The Sect of the Great Mystery, that is, as nurtured by the high priests of modern British architecture. Only in the US is there a place for non-believers

If you want to train as a traditional architect in Britain, forget it. Architecture schools will fail you in double-quick time. Outsiders can find this shocking as they naively believe that architecture is a liberal art. It isn’t. It’s about as liberal as Lenin. If you don’t fall in with the party line, you’re next for the firing squad. And just in case anyone tries to expose this scandal, it’s all done in code. For example: “It’s okay to do that stuff but the design isn’t good enough” (I’ll fail you because I hate it); “Why don’t you go into conservation” (please go quietly).

After seven years of brainwashing, most students don’t just pass, they join the Sect. They become guardians of the Great Mystery; they recognise their fellow devotees by their strange clothes and special language; and, if an unbeliever (that is, just about everyone else) says the Great Mystery is a lie, that just proves it’s true.

In the past 75 years the Sect has spread out from Europe and North America to the rest of the world. The results are there for all to see. Now, if you employ an architect, you get the Great Mystery whether you like it or not. And to make sure the Sect never dies, architectural education is set up so that the high priests run the show in one of the biggest intellectual closed shops since the medieval church.

Everyone this side of the pond sees America as the home of bad taste, sprawl (suburban and midriff) and religious nutters

The president of the RIBA was recently challenged on this by my friend Jules Lubbock, a professor of art at Essex university. The president, being a liberal sort of person, didn’t actually say that the Great Mystery was sacred, but he did say that traditional design wasn’t taught because there was no market for it. This is a more honest version of the usual “anyone can do traditional architecture if they want, but they don’t”, but is still off the mark. As the whole thing is run by the high priests, they’re hardly likely to open up a market for non-believers. Students don’t come in as believers and there’s good evidence that there’s not much public demand for the Sect. So where can we go to see if there really is a market?

We must go to the Land of the Free. This is still the place where the citizen reigns supreme and, despite recent setbacks, the free market and democracy are still joined at the hip. Everyone this side of the pond sees the US as the home of bad taste, sprawl (suburban and midriff) and religious nutters, and they also think it’s the place to be modern. But the Great Mystery isn’t the only way of being modern – particularly if you’re in a genuinely free country. Traditional architecture and urbanism have found their safest home in the US.

The Sect is in charge of the show here, too, and the same cries of “ban the unbelievers” can be heard. But this is the Empire of Liberty and, in the end, what the market wants the market gets. Out of 117 schools in the US, seven have stood up to the high priests and teach traditional urban design and architecture. And to these you can add three or four courses from organisations such as the Institute of Classical Architecture and Classical America.

Architectural education is set up so that the high priests run the show in one of the biggest intellectual closed shops since the medieval church

These US courses aren’t some leftover from the good old days in some backwater Hicksville. It started in 1989 when Thomas Gordon-Smith was made head of the University of Notre Dame. He turned over the architecture course to the first full-time classical architecture course since the Sect closed them all down in the fifties and sixties. Since then places such as the University of Miami or Georgia Tech have joined up with specialist courses or teachers. Even students at the mighty Yale, with Bob Stern in charge, can learn traditional and classical architecture alongside the novices of the Great Mystery. Today, students from Notre Dame are in high demand from offices of all colours. They’ve learned some really useful stuff and the free market always sniffs out value.

Seven out of 117 isn’t exactly a traditionalist takeover, but it is 6% and it’s growing in the teeth of opposition from the Sect. In the UK, 6% of our 42 schools would give us two or more traditional courses. Instead, we have none except a few related MAs and one or two brave and battered tutors.

Can architectural education in the UK ever liberalise its markets? Not until the Sect admits that the Great Mystery might just be a Great Myth and there’s no sign of that.