5+ Tips For Choosing the Best Architecture School

Combining Engineering and the Arts

The Ecole Nationale des Beaux Arts in Paris, France
The Ecole Nationale des Beaux Arts in Paris, France. Photo by Tarek El Sombati/Photolibrary Collection/Getty Images (cropped)

Pictured here is the famous École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts de Paris—that is, the best national school of fine arts in Paris. It is the best-known architecture school in France. The institution began as the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture, founded in the 1600s to care for the state art collection—the paintings and sculptures—of King Louis XIV, the Sun King. Even today, the state-run school has a mission "to educate and train students planning to devote themselves to high-level artistic creation."

Do you think that architecture is an "artistic creation" or a study in engineering—how buildings stand up? How you personally answer the question What is architecture? may influence which school you should attend. Do you see yourself as an artist, an engineer, a builder, or all of the above?

Where are the best colleges to study architecture?

The best college is the one that has features most important to you, as an individual person. Success as a student often depends on knowing who you are and what you want. The subject of architecture straddles two intertwined paths, engineering and the arts, and most people are drawn to one or the other. So, choose a school which will fully accommodate your passion OR choose a school that may fill the gaps of your enthusiasm for architecture.

Considerations When Choosing a School of Architecture:

  1. Study in the country where you may practice architecture:
    French architect Jean Nouvel went to the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Italian-born Renzo Piano studied at Politecnico of Milan University in Italy. The British architect Norman Foster went to the Manchester School of Architecture in England. Ohio-born Philip Johnson went to Harvard. Yet all of these architects have projects built outside their home countries. Many young people believe that the United States is the only land of opportunity, but it is also a land of great competition. The key to success is to travel widely throughout the world, and learn from all that you see, but have a home base from which to operate.
  1. Study in the state where you may practice architecture:
    Back in 1867, a ten-year-old professional organization called the American Institute of Architects (AIA) tried to create a national school of architecture similar to the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. It was never built because they couldn't get the federal funding. Historically in the US, education and licensure are controlled at the state level. Even though the licensing test, the Architect Registration Examination (ARE), is national, each state sets eligibility standards for education and experience. Beyond professional considerations, the study of architecture has regional considerations—snow loads, forest fire resistance, and wind proofing are taught everywhere, but their dire consequences are more regional.
  1. Seek Faculty You Admire:
    Most of the famous architects also teach at some point in their careers. In fact, some architects teach more than they "do architecture."  American Peter Eisenman and the Chinese Pritzker Laureate Wang Shu come to mind. Teaching is a way of influencing the profession on a mass scale. For instance, the French architect Odile Decq is behind the alternative school called Confluence in Lyon, France. This Institute for Innovation and Creative Strategies in Architecture is "a place where forms of knowledge, different teaching methods, and local, national and international experiences, converge."  Consider networking and recommendations that can jump-start a career. Who are the alumni of the school, to which you may have access for networking?
  2. Put Your Money on Accreditation:
    If you become a practicing architect in the US, you'll have to become accredited by getting a license. Higher education does the same thing. Accreditation is one criteria of a good architecture school.  Choose a regionally accredited university, with an architecture program accredited by The National Architectural Accrediting Board. Often the architecture program within a university is called a "School of Architecture." Make sure that both the university and school program are accredited. It simply means that they adhere to certain standards of excellence.
  1. Academic Reputation:
    At the undergraduate level, you may not be sure that you want to major in architecture. What is the university's academic reputation AND an employer's perception of the institution? How is the architecture program ranked by independent survey groups like Design Intelligence? What is the school's world reputation? A world-ranked institution will attract international students. How important is diversity to you?

In the United States and Canada, more than 100 schools offer accredited professional degrees in Architecture. Some of the first schools to offer programs include the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1868), Cornell (1871), the University of Illinois (1873), Columbia University (1881), and Tuskegee (1881). Although many architecture schools are expensive private institutions, state-sponsored schools, like the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, do exist.

Learn More:

Sources: "Mission" at www.beauxartsparis.com/en/about-us/missions/574-missions, École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts de Paris; History of the American Institute of Architects at www.aia.org/about/history/AIAB028819, AIA; The Basics at www.ncarb.org/Becoming-an-Architect/Architecture-Basics.aspx, National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB); "Pioneer" at www.confluence.eu/Pioneer.html, Confluence [accessed November 16, 2015]