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How Did Architecture Become a Licensed Profession?

Answers to your questions about careers in architecture

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Architect and Blueprints

Today Architecture is a Licensed Profession

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Before the 1800s, any talented and skilled person could become an architect through reading, apprenticeship, and self-study. The great Gothic cathedrals in Europe were built by masons, carpenters, and other artisans. Over time, wealthy, educated aristocrats became key designers. They achieved their training informally, without established guidelines or standards.

Three Early Architects

  • The famous Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio apprenticed as a stonecutter. He learned about the Classical Orders from a scholar of ancient Greece and Rome.


  • 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 learned about architecture through books by Palladio and other early masters.
Architecture Academies
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.

Founding the AIA
In the United States, architecture evolved as a highly organized profession when a group of prominent architects 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."

AIA Founders

  • Charles Babcock
  • H. W. Cleaveland
  • Henry Dudley
  • Leopold Eidlitz
  • Edward Gardiner
  • Richard Morris Hunt
  • J. Wrey Mould
  • Fred A. Petersen
  • J. M. Priest
  • Richard Upjohn
  • John Welch
  • Joseph C. Wells
Historical Context
America's earliest AIA architects established their careers during turbulent times, not unlike conditions in the United States today. In 1857:
  • The Central Park Commission awarded the landscape design prize to Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, creating one of the largest public works projects in the region.
  • The young nation was divided over slavery. The Dread Scott Decision declared that no slave and no descendant of a slave could be a US citizen.
  • The newly elected president James Buchanan struggled to achieve compromises, but Civil War loomed on the horizon.
  • After years of economic prosperity, the United States plunged into depression: the Panic of 1857.

How the AIA Changed the Profession
The AIA (American Institute of Architects) does not issue licenses, but the organization laid the foundations for establishing architecture as a profession. The organization brought standards of ethical conduct — professionalsim — America's planners and designers, who were the architects of the new country. As the AIA grew, it established standardized contracts and developed policies for the training and credentialing of architects.

Architecture Education
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 USA were:

  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1868)
  • Cornell (1871)
  • University of Illinois (1873)
  • Columbia University (1881)
  • Tuskegee (1881)
Today, 113 schools in the United States are accredited by the National Architectural Accrediting Board (NAAB), which standardizes the education and training of US architects.

Architecture Licenses
In 1857, Illinois was the first state in the USA 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 USA. Standards for licensing are regulated by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB).

Sources: Books

  • From Craft to Profession: The Practice of Architecture in Nineteenth-Century America, by Mary N. Woods. (Compare Prices)
  • The Architect: Chapters in the History of the Profession, by Spiro Kostof (Compare Prices)

Sources: Websites

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