Career StagesCareer Stages
About Edwin E. Akins, II, AIA, LEED AP
Having practiced architecture for over 13 years, teaching part-time during much of that period, Ed has developed an interesting perspective on the links between practice and academia. Since 2002, he has taught at both the Georgia Institute of Technology and at Southern Polytechnic State University, where he is currently an Assistant Professor coordinating third year design studios and environmental technologies. His work with Atlanta communities to achieve Livable Centers Initiative (LCI) grants and his engagement with non-profits in the area has helped local organizations envision planning and growth strategies. Through local art installations, his architectural practice, and as the co-author and author of conference papers on reparative planning and solar accommodation in design, Ed continues to expose and explore the delicate relationship between human occupation and nature while continuing his contributions to the AIA.
Ed, why did you decide to become an educator in architecture?
Becoming an educator grew organically out of my involvement with the architectural community. The firm I was working with at that time (2002) was, and continues to be, very supportive of employees who desire to teach while practicing architecture. It was just part of the culture of the firm to support the interests of their young staff.
I was wearing a lot of hats back then, working on projects at the firm, teaching design studios three days a week, and serving AIA Atlanta as the director for the Emerging Professionals program. It became apparent to me that there was great value and opportunity in the links between each of my interests.
Practice fueled much of my endeavors in those first years of teaching. For example, projects being undertaken at the firm became case studies and points of departure for discussions in the classroom that helped me illuminate programming, detailing, and design criteria for the students. The programming for the Atlanta Young Architects Forum (a monthly meeting for Emerging Professionals) was determined through my observations of needs within both academia and practice.
Students would express concerns to me regarding their transition into practice while, as EP director, I would hear from interns expressing their own disillusionment within the practice once they were employed by a firm. It was part therapy and part education and it created a desire in me to maintain a connection to these points of critical transition within the architectural profession.
As an architect and an educator, what qualities are necessary to bridge these two careers?
I think the careers are closer than perceived. Both careers require patience and the education or mentoring of others with whom you work. Both careers require a healthy level of self reflection and development to maintain currency in evolving landscapes of practice or research. Both careers require a clear understanding of the holistic nature of architecture and the ability to seek value in varying viewpoints regarding the profession.
Where the two areas of focus in architecture (educating and practicing) diverge, I’ve witnessed a few qualities that seem to assist the practitioner-educator. A common attribute I see in others who bridge practice and academia is that they all share a passion to see architecture fulfill its promise to have a positive effect on the lives of individuals.
Without that level of concern or care, I think those within either career begin to lose touch with the central thesis of the profession. Other qualities that I would prioritize would be patience, professionalism, dependability, and commitment.
In support of these qualities, I’ve found that anyone venturing into this hybridized career would need to possess clear communication skills and possess a true love for the betterment of this profession and respect for those who have chosen to enter into it.
It seems like so many things within the profession are changing—how we practice, how we communicate, how we learn. What are some differences in how students of architecture are taught to practice or design today compared to how you were taught?
When reflecting upon my own education and the instruction that I provide today, I find a great deal of commonality in the processes of teaching and in the methods of learning.
I’ve begun to rely heavily on “architectural thinking” as a core instructional tool that utilizes reiterative and sequential exercises to prioritize process and the application of ideas related to making. If a student becomes aware of this process and can then find those tools and methods to support that act of creation in the most efficient and effective means, then the design studio is successful and, in many ways, unchanged from the goals and emphasis from when I was a student.
Although it seems that every year a new method or tool for drafting, modeling, or measuring is developed, the education of an architect is anchored in an understanding of process and method and as such, this is our foremost obligation to students which remains unchanged.
I think the biggest dissimilarity between my education and the format within which I now teach is the amount of information easily accessible to students. Data flow has increased to the point that data management becomes a critical component of the studio and of a department. This requires persistence to edit and refine the focus of design studios and constantly maintain clarity in the process of creation (for both the student and the professor).
Additionally, the hierarchy of information (and information sources) has been eroded in our society, which makes it very difficult for students to edit, refine, and inform their own self-directed research. It’s this difference that concerns me the most regarding changes in the learning environment for current architectural students. Concurrently, the opportunities and expanded territories for student exploration are terribly exciting and fill me with optimism.
Student participation through note taking and dialogue is still critical to the learning process. However, these tasks (dialogue in particular) are no longer confined to face to face activities. Each week students contribute equally to classroom conversations and to online discussion forums / blogs within our online course folder.
It is important to note that this is in addition to the “traditional studio learning” atmosphere that I believe many of us experienced when receiving our education in architecture. In a way, these contact hours through virtual interface have dramatically increased the time spent teaching and sharing information.
Physical model making is still critical to the development of many of the desirable sensibilities we seek in our students. I continue to believe that understanding spatial and performative properties are best taught through direct hand and eye manipulation of a material. Additionally, the review and re-manipulation of physical artifacts created by a student tend to resonate more effectively than the deletion and modification of virtual materials and representations. In part, the physical model works to hold information in time and space, but it also forms a link between the learning tools that are familiar to the instructor and to the student.
This, of course, may change over time as affinities and familiarity changes with each generation. Currently, however, the ability to explore and manipulate a physical reality (the scale model artifact) with virtual media has become an enriching experience for both participants in this process and occurs with frequency in the studio environment.
We know that an increasing number of architecture school graduates are pursuing other career paths. What is it about an architect’s education that lends itself so well to other opportunities?
I think that the capacity to analyze a condition and construct a proposal for solving or answering a request for intervention is our highest and best usefulness in society. Whether this occurs at the scale of furniture or at the scale of governance, we have the ability to positively affect our environment.
This is a direct reflection of the success within our academic institutions to maintain the integrity of research and design processes. An architect’s education, as I mentioned above, is rooted in a clarity of process that is spatial, inquisitive, and receptive. As a result, our graduates are good listeners who possess the ability to synthesize a multiplicity of conditions and formulate succinct answers or solutions. This is a quality that translates to the needs of multiple professions and careers.
How do you think the AIA has done to support emerging professionals? Are there activities within your AIA Atlanta chapter that you can reference?
Our local AIA Atlanta chapter has had a proactive approach to engaging emerging professionals and maintaining their participation and active involvement. I served as director of the Atlanta Young Architects Forum in 2006 when we won the National AIA Component of the year. I witnessed my fellow board members provide their full support behind efforts to engage graduates and young architects and it was an inspiring period of my life. I’m happy to see that this is a character of the local chapter that continues to this day.
The current YAF in Atlanta has expanded its membership, outreach, and awards programs beyond anything I could have imagined and continue to inspire me. They are becoming an agile and relevant component within the AIA chapter and give emerging professionals in our region an outlet for creativity and expression. I’m proud of their continued development and tireless energies.
If a colleague was undecided about renewing their membership with the AIA, what would you tell him/her? What are the key reasons why you continue to be an AIA member?
The nature of practice and academia is acutely woven into the environmental and political landscapes of our surroundings. I have witnessed the AIA become a more effective regional and national organization in these realms of activity.
The professional environment created as a result of this directed leadership makes me proud to be a member of the AIA and supportive of its legislative and sustainable initiatives. My AIA membership has allowed me to maintain a direct connection, socially and professionally, to the topics and individuals reflective of the most pressing topics within the design of the built environment.
It is this connection, and having a clear voice within this organization, that is invaluable to me as a member.
Graduates of accredited
The Young Architects Forum
The program is comprised of
Edwin E. Akins, II, AIA,
Assistant Professor of
Southern Polytechnic State