A Brief History of the Design Thesis

In a professional architecture degree program, a design thesis is generally considered to be an independent design project developed by an upper level student in the last year of study with direction from a faculty advisor. The design project undertaken is an invented one, chosen by a student because it allows for the exploration of a certain set of issues in which the student has a personal interest. A written conceptual statement, short research paper, and/ or design portfolio can also precede or parallel the development of the independent design project. The completed design thesis project is defended by the student before a jury review with a select number of invited design professionals and academics in attendance. The design thesis differs from a thesis in other disciplines because ideas are primarily communicated through drawings and models, not a scholarly paper or research report. Also unlike other disciplines, outside researchers or professionals generally do not use the final findings from a design thesis for application in the field. The design thesis is much more likely to be utilized by architecture faculty to "test" the competency of a student.


The design thesis has been a degree requirement at many architectural schools since the turn of the century when the very first architecture schools were being formed. By the 1930's when fifty-two architecture programs were in existence, architecture programs at Yale, Harvard, Princeton, and Cornell among others required a design thesis as part of the terminal degree (Bosworth 58). Two types of approaches to the design thesis seem to have dominated in these early years. In the first the development of a program, approved by an instructor, was the central part of a student's investigation. Direct links were made between design and practice in the real world. A second approach treated the design thesis as a final problem, more complex in nature but not varying significantly from those given in earlier design studios. These two methods continue to dominate the general approach to the design thesis in most architectural schools today.


A 1986 report in Architectural Record by design professor William Cannady of Rice University provides a more recent review of the design thesis. Design thesis projects of the 1960's and 1970's, he says, were more socially-focused, urban-based programs centering on the needs of occupants. Building systems were often fully integrated into thesis designs. By the 1980's the failings of modernism were symptomatic of a shift toward more independently directed thesis studies. Methods of "self-restraint, rules, or systems of meaning" governed. Investigations were spured on by the possibilities of post-modernism that created a renewed interest in drawing and meaning in architecture. Even though thesis investigations were smaller-scaled and developed within tighter, more individually imposed limitations, a call was made for even more "responsibility and restraint" on the part of architecture students and faculty (43).


The Design Thesis Today

How can the design thesis of today be characterized? A heterogeneous approach might be one way to describe it. As in earlier years, many architecture programs continue to treat the design thesis as a final, more complex and comprehensive architectural problem. Smaller-scaled projects from the eighties are still also prevalent in many architectural programs. Perhaps the most dramatic shift in the approach to the design thesis in the last fifteen years has been the increased emphasis on architectural theory. For some, the strong focus on theoretical concerns limits the time or desire students have to develop a fully resolved building. Currently, forces external to the study of architecture such as rapidly changing economies and the need for redevelopment are transforming the focus and approach to the design thesis. The larger-scale urban projects with complex social problems which are resulting require an equally complex interdisciplinary approach to design.


The Boyer Report

Although very little academic or professional attention has been given to the design thesis, one recent significant study of architecture education to do so is Building Community by authors Ernest Boyer and Lee Mitgang. In their 1996 book Boyer and Mitgang report on a survey that they conducted with administrators, faculty, students, and alumni of architecture schools to address the value of the design thesis. What they found is that participants strongly favored the development of the design thesis. Eight out of every ten participants believed that the design thesis should be a requirement for a professional degree (Boyer 89). Yet of sixty-nine NAAB accredited undergraduate B Arch (5 year) architecture programs, only 33% require the design thesis. Of eighty-one NAAB accredited graduate M Arch architecture programs only 49% require the design thesis (REBOOT: scan the FACTS). The Boyer Report states, "We agree with the overwhelming majority of those we surveyed: all graduates should be required to pull together, in a single piece of design work, what they have learned in the professional degree program and express their design concepts clearly - orally, in writing, and in two- and three-dimensional representations" (89). In the process of reevaluation it becomes clear that beyond the educational value of the design thesis many other issues need to be addressed. The architecture graduates interviewed for the REBOOT: Rethinking the Design Thesis project discuss many of these compelling issues and raise more for consideration and debate.



Bosworth, F. H., and Roy Child Jones. A Study of Architectural Schools. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1932.


Boyer, Ernest L. and Mitgang, Lee D. Building a Community: A New Future for Architecture Education and Practice. Princeton: The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 1996.


Cannady, William T. "Architectural Education: The Re-emergence of the Design Thesis."Architectural Record. April 1986: 43, 45.

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