Practice by the American Institute of Architects, Wiley, 2013
  • Architect? A Candid Guide to the Profession by Roger K. Lewis, MIT Press, 1998
  • From Craft to Profession: The Practice of Architecture in Nineteenth-Century America by Mary N. Woods, University of California Press, 1999
  • The Architect: Chapters in the History of the Profession by Spiro Kostof, Oxford University Press, 1977
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Craven, Jackie. "How Did Architecture Become a Licensed Profession?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Craven, Jackie. (2020, August 26). How Did Architecture Become a Licensed Profession? Retrieved from Craven, Jackie. "How Did Architecture Become a Licensed Profession?" ThoughtCo. (accessed March 30, 2023).